An Uncommon Tale About the Ithaca Commons

An artist rendering of the final renovation.

The Ithaca Commons, a three block pedestrian mall in downtown Ithaca, has 100 unique shops, restaurants and galleries, and plays host to numerous outdoor events, performances and festivals. The Commons is a local shopping area and favorite gathering place, as well as a tourist destination, and is especially popular from May through October.

Pedestrian malls had their heyday in the 1970s. Used as an urban revitalization tool, about 200 North American city streets were closed to vehicular traffic, creating pedestrian-friendly retail hubs to entice consumers away from suburban shopping malls and back to the struggling downtown merchants.

While the concept was well-intentioned, many pedestrian malls failed over time for a variety of reasons: difficulty in maintaining a successful retail mix to attract shoppers, lack of foot traffic, disrupted traffic flow along the surrounding streets and loiterers. Most of the remaining downtown malls that survived are located in college communities. The Ithaca Commons, built in 1975, is one of only 30 still in existence.

The Ithaca Commons Today
Mayor Svante Myrick, in office since 2012, notes that when he ran for election the surface of the Commons and the underground utilities had been degrading for decades. “It had become an uninviting place to shop, hang out or do business,” he says.

A community conversation about updating the iconic Commons began long before Myrick’s invigorating tenure as Ithaca’s mayor, evolving over time because of the aging and antiquated infrastructure beneath the well-worn and uneven walking surfaces (which was becoming a pedestrian tripping hazard and liability for the city). There was also “a desire to see some new projects sprout up in downtown,” explains Gary Ferguson, Executive Director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, a non-profit organization charged with the revitalization, development, promotion and management of downtown Ithaca. A brand new Commons was a “key stimulus,” he says.

Setting the Stage
In 2009, the long process to re-vamp the Commons began when the city employed the design firm Sasaki Associates to evaluate and recommend repairs for the venerable mall. The need to demolish and remove above ground structures to address significant underground utility upgrades, including replacing the 100+ year old leaking water main, created a fresh opportunity for exciting and extensive aesthetic improvements. After a series of public meetings to engage citizen feedback, Sasaki designed and then began the massive renovation of the mall, working closely with City staff and a Mayor-appointed 15-member volunteer committee to carry out the collective vision expressed by stakeholders in the project.

Ferguson, who served on the committee, noted that when the surface was demolished to start underground repairs it “opened a whole new vista and view” of the historic facades of the Commons buildings. The new design will draw visitors to the center walkways, which helps showcase the beautiful architecture lining the mall’s perimeters. It also allows restaurants to spill outdoors and offer sidewalk dining. There will be trees and planting areas, benches, tables and chairs, a children’s playground, bike racks and a fountain. A complete re-design of the Bernie Milton outdoor pavilion and performance stage, situated in a new location in Bank Alley, can accommodate a crowd of 2,500.

The $12 million plus project is funded by several sources: the Federal Transit Association, the City of Ithaca, the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, the New York State Department of Transportation and New York State Consolidated Funding Application (CFA).

While the project’s outcome is a more user-friendly and attractive pedestrian mall, the anticipation of disruptive, long-term construction was an uncertainty looming over the Commons’ business owners. Bettsie Park, who co-owns 15 STEPS, an American crafts gallery, insists that she and her business partner Ken Jupiter weren’t too concerned. “We were excited more than anything else,” she says.

Creating Beauty in Chaos
Actual construction began in April 2013. As a way to visually block the construction eyesore in the mall’s center walkways, 4 foot by 8 foot wooden panels replaced traditional chain link fencing, and were painted as murals (painting was done April through June) by professional and amateur local artists and community groups. “It helped to liven up a pretty drab scene,” explains Ferguson. 15 STEPS tapped Ithaca artist Mary Reynolds, whose work is featured at the gallery, to create an art panel for them located opposite the store’s entrance. Reynolds, known for her fanciful animal drawings, was asked to duplicate some of the images from her prints and also include the 15 STEPS storefront in her mural design. “The animals are gathered around the entrance to the store as if they were drawn to it like an oasis of creativity and calm in the midst of the Commons construction,” says Reynolds of her finished painting.

The effect of this eclectic and colorful tableau—300 murals in all—and curiosity about the construction project, continued to draw locals and tourists to the Commons. Park says sales at her store rose because customers loved to view the murals and chat about the Commons’ unfolding transformation.

The Finished Product
In August, the art panels will begin to come down (those in reasonably good condition will be stored for possible future use) in three phases as underground utility work is completed and surface concrete can be poured. The center walkway’s concrete base will then be layered with a bed of sand and topped by a pattern of decorative concrete pavers with granite accents. This approach will prevent the heaving and buckling issues of the past from reoccurring. While Ferguson refers to the construction completion dates as “a moving target,” he is confident that that the mall’s surface and festive catenary (stringed) lighting will be done by November, along with the playground installation and the Pavilion stage. Other amenities will be delayed until spring of 2015, such as installing the Pavilion’s modern glass roof and planting trees.

Amidst the construction, the Commons still attracted new retail tenants who have moved in and set up shop—including Natalia’s, a women’s clothing boutique, The Potter’s Room, offering ceramics classes and Uncorked Creations, a painting studio. All of the popular festivals and events have continued on or around the Commons, maintaining its status as Ithaca’s signature gathering place. “The Commons is at the geographic, economic and cultural heart of our city. So our decision to reinvest in it was a necessary one,” says Myrick. “Now on the cusp of completion we know we will have a safe, inviting, welcoming Commons that will serve generations to come.”

Fall Into Fun On and Around the Ithaca Commons
Here’s the line-up of special events and festivals on The Commons in the fall.

First Friday Gallery Night
First Fridays 5-8 p.m. • October 3, November 7
Downtown galleries and art houses host public receptions for their latest art exhibits, showcasing the work of local, national and international artists. It is an art lover’s dream: approximately 19 sites participate monthly. Be sure to check out gallery after hours events, too!
gallerynightithaca.com

32nd Annual Apple Harvest Festival
October 3-5
It’s a seasonal celebration of food, fun and autumn featuring farmers, food, vendors, crafters, breweries, bakeries, kettle corn, an apple pie eating contest and lots and lots of apples! There is free live music, dancing, street performances, a family fun zone and more. The Apple Harvest Festival, the perfect showcase for Finger Lakes agriculture and artisans, is one of Ithaca’s signature festivals.

Ithaca Oktoberfest
October 25
Now in its third year, Oktoberfest features beer, of course!, wine and food tastings from local wineries, restaurants and food vendors.
IthacaOktoberfest.com

Halloween in Downtown
October 30 • 3:45-6 p.m.
Join the parade! The parade meets at the Greater Ithaca Activities Center at 3:45 p.m. and proceeds to the Ithaca Commons with trick-or-treating at local businesses along the way. There is free music, hot cider and chili inside Center Ithaca. The Downtown Ithaca Alliance also offers free bounce house fun and face painting.

For more information about events in Ithaca, visit downtownithaca.com.


by Nancy E. McCarthy