College Avenue reopened to traffic earlier this week as the first of three phases of construction came to a close. The 100-300 block of College Avenue had been closed to cars — with its asphalt torn up — since the College Avenue Sewer Replacement Project began on August 7, with construction crews installing new water and sewage lines.
The road has been repaved for the winter and spring to allow vehicles to drive as usual. In the next construction phase, most likely beginning in May, New York State Electric and Gas Corporation crews will dig up College Avenue once again and install a gas line, as well as an electric line underground to replace the current above-ground electric lines.
Since the road reopened, TCAT routes 11N, 30, 51 and 70 have resumed normal paths along College Avenue, according to a TCAT press release. The return of the bus route to this section of the road has helped business at the Green Star grocery, as people waiting for the bus frequently stop into the store for a snack, according to Green Star employee Jimmy Pomm.
But another local employee saw the effects of construction differently. Elber Calderon at Enzo Pizzeria told The Sun that business has remained steady throughout the construction.
Thomas Knipe, Ithaca’s Deputy Director for Economic Development, said that city officials are aware of the potential negative impacts that the construction might have on businesses. To address these issues, the city posted signs near the construction site indicating that the businesses remained open as usual, Knipe said.
Some employees at nearby businesses have had trouble parking since the project reduced parking spaces in the area, according to Calderon. Graham Kerslick (D-4th), Alderperson for the 4th Ward, said that limited parking was an issue that city officials are trying to mitigate.
Another concern that residents and local employees voiced about the construction was the dust in the air, which contractors have tried to quell, Kerslick said.
The sewer and water lines have not been replaced since 1895, according to Erik Whitney, assistant superintendent of the Department of Public Works, Water & Sewer.
“We got our money’s worth out of this infrastructure,” Whitney said. “It’s roughly a 100-year life cycle with the water and sewer, so this is a once in a lifetime project for everyone involved.”
Aging aside, Whitney said that the water and sewage system needs an urgent update to provide adequate fire protection to the increasing population of Collegetown. According to Alderperson Stephen Smith (D-4th Ward), housing developments over the last five years have increased the living capacity of the area by approximately 1000 people, including the area of the College Avenue construction.
“If a sprinkler system is activated, we need to know that the flow rate is enough to provide fire suppression,” Whitney said. “This was completely different with two or three story buildings.” The new water pipes are larger than those installed in 1895 to supply sufficient water to these buildings in case of a fire.
The water and sewage pipes are being installed first because they are buried deeper than electrical and gas lines — at around 5 and 8 feet deep respectively — to avoid freezing in the winter. Electrical and gas lines, buried around two feet deep, will be installed next construction season.
Whitney said that the work has gone smoothly, finishing this stage of the project under the 800 thousand budget. Smith, though, was less optimistic.
“I would’ve liked to see power lines buried at the same time as the water and sewage work,” Smith said. “But NYSEG is notoriously difficult to coordinate with, and notoriously bad at maintaining a construction schedule. It’s obviously unfortunate to have two consecutive years of construction, but we’re having growing pains.”
He added that the need for an improved sewage system is so serious that it could not wait for the NYSEG work happening next construction season. “There’s always inconvenience, primarily for college students,” Whitney said. “Having one of the four years disrupted is a high percentage of their time here.”
Unlike the water and sewage work, the electrical work is less urgent, according to Smith. The motivation for moving the electrical lines underground is to avoid outages or fallen power lines during a storm, as well as to improve the appearance of Collegetown.
“This lattice work of power lines, it’s something you generally don’t really notice, but it gives this exposed underdeveloped, temporary feel to things,” Smith said. “It’s just not as neat and orderly or well designed as we’d like a street with College Avenue’s prominence to be.”
According to Smith, much of the reason that this work is happening now is that development in Collegetown has been discouraged since the 1970s. In 2012, city officials changed course, changing parking, zoning and height regulations to enable the larger developments which make replacement of the 134-year-old water and sewer lines even more urgent.
Smith said that permanent residents in Collegetown, tired of the student-dominated scene, implemented a regulation that every new building must have available one parking space for every two residents. This requirement meant that high-capacity buildings were effectively prohibited.
“You can never build enough parking for a 50-unit apartment building,” Smith said. But this strategy has unintended negative consequences, according to Smith. Many homeowners or developers paved over lawns to provide parking spaces, and renters spread out to surrounding single-family neighborhoods.
The 2012 decision also allowed developers to build taller buildings, and got rid of the requirement that structures cannot be built within five feet of the property line, therefore allowing owners with side-by-side properties to build adjoined buildings.
“You see this in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and New York City,” Smith said. “It has this charming urban vibe.”
The final stage of construction, scheduled to be completed in two years, involves redesigning the surface of the street.
“This is a good opportunity to rethink what we want Collegetown to look like — are the sidewalks wide enough, does it make sense to provide so much longterm on street parking should we install bike lanes,” Smith said. “People have even suggested blocking it off to all traffic besides bikes and busses.”
Smith said the redesign is constrained by the age of the street. “It was built for two carriages to pass each other, not two buses,” he said.
But Smith, ultimately, saw a glass half-full. “This is all in the purpose of creating a better neighborhood where people can feel comfortable and people can enjoy living,” Smith said. “That’s the light at the end of the tunnel.”