Collegetown — often thought to be a quintessential part of the upperclassman experience — is little more than a clustered group of houses, restaurants and bars. But professors and students alike are working to shape it into something more. Classes in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning have begun using Collegetown as a model on which to recommend innovative and lasting changes.
This past semester, Prof. Julian Varas, architecture, assigned his design studio to choose different Collegetown properties on which to develop proposals for residential concepts. The idea was to create spaces that are open and available as social configurations, allowing for a diverse group of people to live in the neighborhood.
“I view Collegetown as too homogenous. It is parasitic to the point that it doesn’t have its own economy. Its identity is way too easily linked to that of the campus, and not enough to the city, when it should be performing as an interface between both,” Varas said. “These projects are really about how you can put different people together in terms of housing. Housing is like the glue of a city. If you have dense, good quality housing, everything follows more or less smoothly. Housing is the base material to activate urban life.”
After looking at their sites, student groups came up with unique residences that they felt would give life to Varas’s vision while also aptly fitting into their locations. Examples ranged from Eric Suntup ’10’s glass enclosed cubes of varying density to Isaac Sharkan ’10’s intertwined apartment complexes to Yeo Wang ’10’s house with pod-like rooms.
“What it does is it picks up on the idea of a student culture. It picks up on the idea that young people like to socialize,” Varas said, emphasizing that students truly created models for other students like them.
In the process, Varas said that students working on these projects learned a lot about the abstract framework of Collegetown.
Working on a broader level, Prof. Rolf Pendall’s city and regional planning class on methods of planning analysis studied the inner workings of Collegetown this past semester to come up with solutions for many of the neighborhood’s problems.[img_assist|nid=26822|title=Future facelift|desc=Isaac Sharkan ’10 has proposed this model for renovations that will spruce up the Collegetown neighborhood. Courtesy of Isaac Sharkan ’10.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
In 12 different groups, the class studied transportation, parking, maintenance, social infrastructure, trash and housing. On the topic of transportation, they suggested that sidewalks should be widened, bicycle lanes should be added and bus stops should be relocated. On housing, they suggested that Collegetown work to bring in a more diverse group of residents than the mostly college-aged Cornellians.
“The students’ work reveals a wide range of possibilities for Collegetown,” said Pendall. “They have in common the recognition that two kinds of investments will help the neighborhood thrive. First, the neighborhood needs improvements to its infrastructure — especially the sidewalks and bike facilities — and to the area around the Schwartz Center. Second, the neighborhood needs investments in new social institutions, including organizations, relationships and physical spaces.”
The students presented their work to the Upstate American Planning Association in November.
“The Collegetown Vision Implementation Committee saw it and absorbed a number of the ideas,” said Mary Tomlan ’71 (D-3rd Ward), a member of the CVIC who watched the presentation. “There isn’t any systematic means of incorporating these ideas, but it’s important because now they are in the mix.”
Svante Myrick ’09 (D-4th Ward) agreed that the issues brought up by Pendall and his class were key to improving Collegetown.
“Everybody’s impressed by what they are doing. A lot of what they did is stuff we came up with as well, so it shows us that we’re on the right track,” Myrick said, adding that the groups picked up on one of the key things he thinks Collegetown lacks — open spaces to socialize.
However, Myrick disagreed with an issue that both classes brought up in their work — the need to diversify Collegetown by attracting non-college students to the area. Pendall’s class found that 95 percent of the neighborhood’s residents are Cornell students.
“I’d be wary of forcing diversity in terms of housing,” Myrick said. “I’m not sure students want it and I’m not sure young professionals [who would conceivably move in] want it,”
Though the studies done by both classes have shown that there is much work to be done in Collegetown, little of it will happen over the next few months while the moratorium on building in the neighborhood is in effect. Passed by the Common Council in October, the halt on construction will continue until this coming November so that professional consultants can come in and create their own master plan for Collegetown.
On the need for a moratorium, Tomlan said, “While consultants are analyzing and coming up with the design, the area [should not be] changing. In my mind, that would be a waste of money.”
The work of Pendall’s class raises questions as to why the proposed modifications to Collegetown were not completed earlier. According to many, including Myrick, both Cornell and the City of Ithaca are hesitant to take responsibility for the areas bordering Cornell’s campus. As evidenced last fall with the controversy over ownership of University Ave. behind the new Milstein Hall, neither side wants to pay for the repairs and construction necessary to keep these areas operational. Milstein Hall has yet to begin construction and much work remains to be done in Collegetown.
However, Cornell and the City of Ithaca have each given $75,000 towards hiring the consultants for Collegetown — an attempt on both sides to compromise. And while the work of the AAP students may not be carried out exactly as planned, it represents another opportunity for Cornell and the City to reach out to each other to improve Collegetown.