Arrowhead Ventures' Eric Goetzmann was before the Village of Lansing Board of trustees Monday to request the board's approval of setbacks for the Lansing Meadows senior housing project on Oakcrest Road. But four Planning Board members were present to voice their opposition of a proposed change to the PDA (Planned Development Area) that would allow about 20% of the property to house a coffee shop or small diner. The project has been held up for six years while Goetzmann negotiated the relocation of wetlands with the Army Corps of Engineers, but he said Monday that he finally hopes to start construction this summer.
"The fact that you don't see a shovel in the ground is merely because we tried to make this thing bigger and better than it was," he said. "I said I would do this. I started it and I am going to try to finish it. The commercial piece I asked for is something --- this was commercial property before."
The project is part of a larger PDA that designated the northern portion of the property for residential use intended for seniors 55 and older. Goetzmann envisioned a walking community where residents would live close to shopping and wouldn't necessarily drive when they could walk to the mall and surrounding stores and restaurants. Two weeks ago he proposed changing the eastern-most 20% back to allow commercial uses, such as a coffee shop, a small diner, or some sort of amenity that would be attractive both to residents and people attending the nearby YMCA. The Board of trustees voted unanimously to consider that a minor change to the PDA, which would keep the project on track to begin construction this summer. But when he mentioned the idea to the Planning Board last week, they felt blindsided, saying it is a major change that is unacceptable to them.
"You were expecting us to make a decision on a blank piece of paper," Planning Board member John Gillott. "It was not something we were prepared to do. I empathize with your problem that you need to get things moving so you can get the finances, etc.. But you also have to appreciate our responsibility to make sure that this is something the population of the Village would approve."
The project was originally to include 12 housing units. Over the years that has changed as Goetzmann continued to negotiate with the Army Corps of Engineers about exactly how much of the property must be maintained as wetlands, and where, exactly, they would be located. In 2015 Goetzmann was able to broker a swap with an inland salt marsh on a property north of Lansing, close to the New York State Throughway. By relocating most of the Wetlands on his property, Goetzmann was able to produce a plan that would increase the number of housing units to 20, in ten duplex apartment buildings. It also left room for a small commercial area if he could get the Village to agree to restore allowed commercial use to what he called a 'small sliver' of land.
"I have always talked about having amenities here that if you lived in the houses it would be a walking community." he said. "Could you walk and get a cup of coffee? Could you get a newspaper? Things like that."
Goetzmann argued that the original 12 units has grown to 20, something Village officials want. He also argued that the whole property had been zoned for commercial use originally, and allowing a commercial use on the sliver of land would enhance the new neighborhood. He said a small coffee shop or similar business would help buffer Ciao!'s parking from the new residences, as well as providing a convenient shop for residents and members of the adjoining Y.
"You're talking about a little sliver that would be a coffee shop or maybe a small diner," Goetzmann said. "There's not a whole lot of room on that land. The building itself might be 2,000 square feet or less than that. You're going to have a dozen to 16 parking spaces. There's not much you can put on something that size."
But last week Planning Board members said it is a major change to the PDA, and Monday they said it was not a use they would agree to. They complained that keeping that portion of the property for residential use was part of the deal Goetzmann originally made with the Village in return for being allowed to build the building and parking lot that now houses BJ's Wholesale Club.
"The other issue here is our feeling was this represented a minor change that could be carried out rather expeditiously," said Mayor Donald Hartill. "A major change means going back to the drawing board, hearings, and all of that stuff. Given that backdrop it is unlikely that one could go through that process in a timely enough manner to be able to start construction in this construction season. That's my concern."
Planning Board member Lisa Schleelein said there had been a breakdown in communications in that the Planning Board had not heard anything about a commercial use until now when not accepting it could mean holding up the whole project, and possibly create a situation where the project misses a deadline for a TCAD (Tompkins County Area Development) grant.
"We've been very understanding of your situation, especially concerning the Army Corps of Engineers, that they've had your hands tied for years," said Planning Board Chairman Mario Tomei. "So every time you came in with a change to your plan, or an extension on buffering time frames and so on,we've always been very understanding that you can't do what we want you to do because of that. Now the Corps of Engineers situation has been straightened out and you got a lot more land, and the first thing you want to do is put up commercial? You can still fit another four more housing units on that lot. All these minor changes are adding up to the point where we're saying we have yet to see anything happen with the housing."
Planning Board member Deborah Dawson suggested putting a coffee shop on another parcel Goetzmann owns across the street from the YMCA, and to build up to two more duplexes on the property in dispute.
"BJ's has a cafe," she said. "Target has a Starbucks. The Mall has the Cup O Jo Cafe and has the food court. McDonalds is senior citizens central any weekday morning after 9 o'clock. We have a Friendly's; ewe have an Applebees. If we then go across Route 13 to the Triphammer Marketplace we have The Rose, we have Ithaca Coffee, Ithaca Bakery. I simply can't fathom how this is going to add all that much in value, at least from the Village's perspective."
She said residents can walk to the Mall or elsewhere using a path that Goetzmann is supposed to create.
"The question is, in the weather and everything else will they want to?" he countered. "People are at the YMCA... it's all convenience. The whole idea of having this is for the convenience of people living here."
Objections boiled down to two arguments - that the Planning Board had agreed to the BJ's project on the grounds that the northern piece of the property would be residential only, and that Goetzmann had asked them to sign off on the change without giving them information. For his part Goetzmann apologized and said that he had misunderstood the process. When he applied for building permits he was told he needed the Trustees' approval of setbacks using the new boundaries.
Trustee Ronny Hardaway suggested a compromise that would allow the project to remain on schedule even without the commercial piece.
"The Board of Trustees voted this is a minor change, because we thought the commercial set aside was minor change," he said. "The Planning Board thinks it's a major change, so I would like to propose, in order to make the deadline for TCAD, that we allow this PDA to be changed with the exception of that parcel, and say that parcel is to not be developed until you come up with something that was can decide on. It will leave something open for the future."
"I don't think any one of us have any objection to the setbacks you need," Tomei said. "It's that chunk of commercial that you put in there. If we said to you tonight you can not do that what would you do? Would you start building the residential piece?"
"I would probably change what I have, Mario," Goetzmann replied. "The problem is I am going to be $300,000 in the hole here. If I can't make up some of this I'm going to change what I have."
He was not specific about the nature of the changes, but said that until he has the setbacks for the whole property approved he can't complete the planning for infrastructure needed for the entire project, saying that it should not be planned piecemeal as it would have to be with one portion of the project a question mark.
Two weeks ago Hartill made it clear that he viewed the change to the PDA as 'minor' and the board voted unanimously to consider it so. But the Planning Board members were in agreement that it should be considered a major change and that no commercial use should ever be allowed there.
"I think what we're saying, to be perfectly honest, is no," Gillot said. "No commercial."
Hartill deferred a vote on the setbacks, hoping to reconcile the two boards' consideration of the project.
"We have your opinions," he told the Planning Board members. "It's a complicated question. I don't think a simple yes or no is an appropriate answer. It would be appropriate to revisit this at our first meeting in April after we have given this some more consideration. I think everybody should sit back and think a little bit, rather than give a very quick reaction to something you were surprised by."