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Looking Ahead

Cornell's history has been one of expansion, renewal, removal, and adaptive reuse ever since the first building was put on Ezra Cornell's farm. The Cornell Master Plan outlines the campus of the future By Philip S. Will Cornell's history has been one of expansion, renewal, removal, and adaptive reuse ever since the first building was […]


Cornell's history has been one of expansion, renewal, removal, and adaptive reuse ever since the first building was put on Ezra Cornell's farm.

The Cornell Master Plan outlines the campus of the future

By Philip S. Will

Tower Road, 2050

Cornell's history has been one of expansion, renewal, removal, and adaptive reuse ever since the first building was put on Ezra Cornell's farm. In the close to fifty years since I graduated, I have seen a good part of this myself and experienced more through the eyes of a grandfather who graduated from Cornell as a mining engineer (Philip Will 1900) and a father who graduated from the College of Architecture (Philip Will Jr. '28, BArch '30). My father and his fraternity roommate and fellow architecture student, Larry Perkins '30, BArch '31, founded Perkins & Will Architects; their professional work includes the Engineering campus.

Alumni Quad

In the period from my grandfather's graduation to my father's, Cornell grew rapidly from its original 300-acre footprint to a much larger campus that extended past Alumni Fields to the cluster of Agriculture and Veterinary buildings to the east in what is now the Vet Quad. In a scrapbook my father put together about his Cornell experience, a map shows an electric streetcar line running through the center of the campus. He wrote: "Ithaca offered little entertainment other than restaurants, speakeasies, and two movie houses, one of which offered vaudeville acts to spell the piano player between silent movie showings. Until the Willard Straight Student Union, completed in 1925, offered theater facilities, musical comedy (played in rented downtown auditoriums) was the popular form of production." At the time, enrollment averaged 7,500, of which 5,200 were undergraduates.

During World War II, there was high demand for temporary space at the periphery of campus and an increased focus on redeveloping portions of the original campus. The postwar period brought increased funding for science and technical programs, leading to the Engineering college's move to a new quad. While I was a student in the early Sixties, Olin Library replaced Board-man Hall; the lower end of Tower Avenue was turned into a walk; Central Avenue was redirected to the west of Uris Library along the brow of Library slope; and the suspension bridge was replaced by a new, not-so-springy one designed by professors S. C. Hollister and William McGuire, MS '47. Since my graduation, academic uses between the gorges have intensified and other uses have pushed out into the surrounding areas. Recently, North and West Campus housing has been expanded and improved.

Wing Drive

From 1963 to 1973, my father served on the Board of Trustees and confronted campus change directly as chairman of the building and properties committee. In that role, he took on the task of developing a comprehensive policy covering the physical planning and design of the Ithaca campus. This policy was adopted by the Board of Trustees in November 1972. Among other things, it stated: "The University is not a walled enclave. Mutually dependent, the town, county, and University share the same general environment. It is, therefore, the policy of Cornell to encourage and support, in any way reasonably open to it, a high standard of design and environmental quality outside as well as within its own borders."

As this statement shows, the themes of environmental concern and stewardship we hear today are not new. In a letter written in July 1971 to Thomas Mackesey, vice president of planning, my father stated: "As I conceive it, the ecological approach to planning requires sensitivity to the delicate and harmonious interrelationship and maintained balance between the conditions of nature and the physical changes imposed by man."

'A Constitutional Moment'

Mina Amundsen

The future is in East Campus—so says the final draft of the Cornell Master Plan (CMP), which was approved by the Board of Trustees in March. Over the past three years, the University has spent more than $2 million to develop the CMP, creating a framework for growth and change over several decades.

The creation of the CMP, with related economic and transportation studies, and the community support for the plan that has been achieved through a broadly inclusive process represent "a constitutional moment," says John Siliciano '75, vice provost for initiatives. "I used that expression as I presented the plan to the Board of Trustees," he explains. "I wanted to emphasize that this would be a living document that could evolve over time to meet the needs of the future, and that it would be something solemn and significant."

'When I arrived at Cornell in 2002, there was a need for a holistic view of development that met changing academic needs, rather than a project-based, incremental approach,' says Mina Amundsen.University Planner Mina Amundsen stresses that one of the immediate challenges is governance: adjusting Cornell's administrative structures and processes in a way that will make the plan a guiding light for fifty or sixty years. "When I arrived at Cornell in 2002, there was a need for a holistic view of development that met changing academic needs, rather than a project-based, incremental approach," she says. "Increasing densities on the central campus often resulted in the loss of long views and awkward solutions to circulation and building service." Since then, Amundsen notes, the University has begun to take a more long-term perspective—the Campus Planning Committee has been revitalized and the Campus Planning Office has been preparing site-development guidelines for most new projects. "In addition, design review by an advisory committee of distinguished architecture alumni has been in place for three years," she says. "These efforts toward a good planning process are being further refined to ensure better integration, and other aspects related to implementation are the subject of an intense internal conversation."

Space and Time

Cornell is in a constant state of change. Some of this is the result of student, faculty, and employee population growth— but increasingly it is also a product of the amount and type of space required by new cross-disciplinary areas of study and new technologies.

According to a 2007 study titled Cornell University Economic Impact on New York State, the 2005 student population included 13,619 undergraduates and 6,703 professional and graduate students, of whom 823 were in New York City. Over the past ten years, enrollment in undergraduate programs has generally been stable, growing by only 3.4 percent between 1994 and 2004; the graduate student population has grown slightly faster—by 5.4 percent.

In contrast to many other large employers in New York State, Cornell's workforce has grown in recent years. Between 2000 and 2005, total University employment worldwide increased by 16 percent to 17,999, an average of 3 percent annually; 12,142 worked on the Ithaca campus. An additional 8,039 students were employed.

The CMP assumes that Cornell's population will not grow significantly over the next twenty-five years. The number of undergraduates is expected to hold steady, while the faculty will increase slowly and the graduate student population will increase proportionately with the faculty. The staff is also likely to grow slightly, from 8,400 to about 9,100.

One constant over the years has been the ever-growing need for space. According to the plan, this averaged 986,000 square feet per decade from the founding to 2006. Over the past fifty years, however, the rate accelerated to an average of 1.9 million square feet per decade. The University now has about 14 million square feet. A portion of Cornell's growth is due to technology, driven by the need for specialized space related to the increasing number of fields and the amount of interdisciplinary collaboration. One example of this is Weill Hall, the new life sciences technology building—a 271,000-square-foot facility that will support research in genomics, neuroscience, biomedical engineering, and related areas. A smaller one is the expansion of the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning, which in part is a response to the need for more computer lab space.

Evolving technology and the need for energy conservation also engender obsolescence and underutilization of space. In what can be called a "hard and soft" analysis, the CMP identifies 2.9 million square feet of space that could be "strategically renewed" (demolished) and 3.4 million square feet that could be subject to adaptive reuse, to accommodate changing needs in the central campus.

The plan suggests that growth in the decades ahead might be more conservative due to local and global imperatives to reduce consumption, adding 2.5 to 3 million square feet of space over the next twenty-five years.

The Eight Precincts

The CMP encompasses a number of broad regional and community issues, but its main focus is the Ithaca campus, dividing it into eight precincts: Core Campus, North Campus, Northeast Campus, West Campus, South Campus, Southeast Campus, Countryside Campus, and Collegetown.


North Campus includes the primary residential areas north of Fall Creek and west of the Cornell golf course. Northeast Campus encompasses the golf course and the rural teaching and research areas north of Fall Creek. Much of West Campus and North Campus includes buildings that were formerly large single-family homes, often occupying sites that might support additional development beside and behind the existing buildings. While maintaining their historic character is important, these sites provide an opportunity for more intensive development close to the Core Campus. Southeast Campus is located south of Ellis Hollow Road, east of Pine Tree Road, and generally north of Snyder Hill Road.

Historically, the central campus has been shaped by the Arts Quad and the north-south avenues situated on ridge lines. The newly defined Core Campus extends eastward along Tower Road. The consultants found that academic expansion in the historic central campus—even with strategic redevelopment, more intensified building in interstitial spaces, and increased heights— would not generate sufficient space to satisfy all future growth. While there are redevelopment possibilities such as Hoy Field within the central campus, the consultants concluded that the capacity to accommodate future growth there was limited without fundamentally changing Cornell's character.

Growth to the east will provide the teaching and research space essential to Cornell's academic mission. Redevelopment of a newly defined East Campus will consume what remains of Alumni Fields. Features of this expansion will include:

  • East Campus Center, developed around Wing Road and a newly defined East Center Green, dominated by academic buildings but also containing a mix of uses including social and cultural amenities as well as potential housing for graduate students and postdocs.
  • A new Alumni Quad, on the site of the current Alumni Fields, intended to be a great open space comparable to the Arts Quad.
  • A new Vet Quad, providing a "front door" and focal point for the College of Veterinary Medicine.
  • A mid-campus walkway, paralleling Tower and Campus roads. The plan says this will "provide a quiet route across campus, linking green spaces, social spaces, and other amenities on the ground floors of buildings." It can also serve as an underground utility corridor.
  • A meandering north-south greenway, east of Judd Falls Road, that will link the Cornell Plantations to the Cascadilla Creek valley, creating a "lush setting for development."

The plan also calls for the University to continue growth in areas to the south to accommodate administrative support, housing, community, research, and athletic facilities. The CMP introduces the South Campus designation; it includes the areas south of the Humphreys-Maple Avenue Complex, Maplewood Park, the East Hill Plaza area, existing research and farm services fields, and the athletic fields on Game Farm Road. Featured in South Campus are:

  • East Hill Village, an intensely redeveloped, expanded, and renamed East Hill Plaza. The existing plaza would be replaced by a new development that has community amenities and retail, restaurants, and services at ground level with apartments above, all on a new street network and featuring a central open space.
  • A new residential neighborhood next to the plaza.
  • Athletic fields and the Pine Tree Road Athletic Complex.
  • Cornell Park, a greenway and expansive multi-purpose common space for university and community use.
  • Recreation space and other open space for "community enjoyment and ecological restoration."
  • Improved transit and new trails that will link the area to the Core Campus.

Transportation and Parking

It has been said that Cornell's street network accommodates everyone but satisfies no one. Cars are stymied by stop signs and dead-end streets. Steep and winding roads, vehicular conflicts, and pathway interruptions pose challenges to bicyclists. Buses are limited after 7 p.m., and the large number of routes and their complexity limit the quality of service.

East Hill Village

A Transportation Focused Generic Environmental Impact Statement (t-GEIS) is studying the transportation-related impacts of Cornell's population growth on the surrounding community over the next decade. This is a joint effort of the Town of Ithaca and Cornell, focused on transportation systems beyond the campus. It has a different timeline but has informed the recommendations of the CMP's Movement Plan.

Cornell has approximately 13,000 parking spaces in more than 250 lots. These are managed with a complex permit and regulatory system that challenges even the most sophisticated faculty member or administrator. The planners point out that the number of spaces is adequate, but that there is a perception of not enough well-situated parking on campus. In looking at options, three models were suggested: the current dispersed model accompanied by small parking increases at each new development site; multiple large lots or garages constructed around the edges of the central campus, requiring investment in transit; or consolidation in a few large structures or lots at the edge of campus and connected by a transit circulator.

Hoy Quad

The Movement Plan calls for extending the network of sidewalks and pathways, upgraded support for bicyclists and pedestrians, an improved road network, maintenance or possible reduction of commuter parking, consolidation and redistribution of parking at the periphery of the Core Campus, better visitor support, and creation of a central receiving facility. Its key element is the transit circulator, easily accessible at multiple points, that will facilitate transportation around the campus. Whether this will take the form of buses, light rail, or something else is yet to be determined.

New parking structures are already under way next to Sibley Hall and under Martha Van Rensselaer. A third next to the Law School is proposed. Future underground parking could be placed beneath Hoy Field, Kite Hill, the new Alumni Quad, East Campus Center next to Campus Road, the lab/greenhouse complex on Tower Road, and portions of a redeveloped B Lot.

To enhance the visitor experience, the plan recommends a program of streetscape and signage improvements along the primary approach roads. It also suggests a future welcome center located close to the Arts Quad, visitor parking, and the proposed transit circulator.

Central loop


The Cornell Master Plan is intended to provide a holistic and integrated policy framework for making decisions about future development. Some elements include:

  • University projects. The plan identifies a series of essential projects for which the central administration must assume responsibility. Among them are landscape initiatives, elements of the campus social infrastructure, the transit circulator, structured parking, relocation of athletic facilities, and various enabling projects such as the relocation of farm services, greenhouses, and barns.
  • Respect for history. The plan calls for an institutional policy and process that will provide clear direction and sound long-term decision-making with regard to historic assets.
  • Strengthening of planning processes. Discussion continues on to how to embed the CMP into Cornell's planning and development processes, including how best to structure and maintain the necessary buy-in and involvement of the administrative units, faculty, staff, students, the larger community, and other stake-holders.
  • Updated business and funding models. There is a need to examine the models with regard to processes, timing, and levels of funding related to state versus endowed projects and infrastructure versus building-based funding.

The framework provided by the CMP calls for the kind of intelligent land use needed to achieve the University's academic mission for years to come while at the same time being a model of the environmental stewardship that my father advocated more than thirty-five years ago. Integrating the two is not an easy task. "Sad to say, not all change is progress," my father wrote in his scrapbook. "Now, only we oldsters can remember Ezra Cornell's towering American Elms, which even a great research university could not rescue from disease. . . . For the future, there is ample cause for doubt that the open lands known as Hoy Field and Upper Alumni Field can survive the demand for building sites. As long as Cornell exists, the battle between conservation and growth will continue."


The Five Principles

The Cornell Master Plan's executive summary lists five interrelated principles that express its main objectives:

1. Support the academic mission: The Cornell campus will support and cultivate academic success and growth, providing high-quality, open, collaborative, and adaptable environments for teaching, research, service, and outreach; the exchange of ideas; and the nurturing of innovation.

2. Promote stewardship: Cornell will respect and manage the physical environment of the campus and its broader land base for the health of the University, its constituencies, its neighbors, and the larger regional ecosystem.

3. Enhance the campus experience: Cornell's campus will contain a range of inviting, accessible, and safe places for social and cultural interaction, recreation, athletics, and passive enjoyment by faculty, staff, students, and visitors. It will maintain and enrich its legacy of memorable landscapes and become a more pedestrian-oriented campus.

4. Reinforce community: Cornell will enhance the community-building aspects of the campus. It will broaden housing options, expand the campus's social and cultural infrastructure, and promote a healthy, vital Greater Ithaca.

5. Ensure integrative planning and design: In the planning and design of the campus, Cornell will integrate disciplines, engage communities, and coordinate academic, development, landscape, and infrastructure initiatives.

To view the Cornell Master Plan online, go to:


The Planning Process

In anticipation of developing the Cornell Master Plan, a committee of university administrators reviewed the master plans from six other universities to identify factors that contribute to a plan's success and viability. They also looked at sustainability initiatives at Harvard, Brown, and the University of California, Santa Cruz. Among other things, the review concluded that the links between master plans and sustainability initiatives at other institutions are rudimentary. That being the case, the committee saw this as an opportunity for Cornell to break new ground by incorporating sustainability efforts into its master plan.

In early 2005, Cornell conducted a national search and selected a team of professional consulting firms to develop the plan. Urban Strategies Inc., a planning and urban design firm based in Toronto, headed the effort. Also on board was Polshek Partnership Architects, based in New York City, which had completed projects for Yale, Harvard, and the University of Michigan. Vollmer Associates LLP, New England Engineers, and GEI Niagara Engineering were added to the team to address transportation and utility issues.

The CMP was developed in three phases. The first culminated in two open houses in April 2006 where the consultant team presented the results of initial research and analysis, along with the principles that would form the basis of the plan. One open house was held on campus at Willard Straight Hall with about 200 participants; the second was in downtown Ithaca, with attendance of about 150. The second phase involved exploring options for the future growth of the campus. The third and final phase was the development of the plan itself, which is being done in two parts. Part I, summarized in these pages, is complete. Part II includes detailed precinct plans and smaller-scale zone plans— these have information for specific building sites, including identification of projects necessary to enable development of each site.

Philip S. Will '62, BArch '64, holds a Master of City Planning degree from MIT and spent nine years with David Crane and Partners, an urban design and planning firm in Philadelphia. In 1978 he moved to Hartford, where he and two partners formed Intown Development Corporation, which manages one of the largest historic housing rehabilitation projects in New England.

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