Turning a barrier into a boulevard

Robert Steuteville, Better! Cities & Towns

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

Despite its location on the end of a 40-mile-long lake, Ithaca, New York, has no waterfront where one can dine at an outdoor table and enjoy a mixed-use place. That’s an amenity that is in short supply throughout Upstate New York, despite an abundance of lakes and rivers. A section of urban waterfront would greatly add to Ithaca’s appeal, and that was one issue addressed in a charrette hosted by Form Ithaca last week.

Form Ithaca is a team that is writing a “form-based code” for the city and town of Ithaca—the charrette’s main purpose was to test how such a code would work in this community. We also tackled regional and local planning, building, and transportation issues.

Route 13, or North Meadow Street, is a highway that cuts the city off from the water.

We brought in engineers from Alta Planning + Design—specialists in complete streets—to explore problems like how Route 13 could become a mixed-use boulevard that connects the city to the water. The broad strokes of this idea are outlined in the city’s draft Comprehensive Plan, which will soon be considered for adoption.

Currently, a driver entering Ithaca from the north doesn’t know they are in a city until the highway divides into one-way couplets—Fulton and Meadow streets—one block apart. Up to that point vehicles sail past neighborhoods at speeds well in excess of posted speed limits. Design speeds are much higher than posted speed limits of 40 and 30 miles per hour.

After consulting with the state DOT and other transportation stakeholders, our team proposed moving the place where motorists sense they are entering a city back about 8/10ths of a mile. That would create an new threshold into the city—so we call it the North Meadow Street Threshold Strategy.

The concept involves landscaping, lane narrowing, intersection improvements, buildings facing the street, sidewalks, and other improvements. The first step involves changes to a bridge over Fall Creek, which is now nearly unnoticeable. A small guardrail is the only visible element, see below:

Wade Walker of Alta proposes making a statement, structurally or artistically, to let drivers know they are crossing a bridge, which becomes the threshold into an urban place.

Cayuga Street bridge over Fall Creek, a stone’s throw from Route 13, really looks like a bridge. It’s two lanes, but you get the idea.

After the bridge, the strategy calls for narrowing lanes to 11 feet to slow traffic and creating a central boulevard planting strip—with trees:

After the first intersection, Dey Street, a slip lane is added to the section for slow local traffic and bicycles. On-street parking would serve urban commercial frontages with sidewalks and more street trees. Additional street connections would make the blocks shorter:

Street sections like these for every kind of thoroughfare in the city and town will be part of what we call The Character Code. In compact, mixed-use areas, street design is critical to placemaking and walkability.

The following photographic simulation shows how the character of the the corridor could dramatically change.

Form Ithaca, Seth Harry, Seth Harry and Associates.

Planting trees that grow tall would be key to the transformation. For decades, DOTs avoided trees near major thoroughfare under the mistaken belief that they are hazards. Research shows the opposite is true.

Intelligent signal systems

Route 13 is the busiest highway entering and existing Ithaca, with 35,000 vehicles a day including many trucks. Where the highway connects with routes 79, 89, and 96 in the city, congestion occurs at times during the day. Intelligent signal systems with real-time adjustments could make this area work better and coincide with changes in the character of the thoroughfare.

DOT officials at our charrette said they are open to the idea of a pilot intelligent signal project in Ithaca–it would be the first use of such technology in Upstate New York. The traffic signals are currently set on a timer. Intelligent signals perform significantly better, Walker says.

A transformed Route 13 into a boulevard—North Meadow Street—would allow new development to occur, making possible one of the first urban waterfronts in this part of Upstate. Here’s an image that shows how the city could connect to the water with the help of a new boulevard that takes the place of the highway.

Third Street crossing of Meadow Street (Route 13). Form Ithaca, Barry Mahaffey, BSB Design. 

Coming up will be articles on a vision for a new village and streetscape for the Town of Ithaca, a waterfront plan, an “innovation district,” and other topics.

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 and BSB Design also participated.