Design rendering of the finished project

ITHACA, N.Y. — They began by placing bright orange cones on the Commons walkways, letting pedestrians know where they should watch their step.

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But the cones kept getting moved — often on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, presumably by downtown bar-hoppers — and then construction workers had to spend time putting them back in place the next morning.

So they came up with a solution: The crews started nailing down the cones, so as to make them harder to vandalize and prevent them from getting thrown around at night.

But apparently that didn’t work, either. Soon enough, crews were arriving to work to find that even the nailed-down cones had again been lifted and tossed somewhere else. Now, they had to spend time not only moving the cones back in place but also nailing them in a second time.

Michael Kuo, the Ithaca Commons construction project manager, appeared at City Hall Wednesday night to talk about the state of the project and provide updates about its timeline.

Barring an unforeseen turn, the project is on schedule for “substantial completion” by July 31, Kuo said.

Kuo noted that he had just been at Lowe’s Wednesday morning. Since the nails weren’t enough, Kuo had purchased metal washers in an attempt at a new solution.

“We’re just trying to keep the cones down,” he said. “It’s something we check for every morning, because it’s a dangerous condition for walking — though we don’t want to slow down the concrete work.”

‘An excess of quality’

The cones difficulties is just one small example of the obstacles Kuo faces as he works to steer the Commons construction project to completion. (The renovation was originally scheduled to be completed on July 31, 2014.)

“I think there’s an excess of quality that makes this project extremely difficult to execute,” he said.

“It doesn’t resemble any street I’m familiar with. It actually resembles a hotel lobby, which is where my expertise comes from … in hotel development, you know the lobby is going to be the most expensive space.”

Kuo noted that the project faces a trade-off in what details to leave up to the city’s contractors.

Design rendering of the finished project

“The detail is fairly excellent in a lot of regards,” he said of the city’s plans, but added that “perhaps some of those details are maybe over-engineered.”

“We try to do things that help our contractors move faster without sacrificing quality — that’s pretty much my day to day job,” he said.

Questions from Council

Kuo fielded questions from members of Ithaca’s Common Council, who expressed a mixture of appreciation for the difficulty of Kuo’s work and frustration with the pace of the project.

“We hear from merchants or others who have their frustrations,” said Council member Ellen McCollister, that blaming NYSEG for the delays are not a “sufficient explanation.”

Similarly, Common Council member Cynthia Brock expressed several concerns — particularly with maintenance costs associated with the project — and questioned if it could have been better managed.

“What are we learning from this? How can we use these lessons to look toward the future?,” said Brock, who represents Ithaca’s First Ward.

Brock’s questions were answered by Mayor Svante Myrick and Joann Cornish, the city’s director of Planning and Economic Development, both in attendance at the committee meeting.

Myrick noted that it’s easy to forget the state of disrepair that the Commons was in before the project began. Cornish noted that the city has a team that “works on this on a day-to-day basis.”

“Perhaps the fault is ours for not communicating all the details, but we’ve spent countless hours looking at the types of granite,” Cornish said in response to a question from Brock.

Cornish added that “it would be very difficult and time-consuming” to communicate every small, minute decision to Council.

Kuo presented to Council a progress report on the project (that can be read in full below). Brock thanked him for doing what was often a “thankless job.”

Kuo smiled in response. “It’s lonely at the front sometimes,” he said, drawing laughs.

Commons Project Update by Jeffrey Stein


Previous Ithaca Voice coverage of the new Commons


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Jeff Stein

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