ITHACA, N.Y. -- Variance requests for the Green Street garage projects were granted by the Board of Zoning Appeals on Oct. 5. The projects, split between Ithaca Properties and the Vecino Group, were both requesting variances on maximum height and rear yard requirements. The Ithaca Properties section of the project was also seeking a variance for maximum number of stories.
Ithaca Properties, LLC – 215 E. State St.
This part of the project is the future home of The Ithacan, a 14-story building that will be home to a parking garage, apartments and the Ithaca College physician’s assistant school.
“The parking garage is really in disrepair, and ultimately needs to be replaced,” project architect Jared Hutter said of the current structure. “The city does not have the funds to do it, so that’s how this came about. If you look back at the agreement signed with the city in 2019 it referenced 10 stories of residential on top of existing garage, and since we have to match up with the existing garage it puts it at 14.”
The maximum number of stories allowed under current zoning laws is 12.
“To me, going from 12 levels to 14 levels is a big variance,” board member Theresa Halpert Deschanes said.
Hutter said the number of floors made the most sense economically, and that if they reduced it by one floor they would lose 10% of residential units.
“But operating and construction expenses don’t go down by 10%,” he said. “It makes it non-financable. We didn’t want to ask for too much, we wanted to ask for just enough to make it work.”
At least 10% of units in the building will be affordable, defined as below market price for people who make 80% of average median income.
“When we see low-income housing, oftentimes it provides housing for people at 60% [average median income] or lower, so there’s this missing group with higher incomes that that, but who still have a hard time affording market price housing,” board member Suzanne Charles said. “That is an important public benefit.”
She also added that the top floor of the building will be a roof deck, so from the street the structure will only appear to be 13 stories.
Hutter made his case that the public benefits of the project, such as spurring economic activity in the Commons, adding more housing in the downtown core to add to the tax base and a brand new parking garage for public parking, outweigh the cons.
The board agreed and granted the variances unanimously.
“We have every indication that this is going to be a positive,” board member Steve Wolf said.
Vecino Group – 120 E. Green St.
This portion of the project focuses on the eastern third of the current Green St. garage and proposes a 12-story building that will include a conference center, housing and 350 spaces for public parking. The structure will exceed the 140-foot height limit by on one corner where a sky terrace will be situated.
The biggest point of contention was Wolf’s issue with the 800-person ballroom within the conference center. Developer Bruce Adib-Yazdi said they decided to make the ballroom that size to give the city the opportunity to host larger events a few times a year.
“I’m not convinced I want my Ithaca to compete in that market,” Wolf said. He also added that he didn’t think the height variance was substantial, but that he was concerned about the rear setback variance.
“The existing parking garage already encroaches on the area,” he said. “[The 10 feet] is a ginormous variance request.”
Wolf also reiterated his belief that the conference center was too big for the city.
“I must say due to my own ideology and my own sensibilities that I think the whole mentality of the convention center is thoroughly misguided, and it’s growth for growth’s sake,” he said. “It does not contribute to community character. It’s bad planning and bad business.”
The board discussed the possibility of reducing the size of the ballroom, but Adib-Yazdi said that would mean also reducing things like the size of the workspace for the Department of Public Works in the building. The DPW will be able to store equipment for maintenance of the Commons in the building, such as tractors, salt pallets and shovels.
“Oh, so the city has a direct benefit,” Halpert Deschanes said. “It’s an additional public amenity.”
She also added that the city had included the conference center on the request for proposal, so the board had to inherently count it as a benefit when analyzing benefits versus detriments, regardless of personal feelings.
Ultimately, the board voted 3-1 to grant the variances, with Wolf being the sole nay.