Friday, October 5, 2007

Field Trip Summary (Transportation Team)

The Commons and its surroundings have experienced growth that encourages business activity over the years. There are still a lot of areas where there could be improvement. Our overview started out walking down State Street to the next intersection. Stopping here, we could see 8 parking lots, all of which are in prime locations for commercial development. Not only could they be developed, but they also break the stream of shops and make the area seem less developed and enticing for shoppers. Visibility is therefore a key component of a plan to improve The Commons. There should be better signage for visitors and more openness in the inner area. Removing the large trees in the middle and replacing them with smaller side trees would help improve visibility.

What’s nice about the commons is that the central shopping area is closed off to cars. Our trip leader mentioned that an overhead rail system (PRT) could potentially bring more business to the city, but that it is ten years away. While some of us agreed with that view, others thought that the first phase of such a system should be put in place within the next 3 years. It was also brought up that perhaps The Commons could be extended into State Street in the south side, with bumps in Cayuga Street to slow down traffic. What makes this traffic flow even more prominent is if the buildings in shopping areas are mixed use, so that they house people in the top area. There are a lot of these multiuse dwellings on the commons already, but they could be extended to every building with incentives to build up to 6-8 stories high. Aurora Street essentially marks the end of the commons on the other side. The restaurants in this area could see more business activity if a circle was placed at that intersection to slow down traffic.

The businesses in The Commons could also use improvement in the facades. There should be a program to incentivize this. There should also be a plan to refurbish/redesign The Commons, as it hasn’t been done since the 1970’s. The Center Ithaca needs to be more visible and engaged that it is today. There should also be new development in the History Center area to connect it more to The Commons. On the mobility area of the surrounding area, there was discussion of improved bus service and the setup of bike lanes through the reduction of unused sidewalks and parking spaces. One idea was to reduce sidewalks between trees to allow for parking spaces, therefore opening up space for bike lanes. There was also discussion of better carpooling services, such as Zimride, and a bike program that provides bike access to residents (such as the Paris system). In the long-term, the PRT system would allow for the development of parking lots in the area.

Team Members: Andrew, Carlos, Gabriella, Greg, Leah, and Maya

Downtown 10/02/07 Green Cities Field Trip -State and Plain Street Area Reflections

From the eyes of an Ithaca city planner (Elizabeth)

Current assets of the community are multiple community centers and help centers. The roads are currently tree lined and well kept. Another asset is the fact that most of the residents are renters, making it more possible to implement the systems with little resistance or disturbance. On the other hand, having high rental rates causes lower levels of investment in the community. There is a church in the neighborhood, and faith based organizations are assets. There is room to be developed such as parking lots. However, in some cases, buildings would have to be demolished
for space. Such buildings have little character or history. There are
also a few small businesses, such as restaurants in the area. A
liability is the fact that there is high car traffic down the center road
due to the addition of the bridge. Otherwise, the residential area allows
for a high level of non-car-based transport. The corner where the church is
houses buildings which are not residential or historic and could become a
hub of activity.

There are currently many areas in this neighborhood that could be
developed into mixed income, and mixed use buildings
while still preserving the feeling and important aspects of the
community. There are many one story buildings and box buildings currently
taking up space in an inefficient way. Building on top of many of
these, and occasionally knocking some down, would allow for more
development that would help the community and not displace people.
Because this neighborhood is currently residential, a light rail system
would be more likely to spur economic development. People would be more
likely to go into the neighborhood than they previously were when they
had no reason, or did not pass through on their way to the next location.
Integrating the rail system could prove to be slightly difficult because of the single home older look of the neighborhood.
Because the rail does not have a covered roof, there would still be light
coming through as to not cause harm to the social and physical aspects of
the neighborhood. If steel could be integrated in with the current green
landscape, the rail system would fit well aesthetically. The space over the State Street
Diner provides and example of where development over one story buildings
could occur.

The main issue would be how to prevent gentrification. As the neighborhood is currently a lower income rental neighborhood, adding development could cause drastic change. In order to build multiculturalism, the city would have to actively support it. First of all, the community would need to keep its current organizations, such as the church and rehab centers. Creating varied types of housing, both full housing and apartments would lead to more mixed income and multicultural areas. The block on state street could become a common space. If the current
assets were used, such as the church, this could help to create a usable
community-based area and not just something developers decide to put in.
With the addition of a rail line, hopefully car use could decrease and
focus could be on walking. It would be interesting to know how many of
the current residents currently own a car, and therefore how easy the
change to a car free zone would be.

Reflections From a Small Business Owner (Toni):

As a small merchant/business owner my primary goal is to build and
strengthen my business by protecting and increasing my customer base. A
downtown transit line has the potential to greatly strengthen or weaken
my business so I would have a few serious questions to ask before I
could support the cause. On the corner of Plain and Seneca there is a
small convenience store with a small parking lot, and next to that is a
corner church. It is proposed that that spot could be the possible site
for a little town square named Martin Luther King Square. As the
convenience store owner, some serious questions would need to be
addressed before I would consider allowing my store to be demolished and
relocated. The total selling price for my existing store would have to
cover the cost of relocation, the business lost during the move, and the
complete renovation of the new store. There would need to be a reliable
survey indicating the amount of customer traffic my business would
enjoy. If the transit stations will increase economic growth to the
business closest to it, how can I get my business near a station? The
station locations are of significant importance to my business because
they provide the best opportunity for growth, but also because it could
threaten my business and decrease customer traffic and accessibility to
my store if I am not near a transit station. Who would decide where the
stations would go? A small business owner doesn’t have the influence a
larger business has. Will business monetary contributions to the Connect
Ithaca Transit Line affect where the stations will go. If so, my business
could be bypassed completely.

More questions:
If the road is eventually car-free, how would suppliers be able to get to my business and would it
be a hassle? Will my taxes go up because of the transit line and all the
new development? Owning a small business is a delicate balance and any
type of change could tip the scale and end my business. I would need a
realistic picture of how the Transit line would work before I could
accept any major changes that could affect the health of my business.

Reflections From A Low Income Resident (Christopher):

The proposed transit line will certainly connect the Southside neighborhood to the Ithaca community as a whole, but many of the residents may object to the project out of fear that the light rail will change the social environment of the area in an undesirable way. Currently, the neighborhood has a very cohesive quality (period architecture and appropriate scale) but the transit line will certainly change this dynamic (especially for residents who live on streets where the transit line will be installed and for residents who live next to stations and hubs where development will occur). As the transit line brings new economic development to the community, low income residents will more than likely find their neighborhood threatened by gentrification. Unless the local government initiates aggressive policy to keep development from displacing these residents, Ithaca’s south side will undoubtedly attract a new set of residents (mainly middle and upper class) who can afford to live in the highly connected area. In theory, low income residents might gain better access to jobs across the city once the line is built (perhaps at the hospital or near the airport) but in the long run these residents will need more than new jobs to keep them living in the neighborhood.

Reflections From A Retiree (Melanie):

Downtown Ithaca’s current assets include the Commons and State Street, which is a concentrated area of commercial activities and residential spaces, walkable tree-lined streets, entertainment facilities (theaters, restaurants, etc.) and a relatively safe public environment. State & Plain also contains many nice older buildings that contribute to the character of the area. Some of the liabilities include the increasing development of sprawl-like residential and commercial areas that are drawing shoppers and residents outside the city core. While there are buses that run during regular business hours, there is a huge lack of regular public transit during off peak hours. There is also poor transit access to many areas of development outside the city center like Wegmans, the Farmer's Market, many large parks, and the hospital.

There are possibilities for increasing the density of Ithaca as buildings that are only one or two stories high may be replaced with more efficient, higher density ones. There could also be more mixed use of Ithaca’s core areas to that blocks now reserved almost solely for commerce may include living spaces above them and vice versa. With mixed use zones, people may reduce the need for automobiles because they will have much of what they need within easy walking distance. When we looked at the Plain and State Street areas, the neighborhood is mostly residential (with the exception of State Street itself). If a new transit system was implemented, then this could encourage a greater mix of residential and commercial areas along the main lines, with an even more intensely mixed zones or public squares at major intersections. As a retiree considering living at State & Plain, I would like to live in an area where I can walk to all my major amenities within five minutes. Likewise, the Commons and other areas that already have intensive commerce could benefit by creating more living spaces within them.

I am a retired person, so one of my major areas of concern is noise and traffic. I need a sense of peace and quiet, so I would like some sort of guarantee that the new transit system will not be too noisy, especially at night. I would hope that new buildings and retrofits would look for ways to buffer and reduce noise from transit and the increased pedestrian/bike traffic. By the way, I don’t have air-conditioning, so my windows have to be open in the summer and I don’t want to hear a noisy streetcar go by my third-story window every five minutes. If the streets with the elevated transit system were only for use by pedestrians and bicycles, then I would want there to be clear areas separating the two because some people can be holy terrors on bikes just like they are in cars. As I get older, I could drive a golf cart or electric wheelchair in the bike lanes too. All my friends in Florida now live in golf cart/motorized wheelchair communities, and they can really help the elderly get around comfortably. Will there be places to park these types of personal vehicles at the PRT stations or will I have to leave my wheelchair at home? Incidentally, I know that Ithaca should be reducing its amount of hard horizontal surfaces in order to allow the soil to efficiently absorb and filter water, but I can't get around well on uneven surfaces because I am not that steady anymore. If the city ripped up all the asphalt, then it would have to make sure that whatever walking or biking surfaces that replace it are disabled and elder-friendly.

While I like a bit of peace and quiet, I am also looking to be well-integrated into society at large. I may be retired, but it doesn’t mean that I want to hide myself away or only spend time with other people my age. I take an interest in young people and people of different cultures, and I would like to have more opportunities to interact with them. With this in mind, the city should avoid ghettoizing different types of people and should encourage interaction. A new public square at State and Plain should try to do that because I would like to spend time in a nicely-planted place with cultural events and different types of people to watch and get to know better. If our neighborhood is beautiful enough, then maybe tourist will even want to visit, and that will give me even more people-watching foddor when I sit in the public square.

Since I am retired, I am seeking ways to make use of my time. While I don’t want to work full-time anymore, I am looking for a part-time job and some volunteer opportunities. I would like to be able to work very close to where I live, and I would be more than willing to learn new skills to be a part of the new green economy. Since I like gardening, I would like to have access to a garden (maybe on an accessible rooftop) and be able to volunteer my time to growing food for the community. I like young people, so I would also be interested in helping out at a daycare centre. City beautification projects are also very important to me, and I could could do a lot to contribute to these efforts. Since gardening and living in a green neighborhood with lots of trees is very important to me, I would be willing to accept an elevated transit system if there was a guarantee that it would not shade out all the gardens below it. It would also be ideal if the column that support the cars could be used to grow plants on them too. Greenery always seem to look more decent than naked steel or concrete!

Of course, I am concerned about rain and ice dripping on me if I hobble underneath the elevated transit system. I use a cane, and can’t move very fast to get out of the way. With this in mind, the new, free transit system can’t have seats that are too low and will have to be able to wait for me to get myself in and out of the cars. I am old and can’t be rushed or else I will get stressed out and not use the system anymore. Besides, the whole reason they took my license away was because the doctor said that my eyesight was too poor to drive safely. A new transit system could help me get to my doctor and the hospital more easily, but I would feel much better if there were attendants at the stations to help me use it. After all, I don’t really trust computers, so a completely automated system seems very foreign to me. I would be afraid that I might break it if I do something wrong.


From the perspectives of a city planner, small business owner, a low-income resident and a retiree, the Connect Ithaca Concept Plan shows a lot of potential to satisfy diverse stakeholders. The neighborhood already has some valuable assets, such as tree-lined streets, moderate commercial activity, low-cost rental housing and historic buildings. Some of the major concerns of the current (low-income) and possible (retired) residents are how to avoid gentrification, increase diversity and foster multiculturalism in the State & Plain Street neighborhood. The major concern for the city planner is how to densify and transition the area from one that is overrun by cars to a car-free zone. Almost all the stakeholders saw that the proposed plan could link different neighborhoods and increase access to important places like hospitals and work sites, while also increasing local commercial and residential opportunities. If these and other stakeholders can continue to openly exchange questions, ideas and criticisms about the plan, then the Connect Ithaca Concept might have great potential to make Ithaca more sustainable.