DRYDEN, N.Y.—The north end of the village of Dryden has a lot of potential, yet it leaves a lot to be desired. Tompkins Cortland Community College (TC3) brings thousands of students and hundreds of staff into the area, yet it’s physically and socially disconnected from the adjacent area.

Empty storefronts dot Route 13, presenting an unflattering entrance to the village. Recent developments are well-meaning but haphazard. The town and the village recognize the need for a plan for the area, and Cornell students have stepped in to help,

The urban planning submission is the work of Cornell Design Connect, an effort by the university’s Art, Architecture and Planning school. Design Connect is a multidisciplinary, student-run, community design organization housed in the Department of City and Regional Planning that provides policy, design, engineering, and planning students hands-on experience working with communities and in return offers a low-cost alternative to the typical consulting firms that towns and villages turn to for help drafting a plan.

Since its inception in 2008, the program has worked with dozens of communities across Upstate New York, including assistance with the planning and design phase of the Dryden Rail Trail back in 2014. Over the past several months, about a dozen students have focused on assisting Dryden with ideas on improving the “North Street Neighborhood,” the part of the village and town of Dryden adjacent to the North Street/Route 13 corridor.

Now, you might be reading this and saying, “this is just a bunch of silly handwaving, planning isn’t the same as doing.” That may be true, but the town and village have to start somewhere, and like the Rail Trail, this study and suggested initiatives from this study are intended to inform and guide policy.

This is especially critical at this time because the North Street corridor is on the cusp of substantial change. The Lucente family, who have developed one of the largest apartment complexes in the county with the Village Solars in the neighboring town of Lansing, are in the early stages of planning a substantially-sized middle-income multifamily housing development on 41 acres off of Mott Road. Secondly, after having found the new home for the regional Department of Transportation office in the town of Lansing, the state of New York is willing to part with the property it purchased on Enterprise Drive almost 20 years ago, and the village has the right to first dibs, as it were. This is Dryden’s opportunity to “do things right” the first time, rather than shoe-horning in changes later.

The Cornell Design Connect team, which comprised about a dozen students, had two primary goals over the past year as they analyzed about 200 acres on the north end of Dryden village and the adjacent properties in Dryden town. One goal was to create a conceptual neighborhood plan that identifies transportation solutions for enhanced connectivity and safer non-vehicular circulation; and the second goal was to identify and analyze development opportunities within the site that meet the community’s goals for residential, business and community development.

This work was not dreamed up in a bunch of dimly lit classrooms in Sibley Hall. The students did their legwork, literally. Alongside demographic and economic research, the students spent several hours walking and analyzing the streets on multiple occasions and interviewed local officials, TC3 leaders, business owners, residents and developers. Focus group meetings ranged from Poets Landing to the Little Creek Mobile Home Community, to Dryden High School and TC3. Dozens of stakeholders were personally interviewed alongside the focus groups.

The results of that work can be found in a 109-page PDF published by the town of Dryden here. Among the recommendations are a “passive park” for low-intensity recreational activities (walking, picnicking, running) on about 42 acres next to Dryden High School. For the 10-acre NYS DOT site, the Design Connect students suggest a mix of senior housing and mixed-income housing, with emphasis on the inclusion of a childcare center serving ages 5-12. The long-vacant Dryden Dollar Store has been suggested for potential renovation into a community center with meeting spaces and a community kitchen/food truck incubator, an idea that staff at TC3 strongly support. A community garden is proposed for the Little Creek manufactured home park.

More broadly, the Design Connect team cited the need for increased “connectivity and walkability” in the neighborhood.” Acknowledging the costs and need for grant support, the students suggest a phased approach for the construction of sidewalks, street crossings, and signage. A pedestrian trail would connect TC3 to North Street, with the First National Bank of Dryden expressing a willingness to let the trail run through its property to facilitate that connection (something the Lee Road residents would prefer to their backyards, no doubt).

From the interviews, there are some interesting nuggets of information—gossip, in this line of reporting. For instance, INHS stated they “intended to initiate affordable housing projects in Dryden but could not meet their goal due to high acquisition costs and community push-back on denser housing types,” while Conifer noted that the state would be unlikely to disburse another affordable housing grant to Dryden because of a desire to spread future grants throughout the area. Meanwhile, one of the big selling points to the Lucentes for their proposal was the water and sewer access the site provided.

The suggestion for a multi-phased approach is a reflection of the realities of planning and financing. The proposal suggests five phases, the first focusing on sidewalks along Route 13 and a crosswalk/signal at the intersection of North Road/Route 13 and Brightday Road at the entrance to the Little Creek home community. Later phases build on that with additional sidewalks, crosswalks, and development initiatives. As the state controls Route 13 and is not known for moving quickly, planning and grant proposals should focus on Route 13 first and build out to side streets later. A number of funding sources and opportunities are also described for the community center in the former dollar store.

At this point, with the study and recommendations given to the town and village, the ball is in their court to decide if they wish to pursue policies and grants that support the suggestions. The town of Dryden’s Planning Board will give their initial impressions and discuss potential next steps at their meeting Thursday night. They could choose to pursue Cornell Design Connect’s ideas or put them on the shelf to collect dust, but at least this gives them an opportunity to way which way is the best way forward for the North Street/Route 13 corridor.

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