Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Utica Harbor: Living Up to Potential?

They began with the best of intentions. They took old sections of the city that were showing their age, took down what was there, and built new buildings. The idea was to breathe new life into old neighborhoods. . . . The buildings are now the legacy of our leaders of the 1960s and '70s. . . but did the results meet their goal?

Utica produced some notable buildings and public spaces during that era: New City Hall, Clock Tower, Plaza and Parking Garages; Hanna Park (with the now-defunct waterfall); Kennedy Plaza Apts.; State Office Building (with the now-defunct public plaza to the east which sat atop the now-defunct parking garage) and County Office Building.  These visible signs of "progress" (and decay because they could not be maintained) were largely funded by taxpayer dollars.

In spite of the new buildings and public spaces, the hoped-for private investment -- and a renewed vibrancy -- never followed. Stores never occupied the storefronts built facing Columbia Street and the space is now occupied by a medical supply company with trailer trucks often stopping downtown traffic. The 6-story office tower intended to sit atop the garage next to City Hall never materialized. The large parcel of land surrounding the apartment tower attracted a couple of cheap metal buildings that were totally out of character with both old and new neighboring buildings -- but otherwise remained largely empty space (grass or parking lots) even to this day.  The high rise apartment tower, which might have been designed to attract a well-heeled clientele owing to its views, contains "Section 8" housing.  The "renewed" area was and is a far cry from the active, densely developed space that it replaced. What went wrong?

We now know that projects such as Utica's Urban Renewal project failed, at least in part, because they were inconsistent with and destroyed the "walkability" of the neighborhoods they were placed in, isolating people from amenities they want.  Cities, such as Greenville, SC, learned this lesson and have recreated downtown vibrancy by making them pedestrian friendly. Successful private developers, even locally (eg. Landmarc, New Hartford Shopping Center), have learned the lesson, too, and are designing projects that are "walkable" in the sense that occupants will not have to walk far to find things they want.

Now compare the proposed Harbor Point Plan with Utica's failed  '60s Urban Renewal area.  Both plan(ned) a few key "trophy" buildings with uses pre-designated by local leaders (which may not be what "the market" would be interested in), in a low-density environment (which reduces "walkability"), with no requirement to "fit in" with each other or their surroundings, and with public "amenities" which require taxpayer maintenance.

Waterfront acreage should be the most valuable property in the city. Why is it being wasted on ball fields, an "interpretive center," a farmers' market, trails, and an outdoor amphitheater which will (1) not generate any tax revenue, but also (2) burden the taxpayer with additional things to maintain, and (3) duplicate amenities the City already has?  (We commented on the ball fields back in 2010.)

Nicky Doodles at Harbor Point, which offers first rate products in a first rate facility, now seems overshadowed and oddly placed with the hulking Fairfield rising next door. If both are being touted as part of the Harbor Point "project," why do their designs detract from rather than enhance each other? Wouldn't a good master plan for the project avoid incongruities and protect the value of private investment, by imposing design requirements to ensure that buildings "work" together, e.g., as in a  "form based code?"

Harbor Point not only has waterfront acreage, it has a "million dollar view" of Downtown. Can you find anything in the Harbor Point Plan that leverages this viewshed to the advantage of the development?

Does the plan erase the boundary between governmental function and private effort? The plan talks about all the possible things that could go into Harbor Point, and even locates specific activities in specific places, but is there a market for these things?  Maybe we do not really need another ethnic restaurant, another farmer's market, or another place for people to go and sample locally crafted products. Are artists inspired to complete canvases someone else has started?  Isn't that what happened with Urban Renewal?  Shouldn't it be up to the developer to decide what goes into the project? And where?

The City's interest should be limited to providing the regulatory and  infrastructure framework calculated necessary to ensure development of sufficient density to increase net revenue to the city.  If this is not possible, perhaps Harbor Point's time has not yet arrived.   Regardless . . .

The Harbor Point Plan does not seem to reflect the site's potential.


Anonymous said...

Don't forget this is the route for floodwaters of the Mohawk River, it doesn't impact the Canal. Wurz Avenue has historically flooded and will only get worse with other intrusions. Why do you think the Fairfield Inn is so high !

Rodger Potocki said...

Having been involved in urban renewal and political decision making in the days you describe, it is agreed that you put your finger on the key point; government planning and decision making is not market competent, not creative or innovative and nearly always too political in various ways. Urban renewal was a massive failure in most places since decisions were basically directed by federal rules, guidelines and directives. The carrot of "free" money was gobbled by local politicians. History seems to be repeating itself in different ways but with the same result. Whether it be a former Air Force Base or the Utica waterfront project, a private developer ought to be leading it. Around here, the flavor of the day seems to be farmers markets with one on every town, village and city. If food and exercise are all we reach for, we, as you point out, will waste what could be valuable land.

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't a farmers market at Harbor point be in competition with the market already at Union Station? Or its the plan to move the Union Station Market?

Agree with Mr. Potocki - it was a massive failure. I know the buildings removed were old and worn out but what a waste to tear down such large swatches of the city, essentially denuding the city center of architectural character. I have seen photos and Utica had a distinct, urban vibe. Interest in preserving and redeveloping the historic architecture came to late for the city.

I remember in the late 70's and early 80's one of the development buzz words was tourism ! Too bad the urban planners removed structures and places a tourist might find interesting.
Here is a suggestion for city officials, planners and business people to reverse negative effect of urban renewal: move the Sheraton into the hotel Utica, tear down the existing Sheraton (abomination of a building and surely its mortgage is paid off by now) and replace it with a project that returns human scale to Genesee St. Of course there has to be a market for this kind of project so once Nano takes off........

But seriously, City and County should work together on comprehensive plan to contain sprawl/growth and direct energy back to the center -there us plenty of land in the city with existing infrastructure already in place.