Ithaca, N.Y. — An unexpectedly harsh cold spell has again pushed back the completion date for a major part of the Ithaca Commons construction project.

In October, officials told The Voice that the 200 block of the Commons — which stretches from Center Ithaca to Aurora Street — would be completed by Thanksgiving. That October announcement followed previous delays.

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But in an interview on Monday, Project Manager Michael Kuo said that this newest deadline would also not be met. Last week’s cold patch made using pavers impossible, according to Kuo, likely pushing the end date for work on the 200 block past the winter.

“We had projected completing the pavers on the 200 block, but it turns out we’re not going to be able to get it all done,” Kuo said.

It’s more likely, though not completely certain, that crews will meet the goal of finishing Bank Alley — by North Tioga Street — in time for Thanksgiving, according to Kuo.

Crews on the Commons Monday.

Key improvements

Despite the delay, Kuo’s construction crews have done much to successfully ensure the Commons are attractive for shoppers looking to spend during the holiday season, said Gary Ferguson, executive director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance.

In particular, Ferguson pointed to what he cited as two major improvements:

1 — A plaza area for events and pedestrians outside Center Ithaca. “They opened up the middle so we could do events and activities,” Ferguson says.

2 — Vastly improved pedestrian walkways for walking across and through the Commons.

Staff today will also be seeing if they can add holiday lighting and other decorations downtown, according to Ferguson.

Missed deadlines

Today’s news of further delays follows a series of missed deadlines.

The Commons construction project was originally scheduled to be finished July 31. That date was jettisoned for a new deadline in November.

Officials then said that the November deadline would not be met in its entirety: They said that the 100 block of the Commons wouldn’t be done until the spring, but that the 200 block would be essentially finished. Kuo’s statement Monday means that the second part of that expectation proved overly optimistic.

The delays have touched off an outcry from Commons business owners, who say a dwindling of pedestrian traffic has hurt their sales. Dozens of local merchants poured into City Hall for a contentious meeting in early October to protest the duration and impact of the project.

“You’ve heard from every level of retail here,” said the owner of the building that housed Evolution on the Commons at the meeting. “We’re struggling. Please help. We all need help.”

Before the cold weather emerged as a factor, crews blamed two major obstacles for the construction delays: 1) The Simeon’s crash, and 2) Problems with NYSEG. Mayor Svante Myrick, appearing on WHCU Radio, said NYSEG’s office in Spain had proven particularly difficult to work with.

Kuo said his crews are working “from dusk to dawn” and that he is confident they’ve made as much progress as possible since NYSEG turned the project back over to the city’s workers.

“I have a deep sense of pride for what we’ve accomplished in the last few months,” Kuo said.

“If we’re not meeting people’s expectations that’s important for me, but my job is to manage our crews and make sure they’re as productive as possible.”

What’s the problem with the cold?

Kuo said there is simply no way to get the paving work done in the expected time frame given the recent cold.

“The rain and sudden sub-freezing temperatures have slowed the paving program,” he writes in the blog about the construction program.

Here’s why: The installation process for the pavers involves setting and finishing sand, according to Kuo. But this can’t happen when the sand is wet or frozen. You can try warming the sand, but once placed on the concrete slab it simply freezes again.

Additionally, Kuo said, the cold weather also stopped the placement of the Commons granite blocks and “planter curbs.” “When the granite is cold it causes the mortar to freeze before it can set,” he said.

Crews will continue to do what they can throughout December.

“Where we wrap up 2014 will depend on the weather in the following weeks,” Kuo said.

He added crews will do what they can regardless of the weather.

“We’ll work in the cold weather as long as there is not a blizzard,” Kuo said.


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Jeff Stein

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