ITHACA, N.Y.—The Aurora Streatery has quickly become a stable of warm-weather downtown activities, from the jovial, outdoor community atmosphere to the always entertaining (and sometimes comical) musical acts that perform regularly nearby.
In 2020 and 2021, the Streatery has been established on the 100 block of North Aurora Street, with concrete barriers guarding the two entries of the block, allowing restaurants to push their outdoor dining areas to the curbs in outside of their storefronts and making the street a pedestrian walkway. In both years, it was held every day from late May to mid-November.
Yet, an actual study seems necessary since the city can’t continue holding the Streatery each year, because the Streatery was only initially meant as a relief for businesses during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. That was when many businesses, especially restaurants, were suffering mightily under the strain of indoor dining restrictions and general fear of eating indoors. Its popularity, and the continued pandemic, brought it back in 2021, and the city has eyed it going forward as well.
Thus, the City Administration Committee held a discussion Wednesday analyzing the feasibility of a study, which would cost around $120,000 and have to be done quite quickly in order to finish it before the next potential Streatery season comes around.
It was a lively debate, and the study proposal actually seemed destined to fail in committee, leaving the future of the Streatery in a fair amount of doubt. Members, though most of them fond of the Streatery, questioned the wisdom of speeding a study through consultants and whether the outdoor dining center has a bonafide economic impact.
But Mayor Svante Myrick, an outspoken proponent of the Streatery, stepped in late in the discussion to ask that a decision be held until the December Common Council meeting to provide information that could possibly address committee members’ concerns.
“I don’t want to miss out on the economic impact of the Streatery,” Myrick said. “We don’t have exact [economic] numbers, the last numbers I remember were from when we expanded the sidewalks on Aurora Street about a decade ago to allow for that outdoor dining. What we found then was that each additional chair that was outside added about $10,000 in revenue.”
Indeed, the discussion then ended with a vote to table the matter until next meeting with only committee member George McGonigal objecting.
But to begin the talks, City of Ithaca Transportation Engineer Erin Cuddihy introduced the tasks of whatever consultant is hired and spoke about the two sides of the Streatery coin: first, it does seem to be an economic boon to the restaurants in that corridor; but second, that the benefits come with costs.
“And on the other hand, there are numerous concerns,” Cuddihy said. “We get a lot of phone calls from people about the traffic issues, parking issues, especially about loading issues. […] And the safety concerns of having people walking in the street at the bottom of the Aurora Street hill.”
Cuddihy said it would be best to address all of those concerns if the Streatery is going to be held again in 2022 and going forward. An expedited study would be conducted, which would consider loading and parking evaluations, development of alternative loading zones, assessment of current loading activity, traffic diversion analysis and overall design of the Streatery.
Cuddihy also touched upon a thought that has been often talked about: making the Streatery a permanent fixture that could be open all-year-round, with more permanent changes made to the area and, in Cuddihy’s words, extending the Commons.
“We would have the option in the future, if we wanted to make the Streatery an extension of the Commons as some have discussed, meaning raise the Streatery up to sidewalk level and have it be closed permanently, we would have the option to extend this project further into the future,” Cuddihy said, “for actual engineering design for the Commons extension and street-scape. If we don’t wish to do that, and want to do it on a basis where the street could be opened and closed at different times of day or different days of the week, we have the ability to continue in that direction as well.”
Committee member Graham Kerslick suggested that the Downtown Ithaca Alliance be approached for funding help to mitigate some of the $120,000 expense, an option that has not yet been broached.
More discussion followed, including committee member George McGonigal voicing his and residents of his district’s concerns with the Streatery and its impact on traffic in their neighborhood.
“Among my constituents on South Hill, it is generally despised,” McGonigal said. “It’s so difficult to get off of South Hill. […] It was a nightmare, double-nightmared by the fact that the bridge over South Cayuga Street was closed this summer.”
He posited that business might not be all that different with the Streatery than without it, at one point suggesting the Streatery be shut down in 2022 to study the impact, especially because the street itself normally is empty aside from people walking to and from specific destinations (all of the patrons are seated at tables on the sidewalk). He did, though, acknowledge that it was a smart relief measure during the spring and summer of 2020. Now, though, he said it just seems unnecessary, particularly in light of having to spend $120K to study its worth.
Committee member Ducson Nguyen followed, expressing his disappointment that the study costs wouldn’t be covered by ARPA funds (which City Controller Steven Thayer confirmed), but supported the Streatery and moving forward with the study. He said the best way to improve and even perfect the Streatery is to complete a study, thereby optimizing the experience for patrons and hopefully reducing the problems for those opposed to the Streatery on logistics and convenience grounds.
Committee chair Deb Mohlenoff, while not signaling total opposition to the study, said she thought it would be best for the study to go through a normal capital projects process instead of being “rushed through,” which could also grant some insight into how much any subsequent costs could be—such as, how much it might be to raise the street to the sidewalk, or other lesser actions. She was also worried that it showed favoritism to restaurants on Aurora Street as opposed to other places downtown—advocating instead that outdoor dining guidelines be implemented into a larger Transportation Plan.
Mohlenoff agreed with Myrick’s suggestion to wait and gather more information, reiterating that she would be interested to learn the overall impact of more welcoming outdoor dining rules that could be written into code and applied citywide.
“If there’s any additional information on what could expanding outdoor seating look like as a general rule all around the downtown area that might be interesting to learn as well,” Mohlenoff said.