From Suburbia, A Town Center

6 08 2012
Image Property of HOLT Architects

Image Property of HOLT Architects

Just about any reasonably-sized city in America has its suburban hinterlands – in Ithaca’s case, this is dominated by the town of Ithaca, and to a lesser extent, the towns/villages of Dryden and Lansing. Now, it would be wrong of me to address these communities like they were dominated by cul-de-sacs and power centers, since the village of Dryden, and some small hamlets, were around well before suburbanization – but they do make up a sizable proportion of developed real estate. So when those communities take steps to establish dense, walkable clusters of development, I tend to be impressed (because being satellite communities, I hold them to a lower standard).

In the town of Lansing’s case, its plans are pretty big – the town recently bought 156 acres of land to lift deed restrictions the state had placed on its development. The goal is to develop this land into a sort of “Town Center” – and not at all like the similarly named shopping mall near Syracuse.

Lansing is unusual in that it never has really had a dense core, unlike Dryden (the town of Ithaca can’t be reasonably compared since it surrounds the city). The village was founded in 1974, and only includes the area from the airport west through the mall area and down to the lakeshore.

For the town center project (covered in great detail by the Lansing Star), the overarching design was created by Ithaca-based HOLT Architects, with landscaping by (also Ithaca-based) Trowbridge & Wolf. It consists of consolidated parking lots, pedestrian walks, bike paths, street beautification, and interactive landscaping (stone seating areas, etc). The area is subdivided into a large housing component, a small retail/professional area, and a business/tech complex (it would seem to me a little more interspersion of uses would be better, but I’m not a stakeholder here). So, rather than being a standard suburban build-out, an effort is being made to develop a pedestrian-friendly core.

Apparently, developers are quite interested in accessing the property. Two of the largest potential stakeholders are NRP Group and Calamar. The companies are willing to cover a large portion of the project’s road construction costs. NRP even took the step of flying Lansing officials to projects near Cleveland and Buffalo to showcase their work. Both companies are proposing senior housing complexes, one “affordable” (NRP) and one market-rate (Calamar). At least two other developments are currently proposed. The full build-out of the town center is expected to have 350,000 industrial/commercial sq feet, and 420 residential units.

There are a couple major hurdles to construction at this time – the more minor one being zoning, the more major issue being the construction of a sewer through southern Lansing. High-density housing doesn’t go well with septic tanks (nor is it permitted by the town code anyway), so the construction of a sewer to serve that area is required, and the proposal for construction is currently being refined before it is put out to vote.

The project has the potential to be a game changer – the town is on the verge of a large increase in development, with another 400+ units planned in the next several years in clustered developments outside of the town center project. As most of these will be suburban in nature, or at least vehicle-oriented, one might pessimistically look at the town center as a drop in the bucket for smart planning. But it’s certainly a step in the right direction on the way to establishing a genuine community center.

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