With the official start date of the Ithaca Commons redesign project now at hand and several new private developments already taking shape, there has been much excited talk in the downtown Ithaca community about the tremendous changes underway. You can hear, for example, store owners eagerly anticipating the arrival of new downtown residents and hotel guests who will be new customers; avid pedestrians gladdened by the prospect of a smoother, better-lit walkway; and environmentally-minded locals enthused about the proposed central heating and power plan that could cut downtown’s carbon footprint by two-thirds. You can also hear from some people who are alarmed by all of this major growth and flux. While change is always accompanied by a little uncertainty, there seem to be a small handful of common misconceptions circulating that have caused some people undue distress and confusion:
Myth: I hear the Commons is going away and you’re putting a street back in!
Fact: The objective of the Commons redesign project is to construct a brand-new, more functional, more visually appealing pedestrian mall. As before, there will be no vehicular traffic on the Commons. The new layout, though, will be quite different from what we see now. Rather than having two narrow pedestrian sidewall corridors on either side of a central zone with benches, pavilions, and other fixed structures, the center of the Commons will be opened up, allowing for improved sightlines and foot traffic. Seating areas and other amenities will run along each side of that open zone and newly paved walkways will border the storefronts. Other aspects of the new layout will be familiar, though, like the predominance of greenery: the architects of the new Commons project were acutely influenced by our area’s natural splendor and their final design features three dozen beautiful trees plus numerous flowering plantings and a water feature that calls to mind the region’s waterfalls and gorges.
Myth: It’s a waste to spend so much money on the Commons right now, on the tail of a recession!
Fact: The primary impetus for the Commons redesign is the unprecedented roster of private development projects in the works in downtown Ithaca: 11 new projects including 193 apartments; over 80,000 square feet of retail and office space; and 282 hotel rooms. Some of these projects, like the Breckenridge apartment complex at the corner of Seneca and Cayuga, are already rising from the ground while others are still being sketched out; what is true of all of them is that they are going forward because of the promise of a new and improved Commons with reliable, modern utilities and safe, attractive pedestrian streetscaping. Spearheaded mainly by local and regional entrepreneurs, these projects total over $140 million and will bring hundreds of permanent and construction jobs to the community.
Myth: The new design does look nice, but all of the businesses will be hurt by the construction!
Fact: It is unavoidable that the construction – expected to last from April 2013 to July 2014 – will shake up the status-quo for many downtown merchants, residents, and visitors. Fortunately, there are already many well-thought-out systems in place to help the whole community adapt to the necessary short-term changes and get ready to be a part of a wholly revitalized urban core. First and foremost, the scheduling and staging of the construction has been planned with sensitivity to the needs of downtown constituents and customers. The center zone of the Commons will be rebuilt first, leaving the walkways near the storefronts completely unimpeded. Those walkways will then be rebuilt, with the area in front of each storefront taken out of commission for only very short time periods. All construction will halt between November 2013 and March 2014, allowing the holiday shopping season to proceed with minimal impediments and accounting for inclement weather. Additionally, late last year, the Downtown Ithaca Alliance Board of Directors unanimously passed a Construction Mitigation Plan drafted by Downtown Ithaca and a committee of seasoned Commons merchants. The Plan specifies twenty-four marketing, communications, special events, beautification, and direct aid initiatives that will be executed between now and the grand opening of the new Commons in 2014. One of the major points in the Plan was the hiring of an Outreach Coordinator, who will work with the City’s Commons Project Manager, Michael Kuo, to keep the community informed and engaged every step of the way. The new Outreach Coordinator, Tammy Baker, started work on April 8.
Myth: If the pavilions are demolished, there will be no more outdoor performance spaces for the festivals!
Fact: The crown jewel of the new Commons plan is the new Bernie Milton Pavilion, which will be situated at the end of Bank Alley. The pavilion itself will have a sleek new look and improved technical features to accommodate a wide variety of live music and dance performances and community activities. As for the community’s favorite festivals – Ithaca Festival, Apple Harvest Festival, Ice Wars, and the rest – they will continue to be held in downtown Ithaca utilizing the available areas of the Commons as well as several nearby alternate sites. Ithaca Festival, as usual, will be held downtown on Friday and Saturday and will move to Stewart Park on Sunday. The parade will be held on Wednesday evening and a downtown block party will be held on Thursday.