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A "Living Laboratory" for Greenhouse Gas Reduction

Brian Tomaino, AICP

Using a collaborative and innovative design process, the student housing has been transformed into a 21st Century neighborhood asset.

Originally a low density, aging, and automobile centric housing development, the project team, led by Torti Gallas + Partners as master planners and architects, successfully utilized pedestrian oriented neighborhood design, elevated architecture, and sustainable strategies to nearly double the amount of beds on site, achieving a highly valued and desired housing option forCornell University graduate and professional students.  

The existing site, adjacent to Cornell’s Campus, was an older complex built in the late 1980’s, containing single-story duplexes totaling 480beds over approximately 17 acres. Parking dominated the streetscapes and the accompanying community center was undersized and aging. With a pressing shortage of graduate student housing in Ithaca, Cornell University and its development partner Greystar, established a goal to nearly double the amount of beds in the community while providing competitive and attractive amenities that would help weave the community to both the campus and the surrounding historic neighborhood.

Illustrated Site Plan

To achieve this increase in density as well as to allow a variety of housing options for students, the project team designed a program of 444 units and 872 beds. The program included 5 apartment buildings containing studios to 3-bedroom units, 100 3-4 bedroom townhomes and 29 2-bedroom stacked flat townhomes. The diversity of types allowed the team to design a site plan that responded to the site’s topography. It also connected itself into the fabric of its surrounding neighborhood context, which primarily consists of historic single-family homes. Clearly defined community open spaces, interconnected pedestrian oriented streetscapes, and a new centralized community center and green helped organize the plan into a desirable place. A central green connects the neighborhood to an existing regional recreation trail.A stand of mature trees and park space were preserved on site. These open spaces are embellished by diverse landscaping that range from allée of trees, rain gardens and bioswales, upland forest, and cultivated landscapes.


The mix of architecture and scales lends a dynamic, pedestrian friendly streetscape to the neighborhood with articulation of elements such as bays, balconies and stoops. Both the apartment buildings and town homes are designed to reflect and relate to each other and the surrounding context, as well as to the larger University community. Each apartment building provided study lounges on each floor, and in-unit laundry facilities. The 7,700sf central community center included an expansive fitness space, a coffee lounge and additional study and meetup spaces both inside and out to encourage community interactions.  Neighborhood serving retail and plaza space for temporary events like food truck rallies were provided near the site’s edge closest to campus. At the opposite edge, craftsmen style townhouses were designed to match the prevailing style and scale of the adjacent Bell Haven neighborhood, a result of an inclusive planning process with the town of Ithaca’s residents.  

Site-wide sustainability strategies were a goal of the project, university, and town from the start. The neighborhood energy strategy included an all-electric utility system, consistent with the local county’s energy goals to reduce or eliminate natural gas as a fossil fuel. A Cornell University team has deployed wireless monitors and systems in a living laboratory to study the site wide use of heat pumps.This will contribute to research of highly efficient electric heating systems. Maplewood purchases a minimum of 50% of solar energy produced off site for its energy and provides electric car charging stations.  Every building is Energy Star®️  tested and certified. A community garden was created for local food production, and the entire site utilizes rain gardens and bioswales to responsibly hold and treat stormwater.  

All of these factors have contributed to the successful transformation of the Maplewood neighborhood for Cornell University, Greystar and the town of Ithaca, New York. The project was substantially completed in January of 2019.

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