A Vision for a Cayuga Inlet Sustainability Corridor:  May 2006

 The elements of community sustainability are typically undertaken in a piecemeal fashion.  One town might invest in solar panels while another town creates bike paths.  Rarely have we deliberately sought to redesign and integrate infrastructure for living, working, shopping, and playing in a more sustainable manner.  Sustainable Tompkins has been involved in a number of proposed development projects over the past two years that are coalescing into a unifying vision for making sustainability a reality within a specific geographic location.  Although the Cayuga Inlet Sustainability Corridor will serve a specific geographic locale, it may also become a model for other communities and regions that are trying to solve the challenge of integrating the elements of a sustainable community.  This is a wonderfully stimulating intellectual and social challenge. If successful, the co-creators of the Sustainability Corridor will become informants to the rest of the world, sharing our vision and lessons learned.

While our plans may seem ambitious, they are not outside the realm of feasibility; nor do they simply act to encourage environmental awareness. Ithaca loses many young people to urban centers.  If we can create a new employment hub around sustainability that creates decent incomes while also giving people an excellent living standard, perhaps the youth will stay on.  A focus on economic development, while also embracing sustainability, will be key for Ithaca’s future population diversity.

Along Rt. 13 in Ithaca, NY there is every type of strip development typical of towns across America. A coalition of partners from Sustainable Tompkins, Cornell University, Ithaca College, Cooperative Extension, local green builders, government agencies, and other groups are exploring how to use sustainability principles to develop and redevelop adjacent lands between the “franchise strip” and Cayuga Inlet, a major tributary into Cayuga Lake, the largest of the Finger Lakes in upstate New York.  This natural corridor along the Inlet from the south entry point of the City of Ithaca to the waterfront of the lake has several large undeveloped parcels as well as a mixture of relatively light commercial/industrial development.

The vision for the Cayuga Inlet Sustainability Corridor began with an early working group of Sustainable Tompkins focused on creating a Green Resource Hub in the light industrial zone along the Inlet, where one of their members owns land and other renewable energy businesses are already established.  The Hub would feature a facility for educating consumers on green building, renewable energy, and green products. A showroom of green materials would give customers and contractors a chance to see some of the new green design materials firsthand. There would also be classroom space for seminars on renewables, energy efficiency, and green building, as well as on-site professional help for people interested in learning green building techniques or ways to improve existing homes. The Hub would also offer workforce training and professional development opportunities such as certification in green building, home performance, and installation of sustainable technologies.  With nearby trails and possible bike/electric scooter rentals, the location would also serve as an easy way to access other destinations in the Corridor.

Other proposed elements of the Sustainability Corridor include a Reuse Center for the area—similar to what Significant Elements (a local historic architectural salvage business) has done, but on a larger scale and with more components of the waste stream.  Tompkins County Solid Waste Division is leading the group that is investigating the potential flow of materials in the surrounding area, and this project is scheduled to be built over the next 2-3 years.  Associated with the Reuse Center is the possibility of creating small micro-enterprises that create products directly from the materials entering the reuse facility.  The possibility of training seminars on repairing or reconstructing goods is also being discussed.

At the north end of the Cayuga Inlet Sustainability Corridor is Inlet Island, not far from where the stream’s waters meet the lake.  The City of Ithaca owns 2 acres of the island and has recently put their development out to bid.  Local businessman Jeff Furman (one of the cofounders of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream) and his partners hope to persuade the City to let them develop it as a green retail or “eco mall” complex that might have small shops featuring green products, local wines, an organic café using local foods, and senior housing.  They see great potential for this to be part of the eco tourism draw of the region — such that a visit to the eco-mall is an education in itself in green building technology.

A key component of the Sustainability Corridor will come from the development of the last large undeveloped parcel within the City of Ithaca.  The Southwest Park tract of 70 acres is sandwiched between the commercial/industrial area to the north, big boxes to the east and south, and the Inlet on the west.  It has been slated for development for several years, and the received wisdom was that market forces would dictate further big box development of the land.   Another Sustainable Tompkins working group called PLUS (Planning for Land Use Sustainability) persuaded the City to respond to the growing shortage of affordable housing by focusing on residential development with definite guidelines around sustainable design and infrastructure.  The goal is to have residential development that is affordable, low ecological footprint, and integrated into the fabric of the community.

A neighborhood filled with energy efficient, affordable healthy homes supported by renewable energy technologies such as solar panels and geothermal heat pumps would be an excellent model for future developments.  A City-appointed advisory committee, with several Sustainable Tompkins members, has now shared its vision of design guidelines for Southwest Park.  These include developing the site according to new urbanism and green building principals of high density, mixed use, mixed-income workforce housing, passive solar design, decreased vehicular traffic, and alternative transportation in the form of multi-use trails, bus routes and car-share operations.  In the future, we may be able to incorporate the railroad into these plans.  In the coming years, as peak oil becomes more of a consumer reality, transportation will once again include practical systems, such as a tram or trolley infrastructure.

The Cayuga Inlet Sustainability Corridor also includes a vision for developing an Innovation Center somewhere along Rt. 13. While no site has yet been determined, we imagine the Innovation Center as something along the lines of “Yankee tinkerer meets Cornell high tech.”  Upstate New York was the source of an amazing number of agricultural innovations during the Civil War because of the labor shortage.  What will we invent due to the energy shortage?

At the Innovation Center, individuals could take their innovative ideas or inventions and gain professional assistance from engineering all the way to marketing. These ideas might lead to low-cost solutions to help families transition to a new energy economy.  Engineers for a Sustainable World and several centers at Cornell University have joined with Sustainable Tompkins to pursue this vision.

All of these projects are at the earliest phases of development.  The Green Resource Hub, Reuse Center, and Innovation Center will all be excellent places for service learning by students at Cornell, Ithaca College, and the local community college to work with local businesses and residents.  All of the elements of the Sustainability Corridor offer a chance for the next generation to work together in a practical way to create the living and working systems of a sustainable future.