Colloquium Series Panel: Planning in the Highly Engaged Community: Perspectives from the Field

bricked pedestrian area flanked by retail buildings

Ithaca Commons. photo / Kenneth C. Zirkel, Wikimedia Commons

Date and location: January 24, 12:20 p.m. in Abby and Howard Milstein Auditorium, Milstein Hall


Kimberly Michaels leads the design and management on a diverse set of project types. She is most known locally for her work shepherding large projects through complex and/or contentious municipal review processes. She has nearly 20 years’ experience navigating projects through SEQR, zoning, permitting and site plan review. Her passion is to develop spaces that are sustainable, integrated into the natural world and mindful of the human-environment relationship. Michaels’s experience includes higher education, healthcare, learning landscapes, playgrounds, private and public gardens, master planning and detailed site design with an emphasis on sustainability and green design practices. Her work has been selected as a featured site by the Sustainable Sites Initiative, published in the Journal of Green Building and will be included in an upcoming book by Robin Moore, Early Childhood Outdoors. Michaels is a registered landscape architect and brings several years of professional experience in education to her work.

Lisa Nicholas, AICP, is the deputy director of planning for the City of Ithaca. As staff to the city’s planning board since 2005, she has been involved with the numerous and complex development projects that have — and continue to — shape, transform, and enliven Ithaca, including those in the city portion of Cornell’s campus. She has 20 years of government planning experience at the state, federal, and local levels and holds a master’s in regional planning from the University of New Mexico.

Scott Whitham, principal of Whitham Planning and Design, has over 20 years of experience in leading complex projects and project teams. His work has ranged across diverse built-environment disciplines, and has included planning new regional park systems and revitalized urban waterfronts and leading in the preservation and rehabilitation of significant historic structures and landscapes. Whitham is also responsible for managing the planning, design, and construction of educational facilities and campuses. Actively engaged in his community, Whitham ‘s volunteer work has been equally diverse, from serving as chair of the City of Ithaca Planning Board to chair of the Architecture, Planning and Design Panel of the New York State Council on the Arts, among many other roles.


Seasoned practitioners from Ithaca who have several decades of combined experience in both the public and private realms will discuss the dynamics of professional urban planning and design in a highly motivated and engaged community. Their collective perspectives cover the full spectrum of professional planning and design practice: guiding the community planning process, administering growth management regulations, representing private sector developers, and serving as municipal board members.

As Boston politician and House Speaker Tip O’Neill once said, “All politics is local.” The same can be said for the practice of urban planning. And often for community residents, planning is not merely local, but also very personal. The panelists will discuss how in their work they navigate the sometimes complex and controversial issues entwined in urban planning and development decision making, working with neighborhoods and community groups, negotiation and dispute resolution, and promoting equity and social justice in the arena of community planning and growth management in Ithaca.

Students Present Design Strategies to Lansing Planning Board

computer rendering of a movie theater and retail store with green space

Rendering of redesigned retail and entertainment spaces. image / Yixuan Li

Students in Visiting Critic Mitch Glass’s Advanced Urban Design Workshop create real urban design strategies to address real issues for real clients. This week, this semester’s cohort presented their plans to transform The Shops at Ithaca Mall and Cayuga Mall into a mixed-use regional and village center to the Village of Lansing Planning Board and Board of Trustees. Their presentations were covered by a local news outlet.

aerial view of The Shops at Ithaca Mall and Cayuga Mall

image / Yixuan Li

Students were tasked with turning these suburban shopping malls into a dense, walkable, bikeable and transit-connected neighborhood while also mitigating traffic impact over a 30-40 year period. They worked in three teams and proposed strategies such as expanding workforce housing, development of a wellness path, creation of an outdoor recreation center, and daylighting streams which have been running underneath the malls’ parking lots for decades.

For the past twenty years, suburban shopping malls have been on the decline. Plans to update these retail spaces while creating cohesive neighborhoods can breathe into them new life.


collage of images of student drawings and students working on drawings

photos / Mitch Glass

Computer rendering of a park with a tower

image / Xinyu He

Map illustrating two streams running underground beneath a shopping mall

image / Quinn Kelly

Design Connect Teams Hold Final Review of their Projects

group of people pose around a poster

Amsterdam-Food Security and Food Justice team photo. photo / William Staffeld

Students who took part in Design Connect showcased their semester-long projects at their final review last night. Through the organization, students engage in practical experience through cooperation with local municipalities and non-profit organizations while supplying design and planning services for these groups, which may not have the resources to hire professionals. Three teams presented their New York-based projects.

Brighton Complete Streets Redesign

This team collaborated with Reconnect Rochester, a bike/pedestrian/transit advocacy organization, as well as the Town of Brighton, to address safety and accessibility improvements along a one-mile section of Monroe Avenue. The team  worked with the community to redesign five intersections along the corridor to better meet the needs of Brighton residents and provided research and analysis for the Town to use to make its case for the improved street designs to NYSDOT.

Amsterdam-Food Security and Food Justice

Working with Centro Civico and the City of Amsterdam’s Department of Community and Economic Development, this team built on a previous semester of work in alleviating food insecurity in the east end of Amsterdam, NY. The team built upon earlier work determining feasibility for a community kitchen and food-related business incubation, participated in the public process around determining food-related programming for a new community center, and worked with community partners on a design-build project for a demonstration garden.

Montezuma Heritage Park

This team worked with the Montezuma Heritage Park to further develop a trailhead entrance. The final design layout included an ADA parking area and walkway and offered alternatives that reinforced the connection between this park entry and adjacent historic sites.


Field Trip to a Rust-Belt City: Utica

group of people posing with a statue

photo / Gianni Valenti

by Gianni Valenti B.S. URS ’22

Before making the three-hour trek from Ithaca to Utica, NY, I had many assumptions about what this trip could possibly have in store; the City of Utica simultaneously surpassed and dispelled all I had believed. Planned and hosted by the Organization of Urban and Regional Studies student group (OURS), the journey itself was one well worth the time and energy because, as a sophomore, I was not only able to further bond with my cohort, but also to get to know the new freshman class and enjoy their company as we dissected the urban fabric of this unique place.

The first stop on our excursion was the Community Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides funds for social investment and urban development. There we had the chance to take a look at a masterplan for downtown Utica that the Foundation funded. This plan detailed the unique issues of planning in a rust-belt city and how Utica is trying to rebrand its urban core. I was not only surprised with the ambition of the plan, but also intrigued by the ways in which the Community Foundation wants to advertise the future of the city. The crown jewel of Utica is The Aud, a mixed-use auditorium that not only stands as a symbol of civic pride, but is also somewhat of a beacon of hope for the city’s future. This contrasts with a great tension in the city – the hospital. During our meeting with the Community Foundation, we got a glimpse at the conversation surrounding the new hospital complex planned for downtown.

Traveling between destinations, we drove through various different zones of the city, getting a taste for the new, old, and in-between parts of Utica. Reaching downtown, we finally saw the site for the new hospital. With all the original warehouses and industrial buildings still intact, the streets and sidewalks were fenced off chain-link, covered with signs showing renderings of the new hospital. The group came face-to-face with a physical manifestation of the briefing we had received about the hospital controversy when we spotted a row of buildings with a banner reading “NO HOSPITAL DOWNTOWN” strung across their fronts. With this in mind, we continued on to our second stop.

We next visited The Aud, the official name for which is the Adirondack Bank Center at the Utica Memorial Auditorium. The Aud is more than just an entertainment venue – it is the most visited site in the city and contributes to an overwhelming feeling of civic pride. During our visit, we were guided by three personnel from The Aud’s financial and management departments and their enthusiasm for the building spoke volumes about how important this site is to Utica’s decisions in planning. Many of us came away from that visit with our eyes opened to a new form of civic engagement and placemaking surrounding sports and entertainment. I know I usually think of social gathering spaces centering more on parks and public works, but this private enterprise serves the roles of all of these spaces and more in Utica.

Our last visit was to The Center, a refugee resettlement and aid center located in Utica’s downtown. Personally, this was my favorite part of the trip because the topic of refugees and immigration is not only increasingly important in modern planning, but is also something none of my classes have touched on in a modern sense. At The Center, we were able to discuss with organization leaders just how important the refugee community is to Utica’s urban fabric and future development. Resettling between 400 and 600 refugees in the city a year, this organization assists almost all of the total immigrants to Utica. We had an active discussion regarding how to plan for these populations and meet their needs as they move to America, and specifically how Utica accommodates them. While the conversation was inspirational in terms of planning for diverse populations, it was kind of depressing when looking at Utica’s future as the current presidential administration continues to block refugees coming into the country.

Suzanne Lanyi Charles’s Research Featured in Recent Publications


headshot of a woman with blonde hair wearing a blue shirt

Suzanne Charles

Assistant Professor Suzanne Lanyi Charles has recently published two papers stemming from her ongoing research concerning the post-crisis financialization of housing. Charles’s research explores the shifts in the way global capital is being reinvested in local housing markets since the 2008 housing crisis and the effects of those shifts on households and access to housing. One important manifestation of these shifts is an increase in single-family rental housing (SFR) in suburban neighborhoods. While increases in suburban SFR may provide access to neighborhoods otherwise off-limits to renters, the increasing dominance of corporate ownership of SFR may be problematic.

Charles takes look at SFRs in a broad collection of U.S. metropolitan areas in “A Latent Profile Analysis of Suburban Single-Family Rental Housing (SFR) Neighborhoods” (Housing Policy Debate, October 29, 2019). “Single-family rental housing (SFR) is an increasingly prevalent form of housing tenure in U.S. suburban neighborhoods, representing a paradigm shift in how households gain access to a suburban single-family home,” she writes.

Using a specialized data analysis technique, the paper classifies types of suburban neighborhoods having high rates of SFR located in the 20 largest U.S. metropolitan areas. Concentrations of SFR were found to be located in a variety of neighborhoods, including diverse middle-class, older white middle-class, low-income Hispanic, low-income African American, and affluent neighborhoods. The study finds that the composition of high-SFR neighborhoods in these areas varies substantially. The article examines the variation in the types of high-SFR neighborhoods for the areas studied and presents a detailed analysis of the spatial distribution of high-SFR neighborhood types in Atlanta, L.A., and Boston.

In “The Financialization of Single-Family Rental Housing: An Examination of Real Estate Investment Trusts’ Ownership of Single-Family Houses in the Atlanta Metropolitan Area” (Journal of Urban Affairs, October 11, 2019), Charles writes that a new type of SFR investor emerged after the 2008 housing crisis — real estate investment trusts (REITs) that funnel large amounts of global capital into local housing markets.

The paper presents an examination of investments made by the four largest publicly traded SFR REITs in the Atlanta metro area. Using exploratory spatial data analysis methods, the study examines the intensity and locations of statistically significant spatial clusters of SFR owned by REITs. Findings indicate that overall, houses owned by SFR REITs are highly spatially clustered in neighborhoods forming a U-shape surrounding the city of Atlanta. Furthermore, many of the places where SFR REIT ownership is clustered are places that were hard hit by the 2008 housing crisis. Increased rents, depressed house prices, deferred maintenance, and increased evictions due to REIT ownership may increase unaffordability, create greater instability, and decrease quality of housing for households in an already precarious position in the housing market.

Charles’s research has received grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Real Estate Academic Initiative at Harvard University, Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, the Institute for the Social Sciences at Cornell, and the President’s Council of Cornell Women.

By Patti Witten

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