A year after its estimated completion date and nearly $6 million over budget, the new Ithaca Commons has opened for business.
Since the end of July, The Commons — one of only 25 pedestrian malls in the country — has been wide open from end to end, and the sounds of laughing children and the din of conversation are a sure sign that construction, which began in April 2013, is finally over. Aug. 28 marks the official opening weekend, and the festivities will include speeches, tours, cake, a beer garden, a family fun fair and an evening concert, according to a Downtown Ithaca Alliance booklet.
The new Commons, which ended up with a $15 million price tag, has many interactive features, including the children’s playground and engravings of tree leaves and animal tracks in the brickwork to teach people about local ecosystems. There are also moveable seating and flower boxes, kiosks with information about Downtown and beyond, and the Trolley Circle, a giant, engraved compass at the center of The Commons indicating what direction several Ithaca attractions are in.
Longtime Ithaca resident and business owner Jon Reis said, although he likes the new design, he is frustrated with how long the project took.
“The execution of the design was an absolute disaster,” he said. “It should have been open over a year ago.”
Multiple business owners said the extended construction had a definite negative impact, but the construction’s completion has brought a noticeable uptick in customers.
Ingrid Williams, board chair of One World Market, a store that markets the crafts of disadvantaged artisans from around the world, said her business weathered the storm.
“Since The Commons reopened, business has been excellent,” she said. “With the trees placed on the sides, it’s a much more foot-friendly area.”
Brian Cannon, assistant manager at Exscape smoke shop, said the combination of the construction finishing and students returning has been great for the store.
The first given end date of construction was July 31, 2014, which was missed by a year. Reis, owner of Jon Reis Photography, said the construction impacted his ability to work.
“I had to actually leave my business a number of days to go home because the jack-hammering was so loud I couldn’t work,” Reis said. “It caused quite a few businesses to fail.”
At the time, Black said he began noticing changes in his own business in the early spring months of 2014.
“Our first couple of months [of opening] were slammed,” Black said. “I was doing two classes every day, four or five days of the week — almost full classes, each one of them … and then, come springtime 2014, it all flipped backwards.”
Other businesses that closed included Subway, Natalie’s Boutique and Bloom in Ithaca, a children’s clothing store. Jabberwock head shop and The Art & Found clothing store also relocated off The Commons.
Project Manager Michael Kuo said the extensive completion delays had to do with a lack of reasonable expectations for the project.
“From day one, there wasn’t enough time,” Kuo said. “The digging was extremely difficult and precise.”
Although The Commons are now finally complete, Reis said the impacts of the long construction could still be seen.
“You can see all the empty storefronts on The Commons. They will fill in eventually with new businesses, but it’s a shame it had to happen that way.”
The Commons are still waiting for a few finishing touches, Kuo said. Some repairs need to be made to the work that was done, and the glass on the Bernie Milton Pavilion in Bank Alley needs to be finished. Kuo said a fountain “is still within the realm of possibility,” and the utilities to support a fountain have been installed.
“The fate of the water feature is completely tied to whether or not there are enough funds available after I close out the construction contracts,” Kuo said. “This will not be known until Fall 2015.”
Senior Olivia Pastella, who interned with the Downtown Ithaca Alliance this summer, monitors the information kiosk and answers questions. She said it was breathtaking to watch the transformation occur over the summer from construction zone to public space.
Pastella said people had complained to her about the positioning of the Martin Luther King statue, the “industrial” look of the street lights and the look of The Commons signs.
“I think that this is much better,” she said. “You can’t please everybody.”
Despite the changes, the Ithaca community is beginning to bring new life to the space again.
As Reis and his dog walked away, guitar music from a street performer could be heard, and tourists paused to snap selfies on their phones. Nearby, a young man wearing a Cornell shirt and his mother asked a local for directions to Moosewood Restaurant.