Sunday, June 26, 2011

Varick St. and the Unhelpful New Arterial . . .

The OD is abuzz about Varick Street.
“In Varick Street, they have a tiger by the tail,” said Fire Chief Russell Brooks, who is involved with the nearby construction of the new Irish cultural center. “The city has an opportunity currently it has not been involved in for decades.”
The $2 million cultural center – funded from proceeds of the Great American Irish Festival – will include an Irish pub, kitchen, meeting rooms and office space.
No doubt, Varick St. is where things are happening in Utica ... and the construction of the long-awaited Irish Cultural Center is the BEST thing to happen to the neighborhood in a long time.  But a problem looms on the horizon that local officials -- and the newspaper, apparently -- are obviously blind to . . .
The center isn’t the only change to the area. The state Department of Transportation’s mammoth North/South Arterial project will include razing some houses and buildings on the Varick Street side and realigning the roadway, said Brian Hoffmann, DOT project manager.
This is more than a mere taking of houses and realignment. The razing of a couple of architecturally interesting structures a stone's throw from the Irish Cultural Center, the shifting of the alignment of the Arterial toward the Center, and then the replacing of the current bridge pylons with a retaining wall to hold up the Arterial will do exactly what for the aesthetics around the Center?  Making the opening in the wall for Columbia St. an arch, and making the facing on the wall look like blocks from the old Chenango Canal is merely putting lipstick on the pig.  It does not change the fact that a WALL is being erected across the neighborhood fabric, effectively limiting any positive impact of the Cultural Center for redevelopment to the east along Columbia St.  
The new bridge will include an exit ramp at Court Street, similar to the one at Commercial Drive and Route 840 in New Hartford, finally providing direct access to Varick Street from the northbound Arterial lane.
This is inaccurate. There will be no direct access to Varick St. from the northbound Arterial ramp.  Rather, the access will be to westbound Court Street -- a small improvement over what can be done now by making a right onto Warren, left onto Lincoln and left onto Court. This improvement will be more than offset by other disruptions to existing traffic patterns.
Officials say that infrastructure was vital to New Hartford developments as Consumer Square and The Orchard.
“This time, that development will hopefully take place within the city,” said Stephen Zywiak, DOT regional design engineer.

While it is true that the Rt. 840/Commercial Drive interchange was vital to New Hartford development, suggesting that a similar interchange will spur development in Utica is wishful thinking.  Interchanges spur development where there are large areas (acres and acres) of contiguous undeveloped/semi-developed properties, with the developments being large-scale and auto-oriented -- like in New Hartford. Utica is different. Its lots are small and its infrastructure is already pedestrian oriented.   

History proves that interchanges in Utica lead to neighborhood decline -- like what happened at Baggs Square and at Oriskany Circle (where Oriskany St. now passes under the Arterial) Decline occurs because the neighborhood's fabric becomes disrupted and no longer functions. Streets become cut off and people are forced to walk in unpleasant, auto-dominated environments . . . like this: 

View Larger Map
Businesses leave and do not come back. City tax-base becomes reduced resulting in increased tax rates and more departures. 

Utica's small lots and pedestrian-orientated, in-place infrastructure could provide ideal places for small start-ups or mom-and-pop businesses -- in short supply in the suburbs -- if the infrastructure's original functioning could be restored and preserved. There would be no need to artificially create business incubators at taxpayer expense in fancy industrial parks when the entire city could act as an incubator.  

State officials, City officials and local media need to realize that Utica cannot and should not be remade to meet some surburban ideal.  Utica has a different niche.  The sooner that niche is recognized, the sooner a real renaissance may begin.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Something Done Right...

The Oneida County Farmers' Market opens Saturday by the old Railway Express Agency building adjacent to Utica's Union Station. It's understood that the market will eventually be in the REA building once it is renovated.

This is great news! Who doesn't like fresh food?

rwyexp2 While some are concerned about competition with the Utica Farmers' Market  located in Chancellor Park on Bleecker Street  on Wednesdays, Utica seems large enough to support both markets -- especially considering the large foreign born population for whom such markets were a daily occurrence in the "old country."

What is especially exciting about this development is the new use being given to an old building. The building always seemed to be tailor made to be a market . . . the subject of blog posts here in 2006 and 2007.

I don't get to say it very often about Oneida County, but this seems to be something done right!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Pillaging Park Ave. for Parking

More is in the news today about the city's parking "plan." The plan to convert Park Avenue into a County  parking lot is particularly disturbing.

The plan to close Park Avenue for parking gained serious consideration in 2007 before the Common Council decided not to vote on it. It requires the approval of the Common Council and Oneida County Legislature to move forward.
Some of the concerns from four years ago have not changed – including that Park Avenue connects two of the city’s most historic parks: Chancellor Square Park and Rutger-Steuben Park. “Why the push for all this stuff now?” said Michael Bosak, president of the Landmarks Society of Greater Utica. “Why not wait for a new administration to come in rather than make decisions that can’t be turned around.”
Bosak also expressed concern about the traffic flow on John and Rutger streets if Park Avenue is closed.
The plans call for a walking trail where the road once was to keep the connectivity between the parks, Soggs said. It would result in about 90 new spaces, up from the roughly 500 currently there.
Park Avenue is important to Utica's well being for both its function and form.

The 1950 Utica Master Plan's transportation section identifies Park Avenue as an important distributor street.  Park Ave. performs this function by channeling traffic coming from the east around the Central Business District and moving it down to Oneida Square.   The new Roundabout at Oneida Square will only improve this function. It is counterproductive to improve traffic functioning at one end of Park Ave. while completely blocking traffic at the other.

Park Ave. also serves as a visual axis, connecting Oneida Square, Steuben Park, and Chancellor Park (and, formerly, the site of Old Fort Schuyler before the E-W Arterial disrupted it). This is historic urban design. It is part of what gives Utica its distinctive character. It made Utica attractive at one point and can do so again if the design elements are reinforced with things as simple as plantings of street trees. The street width is an essential part of the design. People will not want to set up shop in Utica if it is unattractive.  This old design needs to be dusted off and re-polished.  Footpath "connectivity" simply does not do it.
“Nothing will work for us unless we have Park Avenue,” [County Executive Picente] said. “I don’t even want to talk about Charlotte Street unless we can do the Park Avenue plan.”
Excuse me, Mr. County Executive, but why should Utica have to give up a traffic artery merely to provide parking for the County Buildings? Creating parking on Park Avenue will not make Downtown more attractive to private development. Did not the County just spend 40 million dollars renovating the interior of the Courthouse (while leaving the exterior as ugly as ever)? Has not the county spent over $100 million on its airport in Rome?  Why can not the County spend $10 million and build a County parking garage in Utica?

Oh, I get it.  It's because it's in Utica.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Picture of a Parking Problem?

The proposal to tear down the landmark HSBC building to create parking has brought the parking issue front and center again. . . . But a picture is worth a thousand words...

Pam Jardieu was kind enough to work up this picture of Downtown Utica's parking situation. Blue = existing parking garages, green = existing surface parking, red = PROPOSED additional surface lots.

The picture shows there is plenty of parking in Downtown Utica.

So there should be no need to destroy a landmark . . . nor to re-propose the blockage of Park Avenue and disrupt hundreds of motorists.

There may be parking issues in Downtown Utica, but there is plenty of parking.

The problems may be that certain places have a high demand at certain times, that much of the parking is privately owned and may be underutilized, and that many of the public lots and garages are for pay.

The City and County have now created a new parking problem for the general public at the train station by turning a free public lot over to private hands.

No expertise has been brought to bear on the issue. Our public officials are winging it and don't have a clue.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Barnes Ave. Double Standards . . .

This is interesting.

State offers $1.07M to Barnes Ave. businesses. Five businesses have been cut off from access to the rest of the world with the closure of the Barnes Ave Bridge. But . . .
The state offered nearly $1.07 million to four of the five businesses.

Bob’s Barnes Ave. Auto Parts was offered $374,500, B&W Auto Parts $323,000, A-1 Auto Parts $277,000 and the Paris Gun Club $95,000.

According to the state, the city of Utica is responsible for compensating Controlled Waste Systems Inc. because its truck terminal fell within the city limits.
Why is Utica responsible for compensating the business in Utica (which hasn't been there long enough to pay much in the way of taxes) when the Town of Marcy (which has been receiving taxes from the businesses there for years and years) is not responsible?

Why the Double Standard?
The next step is removing 110,000 tires that remain strewn across the salvage yards. That job likely will be contracted out to a tire removal company, Litwhiler said. The cost of the removal will fall upon the property owners, he said.

“It’s more than going in there and just hauling them out with a truck,” he said. “There are mechanisms in place to recover those costs.”

Property owners are responsible for cleaning up their properties to meet environmental standards. But the STATE is now the property owner in equity because the STATE has condemned the property. So why is it now the dispossessed businesses' responsibility to move the tires when the STATE caused the dispossession.

Why the Double Standard?

Common sense and turf wars have caused this needless problem.

According to an article from last November
Completely repairing the bridge would cost about $3 million . . .

About $2 million of funding – primarily federal funding, combined with state and local contributions – was obtained years ago and could potentially be put toward addressing the issues. But instead, city engineers are proposing developing an alternative route to the properties across the bridge.
If the State can now come up with  $1 Million to take the properties, when added to the $2 Million previously obtained there would have been enough money to repair the bridge . . . to keep businesses in business . . . to keep taxes flowing to Marcy . . . and to keep the state's recreational facilities along the river and canal accessible to the public.

Is a little cooperation among different agencies, municipalities and the state too much to ask?

Wednesday, June 01, 2011


Council haggles over fate of HSBC building.
The city’s leading economic development official told Common Council members Wednesday he’d like to see the city purchase the downtown former HSBC building for $350,000, for the purpose of demolishing it and turning it into a city-owned parking lot.  
 Randy Soggs, Urban and Economic Development commissioner, said the money for the purchase and demolition, an estimated total of roughly $700,000, would come from state money allocated for downtown parking.
The city needs to use every legal means possible to force the owner of the HSBC building to bring the building into compliance with codes and to recoup all costs related to having to deal with the nuisance on the property.

The city's proposal to pay the owner $100,000 more than the owner paid for the building has a distinct odor. The idea that someone would be permitted to benefit from neglect at taxpayer expense is simply outrageous. It will only encourage more of the same.

First it's proposing a housing development next to the proposed up ramp on the N-S Arterial.  Now this!

The proposals demonstrate that a successful businessman can be totally clueless when it comes to setting public policy and planning.

This guy has got to go!
Common Councilman James Zecca, D-2, has proposed legislation, currently in committee, that would halt demolition of all commercial buildings until the master plan passed.  

This is another crock of baloney. While I'll agree that demolition of this building should be stopped, there is NOTHING in the draft Master Plan that addresses this situation.

Rather, this debacle will be used to justify appointing a bunch of insiders to update the zoning ordinance and city code (because that is what the plan calls for). Undoubtedly the insiders will rewrite things to benefit themselves. The Master Plan RFP called for professional consultants to do a written technical review of the zoning ordinance and city code and to draft revisions for same, but it was never done. Instead the taxpayers received $325,000+ window dressing.