A mixed-use waterfront for the city

Blog post by Robert Steuteville on 12 Jun 2015

Form Ithaca, Seth Harry, Seth Harry and Associates

Note: This is the third of a series of articles on the Form Ithaca design charrette.

I began this series with a piece on how a section of NYS Route 13, a barrier between the City of Ithaca, New York, and its waterfront, could be remade into a pedestrian and bicycle-friendly boulevard.

Once that change is made, a large swath adjacent to Cayuga Inlet opens for redevelopment–creating the potential for a spectacular transformation that includes:

• A series of public spaces on the water that would allow people to live, work, and play in a water-related place.

• An expansion of the Ithaca’s Farmers Market, one of the best farmers markets anywhere—but currently hemmed in by power lines and a transportation facility.

• Possible preservation of the city’s 2.2-acre community gardens, already occupying a site near the water.

• Use of the Ithaca Wastewater Treatment Facility to create alternative energy for new and existing development.

• A new “innovation district” in warehouses owned by Cornell University to allow light manufacturing and office space for entrepreneurs and “makers.”

• Up to 3.5 million square feet of new compact, neighborhood-style development, mostly residential—but also with significant workplace and some water-related retail.

The team Form Ithaca explored the waterfront as a demonstration project for a form-based code for the city and town of Ithaca. A design charrette was held the first week of June.

The area currently includes a variety of uses, some of which could realistically move. The New York State Department of Transportation stores snow ploughs and road maintenance materials on a prime piece of waterfront real estate (see map). Likewise, Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit (TCAT) is exploring a new home for its bus depot—the facility is at or over capacity. The city’s Department of Public Works and Cornell-owned warehouses are other facilities with the potential to move, and a marina has been slated for redevelopment.

Across Route 13, the Northside neighborhood has a large supply of surface parking where infill development could take place.

The Form Ithaca waterfront plan (see below), illuminates issues facing the city while it explores form-based coding.

The waterfront plan, with quarter-mile circle. Form Ithaca

The city’s draft comprehensive plan calls for significant growth in the city population (now 30,000-plus). Ithaca has the fastest job growth in New York State and has attracted national attention an an entrepreneurial hub—with roughly 100 startup companies. But housing is in severe shortage.

The waterfront is an opportunity to build housing. The plan represents up to 2,700 new housing units, some of which could be affordable. The illustrative plan at least addresses the question: Is there room for a significant population growth in Ithaca? Given that the waterfront is one of a half dozen potential growth areas, the answer is clearly yes.

The waterfront has economic development potential. Upstate New York is noticeably lacking in mixed-use urban waterfront areas, which tend to draw tourists, local users, and investors. Think of any seaside community, or, on a larger scale, Baltimore’s Inner Harbor or Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. Skaneateles village, about an hour away from Ithaca, is a popular destination because of its waterfront.

The illustration at the top of this article shows how the Ithaca waterfront might look. Five-story buildings are shown. The soils in the area are alluvial, requiring pilings drilled down approximately 100 feet. A minimum number of stories is therefore needed to make development profitable. Island Fitness, on the Inlet about a half-mile away, is also five stories.

The design hits the marks of proven waterfront revitalization.

• It provides continuous public access through a series of plazas and open spaces, some of which could feature outdoor dining. The plazas and parks act like windows on the water.

• It connects to a larger natural trail network, the Cayuga Waterfront Trail, currently 1.7 miles long and eventually 6 miles long.

• It features a boulevard as a spine for new development—the current Route 13 between Fall Creek bridge and Fulton Street.

• The buildings are designed to respond to the water, and the public space adds value to the land.

Farmers market

The Farmers Market in Ithaca is a spectacle—its the place that everyone brings visitors. It connects local residents with regional growers, who successfully market their goods. Open seasonally and on weekends, it is one of the best public spaces in the city.

The market is often too crowded and the managers would like to expand–but they can’t build due to constraints with overhead power lines. A waterfront development should deal with this issue—the Form Ithaca plan is an example that accommodates almost unlimited growth of the market through tents in the plentiful envisioned, adjacent, open spaces. One of the new buildings could be a multiuse space that accommodates winter market operation. With thousands of new families within walking distance, the farmers market is bound to draw more customers year-round.


The 2.2-acre community gardens are a potentially contentious issue with development of the waterfront. They occupy prime real estate and could be moved to another site or sites, but not without controversy. Our analysis shows that plenty of development can take place without moving the gardens. In a densely developed area, they could provide an agrarian oasis where residents could watch the gardeners at work, admire the flowers and tomatoes, and do gardening themselves.

The Wastewater Treatment Facility could be viewed as a development deterrent—but in our analysis its an asset. Concerns are raised about odors, but doesn’t seem to bother the adjacent Farmers Market patrons. People who moved into the waterfront neighborhood would do so with the awareness of the treatment plant as a neighbor.

The plant is a potential energy producer for the city, according to Dan Ramer, plant operator. Methane from the plant and solar panel on roofs could provide power to 3.5 million square feet of development on the waterfront and existing buildings in adjacent neighborhoods, a recent report says.

Constraints and connectivity

By turning a part of Route 13 into a boulevard, the plan allows for more connections to the site and a network of streets. Connectivity is now restricted by Norfolk Southern railroad tracks and two waterways. Development of the waterfront would require at least secondary access for emergency vehicles. This could be accomplished in many ways, include street access over the tracks. The plan also shows two optional bridges—an all-vehicle bridge over Cascadilla Creek and a bike-ped bridge with emergency vehicle access over Cayuga Inlet.

The Inlet bridge would likely have to be a drawbridge to allow sailboat navigation. This “big picture” idea may be controversial due to its cost, but the amount of development could justify it. The direct connections over to Cass Park across the Inlet—its pool, theater, children’s garden, playgrounds, trails, ballfields, and other facilities—would be tremendous. Thousands of city residents that currently drive to Cass Park would be minutes away by bicycle. West Hill residents could bicycle or walk to the farmers market and the new waterfront.

When our ancestors built the historic city, they didn’t just build neighborhoods—they built bridges. And thank goodness they did.

A waterfront redevelopment could be designed in countless ways according to a form-based code, which would be geared to ensure walkability and a human-scale public realm. The most important elements to keep intact would be changing the character of Route 13 to connect the city to the water, creating compelling waterfront public spaces, and providing housing and places for businesses to thrive. Exploring big issues ahead of time helps to avoid piecemeal development.

The next article will cover the Innovation District, also part of the waterfront plan.

Robert Steuteville is editor of Better Cities & Towns. He is on the Form Ithaca team with STREAM Collaborative architects and landscape architects, and Randall+West urban planners. Seth Harry and Associates, BSB Design, and Alta Planning + Design also participated in the charrette.