Home of the Apple Festival, year-round musical performances and unique shops and restaurants, the Ithaca Commons has become a cultural icon over the past 35 years. During that time it has also accumulated significant wear and tear, and the City of Ithaca is now exploring options for renovations.
At a public meeting last night, landscape architects from Sasaki Associates as well as civil engineers from Clough Harbour & Associates presented several re-design options to member of the Ithaca Common Council as well as more than 30 Ithaca residents. A finalized preliminary design will be available in December of this year.
“The Commons is a vital area for the Ithaca community, but some areas are in need of major repair,” said Susannah Ross, a senior associate at Sasaki Associates.
The aging utilities system is the major problem plaguing the Commons, according to Nate Tompkins, representative from Clough Harbour. The sewage pipes have many broken or missing sections, and the steel gas pipes installed decades ago no longer meet today’s safety regulation codes. The low pressure gas pipes are “completely maxed out” and will not be able to support any additional restaurants and apartments. The cast-iron water system has a lifespan of 100 to 120 years, and since the system was installed in 1903, the pipes are becoming extremely brittle and susceptible to corrosion due to the calcification of water, Tompkins said.
Additionally, the trees have become overgrown over the years, making it difficult for visitors to see across the Commons over the large canopies. A quilt of pull-boxes, manhole covers and cracks and ditches make the pavement an aesthetically unpleasing safety hazard, many at the meeting expressed. The lack of public restrooms and biker accommodation as well as an inefficient lighting arrangement are also motivations for the redesign, Ross said.
Sasaki consultants outlined three plans to renew the design of the Commons. The first option, the “minimal” plan, will reroute the utility system and combat the other issues while “staying true to the original design as much as possible,” said Gina Ford, a principal from Sasaki Associates.
The second option, the “asymmetric” plan, is a “radical departure” from the original design. Inspired by the “solar orientation” of the Commons, this plan considers the relative abundance of warm sunlight at the northern end of the Commons during winter. This plan’s “repetitious lighting scheme” will create a clear linear path with a “sculptural view” and “strong characteristic sense of identity” that will become a defining element of the Commons, Ford said. The Bank Alley will be transformed into a central gathering area, with a potential new gateway on the northern end and a pavillion structure that will be used as a performance venue. The southern end, on the other hand, will be occupied by an interactive water feature, due to the popularity of the original water fountain, modeled after the geology of the gorges.
The third option, the “eclectic streetscape” plan, will also lead to significant changes to the appearance of the commons. New pavement with smooth, diagonal patterns will increase traffic between stores, and poleless lighting will cascade from the sky over amenity zones with removable seating. The Bank Alley will be transformed into a “play alley” with playgrounds and outdoor seating, Ford said.
Since the renovation plans are not finalized, the exact cost of implementing any of the plans is not yet available. However, preliminary estimates by Sasaki and Clough Harbour concluded that the costs of the plans are “very close”, and the second plan is the cheapest among the three. Counter-intuitively, the minimalist plan costs more because so much detailed handwork is required to circumvent disruptions to the original architecture. No money for the actual construction is included in the proposed 2010 budget, according to The Ithaca Journal.
Although Common Council members assured that the decision between the choices are “not cost driven”, cost was a major concern for many attendants of the presentation.
“Cost is the number one concern for me, and the second is the [re-design’s] impact on business.” said Wade Wykstra, member of the Board of Public Works and resident of Ithaca for 27 years. “[We should consider] the grants available before embarking on such a huge project.”
“I favor options two and three, leaning towards option two,” said Svante Myrick ’09 (D-4th ward). “I like the new pavilion in Bank Alley, and the cheap cost is an added bonus. The disruption to the business due to the construction is a big concern,” he said.
Removal of mature trees also lead to some debate. Replanting all trees in the Commons would cost about half a million dollars, according to Tompkins. While smaller trees can be hand-dug and moved at a smaller cost, some trees are so large that it would be impossible for them to survive the relocation, said Mark Dawson of Sasaki Associates.
Ray Caveney, a local resident, prefers to replace older trees with younger ones because growing trees will help combat global warming.
“If the plan doesn’t encourage retail, then it has no value,” he said. “The [overgrown] trees are the number one reason I don’t use that part of the Commons. The visibility is poor and in the summer it has birds all over the place.”
“The trees shade asphalt and add a human dimension,” said Pamela Markham, a member of Shade Tree Advisory Committee, a group of environmental professionals that advise the Ithaca Common Council. “[The Sasaki consultants mentioned] adding art [to decorate the Commons], but we have art here. The flowers and fruits are perfectly good artistic features,” she added.
“The Commons is not that old, it’s simply a little tired,” said Dawson. “It has a lot of really strong attributes, and really promising strong spaces that we can physically improve into a more welcoming area,” he said.