March 10, 2008

Consultants Plan for Collegetown’s Future

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Though some may see College­town as no more than a rundown neighborhood, the planning consultants who spent the last three days at Cornell have a more optimistic vision for it. This weekend, phrases like “mix-use development,” “pedestrian circulation” and “urban environment” floated around the basement of St. Luke’s Church more frequently than snowstorms in Ithaca.
The consulting team — comprised of two architects, a transportation specialist, a zoning expert and an economic advisor — made its second visit to Ithaca to continue gathering input as part of its report for the Collegetown Vision Implementation Committee. This time, the team focused on connecting up and creating a theme for the issues voiced by constituents of the neighborhood.
“We’re not just looking at parking, but looking at how it relates to urban planning and coming up with a set of guidelines,” said Ron Mallis ’60, senior planner for Goody Clancy Architects, to the crowd that gathered on Friday afternoon at St. Luke’s. “We want to do things like make streetscape improvements and reduce vehicular traffic.”[img_assist|nid=28674|title=Zoning codes|desc=Student-Elected Trustee Kate Duch ’09 speaks with consultant Jason Schrieber of Nelson Nygaard about traffic flow in Collegetown on Saturday. Consultants ran a series of workshops throughout the weekend.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
The weekend started off with a meeting of the Collegetown Neigh­borhood Council, where Mallis recapped the findings of last month’s visit from Goody Clancy. In February, the consultants met with a variety of groups, from students to landlords to University officials, and came up with a laundry list of concerns from a number of different perspectives.
Attendees of the meeting were given the opportunity to voice their concerns about the planning process in a number of ways. Posters with potential design and planning ideas were posted around the room at St. Luke’s and participants were encouraged to write their comments on them.
“The amenities of being in the neighborhood are distinctively urban, but there have always been problems with trash and density,” said Ellen McCollister ’78, a Collegetown resident. She added that one of her chief complaints about the neighborhood is the number of old couches sitting on students’ porches, which contributes to Collegetown’s disheveled look.
David Grissino, senior urban designer with Goody Clancy, spoke about the need to find more sustainable types of housing, such as mixed-use developments. He also talked about utilizing the natural resources that surround Collegetown in addition to working on the streetscape.
Jason Schreiber, a transportation specialist from the Boston office of Nelson/Nygaard, spoke further about transportation issues.
“The 400 block of College Ave. has twice as many pedestrians walking by as cars,” Schreiber said. “But the sidewalks are very narrow compared to the wide roads.”
Parking, which many students consider to be a major issue in the neighborhood, was another topic he discussed.
“The best views you have in Collegetown, half of them are being occupied by cars,” Schreiber lamented.
Sarah Woodworth, an economic advisor from the real-estate company W-ZHA, illustrated the difficulty in developing apartment buildings in Collegetown. She presented financial estimates, which, after the cost of land and construction, showed that developers would have to charge over $1,000 per bed to students at the current expense level.
Lee Einsweiler, the zoning advisor for the team, spoke about the need for zoning that fits regulations but still allows for beneficial changes to the neighborhood.
“Codes implement plans, not make them,” Einsweiler remarked.
The beginnings of change in Collegetown have gotten a lot of people excited about new possibilities.
“[The consultants’ visits] have been interesting for me,” said City of Ithaca Mayor Carolyn Peterson to the crowd gathered at the meeting. “I was on Common Council in the ’80s when Collegetown first saw changes in issues of density. It has been a long time coming since the last changes.”
Stephen Golding, Cornell’s vice president for finance and administration, remarked to the audience that the Cornell Master Plan had just been adopted by the Board of Trustees at their meetings this weekend.
On Saturday morning, participants once again gathered in the basement of St. Luke’s Church, to participate in a charrette, a design exercise where they broke into consultant-guided groups and were given a map of Collegetown on which to make any changes they felt appropriate. Suggestions ranged from more high-rises to parks by the gorges to more visibility for storefronts.
“The charrette is really designed to get the community involved so that we can figure out what their concerns are,” Schreiber said. “Everything you say here today is the basis for what we’ll end up doing.”
Kate Duch ’09, student-elected trustee, who has been one of the student representatives working with the consultants, found the charrette to be a great medium in which to voice her thoughts.
“I think the biggest concern I’ve seen is that a lot of the housing in Collegetown is in horrible condition. There’s a fire in Collegetown at least every year,” she said.
Yesterday, the consultants gathered all the feedback and worked to put it all together. In an open house format, they sketched out existing Collegetown conditions, indicating what should be kept and what should be improved. The collaborative effort between the consultants and community member included discussions that pinpointed specific areas to be improved.
Though the creation of change in Collegetown is a process that will likely continue for years to come, the urban design guidelines must be finished by October, when the moratorium on building will be lifted.
“The consultants will return in early April to present a draft of the urban plan and design guidelines,” said Mary Tomlan ’71 (D-3rd Ward).