Mayor Svante Myrick with Rosie, an online grocery store company expanding in downtown Ithaca

ITHACA, N.Y. — In 2013, before the start of construction, the vacancy rate on the Ithaca Commons was 9.1 percent.

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About two years later, despite significant criticism of the city’s construction project, that vacancy rate has dramatically fallen.

It’s now 3.1 percent — or about 6 percentage points lower before construction began — according to city officials.

“This is a sure sign of a strong, resurgent downtown economy,” said Gary Ferguson, executive director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, in a statement.

“Each of these businesses is demonstrating confidence and commitment to the future of our vital urban core.”

Mayor Svante Myrick with Rosie, an online grocery store company expanding in downtown Ithaca

‘Fundamentally solid’

Ferguson attributed the low vacancy rate to a generally positive business climate and large building projects slated for downtown Ithaca. He noted that these kinds of projects had drawn the attention of smaller investors as well, as more residents in the area will mean more customers, too.

“Even while the Commons has been going through its construction growing pains, downtown continues to be a highly desirable investment opportunity for people,” he said in a phone call.

“You’re seeing a strong district that certainly has had some struggles in its retail sector because of the Commons work, but we’re still fundamentally solid.”

Mayor Svante Myrick said that the strong growth downtown was likely just the beginning of the growth that would come as the Commons construction project comes to an end..

“Look, this is why we did this project. The ancient, below ground infrastructure and dated surface was driving businesses, residents and visitors away,” he said.

“This investment was meant to bring people back to the Commons. Like any investment it required short-term pain, but there have already been gains, and I predict we will see much more.”

Ferguson said the vacancy rate has been consistently calculated by square foot, not unit.

He added that though Harold’s Square remains empty, it is counted as not being vacant since it is technically off the market.

Investment downtown

The statistics might shock those who have seen the Ithaca Commons construction project — which went over-budget and has been delayed at least a year — draw sustained criticism.

“For the past three seasons the Ithaca Commons construction project has represented a challenge for our entire community and especially for the four hundred plus stores, restaurants, and office businesses that call downtown Ithaca home,” the DIA statement said.

“We have been greatly encouraged, however, by a number of data points showing that, despite all these challenges, downtown Ithaca‘s commercial core has remained strong and optimistic.”

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

Here are five new developments about the Ithaca Commons, according to the DIA:

1 — Ribbon cuttings for Rosie, Breathe

On Thursday, city officials held two ribbon cutting ceremonies: 1) For Rosie, an online grocery store that aims to add dozens of jobs in downtown Ithaca; and 2) For Breathe, a new women’s fashion store in Center Ithaca.

“Downtown Ithaca is the perfect location for building high-tech startups and businesses. We are excited about our new centrally-located office space that offers facilities that enable us to continue enhancing our ability to serve our customers at the highest levels,” said Nick Nickitas, co-founder and CEO of Rosie, in a statement.

Breathe owner Todd Nau also expressed excitement for his new store’s location. (Nau previously worked as a lead designer for Levi Strauss and Ralph Lauren, according to a statement.)

“We have a broad range of price points, from moderately-price cotton tanks and tees to luxury linens and silks. We are excited to be in the heart of Ithaca on the new Commons,” Nau said.

Click on the Ithaca Voice Story Database to learn more. Stories on this topic are filed under “Ithaca Commons construction project.”
Click on the Ithaca Voice Story Database to learn more. Stories on this topic are filed under “Ithaca Commons construction project.”

2 — 40 ribbon cuttings since beginning of construction

“Since the start of construction in April 2013, the Downtown Ithaca Alliance has held ribbon cuttings for over forty new and expanded businesses on and around the Commons,” the DIA said in a statement on Wednesday.

Some of those businesses have closed or changed ownership, however, such as a short-lived tea shop on the Ithaca Commons and Gateway Kitchen, which is in the middle of changing hands.

The ribbon cutting for Breathe, held today. Photos courtesy of the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce

3 — Business valuation increases

According to the DIA, the valuation of the downtown Ithaca commercial core has actually gone up — not down — during the construction project.

The total valuation of the district has increased by nearly $11 million, the statement said.

4 — Morgan Stanley group, Angry Mom Records, Madeleine’s group signs extension

In June, the Prybyl Farr Group at Morgan Stanley announced a 10-year lease extension and “extensive interior renovations” for its 5th floor suite a block off the Commons.

“We thought long and hard about location: downtown, the Route 13 corridor, or Lansing,” said Rick Prybyl, senior vice president, in a statement.

“In the end, we felt it was most important to be committed to downtown. This is where so many community service leaders and professional people work day in and day out. We are doing our modest part to give the city a more certain future.”

Angry Mom Records and Madeleine’s restaurant, both on the Commons, have also resigned leases committing to the downtown area.

“Even though the construction project has been a bit of a mess, the Commons represents everything that’s great about this town,” said George Johann, founder of Angry Mom Records, in a statement.

“It’s the opposite of the sprawl on Route 13 and one of the things that drew me to this town in the first place.”

Jeff Stein

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