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.


Anonymous said...

Very well put, Strike!

Anonymous said...

As usual, your insightful comments are on the mark - I don't see how an interchange equivalent to the 840/commercial drive adds any value to the urban landscape. It is in fact the suburbanization of Utica, a detraction to the environment and totally out of character with the scale of the city.

The arterial project's demolition of the Fay Street warehouse and subsequent realignment of the arterial strip the immediate area of its architectural interest. In my humble opinion a better project is to keep the arterial at grade in its current alignment, slow traffic so travelers have time to observe their surroundings and and add traffic controls for left turns. In concept, make it it a boulevard, revitalize the warehouse by installing the Irish center on the ground floor and apartments on the upper level.

RPP said...

The above "boulevard" concept is the most interesting I've heard for quite awhile. It represents the kind of thinking the area needs since it fits reality.