July 28, 2008

Ithacans’ Visit to Charlottesville Puts City in Context of Other College Towns

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Correction Appended

From Ithaca Hours to the Ithaca Commons, no one can deny that the city Cornell calls home has its fair share of quirks. But the question of how unique Ithaca really is has surfaced recently with the city’s comparison to other college towns.

Last month, a delegation from the Ithaca Downtown Partnership took a trip to Charlottesville, where they observed the town, met with public officials and brought back a wealth of information on how the two cities compare. The trip was part of an effort to develop a 10-year master plan for downtown Ithaca.

But contrasting Ithaca to Charlottesville, and any other similar college town for that matter, has raised questions in regards to what extent one city should look to another in preparing for its future.

A Trip for Comparing

Home of Virginia’s flagship university and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate, Charlottesville is one college town that bears more resemblance to the City of Ithaca than most would suspect. For instance, both cities have been named by multiple sources as among the best places to live in the country and boast world class research universities. Both are relatively distant from large cities, have downtown areas with pedestrian malls and struggle with similar town-gown issues. This year, the University of Virginia hosted former Cornell president Hunter Rawlings to deliver its commencement address.

“We like to benchmark ourselves against other communities,” said Gary Ferguson, executive director of the IDP. “We wanted to take a trip to a city we hadn’t been to before. Charlottesville has a lot of similarities to Ithaca. They share so much of what we share.”

[img_assist|nid=30903|title=Planning Ahead|desc=Ron Mallis, senior planner for Consultants Goody Clancy, speaks with Student Trustee Kate Duch ’09 at a Collegetown planning meeting in March. According to Mallis, planning for the future of one city builds on the successes of others.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]According to a press release from the IDP, Ithaca outperforms Charlottesville in terms of housing accessibility, attendance and participation in city-wide events and working with the University to relocate its employees downtown.

But it seems that Ithaca has already taken a number of lessons from Charlottesville. In its initial presentation to Collegetown residents, Consultants Goody Clancy used Charlottesville as an example of what mixed-use housing developments should be like, indicating that they hope the neighborhood will move in a similar direction. Furthermore, one facet of Charlottesville’s pedestrian mall that makes it successful is a 200-room hotel at one end, something that Ithaca will soon receive. According to Ferguson, the soon-to-be constructed hotel next to the Commons was meant to serve a similar purpose in helping to bolster the downtown area as a tourist destination.

“They did a really good job of clustering activity and traffic generators in downtown [where they weren’t] spread out,” Ferguson said. “They have an indoor skating rink, first-run movie complex, a children’s museum … a convention hotel and a 3,500 seat indoor/ outdoor amphitheatre. In conjunction with restaurants and retail, it provides a real sense of place. We do that to some extent, but haven’t been as successful.”

Charlottesville, of course, contains some marked differences from Ithaca. The Virginia city is slightly larger in population with around 40,000 non-college residents, compared to Ithaca’s 29,000. As well, UVA is often considered one of the nation’s more conservative universities, whereas Cornell has a decidedly more liberal bent.

However, the similarities are undeniable. And the universities that inhabit these towns undoubtedly have helped shape them. That is why the team that went to Charlottesville spent ample time looking at how each town’s major university connected to the surrounding commercial area.

“The other thing that relates to campus is that they had a free shuttle bus that went between downtown and the university on a regular basis — it went most hours of the day and night and was free to everybody. It was one of the most important ways [to connect the two],” Ferguson said.

A World of Connections

But in some sense, all small college towns that are home to large universities share similar issues, according to Prof. Richard Booth, city and regional planning, who also served a decade on the Ithaca Common Council and four terms in the Tompkins County Legislature.

“I think that’s true of Madison [Wisc.], Burlington [Vt.], cities that have big universities in smaller towns have similar issues,” Booth said. “Certainly [there are comparable] issues in terms of transportation, people moving daily into a smaller city looking for parking, a lot of staff looking for transportation. Housing issues are likely to be similar because students put pressure on the housing market. [There are also] issues regarding [the university’s] tax exemption.”

Ferguson added that he has traveled to Burlington as well as State College, Pa., in order to compare them to Ithaca.

Ron Mallis ’60, senior planner for Goody Clancy, agreed that when creating a master plan, the goal is always is to be able to take the best aspects of one place and tailor them to your own area. Mallis said that a lot of the work he has done in Ithaca has helped in work that he is now doing in Lexington, Ky. and Macon, Ga. When working in Ithaca, he applied the planning work he had done in other cities to the Collegetown planning process, and even mimicked the way public meetings are conducted.

He likened planning to the experience of reading a James Joyce novel by calling it a “constant iterative process.”

“Each time we do a proposal for a project,” he said, “it really builds on the stuff we’ve done in the past.”

Reaching the Limit

When Booth was on the Common Council, he often found Ithaca juxtaposed with Burlington. While he said that Ithaca could learn a lot from the successes of Burlington, he warned against over-comparison.

“I’ve seen some consultants refer to Burlington, but Burlington and Ithaca are very different. Burlington is the state’s biggest and best city,” Booth said.

Mallis explained that comparing one city to another can – and should – only go so far.

“You don’t wholesale take something that was done in one place and apply it to another. You want to look at the dynamics that are at work and see if there are lessons that could be applied,” Mallis said. “It’s like learning from your mistakes.”

Booth added that for some issues in Ithaca, one must look to more local examples, even if they are not cities that Ithaca hopes to model itself after. As each city should be placed in the context of its state, he noted that Ithaca has notable similarities to places like Oneonta and Cortland — which host campuses of the State University of New York. For example, Booth recalled dealing with New York State law in issues regarding parking in and around campus. The fact that Oneonta and Cortland were interested in dealing with the same issues allowed city officials to aptly equate the three cities.

“You have to deal with the problems in front of you in the context of where they exist,” Booth said. “Cities derive powers from of the state department; that’s true in every state.”

As Ithaca continues to develop its downtown area and strengthen it’s linkages to Cornell, using other cities as models has emerged as a helpful tactic in formulating its goals. However, as Booth pointed out, one must look at Ithaca as its own entity in order to truly understand how to improve such a one-of-a-kind city.

“You go as far as you can [in terms of comparison], but you don’t want to stretch it to a point of unbelievability,” Mallis said. “There are certain common characteristics among every urban place, but the differences are what make it interesting.”

The article originally stated that the city of Charlottesville voted in favor of George Bush in the 2004 Presidential Elections. Charlottesville as a whole, in fact, voted for John Kerry.