ITHACA, N.Y.—The City of Ithaca Planning Board does not commonly utilize its enforcement capabilities, but site plan changes made to a South Hill development plan during construction, and without the city’s approval, could put the plan’s immediate future at risk.
The student-housing project called The Outlook Apartments, led by Visum Development and Modern Living Rentals, is located on the hillside at 815 South Aurora Street, overlooking the planned SouthWorks District with three buildings holding 66 units and 153 beds. Construction recently finished on the project, but the project team’s presentation before the Planning Board Tuesday showed they made physical changes to the project without the city’s approval, proceeded with construction and are now pursuing retroactive approval—much to the board’s vocal chagrin.
As presented Tuesday by the project team, the four aspects of site that do not match what was proposed and approved are:
- An uphill (south side of the property) parking lot that was planned as asphalt but built as gravel.
- The walkways to buildings “B” and “C” in the proposal were not built as approved. As built, the walkways are not compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, a federal law violation.
- The courtyard between Buildings “A” and “B” was supposed to be turfgrass, but they can’t get a lawnmower up the stairs and want to do something “lower maintenance.”
- The retaining wall adjacent to the walkway differs from what was approved.
Site plan changes had been granted in May 2022 after the project was initially approved in November 2020, but none of the four issues were addressed in the site plan changes proposal at that time.
To rectify those four issues, Whitham Planning and Design’s Jacob von Mechow, who had the unfortunate luck of being brought into a controversial project his firm’s never worked on before, presented the board with four proposed solutions. Those were to keep the south side gravel lot as it has been built; installing a second walkway that will be ADA-compliant; installing plant bed buffers to reduce turf coverage on the site, and add planters near the north end retaining wall to screen the wall from view.
According to Whitham Planning’s submission to the board, “These proposed revisions are intended to address the discrepancies and deviations that exist currently between the approved Site Plan and the work that has been completed to date on the site. Our team recognizes the city’s concerns and understands that steps must be taken to resolve this issue.”
The presentation largely consisted of a back-and-forth between board members and von Mechow, but the changes and overall approach struck a poor chord with the board.
Various members of the board stated their anger, then eventually determined that the parking lot must be paved, instead of the current gravel, and that the project’s plan to add a second walkway was mostly acceptable. Board chair Robert Lewis told the project team to return with a new idea to reduce turf coverage, and the board rejected the plan to use planters to obscure the wall.
But one issue, not mentioned in the rectification plans, loomed over the others. During the discussion, Planning Board members noted they had observed another material change during a site visit, from a brick veneer to a custom Dry-Vit designed to look like the original brick. That was a particularly heated point of discussion during the board’s final deliberations over the project in April 2021, and the remnants of that debate showed through Tuesday.
Since the project doesn’t match what was proposed and approved, the city could play hardball by forcing the changes to be removed and the project to be built as originally approved. The project’s temporary certificate of occupancy is about to expire, meaning the city could also choose not to issue a renewed certificate if the project remains non-compliant.
City of Ithaca Environmental and Landscape Planner Nikki Cerra said the changes made were “disingenuous.” Some members of the Planning Board had harsher words.
“The idea that you would install something without coming back to the Planning Board is disgusting. I don’t know how you thought you could get away with it,” said Elisabete Godden. “This project came back to us already once for changes […] and now our hands are being forced into something that was not agreed to.”
“This project screams ‘value-engineering,'” added Daniel Correa.
Board members were especially angered by the Dry-Vit issue they had observed during the site visit. Members expressed a willingness to withdraw the certificate of occupancy for that violation alone, acknowledging that such an action would force any residents of the development at the time into hotels, but the board was resolute: brick had been proposed and approved, and that part of the original proposal should be fulfilled.
“I think we understand and anticipated some of the board’s comments tonight. I think we are very eager as a team to come to solutions and find a path forward,” said von Mechow. “It will be very difficult to line up contractors to do changes in short order. But we are very eager to find a positive path forward and move forward with as much as what’s installed as possible.”