civic studios

Grand Urban Visions in Spain by democracy71
May 16, 2010, 8:57 pm
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The Barcelona Beachfront

I had the distinct pleasure to visit Madrid and Barcelona recently – two of the most beautiful cities in the world. Despite the growing volcanic shadow over the skies of Europe, and the deepening financial crisis in Spain and Greece, I found two grand cities that reflect the visions of their people and culture and continue to make bold investments in their future.

Downtown Madrid

Models of Livability

I found myself envious of the quality of life experienced by residents in both cities. Both featured fantastic architecture and history, famous streets such as La Rambla and Gran Via (The Great Way), and world-class transit systems. The cities are also a pedestrian (and bicyclist) paradise – over 56 percent of all trips in Barcelona occur by foot, for instance. I spent 10 days in spain across two cities and never needed a car. From public spaces to public markets, the urban experience is designed for people, and that is largely because it is a product of people. Dr. Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka, leader of UN Habitat, captured the importance of this dynamic a few years ago in Barcelona -“Barcelona has also reaffirmed that cities are not made by planners but by ordinary people, and that a city grows only if its citizens have the space – the urban space, the social space and the political space – to make it grow.” On a lighter note, I gained a special appreciation for the power of municipal government to ensure good access to a proper meal – Madrid carries an ordinance mandating that all restaurants offer a Menu del dia to provide professionals with an affordable, 3-course lunch during the work day.

A Cafe above Downtown Barcelona

Visioning in a Bottle

I came across a particularly interesting visioning initiative while in Barcelona. In celebration of Ildefons Cerda’s 150-yr old vision of the city, a team of professionals and university-based organizations has launched Barcelona 2159, an open-source visioning time capsule. Thousands of visions are being collected from citizens across the city, and will be stored in a time capsule to be opened in 2159. An accompanying website is housing all of the individual visions, providing a wonderful public mosaic that includes hilarious, absurd, and profound thoughts about this great city’s future. The organizers are encouraging broad participation in the effort. As the website states, “150 years ago Ildefonso Cerda dreamed up a city to live in, and his vision became the Barcelona we know today…150 years later, it is now up to all of us to think about the future Barcelona.”  A selection of the visions submitted so far has been on exhibit in areas around the city, including the Metro – one hilarious example is captured below:

One of the More Hilarious Visions Features a Different Take on Torre Agbar

Both cities have excelled at the maintenance of civic identity and culture, respecting their histories while continually working on the future. In Madrid, the 100-year anniversary of La Gran Via is being celebrated with a month-long program featuring education and entertainment. At the same time, a new high speed rail link to Paris is under construction. History is cherished, but the future is equally embraced, and at the center of the process, Spanish citizens continue to redefine and reinforce the cities’ culture and heritage. It’s a good lesson for American cities now struggling to reinvent themselves in the post-industrial era, and something that is cause for optimism in our cities. Given the financial crisis and falling value of the Euro, now is a great time to visit these cities and consider not only their future, but ours. As Barcelona 2159 says, “Ponder. Dream. Leave your message for the future.”

The Active Street Life of Barcelona


Curing A Case of the Blues in Bridgeport by democracy71
May 11, 2010, 2:59 pm
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A Model of Downtown Bridgeport

I was in Bridgeport, Connecticut late last week for the initial visit of a Sustainable Design Assessment Team project that will occur this fall. I found a city full of challenges, especially regarding its civic capacity. I also found some initial signs that it may be taking the first steps toward change.

An Evolving City

Bridgeport has an interesting history. As a port city with a significant waterfront, its early history was dominated by shipbuilding and manufacturing. In the 19th century, it became known as the “Park City,” after designating almost 1,400 acres of city land for parks — including two designed by Frederick Law Olmsted.  In the 20th century, it became “the Arsenal of Democracy,” providing the manufacturing of armaments for the war effort during World War II. Post-war, the city fell into a sustained decline, marked by the end of industry and continued struggles to redefine itself. It is now blanketed with abandoned industrial properties and contaminated sites. The city came close to bankruptcy 20 years ago, and has continued to struggle since, ironically becoming one of the country’s poorest cities while also being one of its most highly taxed. As one recent city report put it, “this is the canvas on which Bridgeport’s future will be painted— centuries of economic and cultural wealth, followed by 50 years of abandonment and neglect.”

A Park in Downtown Bridgeport

Understanding the Challenges

The challenges facing Bridgeport cannot be overstated. As a city with a gritty industrial legacy, Bridgeport’s physical condition is challenging. By one estimate, 12 percent of Bridgeport’s 17 square miles of land is occupied by vacant industrial property and brownfields. Approximately 400 parcels in the city are considered brownfields, including several Superfund sites. Three significant sites, including the Remington Woods factory that still has live munitions in the soil, and a vacant General Electric plant (Remington Arms)that features severe environmental hazards from multiple contaminants, provide 1,000 acres of undeveloped opportunities – if they could be remediated. According to GE’s own spokesperson, the site’s contamination is so extensive that “redeveloping the building would not be economically viable for a new owner or developer.”

Neighborhood Issues

Some neighborhoods are experiencing substantial effects on public health as a result of both former and current industrial uses, including high asthma rates and other issues. With the decline of the industrial economy, the city’s main employment base disappeared as well. Today, Bridgeport has a workforce of 76,000, but only 45,000 local jobs. As a result, the city has lost a good portion of its middle class, and serves as a bedroom community for New York’s service workers. Almost 20 percent of the city’s population lives below the poverty line, more than twice the rate of the rest of the state. As one local stakeholder put it, “we are a poor city in a rich county and a rich region.” This dynamic has affected attempts at regionalism and colored Bridgeport’s relationships with its neighboring jurisdictions. At the neighborhood level, a cursory tour reveals stark challenges facing any effort to build community and cooperation. I counted dozens of signs reading “Keep Out: Private Property,” or “Beware of Dog” (not to mention the sign warning of toxic asphalt fumes). After a bit more probing, I was told that over 50 percent of Bridgeport’s 78,000 units of housing are rental properties. With a population that is largely temporary and continuously churning, social trust at the neighborhood level is a real issue.

An Image Problem

During our visit, one local stakeholder summed up the challenge as an “image problem,” telling us that “we’ve got to show people that we aren’t the hellhole that everyone thinks we are.” Bridgeport has also suffered from repeated public scandals – the current mayor is the 3rd in the last several years, and the previous two mayors have left office after scandals, with one serving time in prison. The city has not been alone in suffering its scandals – the state of Connecticut has a developed a national reputation for political scandal and has been labeled “Corrupticut,” by many.  Within the community, citizens have expressed significant frustration – as one city official put it, “there have been a lot of promises, but not a lot of changes.” Another stakeholder issued a frank warning – “if you think you are going to do something new, know that things haven’t changed in 150 years.” Nonetheless, there are early signs that positive change is possible in Bridgeport.

The Barnum Building

Planting Seeds for Collaborative Work

Under the leadership of Mayor Bill Finch, the city has developed BGreen 2020: A Sustainability Plan for Bridgeport, Connecticut. The plan outlines a range of policies and actions the city will take over the next decade to address its key challenges. Officials have already begun implementing some of the short-term steps of the plan. The city has also begun taking advantage of state assistance through enabling legislation that allows communities to create Neighborhood Revitalization Zones (NRZs). NRZs provide waivers on some building code and zoning regulations to facilitate redevelopment and revitalization. More importantly, they require community stakeholders to create comprehensive neighborhood plans, for which the state provides assistance toward implementation. One recent NRZ presentation can be found below:

So far, the city has designated 6 NRZs and is in the process of developing Neighborhood plans. Each Neighborhood Revitalization plan will roll up into the citywide masterplan, providing a framework for community strategies and laying the groundwork for collaboration on common issues – if implementation proceeds. The city has been prone to engage in “death by planning” during the last decade, so implementation successes will be critical. However, the NRZs provide an opportunity for the city and its institutions and residents to begin working together once again. The legacy of conflict, divisive politics, and corruption has had an enduring impact on relationships and social trust citywide, presenting an enormous challenge to any attempt to begin collaborative public work. The city’s point person on the NRZ process told me that “this stuff has been going on for years – it is almost institutionalized. We have to retrain people in collaboration.” The NRZ process is already beginning to yield modest outcomes – one stakeholder reflected that “this is the most trustful we’ve ever been with one another.”

Beautification Efforts in Bridgeport

Over the years, Bridgeport has participated in a number of studies. In 2005, the Urban Land Institute brought a team of top experts led by William Hudnut to make recommendations on future development and community building. The city has also participated in the Mayor’s Institute on City Design. During recent years, a master planning effort has taken place as well, and now the Neighborhood Revitalization Zones are providing yet another phase of planning. Like most communities, Bridgeport’s citizens are eager for implementation and change. I’m hoping that the fall SDAT will provide an opportunity to revisit the suggestions of some previous good work and provide momentum to institute processes that will lead to real change in the community. For more information on the SDAT project, consult the city’s application.

Celebrating Success in Downtown Oklahoma City by democracy71
May 9, 2010, 9:39 pm
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"The Power of Main Street" was the theme of this year's conference

I was in Oklahoma City last week for the National Main Streets Conference. The theme of the conference focused on “The Power of Main Street,” in an era of tough economic times. It also allowed its host city to highlight what can only be described as an incredible downtown revival. Oklahoma City has undergone a complete transformation during the last two decades, leveraging public investment to spur momentum for transformative private investments across its downtown. During the conference, the 1964 scale model for downtown created by I.M. Pei was exhibited – the plan included the demolition of over 500 buildings, and proved to be disastrous in the end. Ironically, the plans created during the past 20 years have done much to remake the downtown as a vital community center.

A Civic Plaza in Downtown OKC

The catalyst for today’s renaissance was the Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPS) initiative, described by its creators as a “visionary capital improvement program for new and upgraded sports, recreation, entertainment, cultural and convention facilities.”According to locals, “Oklahoma City is the first city in the country to undertake a public facility enhancement project of this size.” The process began in 1994, after voters approved a one-cent sales tax to fund the initiative, and the tax expired in 1999. It generated over $300 million (and $54 million in interest) that funded construction projects throughout the downtown. The projects included major new facilities such as the Ford Center, Bricktown Ballpark, Bricktown Canal, and other investments that included the Oklahoma river, Oklahoma Spirit Trolleys, norick Downtown library and renovations to the Myriad Convention Center, Civic Center music hall and the State Fairgrounds.

The Devon World HeadQuarters, a 50-story tower of private reinvestment in the downtown

The Mayor appointed a 21-member citizen advisory board to review projects and make recommendations to the City Council. The MAPS board led the public review process for the MAPS Master Plan as well. It has since ushered a new era of downtown vitality into the city, and been widely heralded by national news media for its dramatic public investment and collaboration in making downtown a success. For local residents, the most important change has been in perception – prior to MAPS, the downtown was viewed as a place to avoid. The result of the MAPS process has been a transformation in how residents view and use the downtown – according to locals, “MAPS made it OK to be downtown again.”

A Moving Memorial to the Oklahoma City Bombing Victims

The first MAPS process was so successful that it generated a sequel. Phase Two, MAPS for Kids, lasted seven years and combined a school bond issue with a one-cent sales tax to generate $714 million. As a result, all of the 75 buildings in the Oklahoma City Public School District will be rebuilt or renovated. Over $153 million in tax revenue will also be invested in over 400 projects in the 23 suburban school districts, with implementation complete by 2012. Oklahoma City is already working on a Phase 3 of MAPS, which will fund major parks projects, a new convention center, transit investments, and continued improvements to the Oklahoma River waterfront facilities. In the meantime, it is serving as a national model for the power of public investment in redefining its downtown.

A New Chapter on Public Participation in New Orleans? by democracy71
May 2, 2010, 3:29 pm
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A Better Day in the Neighborhood

I was back in New Orleans recently for a couple days of the American Planning Association’s annual conference, and had a chance to chat with locals about the latest developments in the city’s recovery. As I posted in January, New Orleans is in the final stages of a citywide master planning process that will define its direction for years to come. The city has engaged in a two-year public process culminating in the development of “A Plan for the 21st Century: New Orleans 2030”. The $2million process has involved innumerable public workshops and meetings with stakeholders, including 5 citywide forums.

Former Projects Have Been Replaced by Hope VI Housing

Since the draft, 500-page Master Plan was released, it has been the subject of the usual conflict and criticism that has characterized New Orleans’ public dialogue for years. Earlier in April, the Bureau of Government Research released an analysis faulting several key weaknesses of the current plan, including complaints that it “does not provide sufficient guidance on the physical development of the city,” is exceedingly complex and hard to use, and “strays from its mission by covering an array” of issues beyond its core intent – land use. After giving the draft a brief look recently, my own impression is that it reflects a laudable attempt to listen to citizen input and incorporate a wide range of thinking about the city’s future that goes beyond land use. While the public process may have intended to focus on land use, it obviously couldn’t adjust for the fact that citizens plan more holistically, and therefore Goody Clancy, the lead consultant, made provisions to incorporate input on a range of issues outside of land use as well.

The Population Has Returned and Is Ready to Work Together

Last week, the City Council sent the Master Plan back to the Planning Commission with a list of proposed revisions. One of the Council’s main suggestions was to remove all language “not related to the physical growth of the city.” The Council emphasized that the city charter says the master plan is supposed to be a 20-year plan “for the physical development of the city.” While this approach makes sense, one would hope that the citizen input on other issues is not lost – it certainly has valid application in other formal steps local government can take to improve city life.  For instance, the draft plan includes a chapter on the development of a formal community participation program, which has been discussed for over a decade in the city, is reflected in every public input process the city has implemented during various planning efforts since Katrina, and was a formal part of the Charter amendment that was approved in 2009. It was also a focus of the Council’s critiques, and was suggested for major revision. Chapter 15 of the draft plan, The Community Participation Program, includes a laundry list of recommendations for the city’s CPP.  After a brief review of the chapter, I concluded that many of the concepts suggest a reactive approach to citizen desires for more empowered involvement in decisions affecting their future, and that the proposed program would represent a proliferation and extension of parallel formal processes of governance rather than the creation of a new or genuinely inclusive public collaboration framework. The suggested approaches are also marked by constraints, both regarding available resources and city capacity. However, the values and concepts the draft CPP expresses do reflect real and longstanding public desires, and while they may not be appropriate for a masterplan on land use decision making, nor necessarily articulate a clear public participation strategy, they do form a basis for further discussion and development outside of the current master planning effort.

A New Day in the City

At the close of the APA conference, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu addressed the closing plenary session alongside Aldofo Carrion, White House Urban Affairs Director. Mayor Landrieu observed that New Orleans is”the most immediate lab of democracy in this moment in time,” and that it “is a place where America is going to find herself again or get lost.” Let’s all hope the city will find itself, and not get caught up in the politics of formal procedural mechanisms at the expense of informal, and cross sector, approaches to building a new future.  Some of the best suggestions the draft plan recommends for citizen participation revolve around building the capacity of neighborhoods and changing the city’s main role in the recovery process. I am hopeful the spirit of those suggestions will be carried forward as the final version of the plan is developed. The Planning Commission has 60 days to act on or reject the City Council’s proposed revisions, and the Council will then have 45 days to approve a finalized version of the plan. To say that this is a big deal would be an understatement, as the City approved an amendment to the city charter that will give the final Master Plan the force of law – all future land use decisions will have to conform to the Plan. The Master Plan has the potential to have a monumental impact on the future of the city, and provide an effective framework for future planning efforts. However, it remains part of a broader effort that must include government reinvention, and a reinvention of public work as a whole – until fundamental changes take place to facilitate collaboration and partnership, the city’s rebirth will continue to be characterized by fits and starts, conflict and competition, and continued mistrust.

The Poster Child for Planned Communities by democracy71
April 19, 2010, 5:45 pm
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Bob Simon leading a tour of Reston's original downtown in 2004

I was in Reston, Virginia, recently to help celebrate “Founder’s Day,” the annual event to recognize the anniversary of the planned community’s creation, as well as its creator, Robert Simon. This year, the 46th for Reston (and the 96th for Bob Simon), featured noted architect and urban planner Alexander Garvin, who delivered a lecture concerning the community’s influence, success, and future challenges.  Garvin referred to Reston as the “poster child for planned communities,” acknowledging its influence in “inspiring developers all over the country” with its innovative design principles that were forward looking at the time of its founding.

Reston's Lakefront Core has been modeled widely

A Model “New Town”

Part of the post-war “New Town” movement, Reston was designed to be the answer to conventional suburbanization. It was built around several core principles, including the idea that people ought to be able to get things easily by locating key amenities within half-mile pedestrian walksheds. The ideas behind the community were heavily influenced by Radburn, New Jersey, another New Town that Robert Simon’s father had been a key investor in before the Great Depression. Radburn’s design of protected pedestrian ‘green spines’ using underpasses was widely adopted for Reston, which has 29 pedestrian underpasses.

Reston has had a significant influence over other planned communities, including Columbia, Maryland, as well as more contemporary new urbanist developments such as Celebration, Florida and Woodlands, Texas. All of these communities have adopted community plans centered around lakefront development in the core, for instance.

Bob Simon sharing the Reston story at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2007

A Vision Realized

Garvin has had a long-standing relationship with the community, having first visited it in 1966 to study its design, and having returned several times during the past 4 decades. His framework for analysis was to judge the community’s success based on its key founding objectives. For instance, it was planned to have a population of 75,000 – today, it has 62,000. It was conceived to produce a range of housing types, and continues to have more variety than a conventional suburban community. Today, it also has 1.7 million square feet of retail, and 60,000 jobs – almost half of which are held by local residents. As a result, 42 percent of community residents live and work in the same community, a remarkable achievement for a suburb.

Alexander Garvin addressing the future of Reston

Challenges Ahead

Garvin addressed one pressing challenge for Reston moving forward – the need to concentrate new residential development around its original ‘Village Center’ nodes. The outmoded centers are not built for today’s retail market and will need a greater supply of local customers to continue to provide the livable access to amenities that residents enjoy today. Of course, this discussion was quickly interpreted by the audience of over 150 (mostly) residents to mean greater density, a controversial topic in the community for several years now.

While I agree with Garvin that the density discussion is a key to Reston’s future, I’d have to add that its civic identity is far more important. For one thing, the planned community has now grown to the point that residents want more of a say in decisions affecting their future. Currently, Reston is an unincorporated community in Fairfax County, and although it has one elected representative to the county’s Board of Supervisors, it is clear that residents would like more control over their destiny – particularly regarding land use decisions. Residents have complained that their voice is not heard at county deliberations over Reston’s future, and without a mechanism to address that issue frustration will continue to grow. The idea of incorporation has been raised in recent years, though its politics are fraught with difficulties, and at least one of the questions from the audience referred directly to preferred models of governance for the community’s future. Secondly, and even more importantly, the Founder’s Day gathering provided a stark visual for the community’s biggest current issue – the room was filled with gray haired residents. Clearly, those who were there have pride in their community, and hold dear the clarity of the founding vision for Reston. As a result, they are now struggling with the limitations of a middle-aged vision that is badly in need of an update given all that has changed in the past 40 years. I left the event with a clear sense that what Reston needs most is a visioning process – one that brings a new generation of citizens to the forefront with ideas that can carry it forward for another half century.

Reinventing the ‘Chattanooga Process’ by democracy71
April 17, 2010, 9:44 pm
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Downtown Chattanooga

Whenever I’m out in a new community discussing sustainability, I’m invariably asked how it happens – “what does it take, and how can we get there?” And additionally, “who’s doing it well?” One of things I always stress is civic capacity – the ability to combine structure and process effectively, to build novel partnerships across sectors, and engage in broad-based community problem-solving. When it comes to examples, there are many – but one of the most dramatic examples that continues to resonate is the case of Chattanooga.

Chattanooga holds an important place in our nation’s narrative about sustainability and environmental transformation. In the 1970s, Chattanooga was labeled the “dirtiest city in America,” and faced profound challenges regarding the health of its watershed and the future of its downtown. In 1984, Chattanooga’s leaders came together to create Chattanooga Venture, an unconventional partnership that spawned the Vision 2000 process – engaging citizens in a bold campaign around 40 goals for the future of the city. Civic leaders were so successful in institutionalizing a collaborative approach to public work that one writer labeled it the “Chattanooga Process,” explaining that it had become the “normal approach to dealing with issues in Chattanooga.” By 2000, many of the original goals had been realized. Chattanooga is now known as “The Scenic City,” boasting some world-class downtown attractions, an iconic pedestrian bridge, and a vibrant community life. In 2008, the city was named by Outside Magazine as one of the best places to live in the US.

About a year ago, I was in Chattanooga as a part of the Southeast Tennessee Valley SDAT project. Our team spent 3 days crisscrossing the region to hold meetings with public officials and stakeholders, and made a series of recommendations about how the Chattanooga metro area could begin to partner effectively at the regional scale. One of the most exciting developments the SDAT Team observed during the process was the emergence of the next generation of civic leadership as represented by the Chattanooga Stand initiative. Chattanooga Stand was created in 2008 by a diverse group of citizens to facilitate a shared vision for the future of the region. Using a survey-based engagement model developed in Calgary and utilized in Portland, Chattanooga Stand’s stated goal was to implement the “largest survey-based visioning campaign in the world.” The SDAT Team had an opportunity to meet with some of Chattanooga Stand’s representatives during the process, and were excited to see another civic initiative come forward outside of government.

STAND's Civic Brand has made its mark on Chattanooga

By September 2009, the Stand initiative had engaged over 26,000 citizens in the process, with plans to leverage the results of its work to facilitate citizen-led collaboration across a host of issues at the neighborhood, city, and regional level.  Stand representatives describe their effort as simply “the latest incarnation of our city’s spirit for self-reflection and community betterment.”

Chattanooga Venture helped Transform the Downtown

Last week, Stand representatives released the results of the survey, identifying 5 major trends that came out of the first phase of the process. The results include a summary report from Stand’s project partner, the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies, as well as a web-based database that includes over 1.2 million data points – certainly a rich starting point to fuel a new generation of public partnerships across the region. The local press has been overwhelmingly positive so far, and I think it is an exciting starting point for a new conversation and the kind of partnerships that lead to tomorrow’s transformations.

Chattanooga's Iconic Pedestrian Bridge

The next phase of the roll out will include a series of community summits on some of the key trends the survey identified. For more information on the Chattanooga Stand initiative, check out their website. For additional background on the Southeast Tennessee Valley SDAT, our team’s final presentation from the project is below. The official report is here.

Building Partnerships Across the Gorge…. by democracy71
April 10, 2010, 9:05 pm
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A Mural of Downtown Ithaca

I spent the last two days on an initial visit for a Sustainable Design Assessment Team project in Ithaca, New York.  Locals proudly point to one popular description of the city – “10 square miles surrounded by reality.” It is a fitting title for a city of 30,000 located on the southern tip of Cayuga Lake in the Finger Lakes region of New York that boasts among its many titles, “The Best College Town in America” (2009-USA Today), #2 on a list of best green places in America, 6th best on Outside Magazine’s top towns, and #3 on a list of America’s Smartest Cities. In fact, since 2001, Ithaca has been featured in at least 30 “best cities” lists.  The natural beauty of the area includes the kind of topography that lends itself to panoramic viewpoints, as well as a concentration of dramatic gorges, leading to the famous monicker “Ithaca is Gorges,” that is found on many local bumper stickers.

The Ithaca Commons - Downtown Pedestrian Mall

Health and Vitality in Downtown Ithaca

We were invited to town by the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, the local business improvement district for a 22 block area that defines the center of the city. Downtown serves as a commercial center and a residential base for the community, and succeeds in providing a high quality of life for most of its residents – over 40 percent of downtown residents walk to work. At the heart of the downtown, the Ithaca Commons represents a pedestrian mall and retail centerpiece in the community, though its retail mix has struggled to attract a huge customer base in recent years. The city and downtown alliance have had several successes with infill development that has brought additional residential building and civic facilities to downtown, and there are current plans to reestablish the street on the current commons space and revitalize the retail environment downtown. The downtown also has worked on a 2020 strategy to reinvent the downtown and set the table for additional vibrancy.

Cayuga Place: Residential Infill Development along Creek Walk

As part of its core strategy, the downtown alliance has acknowledged its dependence on the local universities as economic drivers. Higher education is the area’s major job source, with the presence of Cornell University, Ithaca College, and Tompkins Cortland Community College. Collectively, the schools employ over 14,000 and bring more than 30,000 students to the community, providing an economic impact of approximately $1.5 billion to the county. Ithaca College has a total student population of about 6,500, and Cornell brings a whopping 20,000 students to the community. The main challenge has been to create strong connections from the schools, which are on the periphery, and the downtown, as well as the opportunity to expand downtown towards the waterfront.


In the case of Cornell, the challenge is more complex, because the Collegetown area serves as a mixed use district with competing retail offerings that keep most students from venturing downtown. Some Collegetown representatives joked that it takes students a full year to find the community, and projected that it must take at least 4 years to find the downtown. Collegetown retailers felt that there should be more focus on their ‘downtown’, because the seasonal disruptions associated with the rise and fall of the student population put additional stress on their businesses. Collegetown has also been the focus of intensive planning recently. Last year, Goody Clancy worked with the community to develop the Collegetown plan. The plan was the subject of intense controversy in the community surrounding its zoning recommendations, and as a result the city has not moved forward with implementation. As a result, some developers involved in the process have begun complaining that the plan is already “gathering dust.”

Jurisdictional Doubletakes: The Two Ithacas

The regional framework is not without its challenges either. As it turns out, the city of Ithaca is surrounded by the town of Ithaca. In fact, the city is home to the County Government Center, the Town Government Center, its own City Hall, and the local court system. Despite the proximity and obvious interdependence between the jurisdictions, collaboration has been difficult. Several attempts at consolidation have occurred over the years, most recently in 2005, but they have never been able to overcome politics. Currently, discussions over the future development of the area and associated planning strategies between the two jurisdictions do not align either – the city is focused on downtown health and vitality, but the town has identified a strategy for several dense nodes on the periphery. This conversation takes on a critical importance given the current trends locally, which include a shortage of housing and abundant, cheaper land on the periphery that can fuel the kind of sprawl which can impact future livability and the quality of life most residents cherish. Over 20 percent of employees at Cornell University are already commuting from outside the county. In a perfect world with no politics, one would be tempted to consolidate the two jurisdictions, create an urban growth boundary, and focus on infill strategies along strategic corridors — unfortunately, none of us live in that world.

Changing the Dialogue

One comment during our visit captured the challenge of making connections between each district work: “We have not historically worked together, not because we don’t like each other — just because we have been so focused on immediate needs, and we haven’t.” Our dialogue will have to focus on recognizing the reality of mutual dependence, and the imperative of partnership to maintain the unique quality of life in the community. Our full team will be returning in September to hold a 3-day community charrette and explore these challenges in greater detail. For more information on the project, consult the Ithaca SDAT application.