April 10, 2017
In January 2017 Historic Ithaca formed an Ad Hoc Committee to review the City’s current zoning and site plan review regulations in light of the new draft design guidelines prepared by Winter and Company for downtown Ithaca. Several recently completed or proposed projects within the last few years have raised concerns about both the zoning and the proposed design guidelines. Our concerns relate to downtown not only as a place to work and shop but as an increasingly residential neighborhood that is pedestrian-friendly, accommodates families, and retains that essential sense of place unique to Ithaca. The results of our review are submitted here for your consideration and that of the Planning and Development Board.
Current Zoning and Site Plan Review
A number of recent projects stand as positive examples that fit well with the city’s recent rezoning:
- Gateway Center Buildings – Both the renovated warehouse and the new building are appropriate to their context
- Breckenridge Place apartments – This new infill building matches the scale and height of the Dewitt Mall across the street
- Carey Building Overbuild – Most of the original structure and façade was saved and a new overbuild addition added with an appropriate scale and height
- Marriott Hotel – The choice of exterior materials was appropriate and the glass on the ground floor provides a suitable inside/outside connection to the street level.
- Press Bay Alley – This creative adaptive reuse has brought vitality to this section of Green Street
- Simeon’s Rebuild – This reconstruction carefully replaces the damage section of the building and maintains the integrity of this edge of the Commons
There are also a number of problematic recent projects that have resulted from zoning and review inadequacies:
- 140 Seneca Way – The street façade is unwelcoming and the proximity of the building exterior to the curve of the street creates visibility and safety issues. Poor quality exterior materials on the main body of the building are already showing wear and tear.
- Proposed City Centre project – The scale and massing are not appropriate for this site resulting in overly intensive lot coverage.
- 504 West Seneca Street – The redevelopment of this site is highly incompatible with the existing character of the street on the north side.
- 107 South Albany Street – The redevelopment of the site features a design that is highly incompatible with the existing character of the neighboring buildings and the historic district across the street
Recent zoning changes have also created a number of concerns:
- 100% lot coverage (applicable in all CBD zones) is challenging in various places. It does not provide for landscaping or green space, which can impair the pedestrian experience and it can incentivize demolition of smaller structures that may be historically significant.
- 100 block of N. Aurora (east side) [CBD -100, except for front of lots, which is CBD-60]: The 100 feet height is not compatible with existing heights on either side of Aurora Street andwill incentivize demolition. What will happened to such good example of modern design like the Contemporary Trends building?
- 200 block of N. Aurora (east side) [CBD-60]: The 60-foot allowed height incentivizes demolition of a significant row of 2-3 storey buildings. For example, the auto repair shop (Paterson’s) offers an essential downtown service, now imperiled by current zoning
- 200 block of E. Seneca (south side) [CBD-100] For this former drive-through bank area, 100% lot coverage would crowd a busy part of Commons and the new Bernie Milton pavilion.
- 100-200 block of E. Seneca (south side) [CBD-60]: The Barr Building” (211-13 Seneca) is historically significant but unprotected as are the two buildings (109 and 111 E. Seneca) just east of Masonic Temple
- The block bounded by E. Seneca, N. Aurora, E. Buffalo, and Parker St. [CBD-60] should be given special consideration because of the change in topography.
- “New” (current) height limits are too tall in several areas:
- Seneca Way/300 East State/100 N. Aurora (“back” of lots): should be 7-story limit [not 10]
- 100 block of E. Seneca (including “little houses“): should be 4-storey limit [not 60’]
- North side of E. Green (& behind Commons facades): should be 85’ limit [not 140’]
(notwithstanding that Harold’s Square project as now approved is 12 storeys)
- North side of 100 block of W. Green: 40’ limit (equal to tallest existing bldg) [not 85’]
- Low-rise Press Bay Alley adds to downtown’s character & liveliness and the attractive row of older houses on opposite side of street (where limit is 40’) should be retained
- West State St (200 block & westward): reduce maximum height to 40’ to equal tallest current building
- 200 block of N. Aurora St: reduce maximum height to 50’, and switch Paterson’s to B-2a to provide an appropriate transition at the corner
- 100% lot coverage is too much in most instances. Combined with looser height limits, this has raised sale prices and incentivizes demolition of smaller structures
- B-4 district should have required design review. This may have avoided some of the problems associated with the Seneca Way development). For the B-1b district, the regulations chart says the height limit is “50’ft, 6 storeys, 90% lot coverage” which should be reconsidered.
Draft Design Guidelines for Downtown:
- We believe these should be enforceable “standards” rather than “guidelines.”
- Solar access standards should be included in addition to a reference to basic principles of street width to building height and how this impacts light and air.
- The street-level of new multi-story buildings needs appropriate attention to ensure a positive pedestrian experience. Lighting along rooflines of new buildings increases their impact, often to a negative degree.
- The “Character Areas” concept could be a useful tool, but needs more thought & definition. Provisions intended to protect existing character should be incorporated into zoning & SPR. There should be constraints on demolition (that precedes substantial planned change in character) and a push to fully match “existing character standards.” Sub-character areas might be useful. The draft fails to indicate that the “Tuning Fork” and “West State Street” Character Areas are directly adjacent to the Downtown National Register-listed Historic District.
- Tuning Fork Character Area: For area south of 400 block of E. State St, it should be noted that it borders on Six Mile Creek and its Natural Area, so any new construction should be appropriate for that setting & proximity.
- Downtown Core Character Area: Extend the “Downtown Core” character area to north side (lots) of Court St. between the east side of N. Aurora and west side of N. Geneva St. and distinguish the southerly portion (which already includes tall buildings) from the northerly portion with buildings that are not as tall or as large, and mostly in the historic district.
- West State Street Character Area: Draft Design Guidelines encourage adaptive reuse and conservation of existing buildings (which are mostly 2-3 stories), but current CBD-60 zoning(which allows 6 stories and 100% lot coverage) incentivizes teardowns (as real estate prices will reflect the value of allowable development). The West State Street Character Area should also include the north side of West Seneca and the south side of West Green, both of which retain a largely consistent architectural form. Plain to Corn Street block (north side) includes particularly notable examples. Encouragement of reuse or additions should also include the north-south streets between Seneca and Green.
- Grade and topography changes (for example on both East Buffalo and East Seneca Streets) should be considered more carefully and accurately illustrated.
- Some of downtown’s historic buildings (even if not designated) should be specifically reference, to encourage more sensitive infill in their vicinity.