A new village for compact regional growth

Robert Steuteville, Better! Cities & Towns

Form Ithaca, Seth Harry, Seth Harry and Associates

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

The Town of Ithaca rings the city and historically consisted of farmland and stunning natural features including gorges and Lake Cayuga. Since of the middle of the last century, about half of the 30-square-mile town has developed with suburban-style houses, a college campus and medical center, and commercial uses.

The 2014 Comprehensive Plan calls for development in three nodes to preserve more remaining farmland and nature. Form Ithaca is working with the town and city to craft a form-based code. In the recent charrette, we demonstrated how a form-based code would work, together with smart transportation decisions, in areas of the town and city.

Below is an image showing permanent natural (dark green) and rural (light green) areas in Ithaca, both city and town.

Open space could be preserved through policies, such as transfer of development rights, and compact development. The map below shows potential mixed-use focus areas in Ithaca. In the town, we studied the area labeled 3, the intersection of Route 96B (Danby Road), and King Road.

The area currently has automobile-oriented development patterns (north is to the right).

Form Ithaca laid out two plans—-any number of layouts are possible layouts under a form-based code. A village center is created at the crossroads. The second plan includes a village square. Some 600 homes could be built within, or close to, a quarter-mile radius, or pedshed.

The village square would transform the character of the intersection, which is currently “big asphalt” suburban. The square could include commercial uses typically found in a neighborhood-serving shopping center–perhaps 20,000 to 25,000 square feet of retail. A good deal of parking could be accommodated around the square itself, with the remainder behind the buildings. Some of the customers for the shops could live right on the square.

Form Ithaca, Seth Harry, Seth Harry and Associates

The village center would not compete with downtown Ithaca, two miles away, but could take some automobile trips off the regional network—perhaps replacing some shopping trips to big box stores in the valley. A rendering of how the village center would look is at the top of this article.

We show how “missing middle” housing types, such as courtyard cottages, townhouses, and small mixed-use buildings could be built in the village. Below is an image of courtyard cottages by Seth Harry, designed for another project. The architecture could be simplified for more affordable units.

The street design for the village is critical. We created street sections, the most important for Route 96B—a state highway that connects the proposed village with the city. Alongside the highway is Ithaca’s second largest employer, Ithaca College, a liberal arts school with approximately 6,000 students. The students frequently walk or bike up and down the highway, which no sidewalks or bike lanes. This stretch of road also includes a 271,000 square foot business complex, with 43 firms, that occupy a former factory across from the college. Below is an image of that stretch of highway, with the factory on the left, the college on the right.

Form Ithaca brought together transportation experts and stakeholders, including state DOT engineers, to solve problems like those on 96B. That highway does not have the traffic to justify four lanes. It could be narrowed to two 10-foot lanes with a boulevard strip in the middle. The road is wide enough to also accommodate a two-way cycle track and sidewalk. Here is the street section that we proposed.

Development will continue in the town, but with a form-based code and supporting policies it can build character in a few locations and preserve the compact region with its scenic and agricultural beauty.

The first article in this series covered the transformation of Route 13 from highway to boulevard. Coming up will be articles on a waterfront plan, an “innovation district,” and other topics.