Commons in 1975

When the original Commons was completed in summer 1975 Stu Lewis had already been in the retail clothing business on East State Street for 19 years and his father, Irv, had been there before him in the space now occupied by Benjamin Peter.

Lewis, who eventually had six stores in the area, watched the advent of interior malls in the 1960s with interest. When the Thaler family opened the Triphammer Mall in 1963 they invited him to open a store there. The Clothes Horse, which specialized in women’s clothing and was decorated like the interior of a horse barn, was an immediate success.

In the early 1970s Lewis and his fellow haberdasher Joe Cosentini went to visit their old schoolmate Ed Conley, the mayor of Ithaca. “We said to him, ‘The malls are coming. Let’s create a pedestrian mall. The students will love it,’” recalled Lewis. “We went before the [Common] council to make our plea, and the council went for it. We told them, ‘You build, and bond it, and we, the retailers, will pay it off with a business improvement district.’ That’s what did it for them. But we also told them that we wanted something back. We wanted parking ramps—that’s how the Seneca Street and Green Street ramps got built—with two hours of free parking, and we wanted them to clean and take care of the mall.”

In Lewis’s recollection most of the downtown merchants were in favor of the idea of the Commons. One holdout, he said, was Jack Slade, who ran Mayer’s Smoke Shop. “He was vocally against it,” Lewis said. “So, you know what I did? I invited him to join our committee, and in six months he was converted.”

Lewis pitched the idea of the pedestrian mall to Historic Ithaca as well, and the non-profit was all for it. They too began to lobby the city. In the middle of this civic movement the City of Ithaca hired a new director of planning.

“The idea was already in place when I came to town in April 1973,” said Thys VanCort, who was in short hired to be the new planning director. “When I was interviewed the told me about it.” VanCort was told by city officials that they idea of a pedestrian mall downtown had been around since the early 1960s as part of an urban renewal plan (finished in 1964) developed by the firm Kelly, Parsons, Canfield & Stein. All of the principals were professors or emeritus professors at Cornell in the college of architecture or the department of city and regional planning. VanCort said that Historic Ithaca was well aware of the plan. 

With the planning, preservation, and merchant communities all urging them forward it does not seem surprising that city government moved forward.

“It was a city project,” said VanCort. “The mayor and the council wanted it, although some of them were ambivalent, as were many other people. There were only about a dozen of these in the country at the time, including the one in Poughkeepsie, which didn’t actually work. Many of them have been subsequently taken out. The ones that persisted tended to be in college towns like Boulder, Burlington, and Ithaca.”

In 1973 the city hired an architecture firm, but they were dissatisfied with the early design ideas presented by them. So they instead hired Anton Egner’s firm. “Bob Leathers worked for Egner at the time,” said VanCort, “and I think he did a lot of the work on the project.” Cornell landscape architecture professor Marv Adelman was also brought in as a consultant. In order to come up with a design for the Ithaca pedestrian mall, a group of Ithacans visited some of the other existing walking streets.

“Minneapolis had done one,” said Egner, “so we went out to look at that. It was blocks long and did have a traffic lane that allowed only the city buses through. Ottawa [Ontario] had done one; it was small, but it was effective.” Egner was already interested in pedestrian malls when he became the architect for the Ithaca Commons. “I had given a talk to the board of something or other in Corning, and that lit up a few lights.” Egner recalled that the architecture firm O’Brien and Taub (who later became the “O” and the “T” in HOLT Architects) had done a study of downtown Ithaca and were given to do the job, but were out of the project a few months later.

Egner’s firm went to work putting together important elements of the pedestrian mall into a pleasing arrangement, combining the practical with the aesthetic. A Commons committee, which included VanCort, Mayor Conley and several merchants, met every Wednesday to talk about features to include in the plan. 

“We had runaway trucks even then,” he said, “so we designed [the east end] for them.” The traffic lanes for emergency vehicles were put along both sides rather than down the middle where the road had been. “We had a big center space for public events,” he continued, “although it didn’t have the [trolley] steel rails in it at first.” They added a playground and allées of trees. “We made sure the pavilion had back access and a ramp, and put in a little arena and some picnic tables.”

The choice of materials, said Egner, was determined by Ithaca’s weather and its populace. “It was built to be rugged,” he said. It lasted from 1974 until 2013. “It lasted longer than most roads do,” said the architect.

The project went out to bid in early spring 1973. “We got a really good bid back,” said VanCort. “It was about $10,000 under $750,000, which is what we’d budgeted for all the ‘hard’ costs—materials, construction. The total cost—and I remember this number—was $1.135 million, which included bonding expenses and architecture, all the ‘soft’ costs.” VanCort said that the next bidder came in 50 percent higher, so the general contract went to Dave Streeter from Elmira. “When we got the bid, we were ecstatic,” said the planner. “We knew we didn’t need to go back for more money.” 

VanCort said there was a push by the merchants to postpone the project at that point because the Rothschild Building the Green Street parking ramp were being built that summer and some felt it would be too much construction. “I was strongly opposed to a delay,” said VanCort. “I felt we needed to get this out of the way. There were dire predictions that half the stores would close. In fact, only two stores closed and the others said they were just not good merchants. Others said they had their best year ever because of the curiosity factor. There were no fences; people could watch the construction, and they did.” 

“While it was under construction,” said Lewis, “we carried out all these marketing and merchandizing ideas. We just had all these promotions going all the time. And people came.”

They broke ground in May or June of 1974. By Thanksgiving it was 85 percent complete, said VanCort.

As with the most recent rebuilding, the mid-1970s project started by fixing things that were underground. “We did a lot of utilities work,” said Egner, “including replacing the main sewer line.” When they began work they had no idea what was where underground, according to VanCort; there were no records. 

“We discovered a fire pit,” said Egner. “It was 12-feet wide, 20-feet long, and 20-feet deep. The fire trucks used to fill up [their tank trucks] there. It was kind of a shock to discover it. We talked about roofing it over, but in the end we just filled it in.”

“We replaced all the water services to the buildings,” said VanCort. “We didn’t replace the [water] main because we thought it would never need work. We did replace all the storm drains.” But one of the reasons for digging up the entire Commons in 2013 was to replace the joints that held together the water main.

“There was not much work done with communications wires and electricity,” VanCort said of the 1970s project. “More work was done underground this time. But, you know, we had no drawings of what was underground.”

VanCort has been following the current project and heard about some of the complications encountered. “I’ve heard complaints that the drawings they had didn’t match the existing conditions,” said the retired planning director. “That’s because alterations were made in the field. We found all these buildings with parts of their basements sticking out into the street.” Although these discoveries were made in the field, they didn’t find their way into the engineering plans that were preserved.

By the end of the 1974 construction season in November, the Commons was not complete, but it was ready to use. All the pavement and planters were in, but the future Bernie Milton Pavilion had not yet been installed and there were roofs and lamps missing.

VanCort was the “project captain,” representing the city on the site, but he was only called in when there was a problem. He spent far more time in meetings. “We set up a client committee,” he said. “These were stakeholders that would oversee the design. It included members of the downtown merchants association, the downtown women’s merchants—which was a separate thing—the area beautification council, members of Common Council, and the planning board. It was a pretty cool group.”

VanCort was happy with the project when it was completed. “The plant materials almost all survived,” he said, “which is unusual. We spent the money to put in 4- to 5-inch [diameter] trees.” But when it was done, not everyone was overjoyed.

“A lot of people were still reluctant to come downtown,” he said. “This included older people who don’t want to a parking garage, which are pretty rare in a rural area like this.” The naysayers at the outset had claimed that there would be no commerce without car traffic. VanCort pointed to all the upstate towns with a state highway that runs right through and yet have storefronts full of “tattoo parlors and lawyers’ offices. “Being able to park in front of the store is an illusion,” he said.

“The utilities—the water and sewer replacement—was paid for by the city,” said VanCort, “and the owners of the property paid for 85 percent of the cost through a tax benefit district. We devised a formula for this. There were a lot of ideas proposed. Should it be based on property tax, on square footage, on retail square footage, on foot count—which would have been impossible to administer—and we had to decide whether to make it progressive or regressive.”

In the end it ended up being fairly regressive and on front footage with a correction for depth—with deeper buildings paying more—and another correction for corner buildings, which had more frontage. VanCort said that, in addition to businesses right on the former East State Street, storefronts within 250 feet on streets leading away from the Commons were also included. Business further from the Commons paid less. Since these latter merchants did not get the direct benefit of being on the Commons, their sidewalks were rebuilt shortly after the East State Street project was completed.

“People grew to love it,” VanCort said of the new pedestrian mall. “The downtown was completely different than it is now. There was no hardware store or grocery, but everything else was there. There were six general merchandise stores: Rothschilds, Woolworths, Newberry’s, Montgomery Ward, J.C. Penney, and a Sears catalog store.” When the Pyramid Mall opened, it took the last three.

“There was a store that just sold men’s work clothes,” said Van Cort. In addition, there were three men’s clothing stores, five women’s clothing stores, and two liquor stores. “Now it has become more just gifts and comparison shopping,” said the planner. He did not think that development along Route 13 played a role. “The die was already cast; the big thing was the building of the Pyramid Mall.”

VanCort believes that building the Commons probably helped downtown merchants withstand the advent of interior malls, but he has no numbers to back that up. “You need strong residential neighborhoods,” he said, “but a strong core is essential to a city.” §

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