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Hour Town Archive: Cover Stories

Commons Destiny

February 1998

by Paul Glover

While driving to the Commons, you might hear radio ads reminding you that Pyramid Mall, Tops and Wegman's are even closer, by car. Those places have nice orderly shops and orderly shoppers, free parking, and it's warm there. You slow down to consider. Which way do you go?

Amid the Commons shops are occasional festivals and live entertainment, political rallies, and easygoing informality. We run into friends, and meet new ones. There are also empty store windows and lively teenagers there.

Many of those who own property and sell goods along the Commons, and those who own the Commons (the public), are nowadays concerned about your shopping decisions. On the one hand, several members of the mayor's hand-picked Commons Design Review Committee prefer to remove the Commons, plowing people aside and installing a street so that cars can park near stores. These folks recall Ithaca's downtown 50 years ago, when stores were full and parking meters sang with nickels. They believe that restoring 60 parking meters along State Street would recapture lost retail glory.

Fifty years ago, however, Ithaca's downtown was the only major shopping center within 20 miles. Since then, the Ithaca Plaza became this area's first shopping mall (1949), Atwater's grocery left downtown (1952), the hospital moved to West Hill (1958), Seneca/Green traffic was split around State Street (1957), Route 13 was carved up to Lansing (1963) and Jamesway soon pulled city residents to Triphammer for bargains, Ithaca College left downtown to South Hill (1963-1967), the K-Mart building entered the wetlands (1967), the public library moved four blocks farther away (1968), East Hill Plaza intercepted East Hill residents (1972), the Commons itself was installed to confront mall competition (1974), the Farmer's Market was evicted from the Commons (1976), Pyramid mall lured even more City residents from downtown (1976), the downtown YMCA burned (1978), Tops opened (1980), the Department of Social Services was sent to West Hill (1986), Wegman's arrived and began to overpower many small local retailers (1987), and it later became the area's dominant retail food center (1997).

Therefore, these plans to rip out the Commons and replace it with street and parking spaces would today merely open another route to Wegman's. The former Commons would become another dull section of East State Street, and could become almost as abandoned as West State Street. There are of course many pedestrian malls which have failed, yet one needn't travel far (Geneva, Elmira, Binghamton, Cortland) to see failed Main Streets either.

Rather than attack the Commons with jackhammers, let's start over with the basic question: What do people really want? By doing a focused survey, we might discover that what people want, especially in winter (and we have 9 chilly months here), are such things as warmth, light, plants, color, live music, play areas, good food, sensuality, novelty, information, comfortable walking, people-watching, and companionship.

Thus to make our Commons a popular retail center, we would make it a popular community center. Designed by the community (like a Leathers playground), we'd provide what people want, emphasizing features malls don't offer. So here are recommendations:

First, for the money required to rip out the Commons and put a street there (estimated roughly at $500,000, by City Engineer Bill Grey), we could dome at least part of the Commons, creating an arboretum and solarium to the rooftops, within framed glass. This enclosure, featuring stained glass waterfalls at Commons entryways, including seasonal themes such as stained glass autumn leaves and snowflakes (with dramatic solar-electric spotlighting), would use double-walled heat-retaining polygel, or translucent aerogel, which could be folded back during warm weather (see Ithaca Money 7/92), and retain firefighting access. The hardware.

∑ Quit complaining about the Commons teens and organize them as performance assets. Despite appearances, some are among the area's most talented young artists, writers, scholars, acrobats and musicians. * Arrange some of the benches such that people are encouraged to speak with one another. * Allow dogs on leashes, and fine the owners who don't clean up.

∑ Provide a quiet room for meditation/prayer and relaxing. *

Establish a primary medical clinic and/or Wellness Center as an anchor enterprise, for Ithaca's aging population (as a candidate for City Council in 1973, this writer proposed this clinic where Center Ithaca now stands (Journal 7/28/73).

∑ Bring the State Theatre back to life. Pack that house weekly.

By making space for everything fun and functional, we'd be making downtown an essential place to be. We'd attract not merely "shoppers," but humans who shop. What kind of humans are these?

The present Commons retail vacancies largely reflect cultural change. Successful Commons stores have followed Ithaca's transition away from white Reader's Digest America (and from farm to urban) toward a cosmopolitan, multiethnic mix of students and immigrants, boomer escapees from bigger cities with their kids and grandkids, plus blue collar workers who have long owned homes here, and feisty old timers who haven't fled to suburbs. Most of these city folks seem to have in common that they value their individuality -as people willing to explore new styles-who regard themselves as creators and citizens rather than just consumers.

Thus, chain stores fail on the Commons (like McDonald's, Taco Bell, Izard's, B. Dalton Books, Pizza Hut) not for lack of cars, but for lack of interest. Dozens of unique homegrown specialty gift and food stores are already doing well on the Commons. Some, like Viva Taquerža and Wild-ware, are expanding. There are 20,000 people within 10 blocks of the Commons who are looking for something fresh.
There are more who would visit: there are suburbanites yearning for genuine human experience rather than bland shopping. And there are tourists who want to experience urban excitement. They're also looking for more than shopping. They say, 'show us how you're special.'

Woolworth's might be reclaimed as a centerpiece of community economic development-the Ithaca Trade Center-containing, for example, GreenStar Co-op and an enlarged Alternatives Federal Credit Union. Both of these enterprises recycle their money within Ithaca. There is so much room in that building that we could house as well the Wellness Center and HOUR Town store. Similarly a re-use and recycling center can recapture millions of dollars value of new and like-new brand-name goods from departing students, for re-sale to locals at bargain prices.

So these are the Commons' new foundation-that the Commons welcome the spirit of this can-do city to continually reshape downtown for our broader civic aims, and that it serve as an incubator for hometown creativity.

Also essential to Commons revival, in any form, are rents low enough to promote bootstrap enterprises. This is accomplished by charging a vacancy tax on storefronts empty six months or more, to compensate the City for lost sales tax revenues. For example, shops empty six months might have property tax increased 25%; full-year vacancies would add 50% tax; eighteen months 75%; two years 100%. This tax (invoked elsewhere when inflation rates and local unemployment are within specified ranges) would force rents lower, to fill shops, and would encourage property sales to landlords less greedy.

We can moreover add hundreds of residences above shops. These would be urbanites eager to live close to culture, stores, employment, colleges and nature, and who like to walk and use abundant transit. According to Joan Bokaer of Eco-Village, this would be part of a larger plan (being developed with Citizen's Planning Alliance) for making downtown a thriving urban center. We'd walk her greenway park along Six-Mile Creek, between the Tompkins County Museum and Cayuga Street.

She regards trollies as essential to this plan. Until 1935, there was a trolley bringing townfolk downtown along Tioga Street, and students downtown via Eddy/State Streets. This can be installed within two years, according to Marc Cramer, financial consultant for the San Diego trolley (now a rental agent for Center Ithaca). More than transportation, trollies can put Ithaca on the map as the San Francisco of the east. Riding them becomes an essential Ithaca experience, capturing for our town center every visitor to central New York, every parent who brings kids to college, and most students looking for something new to do (see HOUR Town's trolley article 7/92 at http://www.lightlink.com/crisbill/cpa/trolley.html). Cramer also suggests that tour buses be encouraged to stop along the Commons.

The roads around the Commons prevent access even while they encourage it. Cars surround the Commons like sharks in a moat, discouraging pedestrian and bicycle entry by the 20,000 people within ten blocks. These 20,000 seldom drive five or ten blocks to the Commons, to hunt for parking and pay for it. They're reluctant to drive or to walk. Therefore safe bike access, along wide bike lanes (Tioga & Cayuga, West State, etc) can make the Commons a family destination again.

These plans to make downtown more pedestrian, bike and transit friendly, and generally more energy-efficient, would not only make our urban lives healthier, more convenient, less expensive, more humane, more fun, less stressful, and lower our taxes (2/3 of the City's budget subsidizes cars). They would be good business.

We should proceed without depending on City Hall. Present department heads and elected officials, though decent people, seem rooted in a past that doesn't work. The present City Council thus far appears overall more conservative (top-down business development, development for sales-tax' sake, pro-highway, anti-bicycle, convert open space to industrial parks, reduce social spending) than perhaps any since 1968. And many staff and officials assume you're too lazy to move anywhere without a car: 'people love their cars,' they often say.

While City Hall continues to assume that cars are the only practical conveyance for economic development, larger numbers of Ithacans understand that bike, transit and pedestrian development are more practical, since they'd attract here visitors and new residents who yearn for this kind of urban life. The first American cities to move boldly in this direction will bring new wealth, new talent, and receive worldwide attention.

During the December snowfall, when cars were banned, city streets quickly filled with sledders, skiers, walkers and even bicyclists. The only downtown restaurant open (Basics) was packed. People were glad to reclaim their city, replacing car dominance with quiet streets & fellowship.

Why is the Commons important? Because it focuses our community identity. At its best, our marketplace becomes a real place, where flesh-and-blood people trade hand-to-hand the goods they've made, where they learn to trust one another, even becoming friends and lovers. Such markets are the opposite of the global economy, where people are disposable. Local economies created by the general public (such as Ithaca HOURS and the Farmer's Market) highlight our beauty as individuals.

You're invited to plan our Commons future. The Commons Online Committee (COCOM) has been having discussions since this year began. Everyone is welcome to become a member of the Committee, by writing to majordomo@lightlink.com and writing in the body of the message: subscribe commons-l <your address> (that's COMMONS-L).


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