The Utica Master Plan is in the news. After months of anticipation, draft recommendations have been made and revealed to the public for review and comment. You may love them or hate them, but what is important is that people are finally taking the initiative to map out Utica's physical layout, shaping the future for years to come.
The last 50 years in Utica have been shaped by the 1960 Master Plan, produced by a local Utica firm. That plan was strongly influenced by mid-20th century arterial highway and “urban renewal” ideas. We know how well those notions worked out. If anything, the last few decades should have taught us how important it is to get the plan right.
Both the arterials and urban renewal projects envisioned by the 1960 plan were a significant departure from Utica's first “Comprehensive Plan,” unveiled only 10 years earlier in 1950. That plan was produced after almost three years of work by the Bartholomew firm of St. Louis. Planning in Utica, however, goes back further.
In 1924 Utica adopted a comprehensive plan of Major Streets, Transportation, Recreation Facilities, and Zoning. Oriskany Street and portions of Broad Street, which were built over the old Erie Canal right-of-way, and many 1930s-era playgrounds and ball fields are the visible results of that plan.
Even earlier planning is found in Frederick Law Olmsted Jr's 1908 Report to the Utica Chamber of Commerce's Committee on Improving and Beautifying Utica. Mr. Olmsted, from Boston, championed parks and parkways; separate grades for railroads and streets (with the streets always on top so they would be open to the air); and several specific street additions or extensions. Olmsted's most significant recommendation is still visible today in the Parkway, although Mr. Olmsted would have had the Parkway almost encircle Utica on the east, south, and west.
Many of the streets and places, which give Utica its distinctive character, go back even earlier to the 19th century. While formal city plans from this era are unknown, comparisons of Utica's streets with those elsewhere suggest that many of these were likely planned as well and not accidental.
Our nation's capital,Washington, DC, is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Monumental buildings aside, strongly contributing to that city's beauty is its layout of streets: a traditional grid overlain by diagonal avenues intersecting at circles or squares. Except for the Georgetown section which pre-existed, Washington was a planned new city, originally laid out in the 1790s by a Frenchman, Pierre L'Enfant, who must have been inspired by the boulevards and circles of Paris, another “most beautiful” city. Whether it is Washington or Paris, the circles and squares, often adorned with monuments, fountains, and parks, provide places for people to gather and socialize. The boulevards or avenues connecting these places open up vistas in between, with long viewpoints ensuring a feeling of spaciousness even in a densely populated city. The network of circles/squares and connecting avenues provides a navigational frame-of-reference for pedestrians and vehicles alike. The regular geometry imposes a feeling of order and lends a “sense of place.” The human design is most obvious when viewed from the air (or Google Maps), with the landscape of both cities punctuated by central points of activity and streets radiating from them like rays from stars. In fact, the location of the Arch of Triumph, on a circle in Paris where twelve avenues meet, is called Place de l'Étoile, which translates to “Star Place.” Talk about a reference point!
Unlike Washington, Utica was not preplanned but was laid out in sections as it grew. Street locations were highly influenced by trade routes and geographic features. Nevertheless, Utica's street layout – as it existed prior to installation of the State's arterial system – strongly suggested a conscious effort to impose order using some of the same classic design elements found in Washington and Paris.
Bagg's Square (now under the North Genesee St. bridge) was Utica's historic activity center. From it, Genesee Street extended southwestward along a trading route. Legend has it that John Butterfield, founder of companies that became American Express and Wells Fargo, insisted that Genesee Street be wide enough for one of his stagecoaches with a full team of horses to be able to make a U-turn. Regardless of the origin, Genesee Street's width is an unusual feature in a city of Utica's size. As intersecting streets were constructed, they intersected on a diagonal rather than at 90 degrees, eventually turning Genesee Street into a street that cut diagonally across a grid. If this was not a conscious effort to shape urban spaces as those found along the avenues of Washington, DC, the effect was similar, creating angular open areas such as Ellen Hanna Park (at the intersection of Genesee and Seneca Sts.) or Franklin Square, or leading to angular buildings such as the Black River Systems building or the Triangle Coffee Shop. Genesee Street's diagonal placement, its width, and long uninterrupted vistas along its length speak of its importance to the region and make it the ideal parade route and place for celebrations. The street layout created distinctive spaces, which led to distinctive buildings, all of which distinguish Downtown Utica from cities such as Syracuse or Rochester and give it a unique “sense of place.”
Another feature suggesting conscious design is the placement of Rutger Park (known as “The Hill” in the old days) at the southern end of John St., the northern end being at Bagg's Square. The occupants of No. 3 Rutger Park would have had an unobstructed view directly down John St. into Bagg's Square – and vice-versa -- implying the importance of the occupants of the mansion on The Hill.
By 1840, Whitesboro, Varick, and Liberty Streets intersected next to Chenango Basin, which was the intersection of the Chenango and Erie Canals. State Street extended south from the basin to Oneida Sq. The roads and canals all coming together produced another important place for local activity, which became Oriskany Circle after Oriskany St. replaced the Erie Canal in the early 20th century.
Other places of activity where several streets intersect are Oneida Square, Steuben Park, and Chancellor Square, all joined together by Park Avenue. Genesee Street tied Oneida Square to Baggs Square to form the axis that became Downtown Utica. A bypass of Downtown was formed to the west of Bagg's Square by Whitesboro and State Streets intersecting at Oriskany Circle. A bypass of Downtown was formed to the east of Bagg's Sq. by Main Street intersecting Park Avenue at the old site of Fort Schuyler.
The geometry of the connections among these squares and circle bares some similarity to that found in Washington or Paris, which seems to reflect a conscious effort to create an orderly urban environment. There was no formal master plan back then. The citizens who were in the position to influence the positioning of new streets perhaps duplicated what they had seen elsewhere in their travels. They were Utica's first master planners, and their plan was what they placed on the ground.
Some of the original master plan has been lost. Bagg's Square, Oriskany Circle, and the northern portion of Park Ave. either do not exist or are unrecognizable because they were displaced by the arterial system. Likewise, Whitesboro Street has been broken apart for the same reason. Now these areas either cannot support activities or are in steep decline.
As Utica evolves in the future, both government and private initiatives need to reinforce each other to produce a better overall result rather than work cross-purposes to each other. A good master plan will produce synergies and help avoid wasted efforts. A good master plan will encourage redevelopment by providing a vision of the future that allows people to see where they might fit in and make their own success. It will also inject predictability in Utica's future redevelopment, permitting investors to calculate what they will need to do to improve their own chances for success.
However, to be a successful plan, it must incorporate the elements of good urban design, particularly regular and repeating geometric elements that will impose a sense of order and space not only on a block or neighborhood basis but over the whole city. Utica has some of those elements, which must be protected, reinforced, extended, and/or recreated.
You can be part of a new generation of master planners. As you look at the proposals of the current draft master plan, think of Washington, Paris, and other desirable, livable places that you may have seen. What is consistent with what those places have done? What is inconsistent? From your own experiences, do you see harmful things? Are beneficial things left out? How can you make the plan better?
Whatever you do, do not keep your opinion to yourself. Make yourself heard. Visit the Utica Master Plan at http://www.uticamasterplan.org.
[The above article was originally published in the May, 2010 "Utica Phoenix." Pick up the July Phoenix to read "Regionalization and Sustainable Infrastructure" -- an explanation why the area's "regionalization" practices are not sustainable.]