ITHACA, N.Y.—August’s Planning and Development Board meeting was a packed affair thanks to the July meeting’s cancelation, led by the unveiling of further details regarding changes coming soon to the Ithaca Farmers Market and the Argos Inn in downtown Ithaca.
- Site Plan Review
- Overview of the Business Energy Advisors Program
- Sign Permits
- Board of Zoning Appeals Recommendations
Cornell University graduate student Bassel Khoury has joined the Planning Board. More members are still being sought. For those who like to take a gander at the agenda as they read, the 269-page document can be found here.
Site Plan Review
With no subdivisions or Special Permits this month, after Delisle’s presentation and the usual Public Comment period, the Planning Board went into Site Plan Review (SPR). Site Plan Review is the part of the meeting when review of new and updated building proposals occurs. (For readers who want an in-depth description of the steps involved in the project approval process, the “Site Plan Review Primer” can be found here.)
In short, the SPR process the Planning Board looks at sketch plans, declares itself lead agency for state environmental quality review (SEQR), conducts a review and declares negative (adverse effects mitigated) or positive (potentially harmful impacts, and therefore needs an Environmental Impact Statement), while concurrently performing design review for projects in certain, more sensitive neighborhoods for aesthetic impacts. Once those are all concluded to the board’s satisfaction, they vote on preliminary site plan approval and, after reviewing a few final details and remaining paperwork, final site plan approval.
Argos Inn Expansion (408 East State Street)
It’s been over half a year since the last visit from the Argos Inn crew as they plan an expansion of their boutique hotel on the east end of downtown Ithaca. The applicant proposes to demolish a 1,800 square-foot terrace north of the Argos Inn building and construct a 5,135 square-foot, three‐story addition. The addition will contain 11 guest rooms (making 24 rooms total), and a small office space for hotel staff.
Site improvements include reconfiguration of 2,385 square-foot of outdoor terraces for seating, relocation of the existing terrace to the north end of the parking lot, creation of a utility building to screen the outdoor seating from the street, the paving and striping of the parking lot, landscaping and lighting. The Landscape Architecture side of Whitham Planning and Design is handling the terraces.
The project will require rear yard and parking zoning variances. It also requires Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission approval, as well as the Board of Zoning Appeals and the Planning Board. Last week’s meeting gave an opportunity for a presentation to refresh the board on the project, and for a vote to begin the environmental review process.
As explained by STREAM Collaborative Architect Craig Modisher, there have not been too many changes since last winter. There is a tiered retaining wall in the back, and the new building is designed to mimic the original early 1800s structure. Modisher said the ILPC seems happy with the plans, and while it wasn’t explicitly stated, it sounds like that board has issued a Certificate of Appropriateness.
The Declaration of Lead Agency passed unanimously. One neighbor on Schuyler Place spoke up to express concern about potential noise with the proposal to move the garden gathering space to the back of the Argos property, though stressed she wasn’t opposed to the Argos Inn itself.
Generally, the board was supportive of the proposal.
“Overall I think it’s a sympathetic project in terms of material and scale,” said board member Emily Petrina.
“It’s a great project and a great local business. However, perhaps this is an opportunity to address the noise concern with hedging or evergreens, or some kind of partition,” added Correa.
Glass encouraged them to take another look at the parking to make it less “chaotic.”
The project is in a good position, and will be back for further review by the Planning Board next month.
Ithaca Farmers Market (545 Third Street)
With plans for a spanking new steel and glass building confined to the history books primarily due to costs, the Ithaca Farmer’s Market is proposing to renovate the existing market building.
The market’s physical issues remain and the cheaper renovation plan is intended to address the biggest problems—to allow for year-round commerce and programming, and to reconfigure and pave the existing parking area and drive lanes. The renovation plans also create outdoor amenity space for dining and gathering, install shoreline stabilization features, and make other site improvements.
While the wooden pavilion from 1989 stays largely intact in this iteration, the project requires the demolition of most landscaping features, relocation of the Cayuga Waterfront Trail, removal of numerous trees, and installation of enhanced stormwater infrastructure.
The project is on City-owned land and requires approvals from Common Council, the Special Joint Committee of the Ithaca Area Water Treatment Plant, state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, and the Army Corps of Engineers. The project site is in the Market District and is subject to Design Review.
Last night had a Design Update and review of Part 3 of the Full Environmental Assessment Form (FEAF) on tap. Part 3 of FEAF is usually one of the last steps prior to the SEQR note, so this project is around the horn when it comes to the Site Plan Review process.
This plan is nearing the completion of the Site Plan Review process. Whitham Planning and Design provided several renderings of the renovations, including the landscaping and shoreline layouts, the enlarged office, enclosed bathrooms, and enclosed clerestory ends to stop the building from being a frigid wind tunnel in cold weather.
Whitham Landscape Architect Yifei Yan presented this project to the board. Yan noted that terraced stone seating would be built as shore stabilization and as outdoor seating, but that most of the existing natural landscaping between the Farmer’s Market and the waterfront would be preserved, though invasive species current growing on the market’s property will be weeded out. Reinforced gravel and reinforced natural turf will be used in parking and “landscaped” areas.
Meanwhile, Gideon Stone of Trade Design Build talked about the building updates. The Farmer’s Market Board of Directors solicited feedback from its members, and relayed that they didn’t want the pavilion to be replaced, but they wanted better bathrooms, better fire protection, some wind protection, and a bigger office and storage area.
Vendors were also unhappy with the circular end of the pavilion because it created a “dead end” that limited traffic.
Stone said that from an infrastructure standpoint, it made more sense to have the bathrooms at the ends, given their water and electrical needs. The building additions themselves are low-profile gable-roofed enclosures with masonry bases and wood siding. The circular end is replaced with larger bathrooms and a dishroom for washing cookware.
“This was our attempt to do as little of an interjection that we could, while still meeting all of their hopes and dreams,” concluded Stone.
The board appreciated the landscaping plans shown by Yan. As for the architecture, the board acknowledged that “it was going to be a lot of light touches,” as Petrina called it, but it drew a more lukewarm reception.
For instance, Petrina was not a fan of bathrooms near the entrances. Correa wanted the semi-circular end saved, as “necessary relief” for a predominantly transient space—an indoor place to just stand, chat, and eat. Godden was also opposed to the “bookend toilets,” and suggested covered seating at one end instead.
In turn, IFM Board Representative Jan Rhodes Norman explained that for years vendors wanted the circular end reconfigured, and that a central bathroom location would eat into some of the most valuable vendor space in the pavilion.
The circular end and the bathroom location are clear sticking points, and the Planning Board is hoping to gather more thoughts from vendors or customers.
Generally, the parking and landscaping/shore stabilization, which are phases one and two respectively, were approved. However, board members were a little more wary about the third phase, the building plans. Nicholas stated that phases two and three were more speculative, and the board was reluctant to go through design review for phase three at this time, given the possibility of more changes, both near-term and before potential construction in a couple years.
The board did see a potential way forward for approval of at least the first phase next month, so the project will be back before the board for further review in September.
Cayuga Park (Carpenter Circle)
The Planning Board granted final site plan approval to Cayuga Circle back in October 2021. The project team, led by Cayuga Health and Park Grove Realty, now seeks approval for two final conditions on the Residential Phase 1 Project Changes Resolution adopted on September 28, 2021. This approval is necessary since they want to move on Phase 2 and build the two mixed-use buildings.
The stipulated approval conditions are an easement agreement with GreenStar for access to Cascadilla Street, and documentation of the final design specifications for the restricted access mechanism for busses, with documented support from TCAT.
The plans have been changed from a through-passage for buses to a turn-around. TCAT didn’t like the gate idea and preferred a connection to Fifth Street. However, Common Council shot that down a while back, and adjacent owners were reluctant (if legally obligated) to let buses weave through their parking lot to get to Cascadilla Street. TCAT leadership decided a turn-around through the parking aisle of Cayuga Park was preferable for the time being. Service would not begin until Spring 2024 at the earliest.
There was a fair amount of discussion about what drove TCAT’s decision-making, and what long-term options exist. Chair Lewis called the loss of connectivity to Cascadilla Street “a loss and a downgrade,” but as he noted, it was clearly not the developer’s fault. Officials from GreenStar, which neighbors the project, wanted to protect their parking from buses passing through the lot. Lewis expressed disappointment in that decision’s impact on the overall project.
“It’s on them to create a plan that works for the community. In the context of the situation, you’ve done what you can,” said Correa.
“I think the loss is for GreenStar. You won’t be able to take a bus to GreenStar,” said Glass.
I should note that after this article went up, Scott Whitham reached to clarify that it was not GreenStar, but the other adjacent property owner who objected to buses in their parking lot.
With that, the board voted and unanimously approved that the development team had done its part to try and complete those Phase One stipulations. The board also unanimously extended the Site Plan Approval period for Phase Two for another two years. Though to be clear, if there are any changes, they would have to return.
116 North Meadow Street
CSD Housing proposes to reuse a vacant lot and demolish two existing two-story residential buildings to allow for the construction of a new 70-unit affordable (50-50% area median income) and integrated supportive housing project on a consolidated lot.
The 5-story building, about 87,000 SF in size, will host units ranging from studios to one- and two-bedroom units on the top four floors, with garage parking and other amenities on the first story. Other features include a community room, bicycle parking, offices, second-floor playground terrace, fitness center, rooftop terrace, dog park, lounges and green walls on the upper floors. The project does not require variances.
The project addresses a portion of the city’s affordable housing demands and does not need variances, both factors which were viewed favorably by the board. Last Tuesday’s meeting called for an opening of the Public Hearing. The prolific project sherpas from Whitham Planning and Design were on hand to talk about the proposal with the board, though this time Yifei Yan presented in-person at City Hall, while earlier she had been attending remotely.
Yan explained that the project was revised from 60 units with 87 bedrooms to 70 units with 82 bedrooms, and that the terraces on the second and fifth floors were revised. The exterior design was also simplified per the Planning Board’s suggestion at the June meeting, and uses lighter-color materials (original here), with less dark brick and more light-colored fiber cement lap siding (Heather Moss and Cobblestone at bottom and top respectively). Another member of the project team added that the lobby area was expanded and double-doors were added.
Generally, the board had some design suggestions for a little more visual interest and maybe some reconsideration of the color palette, but the mass and scale were appropriate. The overall goal they wanted is to use materials that feel open, inviting, and not too suburban.
“It’s a great infill project in a walkable Downtown location, I think it’s fantastic,” Glass said. “I think the wood underneath the cantilever is successful, it’s inviting. You do need to be careful of the landscaping. The more open and inviting it feels, the safer it will feel. And the street sign number is way too big.”
“What could be done to the streetscape of this building to signal to people to slow down and that this is an urban street, and not a highway? Anything that could hasten that would be welcome,” Blalock said. “Anyway, great project.”
The board generally liked the proposal and seemed to find it easy to work with as it continues through Site Plan Review.
McGraw Hall Renovation (Cornell Arts Quad)
The Ithaca Voice first shared details about this gut renovation a few weeks ago. Cornell and its cadre of architects and engineers has proposed to renovate the existing 4-story building, approximately 52,532 square-foot and located at 141 Central Avenue on the Cornell Arts Quad.
The renovations will address all exterior building deferred maintenance including exterior façade repairs, structural deficiencies, stone entry stairs, accessibility compliance with changes to three existing entrances, and will completely renovate the interior with new instructional spaces supported by new structural, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems to comply with building and energy codes.
The project site is located in the U-1 Zoning District and will require no variances. However, the project is located in the Cornell Arts Quad Historic District and will require a Certificate of Appropriateness from the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission (ILPC). So the Planning Board portion will likely be smooth, but as experience has shown me over the years, never assume an easy vote from the ILPC.
Cornell Project Manager Andy Rollman and Director of Campus Planning Leslie Schill were on hand to present the project to the board. Practically the entire building is gutted to a stone shell and rebuilt on the inside.
“All the building systems go, and we start a-fresh,” said Schill.
The only thing that will not be gutted is the old bell tower. The biggest visual change will be new sidewalks and ADA paths at the front and rear entrances. Mature trees will be preserved as much as feasible. The hope is to have approvals by late winter, and construction from January 2025 – September 2027.
The board was fully supportive of the gut renovation. “the very long overdue work to make the building accessible is a huge plus,” said Khoury. Glass wanted to see a pedestrian plan in the context of the Arts Quad, but overall it was a warm reception, and the project is off to an auspicious start. It’ll be back next month.
Beer Bar Garden / Redbud Distilling (805-813 Taber Street)
Building owner and Tompkins County Legislator Rich John has proposed to renovate a 3,645 square-foot building which was previously an auto repair shop into a distillery, beer bar, and beer garden. Construction will consist of three stages: Phase I renovated a 500 square-foot distillery, Phase II renovated a 1,505 square-foot beer bar, and Phase III includes creating the beer garden.
The building renovation will include placing an ethanol tank for the distillery, and constructing two vestibules, storage, and new bathrooms. Site improvements include renovating the existing parking lot, landscaping and the hops garden proposed in the southwest section of the parcel.
On tap Tuesday was a presentation from the project team, a vote to Declare Lead Agency by the Planning Board to commence Environmental Review, and a vote to open the Public Hearing. John was in attendance with local architect John Barradas.
“I want to see a total focus on New York products, local to this area, as much as possible. Our working name for the project is ‘The Local,’ because we’re focused on what’s here,” John said.
“I always thought Cherry Street needed bars and nightclubs, I’m excited for it,” said Petrina. “You have so much to work with with the wineries and other great local products.”
Correa added that if the project is executed correctly it could be a beacon in the neighborhood where there isn’t one currently, comparing it to the South Hill Ciderhouse.
There were some questions regarding parking and a desire to see additional drawings, which is pretty normal. The Declaration of Lead Agency passed unanimously.
“Warm reception, everybody excited, looking to dig in next month,” concluded Lewis.
Overview of the Business Energy Advisors Program
Tompkins County Sustainability Planner Hailey Delisle opened the meeting with a special presentation on the Business Energy Advisors program, a program that assists business and facility owners set energy efficiency goals and find ways they can save energy use and deploy renewable resources when developing a project, or when carrying out their business operations.
The program is free and the consultants are from two local firms the county has contracted with, Taitem or ME Engineering. Commercial businesses and developers, industrial firms, non-profits, multi-family builders and local governments can all apply for assistance, so long as their project is in Tompkins County.
Services provided include an energy brainstorming session, setting energy goals, understand and navigate the Ithaca Green Building Policy, and determine eligible incentives and grants for energy-reducing and renewable energy project components. Applicants participate in regular meetings with a point person to keep on track. It’s also confidential. About 40 businesses have taken part to date.
It’s not designed to be another hurdle. It’s a value-adding county program designed to help interested businesses and developments be more energy efficient. Delisle was making the board aware that the Business Energy Advisors program is here to help applicants.
“This is an opportunity to give a really in-depth look at all the options, the month-to-month costs, the paybacks and all that,” said Delisle.
The board was appreciative of the presentation, with Chair Robert Lewis stating that he welcomed “anything that makes development easier.”
There were two projects seeking approval for sign packages this month: The Asteri mixed-used project on Green Street Downtown, and “The Dean,” the residential conversion of the Gateway Center on the 400 Block of East State/Martin Luther King Jr. Street.
The Asteri package, presented by Whitham’s Yifei Yan and Sara Hayes of Hayes Strategy, calls for five signs for the Downtown Ithaca Conference Center, and two for the Asteri Ithaca apartments. To summarize the 30-minute debate, the board wanted revisions to the fonts so that all the signs would match, and the project team will have to come back with revised signage for the residential portion. Other than that, unanimous approval for the Conference Center sign package was approved.
As for “The Dean,” the building would be repainted Benjamin-Moore “Kendall Charcoal,” and a brass-lettered Art Deco-esque “The Dean” would replace the Gateway Center signage. A pair of backlit corner signs are also being sought as part of the package. STREAM Architect Craig Modisher presented the plans.
The board was comfortable with the rebranding as a concept, but did not like the idea of lit corner signs. Daniel Correa felt the Art Deco branding didn’t work there; while the building may date from the 1920s when Art Deco was in fashion, but it was a utilitarian warehouse.
“Nothing is more tasteful than subtlety […] it kinda reads as a burlesque bar, and I don’t mean that as a compliment,” Correa said. His colleague Goddard said it looked like a casino.
The “burlesque” comment clearly offended the graphic designer for the signage package, Kyi Gyaw. Gyaw defended the “industrial meets Art Deco” theme, calling it elegant and sleek.
“There was a lot of thought and curation that went into this,” Gyaw said.
Planning Director Lisa Nicholas did turn to Lewis and say that the design style was outside the board’s purview. In turn, Correa argued that the signage didn’t fit the building’s purpose (visible here).
“Residential buildings don’t need to be so heavily branded,” he stressed.
The sign package appears to be at an impasse, and the project will have to come back for further discussion.
Board of Zoning Appeals Recommendations
There were two submissions for consideration this month as they head forward to the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) in September. First was Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Service’s plans to take down an existing house at 215 Cleveland Avenue in the Southside neighborhoods and build a new lower-income owner-occupied house on the property, and second was an area variance for the Stately Apartments affordable housing project at 510 West State/Martin Luther King Jr. Street.
INHS picked up 215 Cleveland Avenue in August 2021 from a tax foreclosure sale, with the intent of renovating the existing 750 square-foot house, but in doing asbestos removal, it was discovered that the foundation and frame of the structure were in such bad shape that it was unsafe to try and renovate. The new plan, by local architect Claudia Brenner, is to build a new three-bedroom, 1400 square-foot house on the lot, but the lot is too narrow for any house per zoning (the existing house was grandfathered in), and the proposed house, while narrow, would need a side yard variance.
For the Planning Board, this was “pretty reasonable.” Nineteen of 20 homes on the block are area deficient in zoning, thanks to the discrepancies between 1970s zoning and a neighborhood that was built in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It’s going to be below-market owner-occupied housing, and the board was wholly supportive of the requested variance.
As for Stately, the issue is that it’s seven inches too tall at the front (52 feet allowed), and 4.5 feet too tall at the rear (40 feet allowed). It also needs a yard variance for six inches facing West Seneca Street. The board hardly discussed the matter, and was supportive of the request.