Skepticism remains on success of the construction project
A handful of mostly solitary eaters dotted the herd of green plastic chairs and silver tables during the noon hour in Center Ithaca. The rumble of a mustard-yellow construction-grade forklift maneuvering between two walls of chain link fence seeped in through the double glass doors.
The Ithaca Commons have been a disarray of closed sidewalks, construction vehicles, caution tape, and pedestrian and business owner dissatisfaction since its reconstruction began in April 2013.
When will it be done?
The Commons reconstruction project will be completed by this August, said project manager Michael Kuo, but some residents remain dubious. This is not the project’s first completion date change; it was originally set to be done on July 31, 2014.
The first delay came last summer, when New York State Electric and Gas took longer than expected to finish replacing gas mains. Kuo said his team could not contractually touch the gas mains and it took four months for NYSEG’s crew to complete their work. Then, when NYSEG were about 95 percent finished with the project, a tractor-trailer carrying two decks of vehicles crashed into Simeon’s, a restaurant on the east end of the Commons, on June 20, 2014.
Kuo said workers received the go-ahead to resume construction five or six weeks after that disastrous Friday. After continuing for a few months, an early and harsh winter cut expected work time short by three to four weeks.
Kuo said there is no hard date for completion, because it’s impossible to know exactly how much workers can get done on a daily basis.
“There are a lot of factors outside of our control,” he said.
However, he was optimistic the end date is feasible because the contractors’ projected end date lined up with his own team’s expected ending date.
“Every month, when you turn the calendar page, we’re going to have a significant portion of the Commons completed,” Kuo said.
Why is it being renovated?
The most important reason for the renovation is the replacement of electrical wiring, water pipes, storm drains and gas lines underneath the surface, which has been completed and filled with concrete, Kuo said. The new water mains through the Commons maintained their integrity while old mains in the city broke from subzero temperatures this winter.
On the old Commons, trees caused a number of issues. Their sprawling roots were pushing up the top layer of brick, which was both unappealing and created potentially dangerous uneven surfaces. The tall, reaching canopies were a fire hazard, Kuo said, and were problematic to firefighters who needed to reach fires on upper floors in the area. New plants and trees will be planted as part of the final plan.
New LED light poles were installed along the Commons, and according to the plans done by the Sasaki design firm, electrical outlets will be available for public use. The surface, which is the majority of the work left to be completed, is planned to be 25 percent granite and 75 percent concrete unit paver, which resembles pale, smoother bricks. In Bank Alley, a fountain resembling gorges will be built in front of the pavilion that has been partially completed.
How have businesses been affected?
The majority of businesses on the Commons have taken some sort of hit, correlating with the start of construction almost two years ago. Even businesses a couple blocks away have seen some negative impact, like Comics For Collectors on North Aurora Street. Tim Gray, owner and member of the Commons Advisory Board, said September 2013 saw a significant drop in business for the shop compared to previous September’s.
“We started noticing people not coming back, saying, ‘We can’t get around,’” he said.
Gray was optimistic that after the construction is complete, business would go back to normal.
“It needed to be done,” he said. “Eventually we’ll see a big upswing.”
Other business owners are not so positive. Adil Griguihi, owner of Casablanca Pizzeria on the west side of the Commons, said he is not happy with the project and does not expect to have an immediate upswing in business after the project is finished. As it stands, Griguihi said business has gone down about 65 percent since the construction started.
He said people have lost faith that the project will be finished on time. He also does not think the project was planned well and said the people in charge do not know what they are doing.
Down several shops and next to the opening of Center Ithaca, 15 STEPS had its best year since its start 33 years ago. After construction started, Ken Jupiter, co-owner and member of the project’s client committee, said the store did not make any staff cuts and believes people are interested in what the store has to offer.
“Business is very complex,” he said. “There’s no one factor that determines the success of a business.”
Both Gray and Jupiter said they have received good communication from the construction team, which will continue to drill, clang and rumble between the fences until the project is complete.
Kellen Beck is a junior journalism major who is ready to throw on a hard hat himself to get the Commons done quicker. You can email him at [email protected].