- By Dan Veaner
Village of Lansing Planning Board members said in no uncertain terms Tuesday that they would not approve the most recent incarnation of the Lansing Meadows project that would bring rental senior housing to the Shops at Ithaca Mall. The project, originally 12 units in cottage-style buildings intended for rental to seniors, a wetlands area and bird sanctuary, was part of a plan to make the construction of a big box store to the north of the mall palatable to the Village, and to provide a buffer from the commercial area and a gradual transition from the high density commercial area to residential neighborhoods north of Oakcrest Road. Planning Board members said they had been tolerant of delays, changes to the plan, and even a small commercial area they did not want, but the latest design was unacceptable.
"What I see now is, you got BJ's, which you cashed out of; you now want and have obtained permission to put in a coffee shop; now you want us to say, 'nah, we don't want those cottages to look like residences. We'll take a big building'," Planning Board member Deborah Dawson told developer Eric Goetzmann Tuesday. "No habitat. No wetlands. No good looking green space. Just another big blocky building. No transition. As far as I'm concerned, what this thing looks like now is not at all what the PDA envisioned. Not at all what the IDA thought they were getting. Not a transition. Not a neighborhood. And not anything that really meets the requirements of the Comprehensive Plan. So, as far as I'm concerned, my answer to all of this is no. I want what we bargained for in the first place."
After over six years, a large part of the holdup has been Goetzmann's negotiations with the Army Corps of Engineers over the location of wetlands on the property. Goetzmann spent a large amount of money and years negotiating a workable solution that would make way for more units on the property. Eventually it was agreed that wetlands could be relocated to another site, which appeared to clear the way for a final design and commencement of construction. An updated plan would have created 24 units, still in smaller, attractive buildings. But his proposal to rezone about 20% of the property for commercial use was not well received by the Planning Board.
Goetzmann's idea was to reserve the parcel for a coffee shop or a small diner that residents could walk to, to get a cup of coffee or a sandwich. He said it would be an amenity for the residents, and would help him recover the costs incurred by the wetlands negotiations. Mayor Donald Hartill, anxious for construction on the housing to begin, mediated between Goetzmann and the Planning Board, which approved the change with conditions that would allow them to approve the type of business that would eventually locate there. A few weeks ago Goetzmann brought a new plan for a single building with 30 units to the Planning Board. It was not well received. Board members asked for cosmetic changes and a possible re-orientation of the building to make it more attractive. Tuesday's version was supposed to address those concerns.
But the Planning Board wasn't having any of it. Dawson's complaints were echoed by three other Planning Board members present, plus a written statement by Planning Board member Lisa Schleelein, who could not be present at Tuesday's Planning Board meeting. Among other concerns, Schleelein said that a promised foliage buffer between BJ's and the Oakcrest development area never materialized.
"Over the years the original plan has gone through several changes," Schleelein wrote. "The attractive cottages disappeared along with the bird sanctuary. For nearly six years we have nearly no buffer from the sight of the big box BJ's. I would not recommend approving the amendment because it does not meet the original intent of the PDA, and mainly does not enhance the Village over all."
Planning Board member Mike Baker said, "I don't think the pictures you showed us at the last meeting fit at all with the vision we have here for the community. It definitely sticks out like a sore thumb. (This is) more attractive, but that doesn't make it more attractive on that side of the building."
"It's night and day," Planning Board member John Gillott said. "It's such a turnaround, I just can't believe it."
Board members also expressed concern that unused land in the proposal might be used for another 'blocky building' in the future, and Village trustee Gerry Monaghan expressed a wider concern that the mall itself might be partially converted to other uses.
"I've always committed to build housing here from the day we started this entire project," Goetzmann said. "We kept adding to try to make this piece bigger to increase the density. That was always the intention. It's always been explained to me that (the Village wants) to increase the density, to increase access, the walkability. When I came for the commercial piece the idea was, if you're living here can you walk next store and get a cup of coffee? Can you walk to the YMCA? That's always been the intent."
Some board members said they would be agreeable to the 24 unit plan that kept the cottage-style look instead of the monolithic three-story building. But Village officials said that would also require an amendment to the PDA, which only approves the original 12 unit plan at this point.
"Over the past six years of dealing with this it has moved along through at least four different styles of building, none of them that ever evolved," said Planning Board Chair Mario Tomei. "It went from a nice residential appearance to something that looks very stark and uncharacteristic of the rest of the Village, or what we thought it was going to be. We went along with all of the holdups because of the Army Corps of Engineering. We knew your hands were tied. But they're not tied any longer and we would like a more attractive looking building."
Board discussion came down to whether or not the apartment building represents a major or minor change to the PDA. A major change would trigger a new public hearing, essentially rewriting the PDA that is part of Village law. All four members present voted to recommend to the Board of Trustees that it is a major change.