Monday, January 23, 2012

New Hartford Development: Urban Cancer . . .

"Cancer ... is a large group of different diseases, all involving unregulated cell growth.(Wikipedia)
"Urban Cancer is sprawl development, involving unregulated regional growth." (me)
"Urban cancer" immediately came to mind when I read the OD Story "Rezoning plan returns to New Hartford," where developers are asking the Town to re-designate about 250 acres to permit mixed uses including small businesses, retail, offices and restaurants. Supposedly the proposal was withdrawn and resubmitted so that it could incorporate goals from the Town's comprehensive plan. (One suspects that the recent change in the composition of the planning board might also have something to do with it.)

New Hartford Online posted on this subject as well, and listed some of the  interesting/troubling comments of the focus group that contributed to the development of the Town's Comprehensive Plan Update:
  • This becomes a mini-city if everything comes together . . . 
  • Town needs to be a leader and needs to be able to discuss issues such as the decay in the City of Utica; NH is a jewel in a rusting hulk
  • NH has shown a lot of leadership in spite of itself commercially and etc. . . .
  • NH competes with Utica for offices; businesses are moving out but NH isn’t prepared with a nice business park
Why is there competition between New Hartford and Utica? How is it possible? Does it make sense? This is where the analogy with cancer comes in.

New Hartford development in the Commercial Drive/Seneca Tpk/Route 840 area far exceeds what a town of 20,000 people needs. Rather, this vast commercial development depends upon the 60,000 people living next door in the City of Utica for its survival, for both customers and employees, and to make municipal services affordable.

This development, which is on the southwestern fringe of Greater Utica's urbanized area, would have been more sensibly placed within the City of Utica to be closer to customers/employees, and, more importantly, where the dollars it would generate could be used to maintain municipal services.  Instead, the economic activity generated by a Utica-resident population benefits New Hartford, leaving fewer dollars in Utica to maintain services and crumbling infrastructure.  The result is what a NH focus group calls "decay in the City of Utica" while "NH is a jewel in a rusting hulk."  From a regional perspective, however, the development is more appropriately described as a cancerous tumor because it is draining the life out of its host.

One market cannot spread its population and economic activity over double the area without increasing maintenance costs. Because municipal services need to be extended to cover the newly developed area, it's not hard to see why taxes/user fees in BOTH Utica and NH must go up. This makes the entire Greater Utica area non-competitive with other areas.  Like a cancer ultimately kills its host and itself, this sprawl development ultimately will kill the entire region. 

How this happened is much like what happens to people when they get old, things start breaking down, and they become prone to cancer. It takes more effort to keep an older person fit and trim than a younger one. If they get the right medicine they can keep going, but the wrong medicine will either do nothing or make things worse.

Utica was a "mature" community sixty years ago when it was filled to capacity, but was showing its age. Envious of the shining new cities that arose from war's ashes in Europe, US experts of the day recommended duplicating the process by leveling whole sections of cities (with bulldozers instead of bombs) and building anew: Urban Renewal.  At the same time, US experts recommended arterial highways as the antidote to traffic congestion, predicting that downtowns would continue to grow by making it easier to whisk people in an out.  In hindsight, both were not only the wrong medications, they combined to make the patient very sick, not only here, but in other cities as well.  Urban Renewal destroyed the "critical mass"  of activity needed to attract new investors.  Arterials destroyed the advantage of a central location in the city by making suburban greenfields on the urban fringe as accessible as downtown.   Instead of high quality construction on expensive downtown land, we have low quality construction on the fringe, and depressed values downtown. 

More bad medicine came when regionalization of water and sewer systems with uniform rates made outlying suburban locations as cheap to develop as in-city locations in spite of the greater infrastructure needed to extend the services there.  Compound this with local development policies that gave PILOTs and other tax breaks for green-field developments. Development in New Hartford is probably more the product of these occurrances than anything done by the Town itself.

 Something is very wrong with local development.  Figuring out the answer will not be easy.


Anonymous said...

Did not the cities voluntarily partcipate in the Urban Renewal programs? Did not an elected Congress create them? "Hindsight" is the correct word.Today, the city still clings to the myth that government programs will solve its problems. Nothing has been learned. One may argue that all that really matters to city fathers is patronage jobs and letting contracts to the right people. Nothing close to a realistic vision has been artculated for Utica in the 60 years mentioned. Is failed leadership New Hartford's doing. Cancer is often caused by self neglect.

Strikeslip said...

Excellent point, Anonymous. But what do we do going forward? Do we continue down the same path by continuing to make the same choices over and over...or do we try something new?

Silence Dogood said...

How can you try something new when the same people are recycled in the city, county or state government? Its a matter of "I have mine and I am going to hold on as long as I can". I would challange anyone who has the time to sit down with a piece of paper and make three columns . On the left side write down all the promises made. In the middle who was "in charge" ie political , economic development persons etc In the right column did it happen or didnt it happen. Then calculate the success rate. Why do these people get elected or appointed over and over again?

Then take a second sheet of paper and do the same thing except put down what companies left the area and who was in charge. Are they the same people?

Over the past 30 yrs it sure looks like a pattern to me.

Its too bad as this could be a nice area. I agree the cancer eats away at the host. But the cancer is not New Hartford, its the people who are in charge who do not want to change or are afraid to do so.

D Naegele said...

Maybe New Hartford needs to get over itself, set aside the desire to suck every commercial enterprise out of the neighboring communities, and join in a coordinated effort to foster development more evenly across the Oneida County, Utica, and Rome areas, instead of neglecting to realize the overall effect of their greed on the entire area.

The cancer of political corruption is not limited to Utica. I metasticized and spread to the NH board several years ago.

I remember when NH was a small bedroom community with one cop, a GLF Feed store, a few bars and a strip mall. Can't quite put my finger on the time when they began the slide to the politically corrupt place that they have become.

I wonder how long they could sustain those businesses that they have lured if no one else shopped there. Are NH residents wealthy enough to be self sustaining, or do they actually NEED outsiders and city residents to exist at the level commerce that they presently enjoy?

Anonymous said...

All of these comments actually describe a lack of excellent, creative and unselfish leadership. But, underneath it all is that we elect them in one form or another. New ideas require thinking, competent people and an enlightened, active electorate. We have neither. Just look at voting percentages and note that the county executive and mayors of Rome and Utica do not have four year degrees let alone records of high achievement anywhere. Quite honestly, one cannot be optimistic about change. The likely scenario for the area is a continued slow death.