An April 13 workshop explored a new vision for The Shops at Ithaca Mall advancing community wellness and health equity. Groups blending local residents and service organizations, health professionals and Cornell faculty members and students collaborated to develop and prototype ideas.

Collaboration reimagines shopping mall as wellness hub

In the vacant former Ulta Beauty space at The Shops at Ithaca Mall, eye-catching displays on a recent Saturday featured not cosmetics but brightly colored sticky notes, magic marker drawings, file cards, masking tape, yarn, pipe cleaners and Play-Doh.

During the “re-imagining” workshop on April 13, participants used art supplies including paper, masking tape, pipe cleaners, yarn and Play-Doh to explore ways The Shops at Ithaca Mall could evolve into a community hub for health and wellness. This prototype depicts a concept called “Health City.”

Equipped with those art supplies, more than 60 community members, nonprofit leaders, Cayuga Health System representatives and Cornell faculty and students contemplated a mall makeover – collaborating on ideas that might help transform the underutilized property into a hub for community health and well-being.

Prototypes they developed at the April 12-13 “re-imagining” workshop, “The Mall for Health and Community,” pictured walking trails around and through the shopping center; teams of health advocates (human and robotic) and a skylit “navigation center”; classroom, library, dining and play spaces; natural areas replacing a parking lot; plus a garage and an affordable housing complex.

“People propose ideas that they think would be most supportive of human functioning, and we don’t judge them as being feasible or not, because anything can be feasible,” said Mardelle Shepley, professor in the Department of Human Centered Design in the College of Human Ecology (CHE). “The question is, what will we recommend happen at this mall? How could this mall be more successful and more supportive of the community?”

Presented in the style of a design charette, the workshop was jointly organized by Cayuga Health System, the Cornell Institute for Healthy Futures (CIHF) – a partnership between CHE and the Cornell Nolan School of Hotel Administration and the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy. Leading the initiative were Lara Parrilla ’99, community and academic partnership manager at Cayuga Health Partners, visiting lecturer in the College of Veterinary Medicine’s Master of Public Health program and co-associate director of the Cornell Center for Health Equity; Julie Carmalt, M.S. ’08, Ph.D. ’09, senior lecturer in the Brooks School and associate director of the Sloan Program in Health Administration; Jennifer Turck, assistant vice president of operations at Cayuga Health System; and Shepley.

Cayuga Health System has become a major presence at the mall since purchasing nearly 120,000 square feet for medical offices (in the former Bon-Ton); the planned Cayuga Health Professions Learning Center (in the former Sears); and a medical equipment business. Dr. Martin Stallone, president and CEO of Cayuga Health, said he envisions a range of partners co-locating there to deliver care more effectively and equitably, in line with concepts for so-called medical malls or health villages that are gaining popularity across the country.

“We firmly believe that partnership is super-important in reaching populations and making a difference in people’s lives,” Stallone said kicking off the event. “First and foremost, we’re very interested in learning what the community states as its needs.”

To better understand and prioritize those needs, the Cornell team proposed the re-imagining process facilitated by Troy Savage, strategic projects and innovation manager for engineering firm Mazzetti and the Sextant Foundation. The multi-stakeholder, multidisciplinary approach emphasizes empathy, listening, teamwork, creativity and “blue-sky” thinking unconstrained by budgets, zoning regulations or other potential obstacles.

On April 13 at The Shops at Ithaca Mall, Mardelle Shepley, professor in the Department of Human Centered Design (CHE), center, works with a group to design a prototype at the “Mall for Health and Community” workshop organized by Cayuga Health Systems and the Cornell Institute for Healthy Futures.

Attendees gathered at nine tables blending skills and life experience. They included residents and community organizations knowledgeable about health-equity challenges – among them the Family Reading Partnership, Southside Community Center, Visiting Nurse Service and YMCA of Ithaca and Tompkins County; health clinicians and leaders; local elected officials; mall representatives; and an interdisciplinary mix of Cornell participants with expertise ranging from health care policy and administration to human-centered design, architecture and hospitality. Several dozen undergraduate and master’s students were part of Shepley’s “Health and Healing Studio” and Carmalt’s “Designing for Health Equity” courses.

One group prototyped “Health City,” including indoor and outdoor trails – potentially assembled during community build events – exercise equipment and a children’s play area, along with an apartment complex bordered by an orchard. Inspiration came from a family with an incarcerated parent.

“This is all structural support for the more impoverished members of our community to get sustained and build themselves up, so we have a healthier society,” said Taili Mugambee, program director at Ultimate Re-Entry Opportunity, a project of Cornell’s Center for Transformative Action, which helps people facing incarceration and the formerly incarcerated. “If we take care of those people’s health, we’re adding value to the community that would offset the cost.”

Madeline Lei ’23, a master’s student in the field of health administration, discusses ideas with her group during the “re-imagining” workshop held April 12-13 in the former Ulta Beauty space at The Shops at Ithaca Mall. 

Another group explored ways to help people navigate complex health and social service systems, imagining a cancer patient needing support. Their proposal – or “idea kernel,” as Savage called it – emphasized “whole health advocates” and educational outreach to facilitate connections and care.

“This mall space can be designed as a community hub where people can come in, see people and get support, and that’s also a form of health care,” said Madeline Lei ’23, a master of health administration student and member of the team. “It was interesting to explore the different avenues of how something could go and then see it come together on paper in one day.”

Savage applauded the collaborators for generating constructive ideas in such a short time.

Julie Carmalt, M.S. ’08, Ph.D. ’09, senior lecturer in the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy and associate director of the Sloan Program in Health Administration, takes notes as her group discusses ideas. Cornell faculty and Cayuga Health System leaders organized the “Mall for Health and Community” workshop at The Shops at Ithaca Mall April 12-13. At left is workshop facilitator Troy Savage.

“My hope is that we might take these and, together, re-imagine what it looks like to build and rebuild our community,” Savage said, “and learn to break down barriers that prevent us from caring for each other the way we want to.”

Parrilla said some common themes across the groups – improving navigation and access, and infusing more natural and welcoming spaces into the mall – would help advance the preliminary concepts collected from a wide range of perspectives.

“Advancing health equity requires that we work across disciplines and center community voices, and today we had a formula for achieving that,” she said. “It’s important that the community feel ownership of the changes that may happen here, and this is just the beginning.”

Carmalt said the re-imagining effort had reinforced the value of community-engaged learning and collaboration.

“We’ve got a group of students who are energized and understand the importance of learning by doing something positive with – not for – the community,” she said. “I think we can take the ideas we generated here and continue campus-community partnerships to implement some of them – and I can’t wait.”

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Kaitlyn Serrao