Ithaca, N.Y. — Downtown Ithaca parking garage revenues and usage are up during reconstruction of the Commons, a city official who oversees parking says.

​“We have people coming downtown to park,” Frank Nagy, director of parking, said Thursday.

​He offered a few encouraging statistics:

— ​Seneca Street garage occupancy is up to nearly 72% this year
​— Green Street garage usage is up to 62% this year
— ​Usage of both garages averaged about 40% in 2013
​— Revenues from the garages is up more than $120,000 through the end of July
​— September usage at both garages is up 54% in September alone, despite a temporary closure of Seneca Street due to the construction

​“People are visiting” downtown, Nagy said.

Commons merchants protest the impact of the construction project last night at City Hall.
The Commons construction. (Jeff Stein/IthacaVoice)

​More parkers in the garages doesn’t necessarily mean more shoppers in the stores facing directly on the Commons, of course. More people could be dining or taking in movies at Cinemapolis or doing other things and not necessarily shopping.

​If more people are coming downtown, many merchants aren’t seeing the benefit, judging by their desperate pleas during Wednesday night’s Common Council meeting at City Hall.

​“We’re struggling,” said one business owner. “Please help. We all need help.”

Several merchants said they have taken on tens of thousands of dollars in debt during the Commons project and may be forced to close if relief doesn’t come soon.

​Relief is what two city leaders said Thursday will be their focus after hearing the comments Wednesday night.

​“I’m open to any reasonable suggestion that will help businesses thrive during the construction period,” Mayor Svante Myrick said.

​“Accelerating the project” in any way possible is essential, said Gary Ferguson, executive director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance.

Crowds on the Commons this fall. (Zac Peterson/Ithaca Voice)

So far, storefront occupancy rates have held steady during construction compared with those before the project began, Ferguson said, but the prolonged nature of the project is taking a toll over time.

​Since the work is now expected to continue into spring, Ferguson said an immediate priority is “how it will look and feel in the winter.”

Key goals would be to have a good, solid surface, sufficient lighting and enough cut-throughs to make the Commons shops as accessible and inviting as possible.

​“Parking is in the mix, too,” he said.

​Parking is free in the city garages on weekends and overnight every day from 8 p.m. until 3 a.m. In addition, any shopper who can show a receipt for a purchase at a Commons business can receive two hours of free parking.

​On typical “free” Saturdays, Seneca and Green garages average more than 500 cars, and about half that number on Sundays, Nagy said.

​Ferguson said he thought that two-hour program could be improved.

​ “I don’t think it’s well enough known,” he said, “And it’s a little cumbersome. The onus is on the patrons to do the extra step” of using the receipt to obtain the freebie.

​He has heard complaints, too, that a two-hour limit on meters isn’t long enough. Three hours might be more suitable for someone who drives downtown to eat, walk around and shop or attend a movie, he said.

​Suggestions for general free parking downtown came up during Wednesday’s meeting and at other times.

​Myrick said it is not that simple. A temporary blanket policy of free parking everywhere would mean that long-term parkers could leave their vehicles in front of businesses, such as pizza shops, that depend on quick in-and-out access. The loss of short-term spaces for those needs would frustrate parkers using those businesses and cost the businesses, too. Any proposed solution must consider all consequences, he said.

​Nagy said all the incentives offered for free and discounted parking in the garages are intended to open up those kinds of spaces on the street for a better flow in front of businesses.

​Myrick and Ferguson said they have begun internal discussions with staff and will listen for the best solutions offered up during a public meeting October 9.

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.