The $10 million project to redesign the Commons, which has taken five years of planning and funding from four levels of government, kicked off Monday at an event that featured live music, speeches and an elementary school class performance of the “Bob the Builder” theme song.
“It’s an expensive project because it’s an extensive project,” Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 said at the groundbreaking.
Construction will officially begin on April 15 to replace the amenities, furnishings and surfaces of the Commons and rebuild underground utilities — which include water pipes that are over 100 years old.
The redesign’s timeline has been structured to minimize the disruption experienced by local businesses, according to Myrick.
“We’re going to do it in the most careful and deliberate way possible so that all of these businesses on the Commons can stay open and continue doing business for the entire time the construction is happening,” Myrick said. “We’re going to phase it so that the obstruction is as minimal as possible.”
The city was able to secure funding for the project through a comprehensive package comprised of federal, state, county and city funding, along with $500,000 of private funding from the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, according to DIA Executive Director Gary Ferguson.
Securing the funds for the project was a difficult process, according to Ferguson. He said that the project was the result of “ten years of talking and five years of planning.”
“Up until a few months ago, most people did not believe that this project would move forward at all. It was too difficult, too big and too expensive,” Ferguson said.
Myrick said that the city was finally able to secure the funds necessary for the project thanks to the efforts of elected representatives. According to Myrick, Congressman Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.), Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) were instrumental in the City of Ithaca receiving $4.5 million in funding from the federal government.
The city also received $1.8 million in state funding, according to Myrick, for which he thanked New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D), executive director of Empire State Development Kevin McLaughlin, and State Senator Tom O’Mara (R).
“If we didn’t get that, and if we didn’t get that last year right when we needed it, we truly wouldn’t be here,” Myrick said.
In many ways, Ferguson said the redesign project mirrored the creation of the Commons 40 years ago, which he said “defined and branded Ithaca for a generation … brought twenty years of prosperity, spurred new development and made Ithaca a walkable city.”
Myrick also said that the redesign project would be instrumental in revitalizing downtown Ithaca.
“Here we are at the center of our city and the center of our county. … We are here at the cultural, social, political hub,” Myrick said. “If this is not successful, then our county will not be successful.”
Robin Tropper-Herbel, executive director of the Community School of Music and Arts, which is located in the Commons, described the redesign as “terrific” and said that she was “really looking forward to a revitalized Commons, once it’s done.”
Tropper-Herbel said the long-term benefits of the redesigned Commons outweigh the short-term inconveniences of construction.
“It should be a minimal amount of changes to traffic, and I know that there will be plenty of accommodations for pedestrians so that businesses will be open and thriving,” Tropper-Herbel said.
Jim Dennis (D -15th District), chair of the Budget and Capital Committee of the Tompkins County Legislature, agreed that the Commons was in great need of renovations.
“I think it’s a great idea, and it was sadly needed for a long time. The Commons needed to get rebuilt, and I think it was a big effort on the part of many mayors,” Dennis said.
Dennis added that, during the construction of the Commons in the 1970s, the disruption may have caused fewer people to come downtown and as a result, many stores went out of business.
“I believe that what they’re going to have to do is make sure we don’t lose businesses,” Dennis said. “The city has to really do a good job promoting the idea: ‘Come on down. Watch us build. We’re open and ready for business.’”