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.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

A Customary Fantasy . . .

According to the Rome Sentinel: With new customs agent, Griffiss can accept international arrivals.
A permanent customs presence is seen as a value-added service for the aircraft maintenance and overhaul facilities whose customers sometimes send planes to Griffiss from foreign starting points.

Additionally, it is hoped that having a customs facility will help attract more international flights, boosting fuel sales. More than a million gallons were sold last year. The county is paid 8 cents for every gallon of aircraft fuel sold by ground services provider Million Air.

Boosting fuel sales?  Is that Oneida County's objective? The County would be much better off operating a 7-11.

Attracting international flights? Do people fly in from other countries just to meet with a customs agent, or because they have business locally?  Just how much international business is there locally? 

Of course, Griffiss had already been accepting international arrivals with arrangements made as needed for an agent to come out from Syracuse to meet the plane.  So now, to avoid the bother of having to make those arrangements,  per the Observer Dispatch Oneida County Taxpayers are on the hook for almost $150,000/year in pay and benefits for the agent... i.e., almost $3,000/week! Additionally, the agent is on duty only 8 hrs./day 5 days per week, so it looks like calls to Syracuse will continue when a flight comes in outside of the scheduled shift.  

So far since the agent has been on duty, international traffic has been about 1 -- that's One, Uno, Un, Einer, Jedan, один, ένας, واحد -- flight per week!
“Our hope is that if you take a longer view, it will more than pay for itself,” Majority Leader George Joseph said. “It takes a while for the word to spread. It’s just another tool in our toolbox we can offer as we promote the airport.”
That's an Expensive Tool!
The county Board of Legislators’ Democratic Minority Leader Frank Tallarino said he never supported the installation of a Customs facility, and it’s no surprise business there hasn’t been more brisk. “At this point in time we did not need that expense,” he said. “We need a carrier first.” 
Tallarino said until airport fees levied by Million Air, the company that operates the terminal, are lowered, the carriers will keep away.
Mr. Tallarino raises an important point. Back to the Sentinel article . . .
Here’s a look at the number of takeoffs and landings between January and April over the last five years: 2015: 6,356; 2014: 7,964; 2013: 11,269; 2012: 18,570; and 2011, 17,120.
Why are those numbers dropping? Why is that not a clear signal that Oneida County is doing something wrong? How do the airport fees levied by Million Air compare with airports elsewhere in comparably sized markets? Who can answer these questions?  Why isn't the Board of Legislators asking these questions?

Are Board Members letting their party politics or personal animosities get in the way of listening to each other and getting answers to logical questions?

The Customs agent was the subject of a posting here back in 2012 when we were told that a customs agent would help "a lot" and we asked the question "How much is 'a lot?' "
One suspects that we'll build another Taj Mahal facility that will be mostly empty -- and have Customs Agent "Tatoo" sitting around most of the time waiting for "the plane, the plane."  
Fantasies sometimes do come true!

Friday, June 12, 2015

Sacrificing Our Values on the Alter of Free Trade

Per his Facebook page yesterday, Rep. Hanna "voted 'yes' on H.R. 2393, the Country of Origin Labeling Amendments Act of 2015."  
Country of origin labeling provisions were enacted in 2002 to require certain meat retailers to inform consumers of the country of origin on the product’s label. Shortly after the law was implemented, Canada and Mexico challenged it at the World Trade Organization (WTO). After years of appeals, the WTO issued a final ruling saying that the country of origin rule has a trade distorting impact by reducing the value and number of cattle and hogs shipped to U.S. markets. As a result, Canada and Mexico plan to subject certain U.S. markets to more than $3 billion in retaliatory tariffs . . .

This bill repeals country of origin labeling requirements for retailers of beef, pork, and chicken, at the final point of sale in order to prevent the imposition of these harmful tariffs.
So,  a law intended to inform the AMERICAN consumer is swept away because some Canadians and Mexicans don't like it? 

Who does Congress represent? Americans? or Canadians and Mexicans? 

It seems that our Congressman finds it appropriate for our country to change or debase its own values based upon reactions and threats from abroad. And, apparently, he is willing to subject our own sovereignty to a "world" organization's judgement! What will be next? 

Today "Fast Track" will be considered . . .  a protocol to subject future trade agreements negotiated by the administration to quick "up-or-down" votes with no opportunity for changes . . . and little opportunity for scrutiny.  I.e., that's why it is "fast track:"  These lengthy agreements with the potential to significantly affect everyday American life (like NAFTA has done since the 1990s) will go by so fast that there will be insufficient time to digest their contents.  

There are several "Free Trade" agreements pending that will be "Fast Tracked" if Fast Track goes through.  But there is a big problem with "Free Trade." It presumes that the world shares the same values when it does not. 

It is "Free Trade" notions which have allowed American companies to take advantage of the American Marketplace while avoiding costly American Laws (expressions of our values) by exporting American Jobs to overseas where goods ultimately destined for American consumers are made. 

"Free Trade" is not really "free" if we have to sacrifice jobs and values.

It will be interesting to see how Mr. Hanna and the other Congress Members vote on these issues.  If the vote on HR 2393 is any indication, Fast Track and the various pending agreements will be approved.  And then it will be clear that Congress does not represent Americans . . . nor even Canadians or Mexicans. . . .

Rather, it will have proven itself to be a mere functionary of the global corporatists who are the real beneficiaries of these agreements.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Top Metros for Advanced Industries...

Brookings Institute just released its list of the 15 hottest  metros for advanced industries.

A couple surprises: 1. Utah contained three of them. 2. Albany, NY was nowhere to be seen.

So, in spite of Billions of NY taxpayer dollars being spent in the Albany metro area on nano, it does not even register a mention. In fact, no place in New York State was mentioned.

Perhaps Utah does so well on this list because, Per CNBC, it is the third best place in the country overall and the number one cheapest in cost for doing business.

New York could learn a thing or two from Utah!

Monday, June 01, 2015

An Artificial Economy Fueled by Taxpayer Dollars . . .

Last September we noted Oneida County's deal with Solar City to install solar panels. In October we discussed the State's "trophy project" deal with Solar City to make solar panels in Buffalo. By January we noted the secrecy surrounding the Buffalo project which continued through May.

The story now continues:  Per the L.A. Times over the weekend:  Elon Musk's growing empire is fueled by $4.9 billion in government subsidies.

Los Angeles entrepreneur Elon Musk has built a multibillion-dollar fortune running companies that make electric cars, sell solar panels and launch rockets into space.

And he's built those companies with the help of billions in government subsidies. . .

Tesla and SolarCity continue to report net losses after a decade in business, but the stocks of both companies have soared on their potential; Musk's stake in the firms alone is worth about $10 billion. . . . 
Musk and his companies' investors enjoy most of the financial upside of the government support, while taxpayers shoulder the cost.
Regarding the New York project:
New York state is spending $750 million to build a solar panel factory in Buffalo for SolarCity. The San Mateo, Calif.-based company will lease the plant for $1 a year. It will not pay property taxes for a decade, which would otherwise total an estimated $260 million.
An accompanying article gives this breakdown of government benefits to Solar City:
$750 million — New York State cost to build solar panel factory 
$1.5 billion — Estimated value of 30% subsidy for solar installation since 2006, including at least $497 million in Treasury grants 
$5.6 million — Oregon tax credits and rebates
         $260 million  — New York local property tax exemptions

You have to ask yourself two questions: (1) If solar panel installation and manufacture were such a good deal, why was this not financed by private investors?  (2) How long can taxpayers keep subsidizing government-approved technologies?