Original renderings of a fountain for the new Ithaca Commons. The fountain has been delayed - likely until the spring of 2016

ITHACA, N.Y. — Lengthy internal deliberations within City Hall have helped delay the construction of a $300,000 fountain on the new Ithaca Commons — possibly into the spring of 2016.

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That means the overall Ithaca Commons construction project, originally scheduled to take two years, is now expected to stretch into a fourth year. Crews are “more likely than not” to have to wait until after this fall and winter to install the fountain on the new Commons’ Bank Alley, said JoAnn Cornish, director of Planning and Economic Development for the city of Ithaca.

“It was like the stars were out of alignment with this one,” Cornish said of the fountain.

Original renderings of a fountain for the new Ithaca Commons. The fountain has been delayed – likely until the spring of 2016
Original renderings of a fountain for the new Ithaca Commons. The fountain has been delayed – likely until the spring of 2016

During construction, crews learned that the planned location for the fountain on the Commons’ Bank Alley was on top of a subsurface vault. That meant the fountain, initially predicted to cost $450,000, would have to be scaled back and see some of its original design features eliminated.

In March 2015, city officials began speaking with Commons design firm Sasaki Associates about how to adjust the fountain to the new constraints.

But city officials were delayed by internal discussions over how to proceed, Cornish said. (Cornish also stressed that a long lead time for production of the particular type of granite for this fountain was another factor in the delay.)

“If we had been able when we first had communications with Sasaki to say, ‘Go ahead with the fountain design,’ we could have gotten it in there” before Spring 2016, Cornish said. “But there were too many internal discussions and concerns to make that happen.”

Replacement for reopening festivities?

The grand reopening festivities for the Ithaca Commons have been scheduled for late August. The celebration has been touted as an end to a painful three years of construction, during which many Commons business owners saw declines in revenue and foot traffic.

See related: 7 signs substantial progress has been made on Ithaca Commons

It’s not exactly clear what will go in the fountain’s spot for the reopening festivities. Both Cornish and Michael Kuo, the project manager, suggested that planters could fill the gap around the edge of the fountain location.

“Right now, we have a lot of movable planters so we’ll redeploy them in that area to pretty up the edge,” Kuo said.

Kuo, however, stressed that the city does not want to spend too much improving the area, since it needs to stretch the remaining project budget to purchase the fountain itself.

“We’ve got to save that money for the permanent water feature, so we can’t keep throwing money at temporary measures,” he said.

Crews make progress on the 100 block of the Commons this June. (Jeff Stein/Ithaca Voice)

Could fountain not be installed?

There remains a chance that the fountain won’t ever be installed — one recognized by both Cornish and Kuo.

The city will only be able to afford the fountain if the Commons construction team still has an $300,000 in its budget, which is likely to be the case but far from a guarantee, according to city officials.

“I’m just trying to trap the budget and protect it so they have enough to work with” — in part for the fountain, Kuo said.

Kuo said he couldn’t offer an estimate of how much money is currently in the Ithaca Commons construction budget, saying there were too many moving variables at any moment to give a reliable figure.

“We’re fairly confident that we’ll have it,” Cornish said.

Cornish added that if the Commons project runs out of funding for the fountain, city crews “will do something in that space,” which could include putting planters over it.

“If for some reason it doesn’t get installed, we’ll probably go with the pavers on the rest of the Commons … and so it will just be a matter of more open space,” she said.

A monument to the waterfalls

The fountain was envisioned as a testament to Ithaca’s iconic waterfalls, placed prominently on Bank Alley outside of the M&T Bank.

Kids would be able to play in it. Original designs called for the fountain to have four different kinds of water flows to reflect the gorges: “misting,” “trickling,” “bubbling” and “seeping.” There were plans for “mist jets” on the fountain and a dripping water feature as well.

When crews learned that the original design wouldn’t fit in the space, Cornish said, it was of paramount importance to find a way to make it work.

“The original fountain went through so much review and people really loved it, so I wanted to make sure it was the same design but just a smaller footprint,” she said.

From the original fountain design plans

Other problems with the initial design emerged. The idea to allow children to play in the fountain, for instance, was scrapped when officials learned that doing so would require changing rooms and lifeguards under New York state law.

“We had no idea of the regulatory requirements for the interactive fountains,” Cornish said.

Additionally, the original plan called for a “path-through” fountain — meaning that the water would be pumped into the storm sewer system at a cost of $40,000 per year. The new plans call for a recirculating fountain, Cornish said, that will reuse the water.

“There will be annual expenses for the chemicals and for testing, but our crews can do that,” Cornish said.

Learn more about the Commons construction project with the Ithaca Voice Story Database, introduced today, by clicking on the box above.

The Spring 2016 installation

If it occurs, the installation of the fountain will likely take about four weeks in the spring of 2016, according to Cornish.

“We don’t anticipate a lot of disruption,” she said. “It will probably be an attraction to watch it go in.”

Cornish added that the fountain will be installed on Bank Alley, which is the most spacious part of the Commons.

“There will be a crane on the Commons that has to place the granite piece in, but it’s a fairly small, contained space,” she said.

Asked if this would add to criticism of the overall project, Cornish said she acknowledged frustrations but noted the scope and difficulty of the city’s work.

“It happens: It’s a $15 million project,” she said, “it’s a very complicated construction project, and we’re in a very small space.”

Jeff Stein

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