Dealing with rural sprawl in an upstate New York community

Robert Steuteville, New Urban Network

A team of urban design graduate students from Notre Dame created a plan for Skaneateles, New York, the classic lakefront town in the Finger Lakes.

Located on the edge of what is called the Syracuse metropolitan area, Skaneateles (pronounced SKAN-ee-AT-lus) is a Village surrounded mostly by countryside. Thanks to a charming main street that skirts the northern end of Skaneateles Lake, the Village is one of the more scenic Upstate communities.

Politically, Skaneateles is a Village of 1.7 square miles surrounded by a 48.8 square mile Town of the same name. In New York State, a Town is a rural or suburban area, while small urban places are called villages. The combined population of the Village and Town is about 10,000. The Town and Village are updating their joint Comprehensive Plan with the help of the Notre Dame team, which conducted a public charrette in September.

Like thousands of towns across the US, Skaneateles’s urban fabric has been eroding bits at a time with “rural sprawl.” The charrette’s challenge was to find a way to repair existing sprawl and channel future growth into infill and more compact hamlets.

During the charrette, the Notre Dame students produced a Transect map of the Village and Town (Image 1) and a series of figure-ground drawings (Images 2-4) that dramatically illustrate the problem.

The colors of Image 1 represent the Transect from T- 1 (light green natural areas) through T-5 (the dark purple village main street). Civic sites are shown in red, urban parks are dark green, and special uses — e.g. industrial areas — are dark gray. The lake is blue.

Sprawl doesn’t fit any of these categories of the traditional Transect, and therefore it shows up as white splotches. The image dramatically illustrates that even around a small town, sprawl has spread extensively. Even including the T-3 part of the Transect (low-density sub-urban development that is still walkable), there appears to be more sprawl than urban fabric in and around Skaneateles. That’s not unusual.

Images 2-4 illustrate how zoning is contributing to rural sprawl. Image 2 depicts an idealized farm landscape in a part of the Town of Skaneateles. Image 3 shows the reality of existing sprawl development in that location. Image 4 illustrates what the area would look like if the current low-density zoning is built out.

Retrofitting an auto-oriented street

Sprawl is mostly confined to the Town — but not entirely. Fennell Street in the Village is lined with auto-oriented uses and street-fronting parking lots. The development serves a purpose — Fennell Street has a supermarket and drug and hardware stores that are vital to residents. A goal of the plan is to allow this thoroughfare to redevelop in a more pedestrian-friendly manner while maintaining the retail that is vital to residents.

Images 5 and 6 consist of a plan and rendering of Fennell Street as it is now. Images 7, 8, and 9 are a proposed plan, rendering, and street section for Fennell. The plan calls for new buildings placed much closer to the street to provide a consistent street edge that defines the street spatially. Liner buildings hide the large grocery store parking lot. A new square is envisioned to be fronted by a post office, a new civic building (a village office), and bank.

The curb-to-curb dimensions of the street don’t change, but the sidewalks and zero-lot-line storefronts will make it more appealing to pedestrians, says Philip Bess, Director of Graduate Studies at the Notre Dame School of Architecture. “The 12-foot travel lane is a little wide, but appropriate to the type of traffic on Fennell,” he explains.

The students also carefully considered how to improve “gateway” areas where travelers enter the Village on Route 20, an east-west state highway, which serves as the main street inside the Village. Flanking the Village on both sides are strings of typical strip commercial buildings that have developed over the course of 50 or 60 years.

One of my favorite parts of the plan is the proposal to convert sections of Route 20 on both sides of the Village from a highway into a boulevard (Image 10). The strip commercial businesses are reconfigured from scattered sprawl to urban blocks that accommodate pedestrians, automobiles, and a mixture of uses (Image 11).

Such targeted highway retrofits are the kind of projects that state and federal transportation departments should be funding to promote smart growth and reduce vehicle miles traveled. Both the federal government (see link) and New York State appear to be getting on board with this approach(see link).

The students suggest modest changes to typical Route 20 buildings — such as pitched roofs and parking in the rear — that could make a big difference in how they relate to the proposed boulevard. Since this area is not connected to the Village sewer system, the students propose that small wetlands serve as a natural biofilter. “This would still be an area for inexpensive, informal buildings — some auto-oriented,” says Bess.

One more aspect of the plan that I highlight here is the hamlets. Not all new development is likely to take place on infill sites, so the students looked at how to accommodate growth disconnected from the Village. The team focused on the creation of a few hamlets, mostly in areas close to current employment opportunities. Image 12 shows the plan for one such hamlet — Skaneateles Falls.

The work shown here is preliminary, and the students will modify their ideas over the course of the semester and in response to public comments. Some of the work is likely to be included in the new Comprehensive Plan. The charrette cost Skaneateles $10,000, I was told, “a little less than Notre Dame’s expenses,” says Bess, “but times are tight and the Town and Village are on a budget too.” That’s a very good deal for the quality of work that was produced, in my view.

Many of the ideas from the Skaneateles charrette are applicable to other villages that are dealing with similar problems of rural sprawl.