Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Utica's Not-So-Green Master Plan* . . .

*[This is the un-edited version of my article for the September 2010 Utica Phoenix which was shortened due to space constraints.]

Utica's much anticipated Master Plan finally has been released to the public.  Clearly, a new master plan was overdue, with the last being 50 years ago, following another 10 years earlier.  One of the first, written by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. in 1908, guided Utica's development for the first half of the 20th Century, helping to propel Utica in an orderly fashion to a city of 100,000.

The importance of a master plan cannot be overstated.  A root cause of many of Utica's problems, such as population loss, poverty, declining education levels, high taxes and fees, and blight, is the significant decline of private-sector economic activity within Utica's borders. Without the means to an income,  people leave. As Utica evolves in the future,  government and private initiatives need coordination (not partnership) to reinforce each other and avoid waste, which will encourage growth of  the private-sector economy.  A good master plan fosters coordination by providing an easily understandable vision of the future that informs government leaders of priorities, while allowing private entities to see where they fit in.  A good master plan speeds government decision making and makes its actions more predictable, permitting private investors to calculate what they need to do to improve their own chances for success. A good master plan produces an environment where private activity can sustain itself with a minimum of government intrusion and without the infusion of taxpayer dollars.  A good master plan learns lessons from history and avoids the mistakes of the past.

Unfortunately, the Utica Master Plan provides no coherent vision and substitutes a cumbersome unpredictable process in its place.  The Plan injects government into what should be private-sector decisions and responsibilities.  The Plan repeats past mistakes, exacerbating sprawl with its associated costs and environmental degradation.  Overall, the Plan is more about a regional clique maintaining its control over Utica's future than about making it a better future.

Rendering the Electorate Irrelevant

The lack of vision in the Utica Master Plan becomes obvious upon comparison with the 1950 and 1960 plans.   The older plans had maps, which showed the existing and then the proposed street and transportation systems, parks, residential areas, industrial sites, other land uses, and public facilities.  Proposals were clearly defined and explained, many including cost estimates. The City Council knew exactly what it was approving when it approved the plans. The programs were clear to the officials who would implement them. If you wanted to build a manufacturing plant, start a restaurant or retail establishment, or buy a house, you could look at the master plan and know how your plans would be affected.  You would know if your street was going to be widened, buildings would be demolished, or a park built near by. 

Not so with the new Utica Master Plan. Except for a handful of poorly explained proposals that appear to be little more than excuses for glitzy artist renderings, the new Plan proposes a 'grab-bag' of vague concepts and “strategies” that seem uncoordinated and difficult to picture.  This appears intentional.

While Utica's older master plans could be read and understood by anyone, the new Utica Master Plan is like Hans Christian Andersen's The Emperor's New Clothes: only the 'worthy' who can interpret its  words will be able to see the “vision” it represents ... and most will be too embarrassed to say that they cannot.

Instead of saying what it means, the Utica Master Plan hides behind jargon to describe its intent. “Safescape principles” will enhance our sense of comfort and safety downtown.  “Transportation Demand Management strategies” will be implemented to increase the efficiency of the transportation system.  A lighting ordinance will be developed that is consistent with “Dark Sky principles.” “Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design” standards will be adopted for each neighborhood. The city will adopt a  “Complete Streets Policy”  and work with the NYS Dept. of Transportation to “incorporate context sensitive solutions” along the North-South Arterial.  These are only examples. Jargon obscures agendas. It will be anyone's guess how these “principles,” “strategies,” “standards,” and “solutions” will be translated into laws or bricks and mortar on the ground ... although certain insiders undoubtedly know.

The esoteric language implies that planning for the city's future is beyond the comprehension of mere elected officials and members of public bodies, such as planning or zoning boards, that would traditionally oversee the substance of a master plan. Instead, an elite corps, which will be given specialized training, will be appointed to interpret and implement the Utica Master Plan.  This corps will be spread among at least seventeen committees or groups that could be counted on the Master Plan's pages. The most important, the “Utica Master Plan Partnership Advisory Board Executive Committee,”  is placed by the Master Plan on an equal level with our elected Executive Branch and Common Council! 

The message is obvious.  The People's elected representatives cannot be trusted with decisions over Utica's future, so an elite group will be appointed to make these decisions for them, which the representatives will be expected to rubber-stamp.  This is rubbish, of course.  A good master plan needs neither interpretation nor specialized committees for its implementation.

The Utica Master Plan seems less a vision of the city's future and more an attempt to render the People's elected representatives irrelevant, while private agendas get advanced.

Intrusive Government

The Utica Master Plan boldly goes where other plans have not –  and should not – by imposing requirements or making taxpayers pay for things that have more to do with political agendas than city planning.

For example, the Utica Master Plan requires new housing developments to include 20% “affordable units,” and dictates that “affordable housing” will be created in areas that are not now low-to-moderate income census tracts, with the objective of achieving a “mixed income model” in city housing. 

First, these requirements presuppose a questionable need.  Whenever the Utica region is ranked against others in the country, the affordability of its housing is always a top selling point -- and everyone knows that most of the “affordable” housing is within city limits. (Is it just coincidence that “affordable housing” is proposed for Utica, while New Hartford's recent plan proposed 5-acre-minimum sized lots? Where did these ideas originate?) If anything, Utica needs more upscale housing – housing that would generate increased tax revenue for the city, while having a minimal impact on its services.  To compete, Utica needs more upscale choices, otherwise people looking for a better home will find them in New Hartford or another suburb, taking their tax dollars with them.

Second, these requirements purport to dictate to people that they must live in a neighborhood conforming to a “mixed income model.”  People resent government tinkering with their  freedom of association.  Past “social engineering” backfired and created more problems than it solved. For example, the “forced busing” of Utica school children not only failed to achieve a utopian vision of racial balance in Utica schools, it destroyed one of Utica's greatest assets, neighborhood schools, and led to parental dis-involvement, socialization/behavioral issues, a lot of wasted time on a bus, traffic congestion ... and flight to the suburbs.  

Third, the proposals presume to know the marketplace.  However, developers only come to an area where they can make a profit.  If the “mixed income model” is viable, there will be no need to write it into the Master Plan because people will do it.   If it is not viable, it will require either constant infusion of taxpayer cash to keep it going, or the government doing things itself. Either way will doom Utica, which is barely able to afford basic services (let alone prepare brownfields for redevelopment), to spend a ton of money on social experimentation.

Other proposals in the Utica Master Plan similarly take a paternalistic view of Utica residents and businesses. Government must tell them what is good for them, how they must do things, and/or government will do things for them. Under the Master Plan, government will promote “Green Building & Home Rehabilitation” in its neighborhoods by incorporating “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Neighborhood Development” principles, and provide "education and training" in that field.  Government will educate people on the “Slow Food Movement” and how to be a first-time home buyer. Government will develop a “restaurant row,” a tourism marketing plan and a tourism-readiness training program for staff in tourism industries, downtown business owners, and the community at large.  Government will provide grants and loans to people to bring their properties up to code.

People and private businesses will do these things on their own, if they make sense and are economically viable.  Requiring people to do these things, or having the government do these things for them, will impose unnecessary burdens and costs, favor one business or person over another, or foster dependency.  Government involvement or “partnering” with private businesses is especially troublesome.  It not only runs the risk of violating Article VIII of the State Constitution, it tempts the government to abuse its power – to crush its “partners'” competitors.

All these items smack of  “Big Government” – but geographically, Utica is small government. To avoid the costs and government manipulation, people will simply move to one of the surrounding towns like they have been doing for the past 50 years. How does that help Utica … or the region?

Unlearned Lessons

The Utica Master Plan notes Utica's population loss,  its low income and education attainment levels, low percentage of owner-occupied homes, the relocation of jobs to other parts of the country, and the relocation of employers and residents to suburban areas.  It goes into mind-numbing demographic detail with facts and figures to describe Utica's current state. It also touts the area's positives, presenting the sub-text that, if we just build on and promote the positives, all the problems will go away. 

Glaringly, the Plan entirely omits information that ordinary people would consider essential: the cost just to be here -- the cost of local government (taxes); the cost of power, water, sewer, etc.; the cost of local regulations; the foregoing costs computed as a percentage of local income and of property value; the foregoing costs and percentages as compared with other regions in the country.  Regardless of our beautiful landscape,  our relative freedom from natural calamities, our outstanding menu of outdoor activities, our rich and easily accessible cultural venues, our ethnic diversity, our great restaurants and other charms; and regardless of how much we improve and promote them; jobs, and the “creative class” that the Master Plan says it wants to attract, will not come to Utica until the cost of just being here is brought in line with the parts of the country that are growing.

By omitting the cost information, the Plan sidesteps the questions of  “Why are costs here so high?” and the inevitable “Who is responsible?” that follows.  Decisions of the past and their consequences, particularly ones at the local and regional levels, are left unexamined, allowing those who profited from them (including some key players in the drafting of the Master Plan) to continue undisturbed, while dooming Utica to extend its history of decline.            

Being “Green” Where It Really Counts

The Utica Master Plan paints itself  “green” by offering strategies to protect the environment.  While welcome, they are trivial compared to the environmental consequences of the Big Picture.

While Utica's major problem is economic decline, the Region's major problem is urban sprawl – and the two are directly linked.  Rolf Pendall in his Brookings Institute paper “Sprawl Without Growth – The Upstate Paradox” documented that urbanized acreage in Central NY grew 45% in the 15 years between 1982 and 1997, while the population fell.  You know from your own memory that this trend has continued in the 13 years since.  It does not take a Rhodes Scholar to know that, if a declining population spreads itself over twice the area, taxes for municipal services must skyrocket, making the region uncompetitive.   As people leave Utica, the fewer left behind must pay more to support what exists. Meanwhile, suburban jurisdictions must take on new expenses related to their “growth.” 

Sprawl imposes environmental costs on everyone.  People are deprived of potential food sources when farmland and orchards become shopping areas and parking lots.  Wildlife habitat is forever destroyed.  Storm water runoff increases, leading to flooding and water pollution. People must travel farther in their day-to-day errands, using more fuel and adding to air pollution. Traffic congestion and noise move into outlying areas.  Buildings are abandoned in the inner city, exposing people to vermin, hazardous materials, and fires. 

The Utica Master Plan fails to discuss sprawl.  That allows the Plan to ignore the local policy decisions that helped drive sprawl such as: (1) the configuration of the Arterial system, which simultaneously made city neighborhoods difficult to navigate, while paving the way to  undeveloped outlying areas; (2) the destruction of literally hundreds of tax-generating properties for Arterial and Urban Renewal projects, which forced relocations to outlying areas; (3) the “regionalization”  of the water and sewer systems, which uses Utica residents' fees to subsidize extension of services to outlying areas; (4) County programs, which offer incentives for development in outlying areas.  The Plan does not mention the State's proposed taking of 80 additional properties and closing off more streets for the N-S Arterial remake. The Plan is silent on County incentives for suburban and rural greenfield development.  Like old Urban Renewal, the Plan will destroy a stadium and a park with several ball fields, so they can be rebuilt elsewhere. The Plan will regionalize fire, EMT, and road and sewer maintenance so Uticans can support suburban development.   The Plan is for more sprawl because it continues the policies that helped to create it.  

Not the People's Plan
Since the Master Plan avoids a hard look at the policy decisions that contributed to economic decline and sprawl, the status quo will be maintained.  Many have benefited from that status quo.  Their fingerprints are all over the Plan … and the Utica Master Plan will keep them in control.      

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