Connecting people to jobs on the waterfront

Blog post by Robert Steuteville on 15 Jun 2015

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

The economic development potential for Ithaca’s waterfront includes housing, connecting the city with the water and public spaces with tourism potential, agriculture goods marketing, alternative energy, and jobs.

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

An “innovation district” is a particularly interesting part of the plan, and well-suited to Ithaca.

This city with a population just over 30,000 has the highest job growth rate in New York State. It is home to Cornell, dubbed “Silicon Ivy” by Forbes, and Ithaca has lately attracted attention from national media as a center of entrepreneuring.

The community has the kind of vibe and culture that attracts companies today. A survey in 2014 by the NAIOP, the national commercial real estate association, showed that 83 percent of firms want to locate in a mixed-use walkable place—either downtown or in the suburbs. A survey 30 years ago would have found a strong preference for industrial and office parks in the suburbs. The dramatic shift has to do with the talent — young and educated people now favor mixed-use places.

Ithaca’s strong economy has no immediate limit except for its capacity to hold people and businesses in the kinds of places the market favors now. For Ithaca’s job production and economic growth to continue, the community needs more people, housing, and places for this creative energy to express itself.

Cornell University owns cinderblock warehouses in the waterfront area and Cornell representatives said the institution would consider moving the operations closer to campus if a better use is found for the buildings. Here’s an idea: The buildings would be ideal “maker space” as part of a new waterfront neighborhood. The Form Ithaca plan includes nearly 600,000 square feet of workplace, and the coolest part is the reuse of the warehouses.

Form Ithaca: Configuration of warehouses as “innovation district” at center of plan. 

The “maker” movement includes the coffee roasters and beer crafters, value-added food processors, robot designers, software programmers and the like. It’s light manufacturing and technology, and it plays to Ithaca’s strengths. The warehouse area already has one successful tech company called Palisade. The walkability and nearby amenities are positive attributes to this kind of district.

One can imagine that with Ithaca’s extraordinary farmers market in the area (with room to expand), the Innovation District would include food processing with locally growth ingredients.

The Ithaca Area Waste Water Treatment Facility has a vision for creating an “energy district” that could offer shared heating and alternative energy from methane produced at the plant. It could serve the district in addition to new and existing housing.

The buildings themselves wouldn’t have to change much. They would need windows, landscaping, and the central asphalt area would be converted to a “shared space” plaza.

Here’s a photo of what the buildings look like now:

To see what the Innovation District could look like, see the drawing at the top of this article—showing the same buildings modified.

Some of the old factories in and around Ithaca are already being used for entrepreneuring and business activity. One example is the South Hill Business Campus in the Town of Ithaca, the reuse of the defunct National Cash Register factory a little over a mile from downtown—now with 43 business tenants. On a smaller scale, the historic Ithaca Calendar Clock building—very close to the waterfront area—includes a large music supplier, doctor’s offices, home inspectors, Ithaca Festival offices, yoga/dance studio, photography studio, bait & tackle shop, gunsmithing, and a cello studio. Here’s the Ithaca Calendar Clock building, in a residential neighborhood near the waterfront:

Seven regions will compete this year for three $500 million prizes through the Upstate Revitalization Initiative. If the Southern Tier is a winner, Ithaca will be a factor—no other city Upstate, large or small, is better prepared to attract educated talent for entrepreneuring and business. The waterfront is one of Ithaca’s best opportunities to build on its economic strengths.

A form-based code could make development more predictable and aligned with a community vision geared to prosperity and creating public spaces for everyone.

The next article will cover policy issues.

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.