Monday, March 24, 2008

Utica Needs a Vision . . .

I've complained in the past about misguided (or worse) policies of Oneida County and certain Towns that have created in the Greater Utica area one of the worst cases of urban sprawl in the state. While the citizens within the City of Utica are paying a disproportionate share of the cost of all of this, the City of Utica itself is not blameless.

Utica was the "hub" of the area and, according to O-D surveys months ago, a majority of residents still want Utica to be the "hub." Indeed, the desire and need for a central "hub" will increase with every dollar per gallon that the price of gas increases. But has Utica done all that it could do to maintain its position as a hub?

At one time, Utica was "filled up" or "land locked" with little room for development, owing to its small 16 square mile size. However, take a walk in virtually any section of town, and you see huge gaping "holes" -- vacant lots -- or dilapidated buildings that should become lots. What is to become of these spaces?

With the infusion of federal funds, some homes were rehabilitated, and some new ones were built. The old Washington School site on Oswego Street in west Utica sports some lovely new homes -- BUT THEY LOOK OUT OF PLACE. It's not that the styles of the houses are that unusual. It's not their colors. It's not even the fact that they are new. It took a while for me to figure out why these nice homes stuck out like a sore thumb: It is their setbacks and spacing. What seems to have happened is that the setbacks and spacings required for new developments appear to have been applied to this older neighborhood -- making the half-block site look entirely different from the area around it. In the end, the effect detracts from the niceness of the new homes, and somehow makes the older homes nearby look less attractive. There was no vision for how the new development would fit its surroundings.

An older example of discordant development is the now-vacant mirrored cube sitting on Rutger Park. I guess the idea was that if the older homes were reflected in the glass, somehow the newer building would blend in . . . but it didn't.

Downtown now has many opportunities for redevelopment . . . especially the old Washington Courts site. I believe about a year ago an industrial facility was considering locating in the area, but the owner changed his mind. Maybe that was a blessing in disguise. Somehow a factory facility just does not seem to go with an area that is within walking distance from the Aud and Genesee Street. (That probably would have been a nice location for "The Hartford" -- especially with other insurance companies near by -- but we all know where that went.)

No one wants to invest in a particular spot without having some idea of what the neighbors in the future may be like. Planning, zoning, and some minimum design requirements that are harmonious with existing structures can help. Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo has gone through a resurgence with design standards.

Aside from the architecture of some of its older buildings, Utica's layout of streets is a strong design element that needs to be drawn upon. How many other cities have a downtown boulevard as grand as Genesee, cutting boldly diagonally across the street grid? Let's hope that the County does not turn Park Avenue -- which is another street with potential -- into a parking lot .

Utica has a lot of potential, but it needs to come up with a vision for how it wants redevelopment to occur. The citizens need to be a part of developing the vision.

Let the process begin.


Rebecca Mecomber said...

Good ideas. I am in favor of Utica being the "hub," but it needs a lot of improvement before we can even entertain that thought. How did Utica get in such a mess, anyway? (I'm not from this area).

Secondly, I thought a business park was going to be built at Washington Courts. When I attended Genesis Group meetings years ago, a developer and MV EDGE came in with grand plans to boot out the black people from their homes over there so the rich guys could develop a business park, for the Hotel Utica. What happened to that? Hope all those displaced folks found homes again...

Strikeslip said...

How did Utica get into the mess? That's a good question. Utica really is no different than Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo and Niagara Falls (well, maybe it is better off than Niagara Falls). The similarity is due to the fact that it is located in New York State. All of these cities are in decline, victims of the dysfunction in Albany.

The other cause of the problem is what is playing out in New Hartford right now -- greed. The "system" is being used to serve private business interests rather than the well being of the residents who live there.

Rebecca Mecomber said...

I was always under the impression that Utica was languishing before the rest of state really took a nosedive. I have lived in 12 Upstate counties, and in the central NY ones (Onondaga, Oswego, Delaware, Chenango), Utica always had a stigma of being "backwards" and uncouth. That was the general impression from other NY areas. I vaguely remember hearing of Utica's history of corruption (Sin City) and nepotism in the 70s and 80s, years after Rufus Elefante.

Strikeslip said...

That is what you hear, but I don't believe that to be true.

I cannot say that Utica was any worse than any of the other upstate cities for corruption (and that would be the "greed" part anyway that you see shaping New Hartford today). If you look at populations of upstate cities, the populations of all those I mentioned have taken nosedives since the 1960s, reflective of changes in state policies.

Syracuse fared better than Utica from the 60s to 2000 because Syracuse was picked for Interstate 81. Losing that road was a big loss for Utica.

As far as the Sin City reputation -- yes that was a black eye -- but Utica was absolutely BOOMING during those days. That was the Utica I grew up in. The schools were first rate, the Aud was built, the Philip-Johnson designed MWP art museum opened, Utica College moved to its new campus, MVCC constructed all its Edward Durrell Stone designed buildings . . . Utica also completely recovered from losing all its knitting mills to the south by bringing in what was then "hi tech" industry. There was a LOT going on. And while a lot of people complained about Rufie, you have to look at what was accomplished. The general population was much better off in those days --- and maybe some of the other places in NYS were just jealous!

Rebecca Mecomber said...

I guess it depends on what your definition of "success" is. "Booming" economy... on whose backs? I've read there was a prostitution ring and drug ring, too.

I don't think success is necessarily economic good times. If that were so, Hitler should have remained in power...

Strikeslip said...

I did not use the word "success" . . . but that is what Utica was circa 1960 . . . a success . . . although we did not know it at the time because all we kept reading about in the OD was how bad Utica was.

Again, most people prospered. There were plenty of jobs. (I forgot to add we had Jet service in those days -- I remember well when the first 110 passenger BAC 111s flew into the old Oneida County Airport).

Utica was far from perfect . . . but compared with today, it was Nirvana.

Strikeslip said...

PS . . .There was a lot of ethnic bigotry in those days, too, that contributed to the negative perception of Utica. I prefer not to dwell on that, but suffice it to say, if you were of Italian descent, you were NOT WELCOME in the Yahnundasis. Hopefully that is behind us.

Rebecca Mecomber said...

LOL, now don't go beating the tribal drums here.. I grew up in an Italian family and many Syracusians and others in the state are Italian... As with everything, ethic bigotry existed then as it exists now, but Utica has this knack of publicizing her problems, and I don't think this is a new development.

Maybe part of Utica's dilemma is that everyone is seeking to recreate the old 'glory days,' not realizing that the world has changed, and taking into consideration that maybe those days really weren't glory days. To say that around here is blasphemous, so I risk a ton of hate mail... but maybe Utica should stop looking back, stop looking at the problems, and start doing something.

Anonymous said...

Try this one on for size . . . I grew up in Cornhill, with an Italian surname, attending UFA (Utica Free Academy) and being referred to as “White Trash” and ostracized by the other students that resided in West and South Utica. Despite the stigmatism of being referred to as “White Scum,” I feel that this may have motivated me to strive for as much education I could afford. Ultimately I just may be better for the experience and still have a special place in my heart for the City of Utica to this day.

Strikeslip said...

People who wish to "Recreate the old 'glory days'" are people who are old enough to remember what they were like, and who use the "old days" as a bench mark . . . as a way of telling whether or not we are progressing.

People who think this is a bad thing are people who are either complacent with the present, or who do not understand Greater Utica's potential. As long as either type prevails in leadership positions, Greater Utica will continue to underperform.

We have no better index for determining if we are making progress than our own past.

Rebecca Mecomber said...

If the corruption of the 1960's is the measuring stick for Utica's so-called prosperity, then Utica gets what she deserves: a ruling elite, thuggery, and vice; but as long as the people are fat and happy with their blanket of jobs and pretty streets, all is well. Nirvana.

Strikeslip, I fear your expectations are much, much too low.

There can be no liberty, freedom, and lasting economic success where there is no virtue. Perhaps rather then begging for the alms of economic success which will never last and always comes at a high price, Utica should repent and seek virtue. First things first. Acts 17:22-31

Strikeslip said...

Mrs. M -

The "corruption of the 60s" is certainly not the measuring stick for Utica's prosperity -- but the prosperity, of the 60s is the measuring stick of what Utica is capable of.

Yes, we must root out corruption wherever it is - - - and right now it is fat dumb and happy in New Hartford.