ITHACA, N.Y.—Plans for a new Comfort Inn in the town of Ithaca’s Inlet Valley have been floating around the town’s offices for years. The latest effort to build a new hotel in the town received a split board’s approval to continue with design work, though not without some verbal barbs and discomfort from Planning Board members.
The proposal, led by local hotelier Pratik Ahir of Ramji Hospitality, has been in the works for several years. When it was first submitted for consideration in 2016, Ahir proposed for 635 Elmira Road to be a Sleep Inn, a sister brand to Comfort Inn under the Choice Hotels brand umbrella.
But according to Ahir, Choice Hotels wanted a Comfort Inn in the Ithaca market since it is their “upper midscale” market brand and a step above Sleep Inn in price point and offerings, so he made the switch to accommodate.
While approved by the Planning Board way back in 2017 and by the Zoning Board in 2018, the project did not move forward. The existing office building on the 2.22-acre property has continued to sit vacant.
In Ahir’s own description of events, construction financing had been tentatively secured and was due to be finalized by the end of March 2020, but then the COVID-19 pandemic erupted and threw the hospitality industry into turmoil. The town of Ithaca’s votes on Site Plan Approval are only valid for three years, so the project needs to reapply for Site Plan Approval.
Normally, a reapplication isn’t a big deal if the project hasn’t changed. However, this is something of a unique situation, in that the Town implemented the new Inlet Valley Overlay District over the neighborhood, including this parcel of land. While the town had expressed interest in the idea of revising zoning back when the hotel was reviewed and approved, the Inlet Valley neighborhood plan wasn’t fully articulated until 2018, and the new zoning overlay wasn’t enacted until this past winter.
Under the new overlay, the hotel would not be allowed — it doesn’t allow any lodging facility with 60 rooms or more. Part of that is a protective measure for sensitive environmental areas nearby, and part is to discourage chain hotels in favor of smaller, upscale boutique hotels more fitting with the “quaint little businesses” aesthetic the town has been pursuing with the zoning overlay. The zoning variances required from the Zoning Board have also changed somewhat due to the new, more restrictive overlay.
During a non-voting discussion back in May, the Planning Board had shown some reluctance to re-approve the plans, given the new overlay. This has led to some revisions of the plan from the project team in an effort to obtain re-approval.
To assuage the board’s hesitation, the number of hotel rooms was reduced from 70 to 67 (the minimum Ahir felt was financially feasible), more amenity space was added to the rear of the 37,210 square-foot building, the building was slightly shortened, and the roof line, massing, and building façade were updated to conform with the Inlet Valley Overlay District’s Design Guidelines.
Given the proximity to Buttermilk Falls, state and county agencies were invited to weigh in on the proposal. The state’s Department of Environmental Conservation and Department of Transportation did not have any issues with the proposal, nor did NYS’s Office of Parks. Tompkins County also expressed no concerns about the project.
In contrast, the town Conservation Board’s Environmental Review Committee was opposed. The Committee cites a “slippery slope” effect where they feel similar projects would be entitled to receive approval. However, this project is a unique situation in that unlike a brand new proposal, it already had approvals granted by the town once before.
At Tuesday’s meeting, there was some initial debate about the role of the Planning Board versus the Zoning Board of Appeals. Unlike the City of Ithaca’s government, where the Planning Board can make recommendations, in the Town of Ithaca the two boards steer clear of each other as much as possible. The town’s Planning Board is supposed to review a project without consideration of variances needed, as that falls under the Zoning Board’s purview.
There was a significant amount of contrast between board members regarding the Comfort Inn’s environmental impacts. Some, like board member and architect Cindy Kaufman, felt the materials were a poor mix (“it looks chaotic to me”), while member Liz Bageant felt the project was oversized for the area. Fellow board member Bill Arms abstained, as he felt the order of reviewing the matter was inappropriate, preferring the variances be discussed before re-approval was considered. In the end, the environmental review (SEQR) passed 4-2-1.
The materials mix was the source of significant debate over what was appropriate. The Design Guidelines for the overlay suggest a mix of materials, and the architects tried to keep in the spirit of that with stone veneer, fiber cement and metal panel. But board members found the mix too busy, and wanted a simpler materials mix. Board members acknowledged the new zoning overlay was vaguer about materials than they would have liked.
As for the latest Public Hearing on the project, there was one question from a resident, who did not give her name, about the “broader ecology” of hotels and spoke in opposition to more hotels in the region. A second resident from Northeast Ithaca felt the board was “nitpicking” and asked them why they were making a big deal out of specific elements. Ahir, the hotelier, explained that he would love to do a 2-story, 50-room independent hotel at the site, but he’d never be able to obtain the financing from a lender, as the project would not be seen as a credible investment.
Preliminary Site Plan Approval, with the added stipulation for a revision of exterior materials to be less “chaotic,” passed 6-1 with member Liz Bageant opposed. If the proposal receives Zoning Board of Appeals approval, the project would then be eligible for Final Site Plan Approval next month.
Once final approvals are in hand and a construction schedule is finalized, the project is expected to take 7-8 months to build out. Joseph Turnowchyk of Hex.9 Architects is the designer for the new hotel, and engineering expertise is being provided by Adam Fishel of Marathon Engineering.