A pilgrimage to The Ithaca Commons is a rite of passage for Ithaca College freshmen. While many will only return for the annual Apple Harvest Fest or the Chili Cook-off festival, it’s hard not to fall in love with the quaint strip of quirky shops and boutiques.
But if students were to stand on the middle of The Commons only four decades ago, they would have been hit by a car zipping down State Street.
The Commons seems like such a vital part of the Ithaca landscape that it’s easy to assume it has been around for quite awhile, but The Commons is younger than college students’ parents.
The Commons was built in 1975 when the country was in the middle of a European-inspired pedestrian mall craze, said Gary Ferguson, executive director of the Ithaca Downtown Partnership.
“There were several hundred of these built over a couple [of] decades, the ’60s through the ’80s,” Ferguson said.
When The Commons originally replaced the now-missing strip of State Street, it was anchored by department stores. Former Ithaca City Mayor Alan Cohen said Rothschild’s, a locally owned department store, and a Woolsworth department store, where the Ithaca Public Library now sits, were major traffic draws for the area.
“The loss of Rothchild’s in particular was what really changed the nature of The Commons and lent itself over time to more of this tourist-oriented boutique-y type of environment rather than one that was more geared toward addressing the everyday needs of Ithacans,” Cohen said.
Despite the contentious arrival of Starbucks and Subway on The Commons in 2006, The Commons once housed a McDonald’s and CVS, both of which left in the 1990s along with Woolsworth.
“The loss of McDonald’s itself — frankly, I don’t see that as having a significant impact,” Cohen said. “On the other hand, the loss of CVS did have an impact. Primarily, because it was better at everyday trips for people and it was really one of the only stores that was still addressing everyday needs. So when Woolworth’s went and then CVS [in the 1990s], that was pretty much the end of that type of retail on The Commons.”
Other than store turn over and vacancy rates that average below 25 percent, according to Ferguson — the vacancy rate on The Commons was up to 35 percent when Cohen was running for office in 1995 — The Commons have changed little since it was first built 33 years ago.
“By the mid 1990s it was starting to feel tired,” Ferguson said. “What happens sometimes in communities, and I think it happened here, is we make these good investments then we say ‘I’m done. Let’s move on to something else.’ … Consequently there wasn’t much more attention paid to downtown.”
According to the 2008 city budget, the City of Ithaca appropriated $250,000 to a project called the Ithaca Commons Reconstruction Design. Ferguson said the money will go toward evaluating and renovating The Commons, though no plans have been solidified yet.
“I don’t think anybody wants to fundamentally change The Commons’ design a lot,” Ferguson said. “[But] it’s showing its age: graying around the edges, a few too many cracks. A lot of the people who come here to visit downtown or visit The Commons kind of look past that and go, ‘Oh it’s quaint, it’s cute.’ People who are here on a regular basis are much more likely to notice those things.”
Though there were more than 100 traffic-free pedestrian malls in the U.S. in their heyday, there are only a few dozen left today. A common problem pedestrian malls face is striking a perfect balance between businesses and social gatherings. Most pedestrian malls around the country fail because they become crime hubs, Ferguson said.
“The Commons lends itself to loitering and people hanging out,” Cohen said. “You have people hanging out, which might be normal and comfortable in any other park, but to people who are out shopping they’re not used to being in that same environment at the same time.”
Hadley Smith, assistant professor of writing, has lived in Ithaca since 1950 and said he has seen changes in people who grew up used to State Street being the prominent shopping area before it was combined with an urban park to create The Commons.
“It amazes me how many people my age say things like ‘I will never go down there,’ [they’re] scared to be on it,” Smith said. “They’re kind of scared of the people who hang out on The Commons. It’s very strange, and I don’t really know where that comes from.”
Smith said he frequently goes downtown and never worried about his children hanging out on The Commons alone when they were in high school. He said the college and Cornell University bring traffic to The
Commons, but it is more often Ithaca residents, particularly teenagers, who use The Commons as a park.
Joseph Gaylord, manager of American Crafts by Robbie Dean located on The Commons, has been working in stores on The Commons since 1979. He said though the area does have some social problems, the nature of the city keeps things from getting too bad.
“Ithacans are generally more forgiving about a lot of different things, so I don’t see [the social aspect] affecting or impacting The Commons as much as or as greatly as in other places,” Gaylord said. “Plus the fact that you have some of the coolest festivals known to mankind here.”