ITHACA, N.Y. — Ellen McCollister didn’t mince words.

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“It’s an embarrassment,” said McCollister, an alderperson on Ithaca’s Common Council, about the new “Ithaca Commons” sign recently stalled on the east end of the strip. “And an aesthetic issue of not insignificant proportions.”

McCollister, who represents Ithaca’s Third Ward, said the city was receiving substantial criticism for the sign. That’s because it’s supposed to welcome visitors to the new $15 million Ithaca Commons project, but — McCollister pointed out — is partly blocked off by a traffic signal that hangs directly in front of it.

“It’s become an almost iconic statement of something that went wrong,” McCollister said. “I think it’s really important that we fix it. Personally, I don’t think we can sit with it. It really needs to change.”

Why did city put traffic light in front of sign?

McCollister made her comments at a meeting of Ithaca’s Common Council at City Hall Wednesday night. They mark another criticism of the Ithaca Commons construction project, which has been delayed several times and went over-budget.

Mayor Svante Myrick brought up the issue first, asking Commons project manager Michael Kuo for an explanation of why the traffic signal “fits right in front of the second ‘O.’”

Kuo responded by pointing to a separate city project about installing traffic signs in downtown Ithaca.

“The physical constraints in that area — we don’t have a lot of real estate to work with when you’re trying to install these two very iconic structures … you’ve got the traffic signal with its obvious safety purposes: its signals need to be dictated within a specific cone of vision,” Kuo said.

“The Sasaki team doing the Commons design coordinated closely with the traffic signal project, but they were still operating within the same close confines. Much of that work happened outside of the work that I was doing to actually execute the drawings.”

Kuo suggested that JoAnn Cornish, Ithaca’s director of planning and economic development, might know more about the design of the project.

Cornish said that the city “looked very closely at the signs and the signals, and this was the lesser of two evils.”

“We knew going into this that it would be a conflict, but we didn’t realize how visibly obstructive it would be, the signal heads,” Cornish said.

What happens next?

Officials at City Hall discussed what to do next: Spend more money to fix the (already over-budget) project, or let the sign remain as is?

“We are trying to see if we can have the sign moved to the left or have the signal heads either dropped or raised so they’re not in front of the sign,” Cornish said, “so we’re looking at all those options and trying to figure out a solution.”

See related: If Bank Alley is any sign, new Ithaca Commons will be awesome

Kuo said it should be recognized that there would be a cost to remove the frame from the structure and “shift it over x number of feet to get it away from the traffic signal.”

Stephen Smith, a Common Council member representing the 4th Ward, asked if it might be possible to rotate the lights. Cornish said that would be added to the list of ideas the city is considering for fixing the lights/sign problem.

Cynthia Brock, another Ithaca Common Council member, expressed skepticism about spending more money to remedy the sign. She added that there were already issues with the sign’s coloring and the spacing of the lettering.

See related: New report: Over 60 percent of downtown Ithaca retailers saw sales, foot traffic drop in 2014

“Do we even need to have a sign that says Ithaca Commons?,” Brock said.

Cornish, of the city, responded that while it was a matter of opinion, one of the complaints about the Commons before the project started was that the area was not easy to find and identify.


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.