Ithaca, N.Y. — The new Ithaca Commons will be the best downtown area in the entire United States after ongoing construction is finished this summer, Mayor Svante Myrick said in a sweeping, emotional speech on Tuesday night.
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But in an address that drew from sources ranging from Abraham Lincoln to Fyodor Dostoevsky, the young mayor said the pain caused by the construction project would not compare to the long-term benefits of the new pedestrian mall.
“You will be able to say we have the best downtown in America because you sacrificed,” he said to a crowd of hundreds of attendees at the Downtown Ithaca Alliance’s annual dinner on Tuesday. “Generations will have a jewel — and that jewel will have been worth the cost.”
“… This Commons, once done, will be a thing of its own to see. It will draw people from all over the state — and from other states. And I can promise you, if you run a business: Your very best days are ahead.”
Last year, Myrick said, was a difficult one for the city.
Ice jams in the winter of 2014 flooded homes and sunk local spending; the Simeon’s crash left a woman dead and shattered Ithaca’s sense of security; the Commons project is coming in late and over-budget.
“These were the darkest days of my professional life,” said Myrick, 28. “There were many days, as President Lincoln once said, that I was driven to my knees by the conviction that I had nowhere else to go.”
But the cloud, Myrick suggested, is now lifting. The mayor pointed to bevy of reasons to be excited for a city moving forward, with a raft of development projects set to be completed as the city also finishes the Commons and repairs begin at Simeon’s.
“When we reclaim what is at the heart of our city, when we reclaim what’s at the heart of our character, we will be the stronger for it,” Myrick said. “We will be the better for it.”
Myrick began the speech by citing President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 declaration that the United States would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
“Everybody thought that he was crazy,” Myrick said of Kennedy. “They thought it was impractical … they said, ‘Why bother? Why does it matter? It’s too hard.’”
Myrick compared Kennedy ambitious plans with Ithaca’s history, tracing a line from those skeptical of the first moonwalk to those who opposed the creation of the original Ithaca Commons to those who oppose its current reconstruction.
“Now, we have some experience with naysayers here in Ithaca,’” Myrick said. “We have critics and cynics who will tell us what we want to do is impossible.”
Previous critics were proven wrong when they assailed those focusing on Ithaca’s downtown core four decades ago, and they’ll be proven wrong about the current construction project, Myrick said.
“They would turn their cultural and economic focus to the outskirts, to the malls, and allow the centers of their cities to wither away,” Myrick said.
“…But I’m telling you, what the folks did 45 years ago to consolidate our urban core — to create an outdoor pedestrian mall, to create an economic and civic center for the city — has saved us. It is the reason we are not floundering like the communities around us. …
“The center of our city is the reason our entire community holds together and we have to continue in the face of the critics who say: ‘What you are trying to do is impossible.’”
Myrick then ticked through a litany of changes to downtown Ithaca that he says have encouraged development and increased the city’s economic vibrancy.
He cited a range of specific development projects that are part of Ithaca’s well-documented construction boom — including the Carey Building, the Rev: Ithaca Startup Works incubator, the Argos Inn, the Marriott Hotel, Press Bay Alley and Harold Square.
And then there’s the Commons. Myrick presented slides of the new Commons, highlighting facets like new traffic signals and an open pavilion to allow for more pedestrian traffic.
“When we open the Commons, we will see festivals, events, speeches and celebrations,” Myrick said, “like we’ve never seen before.”