Friday, July 30, 2010

A $Million A Job . . . and Threatening Freedom

A $Million A Job . . . That's just about what New York taxpayers are being soaked to "create" jobs at the GlobalFoundaries chip plant in Malta. At a $Million a Job, that's enough to pay a worker $100,000 a year for 10 years . . . or $50,000 a year for 20 years.  The state appears to have committed the state's taxpayers to paying for this company's entire workforce.

This is nonsense . . . Blogger Jim Ostrowski out of the Buffalo area knows it, and he decided to do something about it by suing the state to stop the handouts. According to this YNN Story, the suit just received a green light at an appellate level.
Ostrowski said, "Those businesses that can't survive without subsidies, should go bankrupt fellas."

His basic argument is that the state Constitution forbids state money from going to private corporations.
Readers of this blog are familiar with that argument . . . It's been made here on several occasions in relation to:
 Article VIII of the State Constitution §1 provides:
"No county, city, town, village or school district shall give or loan any money or property to or in aid of any individual, or private corporation or association, or private undertaking, or become directly or indirectly the owner of stock in, or bonds of, any private corporation or association . . . "
The YNN Story indicates that the provision was added to the Constitution because people were upset that their money was going to support the railroads; however, ever since, courts have expanded what was allowed if it created a "public benefit" . . . We have seen this "public benefit" argument used to justify taking land from one person and giving it to another in Auburn.

Railroads create a clear "public benefit," but the constitutional provision was designed specifically to prevent public funds from being given to them and to other private entities. Almost any activity can be argued as somehow creating a "public benefit." When the power of government is used to take from one and give to another, to favor one person's activities over another's, that is oppression. . . .   It is obvious that somewhere along the line the courts have gotten off the track.

Per YNN  
the Attorney General's Office is asking for the appellate court's decision to be dismissed, but if not, for the state's highest court to hear the case right away because they say this case could jeopardize the state's potential economic recovery.
The Attorney General's job is to enforce the law (including the State's Constitution) and not worry about "potential economic recovery." When government becomes invested in one company, it is tempting for government to use its power to squash that company's competitors. This seems to have already happened with our Attorney General, and his misplaced priorities have already been commented upon (11/5/09).

Hopefully the Court of Appeals will acknowledge the oppressive environment that has been created, and start enforcing this constitutional provision as intended by its drafters.

If not, We the People will be placed in a terrible position.  We will  be forced either to accept more of governmental taking from one of us and giving to another . . . or to exercise Our Right to Abolish Our Government.  Help us avoid having to make that choice.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Master Disaster 5: Re-Education Camps, Anyone? . . .

If you want to feed at the public trough, NOTHING beats getting into the education business.  After all, there is always something that people don't know.   So a way of "creating jobs" would be to come up with reasons for people to learn things, and then ask government to hire people to teach these things.  The beauty of this plan is that it isn't even limited to our school systems. ANYONE can do it!

The draft Utica Master Plan gets an "A++" in creating reasons for education and training programs.

Here's a sampling of proposals that do not include those for the school system . . .

  • "Promote first-time homebuyer education." (p 28).
  • "Provide guidance and training for committee members in purpose, types, and legalities of zoning"  (p 28)  
  • "Provide guidance and training for committee members in purpose, types and legalities of codes and contractor licensing"(p.29)
  • "Provide Education and Training" related to promotion of the Green Building & Home Rehabilitation in its neighborhoods by incorporating Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Neighborhood Development principles, particularly "education and training of key design and construction personnel." (p 30).
  • "Provide guidance and training for committee members in four important CPTED design guidelines: Natural Surveillance, Natural Access Control, Territorial Reinforcement, and Maintenance "(p. 30).
  • "Provide education/training for homeowners and residents on property maintenance and code regulations requirements, and compliance." (p. 33)
  • "Provide seminars/workshops for leadership training, community development, code enforcement, and public safety." (p. 33)
  • "Provide guidance and training for citizen advisory committee members" in relation to development of a Community Improvement District (p. 34).
  • "Develop a tourism marketing plan and a tourism-readiness training program for staff in tourism industries and downtown business owners. (p.45) ... "and the community at large"(p.61)
  • "Develop a parking education and signage strategy for downtown" (p. 47)
  • "Enhance the current farmers market to include more components of the “Slow Food Movement,” using local farmers currently involved in the movement. Add educational components . . ." (p. 59)
With all the education and training "opportunities" in the Utica Master Plan, could there be Re-Education Camps in our future . . .
                  
                                 . . . for those of us who think that this is just a lot of 'hooey' ?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Master Disaster 4: Reaching Out to Neighboring Municipalities . . .

. . . with the Dollars of Utica Residents and Businesses????

In the draft Utica Master Plan's "Housing and Neighborhood Development" section, "Goal 10" is to "Provide the highest level of public safety for the residents of Utica."  . . . . But to fulfill an underlying "objective" of "Efficiently deliver public safety resources to the neighborhoods of Utica," the Master Plan proposes to:
"Perform a shared services consolidation study to understand how emergency services, particularly fire and EMS, could be shared with neighboring communities." (p.35)
How does sharing services with neighboring communities efficiently deliver public safety resources to the neighborhoods of Utica? Why is delivery of services to neighboring communities even part of the UTICA Master Plan?

The "Infrastructure and Waterfront Development" section sounds a similar theme:
"GOAL 5: Adopt shared services consolidation agreements for road and sewer maintenance with neighboring communities  . . ."
"Perform a shared services consolidation study to understand how road and sewer maintenance services could be shared with neighboring communities . . ."  . . .
"Bring City of Utica and neighboring municipalities together to discuss collaboration and cooperation to determine the best ways to serve the area."  (Page 88).
Whose Master Plan is this, anyway? Utica's? or the "Mohawk Valley's"? 

Long-time readers of this Blog understand the relationship between the cost of services and population density: that municipal services are delivered efficiently only when the population is concentrated into a compact area . . . and that the per capita cost of services should increase the further people are spaced from each other and the further they are from the population center.

A consolidation will save suburban jurisdictions money because they will be come part of a larger organization. But what about Utica residents?

If Utica services are spread into outlying areas, overall costs for the services will increase at a greater rate than the added number of new customers would justify because the new customers will be located further away and spaced further apart (i.e., they are more costly to serve).  Utica residents, thus, could expect their taxes and various user fees to increase to subsidize services to suburban locations. This subsidy will make it easier for people and businesses to leave the City of Utica for suburban locations. That would reduce population density within Utica and increase costs to Utica residents for OTHER services that are not "shared." Utica will continue to become smaller and poorer.  

These "shared services" ideas make sense for persons in the suburbs, but they are nonsense for Uticans.  Utica residents will wind up giving and giving to help neighboring communities (like they already have been with water and sewer charges), but get zilch in return.


Who came up with these ideas? What is their agenda?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Come Clean, New Hartford . . .

It seems like a week can't go by without some revelation suggesting corruption in New Hartford.

Late last week it was the Town Bookkeeper collecting retirement while collecting her regular salary.  In December 2008 we found out that the same bookkeeper was paid overtime even though she was an exempt employee. Of course, these two stories are connected and cumulative because today we find out that the Bookeeper's pension suddenly increased 29% -- more than likely due to the overtime.

The weird goings-on in New Hartford are not limited to the Bookkeeper.  We still do not have a satisfactory explanation on how The Hartford office building ever got the permissions to be built because it was located outside the New Hartford Business Park.  We still do not have an adequate explanation on the Fees In Lieu of Mitigation situation, where fees were collected and seemingly transferred from mitigating impacts of one development to others that were unrelated.

As noted on New Hartford Online,
Ms. Fairbrother supposedly retired on Friday, June 1, 2007, and according to Attorney Green's invoices, one day after she met with him to discuss "accounting/bookkeeping concerns".
This suggests that the former Town Attorney may have the information the public is looking for. The former Town Attorney certainly seems to have been involved in all of the situations where questions remain.
The Town paid a lot of money to the attorney for advice, including a lot of "memos" that he billed for in his invoices.  Where are the memos?  What is in them?  One may expect that the memos could reveal the key plays and players in all the questionable goings-on that are surfacing.

While the attorney cannot release this information on his own because of the attorney-client privilege, the Town as his client can DIRECT him to do so.

For some reason the Town Board has been reluctant to authorize release of this information to the public.

At this point, without a Town Board authorization to release this information, the public is justified in assuming that the individuals on the Town Board were somehow involved.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Master Disaster 3: The Jargon-aut

Our business is infested with idiots who try to impress by using pretentious jargon.” 
-- David Ogilvy (quote from ThinkExist.com)

If you like jargon, you will absolutely adore the draft Utica Master Plan . . .

  • "The City will promote Green Building & Home Rehabilitation in its neighborhoods by incorporating Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Neighborhood Development principles."  (p. 30).
  • "Adopt “Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design” (CPTED) standards for neighborhoods by 2015, detailing action plans for each neighborhood." (p. 30)
  • "Institute a Community Incentive District (CID) grant or loan program." (p. 33). 
  • "Provide funding and support to build Neighborhood Associations, Block Coalitions, and community empowerment programs in all neighborhoods city-wide." (p.33).
  • "Implement “Safescape principles to enhance sense of comfort and safety downtown." (p. 45).
  • "Offer a resource, perhaps through a BID (Business Improvement District), to help shop owners succeed." (p. 46).
  • "Implement Transportation Demand Management strategies to increase the efficiency of the transportation system." (p. 47).
  •  "Enhance the current farmers market to include more components of the “Slow Food Movement,” using local farmers currently involved in the movement." (p. 59).
  • "Consider establishment of a Land Bank program." (p. 75).
  • "Partner with business, labor and higher education institutions to make sure residents are trained in fields that align with regional cluster needs." (p. 76).
  • "Develop a new lighting ordinance consistent with Dark Sky principles." (p. 89).
  • "Adopt a Complete Streets Policy that provides streets that have facilities for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, transit users and motorists, to the extent appropriate for the land use or the context of the street." (p. 91).
  • "Work with the New York State Department of Transportation to incorporate context sensitive solutions along the North-South Arterial." (p. 91 -- This one is my personal favorite jargon from the UMP -- What's your favorite?).
Who are they impressing? . . . and What are they hiding? 

(More "Master Disaster" series to come)

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Master Disaster 2: The Heavy Hand of Big Government . . .

Utica "peaked" during the 1950s with a population of over 100,000 and virtually all of the easily accessible land within its borders developed. Utica was the center of activity, and its people were relatively prosperous.  Today, after losing thousands of jobs and almost half its population we look upon Utica of that era with envy.

What made Utica-Past successful?   It was private enterprise . . . entrepreneurs who had ideas, found needs for those ideas to fill, and found places in Utica to turn those ideas into reality.  Private enterprise created many of our icons . . . like the Stanley Theater, the Munson-Williams-Proctor complex, Hotel Utica, and the Adirondack Bank Building. Private enterprise created most of Utica's cherished parks system - - - a gift from a loving family.    Even the Utica water system started out as a private company. 

Today, most of those icons are now on public assistance. What happened?

Perhaps it was an attitude inculcated in the generation raised during the Great Depression -- which also happened to be the first generation raised with mass media (radio). It was the "New Deal" era. People looked to the Government to solve all problems . . .

In the 1960s people got tired of the old and slow, and wanted new and fast . . . and people expected Government to make it happen.  How did that turn out?   Land was cleared for "Urban Renewal" and Arterial highways, taking people and businesses with it.   "Urban Renewal" turned out to be anything but. Some buildings were built at taxpayer expense in place of what was removed, but little was built by private enterprise -- and what was, was done on the cheap.  (Look at the cheap metal buildings on Columbia St. that went up in the Urban Renewal area. The old solid brick structures that were removed were far better.)  Arterial highways, instead of bringing people to Utica, took them away.  Most of the private activity that was taken for these projects left the city . . . forever.   Utica has been in decline ever since.

Later, in the 1980s, people felt that Government could cure social injustices and racial prejudices by closing neighborhood schools and busing school children across town to achieve a "racial-balance." . . . But society's ills existed more among the adults than the children, and Utica schools were already integrated by the junior and senior high school levels anyway, so what good did the busing accomplish?  While the good was questionable, the bad should have been obvious.  Schools lost their neighborhood context.  It became difficult for parents to participate in school activities. Classmates could no longer be playmates. Neighbors couldn't watch out for each others children when they were put on a cross-town bus and exchanged for strangers.  Networks of people important to the socialization of children became strained. Misbehavior became a problem.  Time that could have been spent in study or healthy play was wasted on school buses -- which disrupted city traffic and wasted other people's time. Before this happened, Utica schools were considered to be excellent.  Once the children were forced onto buses, some people felt that they might as well move to the suburbs where they could at least have more space and keep their children together with their friends.  The distinct advantages of Utica's neighborhood schools were lost forever in a failed social experiment.

Now Utica has a draft Master Plan, and hopes are high that it will lead to a turn around . . . but will it? Were the lessons from the past ever learned?  Here is a sampling of some recommendations that will give you the answer:
From the "Housing and Neighborhood Development" section:
The city will "create and adopt a mixed income housing model." All new housing developments will be required to include 20% "affordable" units.  "Affordable" housing units would be created in areas that are NOT Low to Moderate Income census tracts. A subsidized housing plan would also be instituted. (See p. 28).
To encourage more owner-occupied homes and increase compliance with codes,  Purchase-Rehab Loans and a 60% Grant – 40% Loan Program will be developed for current owner-occupied homeowners to help them remain in their current home.  (See p. 29).
Community Improvement Districts will be developed, apparently with some type of taxing authority to pay for "common" facilities, and an "Incentive/Penalty" program will be developed to reward (?) people for code compliance. (See p. 29).
A "mixed income model" may be a utopian goal . . . but isn't this just more heavy handed "social engineering" that is likely to produce results similar to forced busing?  Social engineering breeds resentment . . .

The idea that Utica needs "affordable housing" is idiotic. Utica's "affordable housing" is one of this region's few bright spots whenever the area is ranked among other parts of the country. It is always touted by the rose-colored glasses crowd. If any type of housing is in short supply within city limits, it is upscale housing.

Now what developer of upscale homes would put up with a "20% affordable" requirement? Developers usually look for a niche to fill.  The key question: would such a development even be marketable given human nature?  Undoubtedly, such forced-developments would have to be subsidized by the taxpayers.  What would that do to Utica's tax rate? And what would the tax rate do to Utica's attractiveness for new residents? ... or businesses?

The drafters of the Master Plan need to open their eyes and get in touch with reality. Plenty of people already are rehabbing their homes and bringing them into code compliance -- and perhaps creating "mixed income" neighborhoods in the process -- without an elaborate government handout program. ... The people happen to be Bosnian ... using skills learned in Europe ... but employing the good old-fashioned American Free Enterprise System to unleash their potential.  They are remaking the face of Utica.

People who need a Government loan/handout program to do what others are already doing are unmotivated, unlikely to produce anything of value, and are probably into projects just for the money.  The taxpayers do not need this burden . . . and a Government that insists on doing this may be suspected of simply using the handouts as a means of controlling a large block of people. 
The Draft Master Plan also proposes that Utica 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 the field. (See p. 30).
As laudable as "going green" is, shouldn't this be an individual choice? Those that want to "go green" will do it as they already have.  Since there are already state and federal incentives, why should Utica taxpayers take on promoting such a program?  The bottom line for Utica residents and businesses is money . . . affordability . . . sustainability in a FINANCIAL sense.  The city is already driving people away with its high costs.  Why would people come back to higher taxes for this?
To improve Downtown, the Master Plan proposes creation of a “Restaurant Row” that celebrates the diversity of the City’s ethnicity. (See p. 45)
Restaurant row? The entire city is already a smorgasbord of ethnic and gastronomic diversity, and its reputation is spreading by word of mouth beyond the region -- all the result of private enterprise If there is a niche in downtown for a "restaurant row" some enterprising soul will fill it.  The government has more important things to fill (fill potholes . . .  and keep us safe) than go into the restaurant promotion business.
To improve Downtown, the Master Plan also proposes creation of a public safety and visitor assistance program for downtown to build an atmosphere of safety, friendliness and goodwill; and develop a tourism marketing plan and a tourism-readiness training program for staff in tourism industries and downtown business owners. (See p. 45).
Aren't these things that the Chamber of Commerce (private industry) should be doing?  Oops . . . Utica's C of C is missing somewhere in the "Mohawk Valley."  Anyway, these things are NOT the responsibility of the taxpayer either.

The truly great things produced by society, those things that can transform a region for the good, are produced by private enterprise. Private enterprise thrives in an environment where there is maximum freedom.  In cities, because people are close together, there is always a potential for activities to conflict.  Master Plans address this when they provide a framework around which private enterprise can be organized - organizing activities so that they reinforce each other rather than detract from each otherMaster Plans will produce positive results when they ensure that private money, public money, and city service networks are used efficiently and provide maximum benefit in an environment of maximum freedom.    

This Master Plan is a step backward.  It wastes public money . . . It gives away too much. It relies too much on Government action. It controls too much. It does little to leverage private enterprise. 

People risked their lives to come to Utica  . . . to be in a place where they could be free. . .  and in their freedom, Utica is being renewed. Let's not mess up the progress that has been made. 

Utica does not need a Master Plan that will turn it into the places that our new residents fled from. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Master Disaster 1: Death By Committee

 “A committee is a cul-de-sac down which ideas are lured and then quietly strangled.” -- Barnett Cocks 
“If you want to kill any idea in the world, get a committee working on it.” -- Charles F. Kettering. (Quotes from "Thinkexist.com")
The draft Utica Master Plan has finally been made public, giving us an opportunity to see its details. It's not like anything I've seen before.

The most striking feature is its institutionalization of/reliance upon committees:
  1. A citizen advisory committee to adopt a new zoning ordinance (Housing Goal 1 Objective 2)
  2. A citizen advisory task force and committee regarding adoption, regulation, enforcement, and implementation of city codes (Housing Goal 1 Objective 1)
  3. A citizen/"expert" panel to research current mixed income housing models and present options to the city (Housing Goal 2 Objective 1)
  4. A citizen advisory committee to create a "Community Improvement District" (Housing Goal 3 Objective 6)
  5. A citizen advisory committee to create "Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design" action plan (Housing Goal 5 Objective1)
  6. A Utica Bicycle & Pedestrian Committee to publish pedestrian and bike route maps, coordinate with transit companies and develop a "Trolly Line Trail" (Housing Goal 5 Objective 2)
  7. Establish a Food Policy Council (FPC) to foster community- wide implementation and development of urban agriculture (Housing Goal 6 Objective 2)
  8. A committee of artists and arts organizations to develop a sculpture trail (Recreation Goal 2).
  9. A Brownfield Redevelopment Ad Hoc Committee (Business &Technology  Goal 2)
  10. An Urban Redevelopment Ad Hoc Committee (Business &Technology  Goal 2)
On top of these is a committee of more committees: the Partnership Advisory Board with 6 standing committees:
  1. Housing & Neighborhood Development
  2. Downtown Development
  3. Parks, Recreation, Arts, Culture & Historic Preservation
  4. Community Infrastructure
  5. Business & Technology Development and Waterfront Development
  6. Finance and Fiscal Policy
SEVENTEEN committees are required to implement this Master Plan!  That is a testament to the lack of specificity in this plan as the committees are needed to, basically, make up the plan's details as they go along. I guess that is why the Master Plan is called a "living document"
"A committee is a group of people who individually can do nothing, but who, as a group, can meet and decide that nothing can be done." - Fred Allen

"A committee is a group of the unprepared, appointed by the unwilling to do the unnecessary." - Fred Allen

"A committee is a group that keeps minutes and loses hours." - Milton Berle



"And everything is controlled and everybody is a member of some committee, because then their watchdogs placed in the committees can control everything, what this person says or how this person think(s), you know." - Milos Forman (Quotes from Brainyquote.com)

[This article is first of a series that will take a critical look at different aspects of the Draft Master Plan -- Check back for more.]

Monday, July 12, 2010

Fields of Dreams . . . In Duplicate . . .

Per the OD, Harbor Point could be host to a complex of baseball fields, at least that seems to be the plan in the draft Utica Master Plan.
The city’s draft master plan outlines not only building a baseball stadium at Harbor Point, but relocating Greenman Estates and its baseball and softball fields from Burrstone Road near Utica College.. . .

It also says the space where Donovan Stadium currently sits at Murnane Field in South Utica could become a business park.
Query: Where did this idea originate?

It is eerily similar to what Oneida County did when it moved its airport from Whitestown to Rome.  Could the same people have been involved?  The M.O. seems to be "Let's spend taxpayer money (hopefully grant money) duplicating what we already have someplace else."   While there might be some merit to clustering the ball fields on the flats, is it really worth the cost of the duplication and the disruption of what currently exists?

2008-0710-1079pWhile the OD article implies that the Harbor Point site can only be used for ball fields, was there any study of this?  Only residential use is restricted, which leaves a host of other possible uses.  This site was blogged about in 2008. As you can see from the picture, the site has a "million dollar view" of downtown, and connecting Washington St. with Washington St. (NOT Seneca St. as proposed -- the two parts of Wash. St. are seen at right.) would give a strong visual connection with the heart of downtown ... essentially making Harbor Point part of downtown. This would suggest that Harbor Point might support uses that are much higher than ball-fields . . . such as a "downtown" office park with plenty of parking and a waterfront promenade!

Both Murnane Field/Donovan Stadium and Greenman Estates are part of the Utica Parks System and are located on Burrstone Road, which is an extension of the Memorial Parkway.  Eliminating both of these parks would seem to lessen the value of the Parkway itself as the "string" holding together Utica's "emerald necklace" of park lands (to borrow an idea from the Greater Boston area that was the inspiration of Utica's own park system).

It is common knowledge that Greenman Estates is under a deed restriction that prevents any use other than recreational for the Burrstone Road site.  Did any one tell the Master Plan drafters about it?

The Utica Business Park is half empty, the Bosert site is vacant, the Bendix site is vacant, and the Psych Center is half empty.  These places are all within a mile of either Murnane or Greenman, so the need for a "business park" at either location is questionable.

Could the location of Greenman Estates being across the street from Utica Collage and Murnane Field being across the Street from Faxton Hospital have anything to do with this proposal?  The genesis of this proposal is so shrouded that we are entitled to speculate.

Do the people of Utica want to give up their parks?

Is the Master Plan the "people's plan" . . . or just more of the same nonsense  from the same well-connected people who have been running the area into the ground for decades?

Thursday, July 08, 2010

400 Rain Barrels & 300 Trees . . .

400 Rain Barrels & 300 Trees . . . for $720,000, all from a State grant to help sewer issues.

Let's see . . . That works out to more than $1,000 per barrel or per tree!

(It's funny the perspective that a little math will give you on an issue).
(. . . and they say that New York is broke.)

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Uncovering Utica's ORIGINAL Master Plan

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'√Čtoile, 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.]

Thursday, July 01, 2010

What's Up with the Utica Master Plan?

Utica master plan delayed -- again 
The timeframe for an unveiling of the Roefaro administration's master plan for the city has been pushed back yet again, meaning it will likely be late summer before it can become an official city planning document.
It is better to be deliberative and to do it right, rather than quick for political expediency.  But there is pause for concern . . .

First, the the Mayor's proposal for a new Master Plan was brilliant.  The last full master plan was done in 1950, with an update in 1960.  Master plans provide a vision of the city's future, enabling investors to find their own niches.  They also provide guidance for public works projects should sources of money suddenly become available.  Case in point: the stimulus funds. Had a new master plan already been in place, Utica would have been better positioned to respond to the federal request for proposals. The mayor was correct to start Master Plan process. . . . and good planning takes time.

A rather large steering committee was named over a year ago, consultants went about conducting public meetings to gather ideas, a public website, http://www.uticamasterplan.org, with the past two master plans went up.  Things were progressing.

Various subcommittees of the steering committee were formed, each with its own focus. Neighborhood meetings concluded in January. The plan was discussed at City Hall in February. Some details of where the plan seemed to be going were released to the media such as extending the feel of the Memorial Parkway into West Utica and shortening the North Genesee St. bridge to reopen Baggs Square.  Curiously, however, none of the details were posted on the website for public consumption and reaction.

In April, an open house was conducted. That was promoted here.  Artistic renderings were released to the press, as were a few more details, such as the recommendation that EDGE have a permanently staffed office in Utica. If you had the time to go to the open house, you got to see grids prepared by the various subcommittees which listed the draft goals and paired them with proposed strategies for their accomplishment.  The proposed strategies contained the few tantalizing details that got into the press. But unless you went to that open house, you did not get a chance to see or comment upon them.

Again -- curiously -- these grids with strategies never were posted on the website for public consumption and reaction.

Understandably, the grids were works-in-progress, and did not represent the Master Plan . . . only the direction in which it was heading.  One would think that the subcommittees would have been interested in knowing the public reaction to their work.  Were they on the right track?  Were they representative of what the People of Utica wanted for their city?  Or were they bad ideas, with a potential to cause harm? The website would have been the ideal forum for airing the proposals and getting feed back.  It was not used. The ideas that seemed to generate excitement (or controversy) when they got into the press are no where to be seen on the Utica Master Plan Website for public reaction.

What had seemed to be an open process embracing the public's input now seems less so. 

What was the point of the neighborhood meetings?  What was the point of the subcommittees works?  How were ideas processed?  Ideas seemed to have been dumped into a big black box, and what happens to them while they are in the box, no one knows.  The process is not transparent.

The skeptic now comes out. 

We've been down this planning "road" before . . . as far back as the Calley [sp?] Commission in the early 1980s when the Utica Schools were consolidated (which entirely eliminated the neighborhood school concept and put all children on buses), but more recently with the New Hartford GEIS for the southern portion of the Town.  Elaborate public meeting processes were conducted in both, supposedly for public input.  But in the end, only the input that validated the ideas of those who controlled the process was accepted. In other words, the public participation was window dressing, to dupe the public into thinking that they played a significant role in the decisions that had already been made for them. 

Is that what is going on with the Utica Master Plan? 

It is too soon to say.  The plan's delay could mean either that the public is being listened to and it is taking time for the ideas to be put together . . . or that arms are being twisted and scripts are being written.

It would be better for all if the process were made transparent, and more information posted on the website.