Will the REAL Common Council please stand up, because (except for Councilman Zecca) your bodies seem to be occupied by forces alien to Utica. How else can one explain the apparent disinterest, uninvolvement, and lack of knowledge of what the State’s proposed North-South Arterial remake will do to the citizens of Utica?
The North-South Arterial has been a problem for Utica residents practically from the day it opened in 1963. The concentration of three state routes funnelling traffic at a high speed through one corridor was bound to cause problems when the corridor chosen was the dense West Utica neighborhood. Adjustments have been made over the years to make the highway safer for pedestrians to cross, and the rate of accidents abated considerably but sadly still occurred, sometimes with fatal results. A death in 2004 and the need to replace the aging viaduct over Oriskany Blvd., Lafayette and Columbia Streets, initiated the process of redesigning this roadway, which commenced in 2006.
At a hearing in late September, 2006, the authorities initially presented the public with four proposed alternatives: depressed expressway, multi-way boulevard, surface expressway, and elevated expressway. The depressed expressway maintained all existing street connections while allowing through traffic to pass beneath at high speed. The highway would pass beneath Court St. The multi-way boulevard slowed the speed of through traffic to 35 and integrated the highway into the neighborhood fabric with extensive landscaping enhancements. The intersection with Court St. would be at grade level, with either a wide median or a roundabout. Both depressed expressway and multi-way boulevard met the needs of the neighborhood for connectivity and for traffic to get through, although the depressed expressway seemed to present obvious problems for maintenance and expense. The surface and elevated expressways clearly divided the neighborhood. Two months later, in late November, 2006, the surface and elevated expressways were publicly discarded by the authorities. The depressed expressway and multi-way boulevard were designated “preferred.”
In the following years designs significantly changed. By March, 2008, it became clear that NYSDOT would elevate the arterial over Court St. and close streets. The difference between this configuration and the previously discarded elevated and surface expressway concepts was hard to say. By this point it should have been clear that NYSDOT was going to eliminate highway-neighborhood conflicts by eliminating the neighborhood. The City administration’s reaction to this? Praise! They loved the “urban-grandeur” feeling of it all. Who were they working for?
Councilman Zecca started lobbying for a boulevard, sending out e-mail after e-mail attaching countless articles from other cities to show that NYSDOT was bucking a national trend. He showed that other cities are discarding their urban expressways for boulevards and, surprisingly, meeting the needs of both motorists and neighborhoods. The rest of the council? Not a flicker of interest -- or at least nothing to move them to action!
As plans stand now, the current viaduct over Oriskany Blvd., Lafayette and Columbia Streets will be replaced and extended southward over Court St., reaching the level of adjoining streets someplace between Warren and Sunset. Instead of the current arrangement of columns that allow air and light to pass through, the viaduct will be supported by a stone wall -- a visual and psychological barrier across West Utica. The Court St. intersection will be replaced with an interchange similar to that in New Hartford, where Commercial Drive meets Route 840. Warren St. and Sunset Ave. will be severed at the arterial, neither connecting with it nor crossing over. Scores of properties will be removed from the tax rolls and several businesses taken. Although this design allows the state to move 40,000 cars a day without pedestrian conflicts, no one really knows the overall impact to Utica and its residents.
How do Utica’s elected officials allow this project to go through without knowing its consequences? There are a lot of questions begging for answers:
1) How much will Utica lose in property taxes from the scores of properties to be taken? How will this money be made up? What happens to the property values and taxes from those that remain? What happens to Utica’s tax rate?
2) How much will Utica lose in sales taxes from the businesses that will be taken? What will be lost from remaining businesses who lose customers to changed traffic patterns?
3) How many jobs will be lost from this very poor neighborhood? How many businesses will eventually shut their doors after they become difficult to find? How will the jobs be made up?
4) How will the street cut-offs affect police, fire, and ambulance response times? Will insurance rates go up?
5) How will the street cut-offs affect garbage and trash pick-up, street-cleaning, and other city services? Will fuel purchases increase after traffic-patterns are disrupted?
6) How much more, in time and distance, will people have to walk just to cross the arterial? What are the minimum and maximum detours that the closed streets will cause? Will this prevent some families from visiting loved ones? How do the cut-offs affect the relationship between the Brewery District and the Arts District?
7) How does severing the main artery between South Utica and the Brewery District, Sunset Ave., affect traffic? Where will traffic increase or decrease? How will this affect travel time between Varick Street and Faxton Urgent Care?
8) How does closure of the northern end of Lincoln Ave and rerouting over Roberts Street affect travel or businesses?
9) How does the closure of access to the state highway at Warren and Sunset affect the marketability of parcels nearby or viability as business locations?
10) How does the interchange at Court Street affect pedestrian and bicycle traffic? Will it encourage or discourage people walking from Downtown or the Arts District to the Brewery District?
11) How will “the wall” that will extend from Oriskany Blvd. almost to Sunset Ave. affect neighborhood dynamics? Will it attract interaction between both sides or block it? What does it mean for businesses near by? Or the Irish Cultural Center that is being constructed? What does the wall do to the relationship between the Brewery District and Downtown? What does it do to the relationship between the Brewery District and the Arts District?
12) How does this entire project affect the range of potential uses for adjoining land? Does it increase or decrease options?
13) Is it really necessary for the State to send three routes through this corridor? Are there no other options?
The Council should be able to answer these questions. If it cannot, it needs to get the answers. If the Council does not have the resources for this, it should demand that the State produce the answers. It is, after all, the State’s project and the State has the obligation to identify and minimize its adverse impacts.
It is the Common Council’s responsibility under Highway Law to approve, disapprove, or propose alternatives to the State within 60 days of receiving the State’s plan. It is no one else’s. People asked for the Council to put the Boulevard into the Master Plan, but that was rejected. If not the Boulevard, what else? If the Council takes no action, it is deemed to be the Council’s approval.
The Mayor has already cast his lot on the side of the NYSDOT. Who is looking out for the interests of Uticans? The Common Council is the people’s last defender.
The potential impacts to city residents -- all of them -- are simply too big for the Council to let this project go through by default.