March 24, 2013

City of Ithaca: Commons Redesign Will ‘Change Everything’

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A long-awaited redesign of the Ithaca Commons this spring will revamp the downtown promenade’s layout in a renovation Jennifer Kusznir, City of Ithaca planner, said will “change everything.”

The renovations are slated to begin April 5.

“The project includes replacement of underground utilities and replacement of all surfaces, furnishings and amenities on the Commons,” Kusznir said. “They’ve all been completely redesigned and reoriented.”

When the Commons was built in 1975, the city built over the current underground utilities, which were about 75 years old at the time, according to Gary Ferguson, executive director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance. Now well over 100 years old, the water pipes have begun to spring leaks.

“Most of what you see is original, and over time, it’s gotten a little worn, a little faded,” Ferguson said. “To fix all this, you really have to start over.”

Michael Kuo, the project manager for the Commons redesign, will oversee construction of a “whole new look” for the Commons, Ferguson said.

The new design will allow restaurants and businesses on the Commons to spill out onto the sidewalk. Unlike the area’s current “center-loaded” design — which places benches, trees and planters in the middle of the walkway — the new design will feature 25 to 30 feet of walking space in the middle, with strips of amenities along the sides, according to Ferguson.

“There will be a complete redesign of the public spaces in the Commons,” Kuo said, adding that the rnovation will include new paving, furniture, bike racks, planters, a water feature and a playground to the Commons. Utilities, the sanitary sewer and gas and phone service will also be upgraded, according to Kuo.

“We’re trying to bring the downtown area forward to the 21st century,” Kuo said.

Kuo also said adding more open space will increase the area’s safety.

“As a parent, it’s going to feel like a safer place,” he said. “As a parent, right now, I can’t see very far [down the Commons]. The new design calls for a main boulevard down the center, so when I’m walking around with my little children, they can’t disappear from me in a second.”

The redesign will be funded by an $1.8-million grant New York state awarded Ithaca to enhance economic development downtown, The Sun previously reported.

During the redesign’s first phase — which will run from April 5 until early November — the middle of the Commons will be closed as new amenities are installed. The affected parts of the Commons will reopen during the second phase, when the remainder of the Commons will be under construction, Ferguson said.

But he emphasized that the Commons as a whole will not be closed down at any point in the construction process, which is expected to be completed July 14 of next year.

“Buildings and businesses will always be accessible and open,” he said. “People were really worried it would close down businesses, but no, it won’t. And we’re not interfering with roads. We will be doing a lot more events, a lot more activities — a lot of things to highlight what’s going on.”

The impact of the changes will be “tremendously positive,” making it easier to hold events on the Commons as well as making the area more accessible to those with disabilities, Kusznir said. She added that the redesign will also increase storefronts’ visibility.

“We’ll be opening up the center to get a clear view and really open up the space so it doesn’t have a crowded, closed-in feeling,” she said. “It’s really a major improvement.”

Original Author: Sarah Cutler