Ithaca, N.Y. — Merchants on the Commons have been unified in their main message to the city: Get the construction done as fast as possible.
Ithaca officials, however, say that a major part of the pedestrian strip won’t be done until the spring. That means the city, and the businesses, will have to do the best they can with the continued disruption to downtown life.
Facing that reality, some city officials and the mayor met Thursday with a group of merchants to discuss some proposals for alleviating the pain.
Here are 17 ideas that Downtown Ithaca Alliance Executive Director Gary Ferguson floated in an email to city council.
1 — “Cut-throughs” for better pedestrian traffic
Proposal: “If the 100 block is to remain in a state of construction over the holidays, winter, and into 2015, there is a request to create an additional three (3) cut-through cross walks- approximately one every 100 feet or so. This will provide for better cross traffic on the Commons.”
Michael Kuo, the project manager, said he’d marked off a few good locations to put the crossings where crews should be able to build walkways across the Commons for pedestrians.
2 — Patchwork fix for walking on the 100 block
Proposal: “Merchants want to be certain the walking surface in the 100 block is smooth… both for pedestrians and for winter snow removal. The current surface not intended to be long standing—it consists of rocks, sand, gravel, protrusions, patches, and broken/cracked pavement. It is dangerous to pedestrians and unsuitable for winter. If the permanent surface cannot be installed, a smooth temporary surface should be put into place as soon as practicable.”
Currently, much of the walking surface on the 100 block of the Commons if marked with holes and could deter pedestrians — especially those with strollers or disabilities — from going downtown, according to Kuo.
“We need to do something to make it plowable and safe to walk on,” Kuo said.
3 — Prevent run-off in front in front of stores
Proposal: “Without operable storm drains, the 100 block has been the site of several occasions where run-off from the center construction area has spilled into the sidewalk and into at least one store. If the area is to remain without storm drains, merchants would like the site to be mounded and/or ditched to prevent water from running into the sidewalks. This is particularly important in cold weather when icing will occur.
4 — Improve/remove the fence panels
Proposal: “Many of the fence panels are angled. Some have holes and are splattered with concrete. Many need shoring. If the fence panels are to remain for the winter and spring, there is a request to shore up the fencing and replace panels that are worn or unsightly.”
Kuo said he was surprised by the opposition of some merchants to keeping the current murals up on the Commons walls.
He added that he wouldn’t want to remove the murals based on the feedback of some merchants without surveying a broader spectrum of their thoughts on the question.
5 — Have crews working simultaneously on Bank Alley/200 block and the 100 block
Proposal: “Merchants have asked that the project be accelerated to the maximum extent possible. One suggested way to do this is to have crews work on the 100 block in parallel with their work in Bank Alley and the 200 block, instead of waiting and doing the work sequentially.”
Kuo expressed some reservations about the practical feasibility of this idea.
6 — Add a second shift in the late afternoon/early evening
Proposal: “To further accelerate the project, merchants have suggested that the contractor add a 2nd shift work in the late afternoon and early evening hours.”
7 — Improve lighting to make area more attractive
Proposal: “It was anticipated that the new lighting would have been installed by fall and winter 2014. The project removed all the former Commons lighting and replaced it with 2×4 lumber with shop lights. This lighting is poor at providing broad illumination and currently some fixtures do not even work. It is inadequate for dark, long winter afternoons, evenings, and nights. If the construction site is to remain in place throughout these dark months, merchants have requested that the lighting be upgraded and improved.”
Kuo said he thought this was a feasible idea but that it had to be carefully done — too much lighting, he noted, and you would upset residents of the area trying to get a night’s rest.
8 — Add new outlet for Commons shops to get holiday lights
Proposal: “It was expected that there would be a holiday lighting display in 2014, due to the existence of new light poles and new electrical outlets. In its current condition, there is no ability for holiday lighting to be added to Commons to provide any sense of festivity. There is a request to add outlets along the fence line in the 100 block to allow for the opportunity to undertake some level of decoration for the holidays.”
9 — Let merchants put some lighting/decorations where crews are working
Proposal: “Merchants would like the opportunity place some decorations in parts of the work area, to simulate some sort of holiday light display. It may even be possible to keep several pieces of heavy equipment in place to decorate.”
10 — Free parking for all patrons on Seneca and Green
Proposal: “For the duration of the construction, merchants have requested that the City provide free parking to downtown patrons in the Seneca and Green garages. Paid parking is perceived by patrons to be one additional reason not to visit downtown during construction. Providing relief would send a positive message to the community.”
Kuo noted that there may be some problems with this idea, too. For more on whether the city should offer free parking, see here.
11 — Improve visitor parking program to encourage foot traffic
Proposal: “Currently the DIA offers a free parking program when a store receipt is brought to the Visitor Center or several other business locations. This program receives only limited use, in part because it is too complicated for the customer. Merchants would like this program to be simplified so that the free parking could be claimed at the garage exit booth and expanded so that it can be better marketed for a longer period of time- through construction and for the immediate period thereafter (at least through 2015). They would also like for the program to apply to the Cayuga Garage in order to provide a consistent message to patrons.”
12 — Make sure the 100 block of the Commons is clean
Proposal: “If the construction site remains in place over the fall and winter, it is imperative that the site be cleaned up to remove piles of debris and other materials that become part of a construction work environment. Because this work site is community’s front yard, it is important that it be made and kept clean.”
13 — Give merchants money to help with marketing
Proposal: “Because the project has gone on for so long and is expected to go on for another extended period, merchants would like the project to provide funds for marketing assistance—either as direct grants, or as funds for web site development and enhancement, and for a paid consultant to directly assist them with web site development and enhancement, because they do not have the time and often the expertise to undertake such work on their own.”
14 — Streamline process for filing for damages
Proposal: “The process of filing a claim as a result of project related damage is seen as difficult and onerous. Merchants would like assistance in preparing such claims. The DIA has offered to assist with this task, recognizing that it would be difficult for the City to assist in preparing claims against itself.”
15 — Extend lights to 100 South Cayuga Street
Proposal: “This block, not formally part of the Commons project, suffers from a significant lack of lighting and access to electricity. Merchants on this block have reiterated their request for lighting and electricity to be extended onto this block to allow for better nighttime lighting and for holiday decorations.”
16 — More regulation of panhandlers
Proposal: “In the midst of the construction, there has been a notable uptick in panhandling on the Commons. This acts to further deter people from visiting the Commons. The Commons currently has narrow passages due to the construction that make panhandlers hard to avoid and create a sense of intimidation to passersby. There is a request for the City to enact rules to better regulate how panhandling occurs to minimize the impact of the narrow Commons.”
17 — Tax assessment relief
Proposal: “In some cases, property owners have seen the income from their buildings decrease during this lingering construction period. The County Department of Assessment is charged with determining building assessments, based on an income approach. Merchant owners would like the City and DIA to advocate to the County Assessor to consider appropriate adjustments to property assessments for this construction period where income appears to be negatively impacted.”
Both Kuo and Ferguson said it looked like this idea was being implemented by the county — a 5% special reduction for the tax assessor’s office.
However, Kuo noted that this could only prove to serve the property owners — who pay the taxes — rather than the merchants themselves.