ITHACA, N.Y.—It was a fairly short though productive meeting for the city of Ithaca Planning and Development Board Tuesday night. The board reviewed a pair of subdivisions and four projects scattered across the city without much controversy.

The Argos Inn’s expansion, the McGraw Hall renovations and a proposed beer garden in the West End were all discussed, among other projects.

Site Plan Review

Following subdivisions and the customary public comment period to start each meeting, the Planning Board delved into Site Plan Review (SPR). Site Plan Review is the meeting segment where review of new and updated building proposals occurs. Rather than give the same spiel about procedural details every month, if you 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, during 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)

First to bat during Site Plan Review was the Argos Inn, as its owners plan a rear 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-feet 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 a rear yard zoning variance. It also requires Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission (ILPC) approval, as well as the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) and the Planning Board. The ILPC has already given its okay, which removes the Design Review burdens from the Planning Board.

This month’s meeting included a vote on the project’s environmental significance, freeing the project up for BZA review and potential Site Plan Approval. STREAM Collaborative’s Craig Modisher was back to discuss the project, joined by Whitham Planning and Design’s Jacob von Mechow. 

The handicapped parking was tweaked and Modisher noted that they would like granite pavers at the parking entrance, but are willing to discuss with city engineering, which wasn’t a fan of the idea — while perhaps more attractive, granite does not hold up as well as asphalt or concrete.

Generally, the board was satisfied with the plans, though they did suggest a few more alterations to the site plan.

“One thing we talked about in PRC (project Review Committee) was planting on the slope…this is a great local business and I’ve enjoyed that patio many times myself, but if there’s more that you, more that the applicant can do, I don’t see a robust evergreen, deciduous planting plan for that back slope. The more you do back there, the better I think it will be a (noise) buffer to the adjacent neighbors. Everything else looks good,” said board member Mitch Glass. In response, von Mechow said they’d bring a more robust planting plan next month.

“This seems pretty cut and dry to me,” surmised Chair Robert Lewis. The negative determination of environmental significance passed unanimously. As for the zoning variance recommendation, the board sought to stress the positive impacts and the complement the project provides to Downtown Ithaca, and that the requested area variance is only a small deviation from zoning.

McGraw Hall at Cornell looks set for renovations in the near future. Credit: Casey Martin / The Ithaca Voice

McGraw Hall Renovation (Cornell Arts Quad)

Over on Cornell’s Arts Quad, the Big Red and its entourage of architects and engineers have proposed a renovation of McGraw Hall. The four-story academic building dates from the early 1870s and includes about 52,500 square feet of usable space.

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.

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 ILPC. On tap for October was a determination of environmental significance, potentially allowing Site Plan Approval once the ILPC signs off. The relatively quick timetable is thanks to both the flexible U-1 zoning, and that Cornell projects are typically well-vetted and leave very little uncertainty once they are brought forward.

Cornell architect Andy Rollman led the presentation before the board, with Cornell University Planner Leslie Schill also in attendance. As usual, Vice Chair Elisabete Godden, a Cornell project manager, recused herself from this portion of the meeting.

Discussion of the project was brief.

“This seems very well baked,” noted Lewis. The board’s Emily Petrina called it a “fantastic project,” and her colleagues were similarly pleased. The negative declaration of environmental review passed unanimously, and the project will be back before the board next month.

“The Local” Beer 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 with 28 parking spaces. Construction will consist of three stages: Phase I is renovations to make the 500 square-foot distillery, Phase II includes renovations to make the 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.

This project was small enough to get an abbreviated environmental review with the state’s Short Environmental Assessment Form (SEAF) and as a result, the Site Plan Review is also brief.

John attended in-person, joined by his architect, John Barradas. The driveway was widened from 18 to 20 feet, and the parking spaces were widened slightly. The board appreciated the pergola, but there were some debates about a sidewalk to the beer garden (the applicant was reluctant), and if the garden would be child-friendly. The board’s Petrina insisted they explore the idea of something like a pea-gravel path to the garden. Godden felt the ethanol tank was “fantastic,” with the bollard-protected ethanol tank acceptable.

“The applicant’s not gonna love this, but I’m gonna say I wish the sidewalk from Taber Street was connected…but as the applicant noted, you wouldn’t be walking too much,” said Lewis.

Only Glass didn’t feel the need for a curbside sidewalk, while the other four members present did. In response, Rich John questioned why he would have to pay for a sidewalk if sidewalks haven’t been required and paid for by property owners elsewhere. John was not thrilled with the idea of paying for sidewalks given the limited connections in the area, which has historically been largely industrial development.

“I do understand not every project hits this board, and why or where the requirement would be waived,” said Lewis. “On sidewalks, you only get the network by requiring it in places it doesn’t make sense yet. I do understand why it’d feel burdensome to this project.”

John asked if they could make it conditional on Visum developing their property next door, but Planning Director Lisa Nicholas was reluctant. Such an approach would leave the city without an enforcement mechanism for The Local other than yanking the Certificate of Occupancy, which probably wouldn’t hold up in legal proceedings.

It was noted that the Aeroplane Factory across the street from The Local is also legally obligated to put in sidewalks as it builds out its multi-phased plan per its own approval resolution.

John was quite persistent with his request to bypass the sidewalk installation, stating it “doesn’t sit well” but he did acknowledge “a decision is a decision,” perhaps in a nod to being a county legislator himself. Approval of the project, with additional conditions to meet with Ed Gottlieb of Ithaca Wastewater and that a sidewalk be built, was granted unanimously.

“It really is a great project, we are very excited,” said Lewis in closing.

Lake Street Townhouses (261 Lake Street)

As discussed in the Voice last month, the Lake Street Townhouses are ready to begin the Site Plan Review process after giving an initial concept plan presentation earlier this year.

DMG Investments proposes to build 16 three‐story townhouses (approximately 23,377 square feet in total) broken into two different strings, one of nine units and one of seven units, on Lake Street. The market‐rate townhouses will each have a back entrance and a front entrance onto Lake Street and will be a mix of three‐ and four‐bedroom units.

Site improvements include the removal of invasive plant species, native plantings, a new sidewalk on Lake Street, street trees, and stormwater planters to manage runoff from roofs. The project team proposes to improve the city‐owned Lincoln Street Extension to provide access to the site, a fire turn‐around, and 16 public parking spots, while the project site itself will include another 16 surface parking spaces.

It should be noted the site has steep topography and the proposed project will require retaining walls, and will also require variances for parking.

The project is still in the earlier stages of the Site Plan Review process, so the discussion dealt only with declaring a lead agency and holding a public hearing. Yifei Yan and Michele Palmer from Whitham Planning and Design presented the project, with Bear Smith from HOLT Architects on the Zoom call as well.

Yan noted the sidewalk was expanded from its previous proposal and the fire lane and turning radius were modified per conversations with the Ithaca Fire Department. Smith added that the blues in the wood-like siding (likely fiber cement) were also toned down to make the wood-toned colors stand out.

Engineer Jim Duba noted that there is a monitoring plan for the property to ensure Ithaca Gun’s runoff is undisturbed and that workers and future residents are kept safe. A website has been created to provide residents with soil testing data and project information.

Notably, Palmer stated that the applicants may potentially put the units up for sale at some point, and that the project is not seeking tax abatements of any kind. Per a question from Planning Director Lisa Nicholas, Yan stated the retaining walls, including for the shared public parking portion, would be on the applicant’s property.

The board declared itself Lead Agency and no one was present to speak for the Public Hearing. The board lauded the website plan and felt the project fit the Lake Street corridor. The board’s Bassel Khoury did ask about handicap accessibility, and Yan noted that handicap parking would be available and that two of the 16 units would be handicap accessible, with ramps at the rear of the units.

Godden asked about energy modeling, to which architect Bear Smith noted they would have shades, but had not undertaken full-scale modeling.

The project will be back before the Planning Board next month.

Zoning Appeals

Moving on to recommendations to the Board of Zoning Appeals for their meeting next month, the Planning Board had two applications to review for comment, area variances for renovations at 413 N. Tioga St. in DeWitt Park and Creek, and 408 E. State St., the Argos Inn plans. For brevity, the zoning recommendation for the Argos Inn is in the Site Plan Review writeup above. A third application for 111 Cascadilla Park Road was pulled before the meeting began.

In the case of 413 N. Tioga St., the 19th-century property has held apartments since 2008, and has rented parking spaces nearby for its tenants. However, the lease expired and it is unable to find replacement spaces, and is seeking a variance for three parking spaces.

“This seems totally in the BZA’s wheelhouse,” said Lewis. “I support the variance, I’m just trying to think of what we could say that would be productive.”

Creating a recommendation around the fact that they saw no physical impacts to the property and that they generally supported walkability, they ended up going with that gentle recommendation for the BZA to approve the variance.

Subdivision Review

First on this month’s agenda was lot subdivision review—this is when property lots in the city, technically known as parcels, seek legal reconfiguration, which could be anything from being split up into two or more plots, reshaped or consolidated from multiple lots back into one parcel.

There were two subdivisions to review at this month’s meeting. The first is 210 Grandview Avenue, where the South Hill Church of the Nazarene is proposing the 0.472-acre lot hosting its church and parsonage to be split into two separate lots. The proposed subdivision will maintain the 210 Grandview Avenue address on the larger parcel with the church, and a new address will be assigned to the smaller parcel.

The church wants to sell off the parsonage to a young couple, so it needs to be split from the church lot. It also needs approval from the NYS Attorney General’s office because selling off church property is a tricky process.

Anyway, the board had their first look at the proposed subdivision last month, and were generally supportive of the plan. The project finally turned in all its necessary materials and it was determined no zoning variances were needed, so a vote on environmental significance and potential subdivision approval were on the itinerary for this month.

“This should be straightforward,” quipped Board Chair Robert Lewis. Once members’ concerns about church parking were assuaged, the board passed a negative declaration on the environmental review, meaning impacts were effectively mitigated to the board’s satisfaction. The preliminary and final subdivision then came for a vote, and passed unanimously.

The other subdivision up for review last night was on West Hill, at 225 Cliff Street. The homeowners would like to split their 0.39-acre lot into an L-shaped 0.17-acre lot facing Cliff Street, and a 0.22-acre lot facing Park Road, where a new single-family home would be built by Carina Construction, east of the steep slope on flatter land adjacent to Park Road. SPEC Consulting of Groton is handling the civil engineering work.

Carina’s Matt Haney previously explained the homeowners want to build a one-story home so that an aging parent can live next door to them. The flag-shaped lot is because of a utility easement. The board had no issues with the subdivision last month, but because the mailing to neighbors lacked the drawing of the subdivision, the Public Hearing, environmental review and Site Plan Approval could not be considered until this month.

SPEC Consulting’s Gary Bush led this month’s discussion on behalf of the applicant. He showed a fairly unassuming one-story ranch house with a patio-style front door. Neighbor Dave Nutter spoke in favor of the proposal, noting he and his wife had done the same thing a few years ago. The negative declaration for environmental review passed unanimously. A condition was added to ensure city engineering approves of the driveway and house, preliminary and final approval was granted unanimously.

Old/New Business

Briefly, Planning Director Nicholas noted that the Downtown development plan should come to the Planning Board in February or March with a presentation at some point in the near future — the plan has been in the works since 2019, but was delayed due to COVID and short-staffing issues.

As noted previously, if any readers have a background in architecture, planning or related fields, the city is looking for more Planning Board members. If someone is willing to put up with seeing your name in this coverage every month, apply here.

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at