Planning Board Recap: Valentine Place gets some love (& board approval)
HomeHome > News > Planning Board Recap: Valentine Place gets some love (& board approval)

Planning Board Recap: Valentine Place gets some love (& board approval)

Apr 20, 2023

ITHACA, N.Y.—It was a busy meeting for the city of Ithaca Planning and Development Board last night. Three projects received no-strings-attached Site Plan Approval approval, while a fourth was okayed under a more complicated set of permissions. The board also got their first look at some townhouses planned on the edge of the Fall Creek neighborhood.

As always, The Ithaca Voice is here to give you the summary of last night's discussions and debates. Those who wish to take a gander at the agenda can do so here, and those who want to watch along can do so here.

Included in this story:

First up 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.

This month, there was one subdivision application, which comes courtesy of Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services (INHS). INHS is requesting a subdivision of the 0.945‐acre site recently purchased from Tompkins County's collection of parcels at 117 & 119 Sears Street, and 408 & 412‐414 North Tioga Street. Readers may recall this was the county's original site choice for a new office building before buying the KeyBank and Ithaca Professional Building one block to the south. While the county plans surface parking on most of the property and debate over the "Red House" continues, the swath of land facing Sears Street was deemed surplus, and the county solicited bids for affordable housing, which INHS won with a $210,000 bid.

The proposed subdivision would result in two parcels of approximately 0.706 acres (30,753 SF) and .239 acres (10,411 SF). The proposed subdivision will maintain the Tioga Street addresses on the larger proposed parcel and Sears Street addresses on the smaller proposed parcel. The property is almost entirely paved, with a small buffer of shrubs and grass between the parking lot and sidewalk along Sears Street. The parcel is in the R‐2b and C‐SU zoning districts, and no variances will be required.

Subdivision allows the sale to go through to INHS, and then INHS can submit paperwork for the four for-sale units they plan on the Sears Street portion. While the homes could be approved on the staff level, the Sears Street property will likely have to come back for another subdivision for individual home lots as the project design is fleshed out—they’re still debating between two, two-family side-by-side duplexes, four single-family homes, or a combo of the two formats.

INHS's Leslie Ackerman represented the non-profit before the Planning Board. The board has questions about the strip the county is holding onto (the intent is to put in a sidewalk) and there are some stormwater issues that will need to be addressed as the site plan is crafted with engineer T.G. Miller's help.

As for what often happens with subdivision, Declaration of Lead Agency, Public Hearing, SEQR Determination and subdivision approval all happened in the same meeting (some explanation about what those are below in Site Plan Review). No one spoke at the Public Hearing because this is just a paperwork exercise in lot lines at the moment, nothing physically changes yet. SEQR Determination passed unanimously, and so did subdivision approval.

With the Sears Street subdivision addressed, the topic of business turned to the typical bulk of the Planning Board agenda, Site Plan Review.

Consideration and critique of new and updated building proposals occurs during this portion of the meeting. In the interest of not delving deep into the details every month, if you want a more exhaustive description of the multiple steps involved within the project approval process, the "Site Plan Review Primer" can be found here.

To provide a short summary, 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 issues a negative declaration (adverse effects mitigated) or a positive declaration (potentially harmful impacts, and therefore needs an Environmental Impact Statement), while performing design review for projects in certain neighborhoods for aesthetic impacts. Once those are all discussed and revised to the board's satisfaction, members vote on preliminary site plan approval and, after review of final details and remaining paperwork, final site plan approval. A project can usually obtain demolition/site prep and even foundation work permits with just preliminary approval, but for something to obtain construction permits for building framing onward, they’ll need that coveted full SPR approval.

Originally, the Planning Board granted preliminary and final approval of this project in October 2021, and the Cliff Street Retreat mixed-use project has already been granted a tax abatement. However, developer Lincoln Morse is now seeking approval for a redesign on the north end of the parcel, where instead of two stand-alone cottages, his development team would now like to build a three-story multi-family building (501 Cliff Street), approximately 4,780 square feet in size. The building would have a total of six units including two hotel units and four two-bedroom apartments. Adjacent landscaping adjustments are also planned.

The proposed building complies with all of the zoning requirements created in the PUD process, and the rest of the project remains the same, turning the 25,297 square-foot former Incodema plant into a mix of small-scale office, hospitality and residential uses. Within that former manufacturing building, Morse and his team plan 16 apartments, six hotel lofts, and four hotel cottages.

According to the revised Site Plan Review filing, the plan is to build the project and have the Cliff Street Retreat open by June 2024. On tap for last night was that coveted revised Site Plan Approval for the proposed changes. Developer Linc Morse was on hand to represent the project, alongside his architect, Craig Modisher of STREAM Collaborative. Modisher showed six one-bedroom loft-style apartments planned in the initial buildout, with commercial-grade utilities built-in for late use. and Morse stressed the retail spaces will be restored to those six apartments to the Incodema Building once sufficient water becomes available.

The board was comfortable with this as an interim use, though they certainly want to see the retail in there eventually given the spirit of the project and its specialized zoning. But that's dependent on the water system and outside their control. With that, they held their vote on modified site plan approval, passing 5-0.

Here's another project seeking changes to the Site Plan after receiving initial approval. The Planning Board granted Site Plan Approval to the Chabad project over a year ago, in March 2022. The applicant is now proposing changes to the approved plans including removing a covered ground-level parking garage, adding on-site parking spaces, removing an approved driveway and adding a circular drive, and small additions to the approved building which will occur in phases. Exterior site improvements and structures still include a patio, an elevated courtyard, an access drive on Lake Street, landscaping, and walkways. Neighbors to the project have spoken in opposition to the proposal, saying that the doubling in square footage and loss of parking would exacerbate existing issues.

No votes were on tap for last night, just the Public Hearing for the proposed revised site plan. Project architect Jason Demarest showed new renderings of the project, and some efforts to mask the stair tower and revise the circular driveway. One major request was to be able to only have four parking spaces on-site, rather than the five previously proposed. Demarest stressed that four parking spaces would really serve their staff needs (the two rabbis and their wives), and the driveway would be a dedicated dropoff rather than incorporate a parking space into it. The front would have a patio, greenery and permeable pavers in place of the front parking.

The board was generally amenable to most of the project, including the parking strategy. "I think these are positive changes. I like that you’re keeping the tree and you’re planting on planting some color," said the board's Elisabete Godden.

However, there was one sticking issue from city staff and the board – the large paved surface area, particularly the steep, narrow circular driveway. "In order for me to be comfortable with approving that circular drive, I would need to see something from city engineering. What I have right now is not positive," warned Board Chair Robert Lewis. He stressed they had a month to get engineering on board.

In the Public Hearing, most speakers were associated with Chabad, and perhaps unsurprisingly they generally expressed strong support for the project. For example, former Chabad student president Raquel Zohar extolled the positive impact Chabad has had on her life, and the need for the expansion to accommodate all the members who wish to take part in services. Given that Public Hearings are usually grievance sessions, it was a refreshing change of pace from the norm. However, the homeowners down the block did write in once again in opposition to the project, as it would replace an existing house at 107 Lake Street.

The project will continue with review next month. There still some issues to be sorted out, especially regarding that circular driveway and associated paved areas. But apart from that, it appears to be in a favorable spot as it heads into the home stretch.

"Valentine Place" is a 25-unit apartment building proposed by local developers Phil Proujansky and John Novarr. The site is currently a pair of apartment houses at 109 and 111 Valentine Place, a dead-end street next to the Collegetown Terrace project. The rather dynamic and avant-garde design is the work of local architect and professor Caroline O’Donnell ‘s firm CODA Architecture, penned by O’Donnell with colleagues Iris Xiaoxue Ma and Shawn Daniels. Fitting for the location, it's geared towards professional/graduate students and young professional workers. The project will require two area variances for minimum off-street parking and minimum lot size for the quantity of units.

It's outer Collegetown urban infill, it doesn't stand out in scale given its larger neighbor, and parking will be shared with Collegetown Terrace, which Novarr and Proujansky also own. The project passed environmental review in April 2022 and had to visit the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA), but the BZA expressed reluctance to approve the parking variance, so the project was paused until this month.

One of the really unusual but eye-catching components of the project is that the finishing façade involves gold-toned and champagne-toned perforated, ribbed aluminum panels. This is not the "fast-casual" fiber cement or aluminum panel one typically sees in multi-family, but intricately patterned with hearts upon hearts – a nod to the "Valentine" part of "Valentine Place".

Project manager Nick Robertson led off the project presentation, "here hopefully for the last time" in his words. I’m sure he just means this project; Welliver loves Ithaca, pain in the neck aside; it's big business for them. Anyway, Valentine Place still has the same number of bedrooms, but fewer apartments (from 30 to 25), mostly for easier parking requirements. Given the BZA's hesitation to approve the project without more parking, it will now include nine off-street parking spaces thanks to the purchase of an undeveloped lot next door (a purchase that certainly was above market-value, but it's not like Novarr and Proujansky don't have the cash). the retaining walls and stormwater management were also tweaked. Landscape Architect Zac Rood talked about the lighting, the runoff management, and "the woodland palette". Last night I learned "weeping forsythia" was a thing.

The board has always liked the design, they appreciated the plantings and thought the screening and lighting around the parking was appropriately handled. Board member Emily Petrina asked about indoor bike racks, to which Rood explained there was just the outside rack. Lewis replied to Petrina they could push the developer to include indoor storage space for bicycles, and there is a stipulation in the formal approval resolution that says they may need to create indoor storage in order to obtain a certificate of occupancy. With a unanimous vote, site plan approval was granted.

"This is a great project with a really compelling design," said Lewis.

Next up in Site Plan Review: the Breeze Apartments proposal for the Ithaca Gun property. Ithaca's Visum Development Group proposes to build a four-story apartment building and associated site improvements on the former Gun Hill Factory site. The 77-unit, 109-bed market-rate apartment building will be a mix of studios, one- and two-bedroom units and includes 77 parking spaces (47 surface spaces and 30 covered spaces under the building). Site improvements include stone dust walkways, bike racks, benches, a bioretention filter to treat the parking areas and rooftop stormwater, native and adaptive plant species, and meadow areas to restore edges of the site.

The building will be constructed on the east parcel of the Former Ithaca Gun Factory Site which is currently in the New York State Brownfield Cleanup Program (BCP). Before site development can occur, the applicant is required to remediate the site based on a soil cleanup objective for restricted residential use. A remedial investigation was recently completed at the site and was submitted to NYSDEC in April 2021.

Once again, this is a project that has been approved, back in February in this case, and in fact site prep is underway. But while the project is approved, it still needs to file a "Recreational River Permit" application as approved by the Planning Board and host a public hearing for said permit. The proposed footbridge, fencing and island overlook to be jointly developed by Visum and the city of Ithaca needs a state permit for construction, because the portion of Fall Creek by Ithaca Falls is considered to be a "Recreational River." The objective last night was to earn site plan approval for the island overlook and associated structures.

Visum project manager Julia Buchel gave the board its refresher on the project. Visum hosted a site tour for city planning staff, and discussed the new bridge, safety fencing, stone dust surfacing, and signage, and the safety signage will be both verbal and non-verbal (imagery). Yes, if someone is truly determined, they’ll do what they want by climbing over the fence and being a dummy. The board acknowledged that. The point is to keep people from inadvertently putting themselves in danger.

The board's Petrina asked if there would be any Lake Street signage noting the overlook, to which SWBR Architects’ Erik Reynolds said there would be a gateway sign streetside." Her colleague Godden praised the thoughtfulness of the design.

However, not everyone was supportive of the plan. Board member Mitch Glass was opposed to the chain link fence, which he felt would detract from the site and the apartment building. In fact, he wasn't a fan of the overlook at all. He preferred the money be spent preserving the smokestack.

No one spoke during the public hearing, but it was clear the board was mixed about the overlook. Glass was firmly opposed — "I am not going to vote for any chain link fence." Petrina was supportive based on her conversations with Fall Creek residents. Godden agreed with Petrina, and stated that while she wasn't a fan of the chain link fence, it was mandated for safety in the area, Correa struggled with his decision to a degree, saying he struggled to come up with a part of the city that handled the gorge right, but was willing to approve the proposal as a community benefit.

The Recreational River Permit to allow any sort of activity next to Fall Creek was approved 5-0. As for the Site Plan, given reservations from the fire department about having high, imposing fencing as a deterrent, and preferring limited site access, the board struggled with how to address the fire department's concerns in the context of their own more aesthetically-focused review. Codes and safety is not their specialty, but what the fire department wants, isn't really what they want.

"We all agree on what visually should happen here, but with the fire department, they need to have the ultimate say on the building permit. I feel we can approve this site plan as it is, but building permit and access and safety, that's going to be up to the city building department and fire department, no matter how we feel about it," said Godden. "I’d really hate for this to end up looking like a caged area. I think it's safe without that, but how do you discuss that with the fire department?"

"The concern obviously is that the fire department turns this into something that is really undesirable and then, we’re done, and then we get this thing that doesn't work and nobody likes […] I hate to just punt and say the fire department gets to design it," said Chair Lewis.

In the end, the board unanimously modified the conditions to state that approval was conditional on documentation from the fire department saying they were satisfied, and that earned site plan approval. But the takeaway from last night's extended debate was that the board was clearly unhappy that city departments were making decisions that affected design without their input. Unfortunately, their review is separate from the IFD, and building codes, and engineering. They all happen in their own silos, and not everyone is on the same page, which creates frustration for both board members and project applicants. This project is also unique because the "island" is city-owned, so the city has additional layers of review.

"There's room for another discussion with how the Planning Board process interfaces with other approvals that you have to go through in order to build in the city…I wish we worked a little closer with other folks with decision-making power on this stuff," said Lewis.

Over on South Hill, NYSEG and its contractors are planning to construct a 164 square-foot gas regulator house (shed) with associated support infrastructure. To do this, NYSEG has secured a 1,200 square-foot utility easement from the 220 Grandview Avenue property owner, the South Hill Church of Nazarene. Proposed site work includes the regrading of the site and landscaping around the proposed structure. Currently, the site is a gravel parking lot for the church.

The project has been in the works for a couple of years, and is intended to reinforce a high-pressure gas main along Hudson Street due to pressure differentials with surrounding service pipes. The existing structure on South Hill, an underground vault, is at the end of its useful life and can't be rebuilt at its current spot. Vaults are also obsolete because they’re prone to water infiltration and pose safety hazards to service staff (i.e. people falling in).

Arne Larsen of DDS Companies was back before the board to discuss the latest updates. NYSEG contractors dropped off samples of the concrete panel at city hall (which were on the front table at the meeting), and the landscaping remains the same.

"We really want to drive home the importance of a quality building that fits the NYSEG program. We feel the custom color of this building is really a step up," said Larsen.

The SEQR Negative Declaration, meaning impacts effectively mitigated, passed unanimously, and the Special Permit was approved unanimously. The board thought it was decent looking for a substation, and appreciated the neutral color and brick-like look. "I think it's a win," quipped Petrina. With that, the vote for site plan approval was held, and the project passed unanimously.

Now, I’m going to save the bulk of the write-up on the background of this site and the project description for a separate piece, as I often like to do. For this writeup though, we’re going to focus on the discussion regarding the sketch plan for the "Lake Street Townhouses" by DMG Investments, which is seeking to build sixteen townhouses on the edge of the Fall Creek neighborhood at 261 Lake Street. Note, this project was originally filed as "Air Ithaca," but they decided to rename the project to something that wasn't as easy to make fun of. "Air" is part of DMG's new branding.

Yamila Fournier of Whitham Planning and Design led the sketch plan. Keep in mind, a sketch plan is an early stage discussion. The designs are fairly conceptual at this point, and liable to change as the project is refined and finessed.

Obviously, this isn't the 211-bed student project DMG proposed previously. The sixteen townhouses are designed to be general market-rate three-bedroom and four-bedroom rentals, and are not student-focused. Each townhouse included traditional design elements and an entrance onto Lake Street. Unlike the original proposal, which was a modular multi-story building, these will be stick-built, designed by local firm HOLT Architects, and will have an average height under 30 feet due to fire apparatus limitations. 18 parking spaces will be provided at the rear, off of Lincoln Street Extension.

Fournier noted that an environmental analysis found subsurface contamination at the far northeast corner of the site, and so that will not be touched at all by the development; it's basically a no man's land. Variances will be required for parking within the setback area, and a parking variance for 18 spaces where 28 spaces are required. The project team is exploring building an additional 14 parking spaces at the end of Lincoln Street in conjunction with the city that would serve as public parking for both residents and visitors to Ithaca Falls.

"It's exciting to see a new project on this spot. I think the public amenity of the additional parking spots is a great idea for flexible parking for your site and for Ithaca Falls," said Petrina. She did stress that she did not want the public spaces constantly taken up by townhouse residents. Petrina added that she felt the scale and density was appropriate.

"This feels like a great transition…it’ll fit in more with the aesthetic and feel of Fall Creek," added Godden. The size of the retaining walls did worry her a little though, and she wanted a treatment that would make them less imposing.

"It's a much better approach than the previous project, it feels right-sized," added Glass. Glass said he would prefer three shorter strings of townhouses vs two longer ones. His colleague Correa described the units as having a "Painted Ladies" aesthetic, and encouraged a mixture of colors and materials, as well as more substantial porches.

Chair Lewis felt the parking and retaining walls were rather "ridiculous." He wasn't a fan of downsizing the project, and suggested reducing the number of parking spaces to reduce the retaining wall size, noting that they already have to go the Zoning Board of Appeals anyway, and they would likely have the Planning Board's support if they pursue that avenue. A detailed parking study would likely be necessary. Planner Nikki Cerra suggested they might be able to use Auden Ithaca's parking lot in their argument for a variance, given that DMG owns that as well. "Townhomes are definitely something that's needed in Ithaca," she added.

The board is favorable towards the proposal, and Fournier called the feedback "incredibly helpful." The project will be back before the Planning Board at a later date.

The Planning Board is expecting a light agenda over the next couple of months, so expect a cast of special guest stars, such as representatives of city departments, speakers from the county or relevant local professionals, to make appearances until activity picks up again.

Also, since former board member C.J. Randall is now Town of Ithaca Planning Director, and Garrick Blalock has left the board after a decade-plus as a newly elected member of the Ithaca Central School District Board of Education that also happens to meet on Tuesday nights, there are now two Planning Board seats that need to be filled.

If you live in the city of Ithaca, want to be in on the Planning Board action as a voting member, and don't mind me butchering your name and choice of words monthly, you can read about the duties here and fill out an online application to join the board.

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at [email protected]. More by Brian Crandall

Subdivision Review Site Plan Review Cliff Street Retreat (407 Cliff Street) Cornell Chabad Center (102 Willard Way) Valentine Place (109-111 Valentine Place) The Breeze Apartments (121-125 Lake Street) NYSEG Hudson Regulator Station (220 Grandview Avenue) Lake Street Townhouses (261 Lake Street) Old/New Business