Editor’s Note: The following story is part of a look back at a time when Ithaca almost destroyed the downtown urban core now viewed as one of its key assets. 

See here for the feature piece: “When City Hall wanted to upend downtown Ithaca’s beating heart.”

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ITHACA, N.Y. — If everything can be a learning experience, the city of Ithaca walked out of urban renewal with a few major conclusions.

Here are 5 of them:

1. Old buildings aren’t necessarily bad buildings.

“When old buildings became functionally obsolete, we didn’t think to reuse them,” explained Ithaca town planner Dan Tasman. “People didn’t want to live above stores back in the 1950s, and offices didn’t want the spaces either, so they often sat vacant. It was a different attitude back then.”

In an effort to make the city more accommodating to cars and suburban lifestyles, a lot of Ithaca’s older structures met the wrecking ball. The demolitions made many Ithacans realize the value that historic buildings give to the community. This resulted in the formation of citizen’s advocacy groups like Historic Ithaca, and on an institutional level, it led to the formation of the city’s first historic district, DeWitt Park, in 1971.

Not only do many of these venerable structures have an aesthetic values, they also play a role in maintaining environmentally sustainable communities.

“Absolutely, old buildings are some of the best buildings,” said Ithaca-based urban planner C.J. Randall in an email. “There’s a lot of research on embodied energy of those old materials and how much we save in BTUs by keeping the building shells and retrofitting interiors.”

2. Maintaining the “urban fabric” is important.

Picture a downtown area of an Ithaca-sized city. What comes to mind?

Storefronts? Buildings standing right next to each other? Maybe a park or public square?

That’s an urban fabric, the features that comprise the core of the community.

“Back then, it was all about cars and roads,” says Tasman. “People didn’t think about the urban fabric, and how downtowns are supposed to work. You go there for the experience, the special uniqueness.”

One of the the goals of Project One was to tear down designated building to put in parking lots. But this had the unintended consequence of damaging the urban fabric. More recent approaches like the multi-story Cayuga Street garage concentrate parking to one easily-accessed location, rather than many surface parking lots.

“Parking takes away from the character,” Tasman added. “When you build an environment for cars, people don’t necessarily want to be in that environment. People don’t go downtown to visit parking spaces.”

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3. It’s not just about the car.

Many of the 1960s and 1970s urban renewal efforts focused on the ease of driving – wider lanes, more parking, anything that it made more convenient to have a car. This also had unintended consequences.

“We’ve learned that building miles and miles of roads suited to heavy car traffic is really expensive,” Randall replied. “There is a fascinating juxtaposition between cities that invested in transportation options, particularly for bicycles and pedestrians, and those that doubled-down on roads. The research is bearing out that cyclists and walkers spend as much on their respective shopping trips, without all the inefficiency inherent in parking as a primary land use.”

Randall noted that it’s not just businesses that benefit from the increase in transportation options. “Cities have also become far more aware of the value of compact development because it shows up on the balance sheet: Tax revenues per square foot from a walkable downtown environment like the Commons blow away anything out on the highway.”

4. Urban planning shouldn’t be heavy-handed.

According to Randall, “The planning profession has (somewhat grudgingly) accepted that the best development happens organically.

You do your best to set quality underlying conditions – such as zoning that has a clear relationship to what you actually want the built environment to resemble – and the market, demographic trends, the economy, developers, and builders take it from there.”

In other words, set the rules and let the market evolve.

5. Live and learn.

“There was a convergence of problems during the 1950s and 1960s – social, economic, and physical,” says Tasman. “There was deferred maintenance from the Depression, and materials rationing during the war, and you also had racial tension and a lot of poverty. Downtowns were in really rough shape, they were hurting. Planners wanted to start from scratch to fix these problems.”

“Planners back then didn’t have examples to go on for fixing a problem. They weren’t aware of consequences. They weren’t thinking old homes have value. They didn’t know how to address underlying social issues.”

Randall agreed. “I think it is human nature to want to start with a ‘blank slate,’ and that tabula rasa inclination isn’t limited to planners.”

Tasman offered the following analogy: “It was like planners were ‘city doctors’ prescribing a medication with too many side effects. By the time the side effects were known, it was too late.”

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Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.org.