Strategies for Sustainable Skaneateles

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Location: Skaneateles, New York. Situated on the easternmost Finger Lake in central New York State


This work was commissioned jointly by the Town of Skaneateles and the Village of Skaneateles in the fall of 2010. Our major premise is that the rural character of the Town and the traditional urban character of the Village are connected historically, and must continue to be connected in the future if each are to retain their respective rural and traditional urban character.

Our first design investigations took place during a six-day on-site September 2010 public charrette. This project represents work undertaken subsequent to that charrette, and proposes images of and guidelines for future development in both the Town and the Village as a supplement to and in support of the Town and Village of Skaneateles Joint Comprehensive Plan adopted in July 2005.

Situated on the easternmost Finger Lake in central New York State, with a population of approximately 7,500 residents and an area of 48 square miles, Skaneateles is blessed with a great locale, a history of good building, and a strong sense of itself as both a village and as a natural and agricultural landscape related to an extraordinary lake. For most of its history, Skaneateles has grown slowly to become a model of good, mixed-use, walkable, and sustainable human settlement in a natural and agricultural landscape. Nevertheless, as a consequence of sprawl development, the landscape in the Town of Skaneateles is increasingly compromised; and---less visibly, but no less truly---the historic character of the Village of Skaneateles itself is threatened.

Challenges Facing Skaneateles

The challenges to Skaneateles’ historic character and identity are inter-related. These are:

protecting the water quality of Skaneateles Lake, which provides the drinking water for both Skaneateles and the City of Syracuse;

preventing the consumption of rural land by conventional residential and commercial sprawl development; • treating wastewater generated by new development in both the Town and the Village; • addressing Skaneateles’ lack of housing diversity, and allowing by right in both the Village and the Town a wider variety of traditional village housing types to make housing more affordable; • increasing retail diversity in the Village, at the Village “Gateways,” and in Town hamlets to better accommodate local residents;

maintaining the high quality of the Skaneateles public schools, which currently face declining enrollment and which will be aided by an increase in family-affordable housing; and

correcting deficiencies in both the Village’s existing Skaneateles Code and the Code of the Town of Skaneateles, both of which together contradict in numerous places the objectives of the Joint Comprehensive Plan, actively promote conventional sprawl development, make new compact, walkable mixed use settlements impossible, and make the developer permit application process long, expensive, arbitrary, and irrational.

The Proposal

Our work focuses on ten key areas in the Village and in the Town’s hamlets, illustrating strategies for possible growth based on the creation of dense, mixed-use, and walkable neighborhoods. We address the challenges facing Skaneateles by proposing:

Village development and Town hamlet development to promote walkable, mixed-use, and affordable neighborhoods with increased retail diversity;

• sending areas to preserve rural land, and receiving areas for compact mixed-use settlements;

alternative new wastewater treatment in the form of constructed wetlands;

new public parks to increase passive and active recreational opportunities;

new hiking trails to link green corridors and take advantage of natural landscapes for public use;

shuttle bus transit to increase options for public transit and lessen automobile dependency.

Our work includes an analysis of existing conditions, a comprehensive master plan with supporting illustrations, a regulating plan, sample pages of a form-based code calibrated to Skaneateles, and publication of these materials in a book format with additional recommendations for implementing the design strategies. Skaneateles is a wonderful place at an important moment in its history, possessing an abundance of natural and communal assets threatened by a sluggish regional economy and a default institutional complex---including its own zoning ordinances---that cumulatively promote sprawl culture. We hope our proposals will help local leaders and residents to maintain, extend, and recover--maintain and extend by recovering---the traditional qualities and character of Skaneateles that everyone who knows Skaneateles so rightly cherishes.


Though it is being submitted in the category of “The Region: Metropolis, City and Town,” this project, as a comprehensive strategy for sustainable growth in Skaneateles, strives to meet the goals of the Charter of the New Urbanism on all scales.

Like many historic rural communities in the United States today, Skaneateles faces the challenge of increased land consumption in the form of sprawl despite the fact that its population has not been increasing. Located on Skaneateles Lake, water quality in the face of expansion is of utmost concern. Additionally, low-density, automobile-dependent development in the form of single-family residences on two acre lots is consuming the natural and agricultural landscape so important to the sustainable future of the region. Our strategy in facing these challenges is to promote compact, mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods located in existing centers of historical development both in the Village and in the Town’s hamlets.

Key among the policies of the Charter advanced by this proposal is the preservation of farmland and natural land through the creation of sending and receiving areas. Utilizing incentives for the transfer of development rights from natural and agricultural land to more urban areas, the proposal allows for growth consistent with the historic scale and character of the Village center and the Town’s hamlets. The hamlets and village neighborhoods are designed with their own identifiable centers and edges, careful to limit growth in the existing Lake Watershed Overlay District while maximizing the amount of preserved open land and scenic views (Principles 1,3). In order to achieve densities of development consistent with historical patterns of growth, we propose constructed wetlands as an economically competitive alternative to conventional wastewater treatment systems – one that can be built incrementally over time, returning environmentally clean water to the natural landscape (Principles 1,3,6).

New transit and recreation proposals (see Page 11) include a new shuttle route running from the Eastern Gateway through the Village to the Western Gateway and back, to encourage visitors to use satellite parking for special events. We propose an expanded bus route from the Village to the hamlets of Willow Glen, Mottville, and Skaneateles Falls as an additional means of commuting, especially to jobs located along the main northwest - southeast (Jordan Street) corridor. Paralleling this corridor, we also propose a five-mile hiking trail along the beautiful Skaneateles Creek. We propose another recreational amenity in the form of a nine-mile ridge walk that connects current conservation land in the northeast of the Town with open land in the southeast and provides scenic views to the lake en route (Principles 8,18). Four new neighborhood parks---three in the Village and one in the hamlet of Skaneateles Falls---add to recreational space now concentrated in the Village primarily around the Skaneateles public schools (Principle 18).

Infill development consistent with the historic character of the Village is targeted for Fennell Street, the focus of which is a new civic square and a proposed Town-and-Village Hall. We propose a new church in Mottville and another in Shepard Settlement, the latter sited adjacent to an historic 200-year-old cemetery. We also propose a historical society building in Shepard Settlement, and a market hall in Willow Glen. We propose further infill in the Eastern and Western Gateways, changing them from sprawl commercial strips to automobile-oriented retail with mixed-use, walkable centers and their own identifiable character, further reinforced by the transformation of US Route 20 by short quarter-mile long boulevards at each end. The proposal for Skaneateles Falls further increases housing opportunities in proximity to jobs by creating a new neighborhood embracing the currently stand-alone businesses of Welch Allyn to the north and Honeywell and General Electric to the south (Principles 4,16,25).

New Village development creates an expanded network of connected streets, allowing for increased pedestrian movement and alternative and multiple routes for drivers. Variable lot sizes in the Village and the hamlets and a range of allowable building types are intended to provide housing for a spectrum of price points, especially for young families, young couples, young professionals, and the elderly. The location of these lots provides proximity to jobs, commercial activity, civic institutions, and a variety of uses that all together make a pedestrian-friendly environment (Principles 7,11,12).

Lessons learned: The six architecture students in this studio came to it with prior experiences of good urbanism, but this project immersed them in their first community design charrette and its developmental aftermath. Their learning curve therefore was steep less in urban formal concepts and principles than in urban design details, but here the lessons learned were many. Most prominent among them were their first exposures to: • communitypolitics; • the details (and dimensions) and implications of street / block / lot design; • the challenges of infill and smaller scale green-field urban design within a larger American natural and agrarian context; • the formal and environmental consequences of conventional use-based zoning codes; • formulating (and explaining) alternative form-based codes; and • the role of wastewater management in an environmentally sensitive watershed and its implications for traditional small-town urbanism. With respect to water quality and zoning, the students discovered that existing zoning codes ostensibly aimed at protecting the water quality of Skaneateles Lake are inadvertently promoting single-use, automobile dependent (i.e., sprawl) development. Specifically, in spite of the fact that the Town and Village of Skaneateles Joint Comprehensive Plan calls for compact mixed-use development in both the Town and the Village, the current Village code prescribes 3/4-acre minimum lots in deference to its existing sanitary sewage capacity; and the current code in the Town prescribes two-acre minimum lots for all single family dwellings (the only building type permitted by right without review), based on leach-field requirements for conventional private septic systems. This constitutes a legally mandated recipe for sprawl; and we propose instead a new form-based Master Plan, Regulating Plan and Code for both the Village and the Town--designed specifically to fulfill the professed traditional urban intentions of the Joint Comprehensive Plan--and graphic representations of what our several proposed interventions might look like. Critical to our proposal is innovative wastewater treatment by means of environmentally friendly constructed wetlands (see below). At first skeptical of this relatively new technology, following a site visit to a fifteen-year old operating constructed wastewater wetland---located, like Skaneateles, in a lake-effect snow-belt region---our clients soon realized the sustainable development potential of a constructed wetlands wastewater treatment system. In addition to being dry, odorless, and (potentially) beautiful, the constructed wetland cells allow a great degree of municipality, developer and builder flexibility because they can be built incrementally, can serve relatively high-density developments, return clean water to the ground, are low maintenance, and employ cost-competitive operational technology (especially when gravity-fed). A constructed wetlands wastewater treatment system would allow the Village and the Town to go beyond their current conventional sprawl zoning requirements to permit traditional compact, walkable mixed-use hamlets and neighborhoods as-of-right; and exploring this issue with initially skeptical clients was itself a valuable experience in cooperative investigation and learning.

Transect Zone(s): T1 natural, T2 rural, T4 general, T5 center.
Status: Proposed
Project or Plan's Scale: Region
Features: Affordable/subsidized housing, Transit oriented development.
Land area (in acres): 31212
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Residential types: Townhouse/rowhouse/maisonette, Small lot detached, Live/work.
Project team designers: University of Notre Dame School of Architecture
Project team developers: N/A

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Starting/Ending date of construction/implementation: -