February 4, 2010

Council Approves Conceptual Layout Of New Commons Design Blueprints

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After over a year of discussion, the Common Council approved a conceptual layout for redesigning the Ithaca Commons by a 6-2 vote last month. The new layout would change the look of the Commons as well as repair walkways and infrastructure that has not been reconstructed in years. The conceptual design, however, is still tentative and the concept will be subject to change as the committee moves further along in the process, according to Gary Ferguson, director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance and member of the Commons client committee.

The client committee –– composed of City Hall staff, Common Council members, and various interest groups –– has been meeting regularly with consultants from the landscape architecture firm Sasaki Associates, Inc. to discuss design possibilities. The current layout scheme is a combination of two plans that were proposed by Sasaki, according to Joel Zumoff (D-3rd).

As it stands now, the layout will move the amenities, such as benches and tables, away from the center of the State Street portions of the Commons –– where they stand currently –– off to the sides in order to create a more open view for pedestrians. Ferguson emphasized, however, that what will be done with the new opened space is still unclear and the approved layout should simply be thought of as a “canvas,” on which specific details have yet to be decided.

Sasaki consultants “will be working on developing this layout into a preliminary design over the next few months and [will] return in April or May,” Jennifer Kusznir, project manager for the redesign project and the Economic Development Planner for the City of Ithaca, stated in an e-mail.

Until Sasaki has completed its preliminary design, the project team will be working to garner public input and support for the new design process, according to Joe Wetmore, client committee member and owner of Autumn Leaves Used Books.

In the meantime, a number of issues are still up for debate. Among them is the question of how many pavilions are needed in the new design. While the Commons currently has four pavilions, the proposed layout reduces the number to one. Though certain residents support the reduction, as it would limit the spaces available for idle congregators, others believe that more pavilions are needed as performance spaces for musicians and avenues for speeches, according to Zumoff.

Another issue deals with delineating public versus private space. Many private restaurants on the Commons currently have tables outside –– on public property –– which restaurants have complained non-customers frequently use. Zumoff pointed out that a possible solution, which the redesign team has contemplated, would be to place all the tables in the center of the street, as in many food courts in malls.

Wetmore explained that the original motivation for the redesign comes from the fact that both the underground utilities system and the infrastructure along the Commons, such as lamps and walkways, are in great need of repair. Sooner or later, the city will need to dig up the water pipes and other lines below ground –– ideally before they fail –– and officials believed that it would be useful to have a rebuilding plan following this excavation.

The Common Council, however, has yet to allocate funding for the construction process and a cost estimate will not be available until further details are set, Wetmore noted.

Erin Stewart, manager of Trader K’s, was in favor of the redesign because she felt that the reconstruction would promote business for all the Commons stores. She added that although the construction would cause a small disruption to the regular flow of business, she believed that if the project could be completed in the winter, it could minimize any disturbances.

Assistant manager of Home Green Home Lindsey Hardy agreed that the temporary disruption to her business, which draws in much of its revenue from families that use the playground outside the store, would be worth it in the long run.

“If the renovation is something that will benefit the community as a whole, then it’s worth [it],” she stated.

In the end, officials hope that the redesign project can rejuvenate a shopping district that has lost much of its appeal since it was first built.

“The environment in Ithaca is a lot different than when [the Commons] was built 30 years ago,” Zumoff said. “There weren’t Shops in Ithaca Mall … So when [the Commons] was built that was the shopping area of the city. Since there are lots of other choices now, we have to do more to make downtown remain a vital, active area of the city.”

Original Author: Yi-Ke Peng