Monday, October 31, 2011

SU Conference On Urban Revitalization-Why Am I The Only One There?

A conference on "Urban Revitalization: Transformation Through Art and Design"  was held Friday and Saturday, October 28th and 29th in downtown Syracuse at the very cool Warehouse Auditorium on W. Fayette St.

Sponsored By SU, the conference kicked off with a keynote lecture featuring Kyung-Won Chung, deputy mayor and chief design officer of Seoul, South Korea. Chung is the winner of the 2011 INDEX Award, which honors designs that target and solve the challenges and problems of human life. Chung, who is also a professor of industrial design at the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, presented his work on various design projects in Seoul. These initiatives demonstrated how implementing good design into the city's policies and infrastructure has aided in urban revitalization.

Day two featured workshops geared toward revitalizing CNY(Syracuse). Divided into teams and guided by Industrial and interaction design professor and Senior COLAB Faculty Fellow Don Carr, practical, user friendly design solutions were developed using lessons learned from Dr. Chung's lecture the evening before.

I was a part of the "Rust2Green Utica" presentation. For those of you who are not familiar with it, R2G is Cornell University's research action initiative that explores, designs and implements strategies that promote urban sustainability in rust-belt cities. R2G Utica is the first in what will be a series of partnerships across the state.

While at the conference I could not help but wonder-where are all the folks from Utica/Rome? No one from our region it seems ever takes advantage of the amazing resources available through SU and the incredible number of urban-oriented programming that is constantly being offered there.

This is the fourth event that I have either attended or been a speaker at, and seems as if I am the only one from our region who is ever there. No one representing Utica, Rome or Oneida County. No one from EDGE or the Chamber or Genesis. No one. Ever.

That's funny, because from where I stand, that's exactly what our region desperately needs. To learn from the experts and apply that knowledge to a new way of thinking about how to remake our urban centers and our local economy.

R2G Utica cannot do it alone. This initiative will only be successful if true partnerships are formed with the local governments and groups that have the power to influence and change the way we think about who we are and how our policies have thus far contributed to the failure of our region.

In the meantime, I will continue to attend and learn and share that knowledge here with all of you who take the time to read my blog.

In the end, we will turn it around. It only takes time and dedication, and I have plenty of both!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Utica VS New Hartford-is there hope for compromise?

As I drove over Oxford Rd., I couldn't help but notice how incongruous St. John's Church is from the surrounding neighborhood. Juxtaposed by a melange of late 19th and early 20th century architectural styles, the ultra modern design of the church and it's placement on the corner is visually jarring and out of place.

I am sure that before the church and it's vast acres of parking were constructed sometime in the 60's, the site was home to numerous small, quaint village homes. Now, the lots are cleared of any evidence of the families that used to inhabit the humble residences located there.

I could not help but wonder, why? Did the people of New Hartford really need this church? Was Historic St. John's downtown just to far to drive every Sunday? What a wonderful thing it would be if the suburban parishioners of all denominations of churches would have stayed in the original city parishes that not only served the urban neighborhoods but the entire region as well.

Now, before I get calls and e-mails from members of St. John's New Hartford, I am sure that the parish has done charitable works and is a credit to the diocese. Fair enough.

My problem is that most suburban development was redundant to what already existed in the city. Sprawl without growth. We have traded the urban resources for replacement in the suburbs, and that has created the economic disparity between the two.

But sadly that's not how we roll here in America. Unlike Europe, we abandon our churches located in urban neighborhoods because now, their location is "inconvenient." Once we attain wealth and status, we don't want to be seen in the city of Utica.

My home parish, St. Francis de Sales on Eagle St., was a victim of this mindset. A magnificent structure designed by noted architect Fredrick Gouge, it was closed by the Syracuse Diocese several years ago and merged with St. John's Downtown.

Now, St. John's alone is responsible for the ministry once shared by the staff and parishioners at St. Francis. The Hope House, Health Friends, all the outreach and ministry to the sick, poor, and forgotten people of our community-these are but a few of the things that this humble parish once did. The magnificent doors of St. Francis are locked, its vibrant frescoes flaking away into oblivion, the artifacts destined to be stripped and sold at auction to the highest bidder.

A "for sale" sign is attached to a building that for over 100 years was a beacon of hope, comfort and solitude to hundreds of people.

The suburbs have their big, modern, maintenance free monoliths that bad planning practices allowed to be constructed during the 60's and 70's. No poor or forgotten people here! Lot's of wealthy, mostly white members with plenty of surface parking. And you don't even have to lock your cars!

The shift of  all denominations of parishes from the city to the suburbs is no different than the retail exodus from downtown to the malls. This narrative has been repeated time and time again throughout our nation. Unlike the old European countries that had landlocked urban centers, we have plenty of space to develop. Dairy farm? Apple orchard? Who needs 'em! Our development mindset has for 50 years has favored the destruction of the urban to be replaced by development in the sub-urban.

To do that, we had to obliterate acres of wetlands, natural habitat and 200 years of agrarian culture. In exchange we got destroyed city neighborhoods, racial inequity and a have-have not society.

But hey, we got lots and lots of surface parking! And, you can practically drive your car right into the store.

Thankfully, the trend today across our country is moving away from natural habitat destruction in the areas around urban communities. We have discovered that the amount of money it takes to build and maintain the infrastructure to support this kind of sprawl-without-growth development model is not available any longer.

But not in the Utica area! No sir, we are gonna keep building in the suburbs. A recent OD article quoted the New Hartford Town Supervisor as saying, "There is no end to the growth of development in New Hartford."Even EDGE, the premier (only) real development agency in Oneida County has a zero urban development model. We are still stuck in the '80's business park concept.

Lucky for us. Fortunately, there is an end to the amount of resources needed to support this type of growth. Hopefully, we will realize that before it is too late.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

State of the City

Well folks, there you have it. The last, and I mean final, State of the City address hosted by outgoing Mayor, David R. Roefaro.

What did the Mayor say? What is the state of the city? To be absolutely fair, I did not attend the address. I have heard reports about what was said, what initiatives were presented as successes of the Roefaro Administration. Let's take a look at a few of these.

The Mayor touted downtown development as one of the major achievements of his administration. And he is right. There is a lot of positive activity going on in Baggs's Sq. East and West, Genesee and Bleecker St. I should know. My three years as Commissioner of Urban and Economic Development was spent scrambling daily to identify initiatives, assemble funding and match developers to projects. Hey, someone did it. And it was my job, so I will take a little bit of the credit.  Really, it is not any one in City Hall who should be congratulated. It's the people who are taking a chance, the creative and dedicated Utica citizens who have taken a big gamble and invested in our city. I got to know many of them while working together on their individual projects. They did not choose to invest because of the Mayor or anyone in City Hall. They did it because they are entrepreneurs with belief that this can be a better city.

So, I guess the Mayor forgot  to mention me. Well, an oversight due to his busy schedule, I am sure.

The Mayor also took credit for the long stalled Harbor Point project. I will give him credit for being the best "schmoozer" we have had as mayor in a very long time here in Utica. He can slather on the charm, and it sure worked with people like the former Canal Corporation Commissioner Carmella Mantello.  It seemed former DEC head Pete Grannis was relieved that Roefaro was a lot easier to get along with than his predicessor! Add former Assembly representative Roann Destito to the mix, and you had an unbeatable trinity of Albany power that jumpstarted the entire process.

Ok, so we have a harbor. Or, the beginnings of one. As I recall, Roefaro used it in last years address. Hmm, I think he may have used it the year before as well! But, talking about it and taking repeated bows for it doesn't make it something that affects our lives and the city in a positive way. It hasn't provided any jobs and it sure doesn't generate any tax revenue. It's something thats going be great. Someday.

But for today, we have to be happy that, according to the Mayor, he and his loyal boyhood friend, Public Safety Commissioner Dan Labella, have made the city a much safer place to live. Never mind that the plummeting crime statistics presented are occuring throughout the country. It just so happens the United states is a much safer place today than it was 4 years ago. Hey, let the guys take the credit. Who's going to be the wiser?

I noticed that the Mayor made no mention of our precarious finanacial condition and the fact that he drained the last remaining water trust fund to balance his budgets. What he should have said was that the state of the city was "status quo." Over the last four years, no tough decisions were made to change the way we do business in city government. He kept on spending and spending and, according to inside sources, we may be facing a 5 million dollar defecit in the 2012 budget.

Roefaro didn't take a bow for that one.

Finally, Roefaro created a new department. Headed up by Paul Buckley as Commissioner, the new department of Film and Arts and Culture should do a lot to help turn this town around.

HUH? Is he kidding?

Let me say that Paul Buckley is a great guy. Extremely talented and dedicated to Utica, he  has always done his best to put together promotional videos that make our city shine.

The problem is, the city in Buck's films is not the real city of Utica. We are a city of great hope and potential, but one that is rife with seemingly insurmountable problems that vex the elected officials we elect and entrust to solve them. Creating this new department will not change the narrative. It will continue to camoflague the lack of ability and dysfunction that is the hallmark of the Roefaro administration.

So, out he goes. "We are all in this together." That was the rallying cry in 2008 when Roefaro swept into office with what seemed great potential to make substantial change to a broken system. In a few instances, timing and luck helped make it seem like those changes would happen.

Four years later, we know how the story ended.

Sadly. And with a whimper.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Manny's Cheesecake-when will the city act?

Today I drove past the charred debris that is all that remains of the Manny's Cheesecake building. I have one word for this mess-horrifying!

I cannot imagine being forced to live next door to this scene of such total destruction. It is an abonimation that nothing has been done to eradicate the remains of this tragedy, in the most high profile of locations and smack in the middle of the Scenic and Historic District of our city.

Directly across the street the automated bill board still promotes Roefaro and his "Renaissance City."What kind of city leader would allow this condition to remain? Where is the Codes Department?

I love the old saying, "The fish rots from the head down." In this case, it's all that needs to be said. A lame duck administration is the underlying cause of this travesty. Apparenty, no one cares. I wonder, does anyone in city hall even bother to come to work any more?

In the past, the city would adddress the situation by taking the property owner to City Court and pursue reimbursement through an attachment of the proceeds from the insurance settlement. In this case, it was reported that no insurance was held on the property. So what now? Do we just let the rotted, rusted, fetid  garbage and debris just sit there throughout the winter? What about the rats and vermin that is sure to be attracted to this mess? Who is going to step in and provide some LEADERSHIP?

That, my friends, is a dirty word in Utica government. That is the thing that we have lacked for over 40 years in the Mayor's office. Leadership. Loyalty. Love of our city. Ability to achieve consensus and get things done.

We keep electing men whose only goal, it seems, is to move on to higher office. And, all before they actually achieve any sort of meaningfull change here in  the city that we entrust them to run.

So, the corner of the Parkway that for years had a warm, welcoming business on it is now home to the same type of ruins that have been so pervasive throughout our city for far too long. And we sit, dumbfounded, wondering when someone in charge will act. Do something. Make it right.

Hopefully, the next mayor will have a plan and act on these kinds of issues. Until then, we better all hope and pray that we do not need the current one to make a decision on something important that affects our city.

If the mess on the Parkway is any indication of what to expect, we are in deep trouble!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Why,Oh Why Can't Our Street Lamps Work?

After enjoying a Friday night dinner out, I drove home through the inky dark, mid-October streets of Downtown Utica. The city was rather active with an event at the Aud and the dinner crowd at Ancora! next to the Stanley filtering out into the street.

I was perplexed about one thing-why our decorative, historic "acorn' style street lamps are in such  a terrible state of disrepair. It is an embarrasment to the city and dangerous as well. Take a look next time you drive downtown. It's not only maddening but also totally unfair to the dedicated businesses and property owners that remain plugging away in our central business district.

Every other lamp is either out or missing. They don't even have matching bulbs or shades! Some are a pink hue, some bright white and still others a strange blueish-white that seems to give off no light at all.

In the daytime, they are a mixed bag of peeling black paint exposing the old green color underneath and broken bases. In some cases, actually exposing the wiring!

Whats up? The Engineering Department in City Hall,  lead by Deputy Commissioner Goran Smilic, is in charge of this mess. Why don't they seem to notice? Why doesn't anyone seem to care? In a city with a 60 million-plus annual budget, you think somebody could figure out how to keep the lights on!

Maybe they have "more important" issues to address. But, really folks, isn't regular maintenance of main street lighting important? If we can't master something so basic, how can we possibly address the bigger problems that plague our infrastructure?

What does this lack of basic housekeeping say about us to the visitors to our city that stay in the downtown hotels? I know what I would think if I visited a city that had lights all over downtown that were either broken or out!

Lets tell city hall to fix our lights NOW!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Mayor Corey Booker at the Stanley

Mayor of Newark, Cory Booker, appeared last evening (Oct. 19) at the first Community Foundation Speaker Series at the Stanley Theater. Known for his inspirational speeches and, being one of the most influential politicians in our country, Mayor Booker did not disappoint the nearly capacity first floor audience.

What struck me the most was the fact that, here was one man who managed to change the entire narrative in Newark. Once known as a gritty, crime riddled and seedy city, Newark has just emerged from its first month in over 40 years without a single homicide!

This kind of transformation cannot happen without leadership. As Mayor Booker put it, "Consistent, persistent and determined." The kind of leadership we have not seen in Utica in many, many years.

When Mayor Booker was first elected to the Common Council of Newark, he became frustrated. The status quo was in full flowering and he could not get anything done! The Mayor at the time was less than helpful and his fellow council members would consistently vote against any initiative that he put forth.

Frustrated, he almost quit politics. But, he persevered and with the help of average citizens and with their support, he eventually began to change the mindset of government officials in Newark.

Is that really all that different from Utica? We are basically in the same place Newark was when Cory Booker took the helm and began to run the city. We have had zero leadership from the mayor's office.
Utica has been a rudderless ship without a captain for so many years we would not recognize a true leader if we fell over him.

Spend an hour listening to Cory Booker. There's a leader! I kept thinking, how lucky for Newark. To have such a person, of knowledge, vision and compassion with real leadership ability. What could we do here in Utica if we were fortunate to have such a person as our Mayor?

As I looked around the theater I saw several members of the Common Council, including Jerry Kraus, Jim Zecca and Frank Vescera. Mayoral candidate Rob Palmieri and his wife Sue were also in attendance. As current and potential leaders of our city, I hope they paid close attention to the words of the Mayor.

If they did, the surely heard when he stated that "The arts fuels economic development."In a time when government is ready to slash funding from arts organizations, cultural venues and libraries, is was comforting to hear a political leader defend these programs as being important to the overall development and economy of any community.

I hope they paid attention when he told how Newark gave abandoned and derelict buildings to artists to be transformed into lofts, galleries and studios. Utica is an arts town. We need to embrace the same kind of vision that Newark did to attract and grow our arts community.

Utica has deep, vast and systemic problems. The question is, are these problems insurmountable? As Mayor Booker so eloquently stated, "Do you want to be a thermometer or a thermostat?"We have been a thermometer in Utica for so many years the mercury is about dried up. Its time we stop letting external forces shape the community we are. It's time to take those forces and use them to create the community we want to be.

It's all about attitude and vision. Listening to Cory Booker last evening, I began to realize that we are the only thing holding us back.

Let's change that!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

How To Save Utica's Old Buildings

The Observer Dispatch editorial today called for a "Fair, Logical Plan To Save Worthy Buildings." The editorial makes some good points. In other areas they are way off  base.

The article states that "It is not governments place - or anyone else's - to tell people what they can or cannot do with property they have purchased."

That's not entirely true.

Local government has for years told people what they can or cannot do. It's called zoning. These laws have been enacted to protect certain areas from incompatible development. For instance, say you buy a building on Genesee Street - an old carriage house. You can't turn it into a used car lot or an auto body shop. These types of uses have been prevented by zoning laws. You cannot take an old mansion and turn it into a drug treatment facility. You can't put a commercial use into a residential neighborhood.

These zoning laws are all in place to guide and even tell people what they can and cannot do with a property. Sometimes, an owner is vehement about wanting to change the use of a building. In that case, they may apply for a use variance. The Zoning Board will hear the case and make a decision based on neighbor input, case law and impact on the surrounding area.

Another way we tell people what they can and cannot do with their buildings is through the Scenic and Historic Ordinance. In the early 1990's, as a result of the unnecessary demolition of #2 Rutger Park, I was determined to make sure that this kind of destruction of our historical buildings be prevented from ever happening again. As Councilman in the 5th Ward, I helped to create the Scenic and Historic District and the law that prevents people from destroying, altering or introducing an incompatible use into a building in the district.

So, you see we do tell people what they can or cannot do all the time.

Here's the problem with the conclusion that the OD makes with it's opinion that Utica needs a full time, dedicated and aggressive economic development director. They're right. We need one. The problem is, the position we keep filling is the administrator for the HUD grant. And, because of that, we get very little economic development.

Let me explain.

If you become the "Commissioner" of UED, as I was for 3 years, you quickly discover that you have very little to offer a potential investor in the city. The only money we have allocated for economic development is tied to job creation in low to moderate income neighborhoods. That's great as a program to help people, but it's not much of an incentive to locate your company here.

The amount of money is also pretty meager. Under current program guidelines, we only offer a 15,000 low interest loan for every full time job created up to 30% of the total cost of the project. We also offer a 5,000 facade 1-1 matching grant (2-1 if your project is in the Scenic and Historic District.)

That's it. It makes it impossible to travel around (no money is allocated for travel) and try to attract businesses to Utica. Not one dime of general fund money is allocated to economic development. We have nothing to offer.

When it mentions the disaster that occurred at the hands of Diana Lenska, the self-proclaimed princess that bought and then destroyed 294 Genesee St, the OD fails to mention that they had a hand in the eventual outcome. You see, we at city hall never really believed that she was a true princess! What we were faced with was a woman who paid cash for an important structure that we wanted to protect. It was in our best interest to work with her.

When the OD broke the story that she may be a "fake," the gun-shy Roefaro administration immediately ordered us to pull back on any assistance that we were planning to give to her organization.  She also lost the backing of her benefactors and the fate of the building was sealed.

I am not suggesting that the OD look the other way when a person or organization comes to town and sets up shop. In this case it seemed that the editorial zeal to expose this woman as a fraud was put ahead of any other concerns and the result was the eventual destruction of the building.

In any case, Utica does desperately need some form of Economic Development initiative. The OD is right on in that regard. What we must demand is that this be above and beyond the HUD program. That is the only vehicle we have used for the past 38 years. A quick drive through our central business district will convince you that it has not worked.

And,what about EDGE? Why do we, year after year, allow Oneida County and EDGE to turn their backs on the city? And, unlike just about every other successful city, why doesn't Utica have any private economic development agencies working on our turn around?

We'll talk about that in the next post!

Happy Sunday!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

ALSA/APA Convention at the Radisson

The City of Utica was host in late September to the ALSA/APA Convention at the Radisson Hotel downtown. This convention brought over 100 Planners and Landscape Architects to the heart of Utica for a three day convention that travels throughout the state to a different location each year.
I was part of the "Rust to Green" presentation, along with Paula Horrigan, Professor of Landscape Architecture at Cornel University, Jamie Vanucci, formerly with Cornell and now with SUNY, and Pam Jardieu, R2G Core member and independent grant writer. After a presentation to about 50 convention attendees we took them on a walking tour of Utica.

The reaction was mixed. Most of the group had been to Utica in the past but some had never seen the city. It was painfully obvious that our city had seen better days and there was a lot of work to do. Starting at the Radisson we proceeded south to Oneida Square and the roundabout construction site.

The grand boulevard of Genesee St. is what impressed everyone the most. Unfortunately, the condition of the infrastructure and many of the buildings tarnishes the luster of the main street our town.

It's not that this group of urban professionals was being critical of our city. If anything, they were perplexed as to how and why we, as citizens, and our government would let Utica slip so far without trying to stop it. The consensus was this: you have a beautiful, unique and historical city. Now get to work and fix it up!

Several of the members of our group were design professionals based in Saratoga, NY. After a bit of ribbing about the "condition" of their city we had a serious talk about the similarities between Utica and Saratoga and how we could emulate the rebirth of that city. The great thing was, no body rolled their eyes and chided me for having the gall to compare Utica to Saratoga! Local residents and even elected officials just don't see the connection. Thankfully, our visitors did.

You see, both towns have a major artery that cuts through the central business district. Both have great old architecture. Saratoga has the track, we have The Stanley, MWP, the Utica Zoo, Saranac Brewery, Union Station........

 In other words, we have similar strengths, we just don't believe in ourselves the way Saratogans do. But, it wasn't always that way.

In the 1970's downtown Saratoga and it's bordering neighborhoods were in trouble. Years of decline, no planning, rampant demolition and people and business fleeing to the suburbs had left its mark. And it wasn't pretty.

Sound familiar?

We have been in a similar situation for years. All we have to do now is emulate the care and devotion to our city that Saratoga did, and we could have a similar success story.

Back on tour, the group was impressed with the beauty of our Public Library and the grounds of MWP/Pratt. The roundabout construction site managed to capture the attention and even our friends from Saratoga admitted that we had beat them on this one!

The final stop was the Stanley. If you really want to wow any visitor to Utica, just take them to the Stanley! The staff was very accommodating and mouths were open at the grandeur of the house and especially the new chandelier.

A luncheon featuring Peter Fleisher,  the executive director of Empire State Futures, delivering the keynote address  concluded the conference.  As I sat there I could not help but feeling proud and challenged at the same time. How are we going to change our city for the better? How are we going to put an end to the negative narrative that has for so many years held us back from achieving the greatness that has been so elusive?

The answers to those questions can only come from us.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Bleecker Street-A Preservation Success Story

Today, let's focus on a preservationist's fantasy come true-Bleecker Street!

Last evening I had the pleasure of enjoying a glass of wine on the rooftop terrace of Dave and Regina Bonacci's chic new loft dwelling downtown.

The building that they brought back to life was, many moons ago, Gerald's Mens Shop (for those of you old enough to remember!) More recently it was TR's After Hours, a breakfast place for the early morning bar crowd.

That's the location I remember. As a bartender next door at Yesterday's, Louie DeGeronimo's celebrated 80's dance club, I fondly remember the "Hi Honey" greeting given to all the inebriated patrons by Thelma Roy, the hostess/owner. TR was a no-nonsense gal, who served up witty reparte with her coffee and eggs. Her chef, Congetta, was a large, matronly woman with a beautiful Italian accent and a grandmotherly countenance. Together they made quite a team. And, there was never any trouble with drunks, because these two were as tough as they were friendly!

In any event, after TR retired (she has since passed away) the Food Bank took over the building. Around the same time, the bar next door was having trouble of its own. A succession of owners after Louie D. sold the place had reduced the once hip and beautiful nightspot to a run-down drinking hole with nightly fights and trouble a plenty.

That's when City Hall stepped in. Tim Julian, Mayor at the time and Tim Doyle, Urban Renewal Director, hatched a plot to rid downtown of these "eyesores." Never mind they were early 19th century mercantile structures, built the same time the Erie Canal flowed through Downtown bringing commerce and wealth to Utica.

They must be demolished decreed the pair, and they set out to accomplish that deed. And, what was set to take their place? Why, parking of course. Surface parking, the holy grail of development. Build more parking and the people will flock to the city!

At the same time City Hall was getting the 'dozers ready, a team of preservationists set out to thwart the plan. Lead by Landmark's member Pam Jardieu, we met to try to figure a way to stop this crazy plan. You see, it was late 2007, and Julian was up for re-election. We figured if he won, we would have to fight the traditional way, perhaps getting a court order or injunction. But if he lost...

Aided by several City Hall "insiders" we managed to delay the asbestos abatement long enough to see the results of the election. If the abatement had gone ahead as planned, the roofs would be stripped from the buildings and that would truly signal their demise. The city had already allowed the former owners to totally strip the interiors of any thing of value and had cut the utilities in the street.

Well, election day came and Julian lost. The block was saved.

Working in City Hall in early 2008, Pam and I devised a plan to save the block for good by matching new owners with the buildings. Not just any owners but stewards, people who appreciated historical structures. More importantly, we also wanted to bring new life downtown.

Enter Dave and Regina. A local architect with incredible talent and sensitivity toward old buildings and their reuse, this was the kind of project he had been looking for. Having left the DuRoss Building in the Utica Business Park after it's sale, Dave wanted a new home for his office and an upstairs loft apartment for him amd his wife.

Pam and I got to work. We wrote a Main Street grant for 500,000 and submitted it to the Common Council for approval. Unfortunately the Councilman who represented the district, Frank Vescera, was not comfortable with giving money to potential developers and the permission to apply for the grant was not given.

We were stunned. How could the Common Council not grab this opportunity and run with it?
Not to be stopped, we continued our search. Dave and Regina were in no matter what.

We then found George Heath and Wade McCrite, two South Florida transplants that had recently completed a stunning restoration of their big brick Italianate mansion on the corner of South Street and Park Avenue.  These men were as dedicated to saving old buildings as any one on Landmarks, and they purchased the Yesterday's building and the corner building as well, the former home of Meyda Tiffany.

The middle building, formerly Meelan Floors, was the last one sold. A Bosnian Family, pursuing their American dream, purchased it and in short order had it completed and opened as a coffee shop and martial arts studio.

The block began to see new life and activity. Aided by CDBG dollars that I allocated from our budget, the buildings came back. Life came back.

And, Dave and Regina moved in! Stunning beyond belief, you have to see the building and Dave's innovative design to appreciate what is possible-even in Utica!

Strut, the chic night spot designed and created by George and Wade, is also a testament to what can be done with vision, sweat equity, and a little help from government. An industrial yet elegant feel to the place gives you the "I must be in Manhattan feel"-yet no, you are in Utica.

And to think, at one time not too long ago, the best use that almost happened on the block was surface parking!

In the end, Pam and I applied for a second round of Main St, grants and we got one. An additional 500,000 is now in the works for Bleecker St.

Stories like these will bring our city back. And I am glad that, in a small way, I was able to help make it happen.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Plundering Utica

My fellow blogger "Strikeslip" has a concern that he voiced after my articles on the destruction of 294 Genesee St. at the hands of the self-proclaimed Princess Diana Lenska. He refered to it as "plundering Utica."

Our once magnificent city has been a victim of this type of abuse for many years now. The culmination of the systematic looting of our precious architectural history has reached a peak with the dismantling of the magnificent French Renaissance interiors of the Mattisson Mansion at 294 Genesee St.

The plunder of Utica has taken many forms throughout the years. The destruction of the home of Vice-President James Sherman in the 1940's for a cheesy strip center. The demolition of the park-like campus of The House of the Good Shepherd in the 1950's for a motel and bowling alley.

In the 1960's we looted our precious Upjohn designed City Hall before we smashed it into oblivion. Oil portraits of the former Mayors of Utica, Maps and original furnishings were discarded or stolen by political insiders. We even demolished the  original home of the Oneida Historical Society on the triangle island on Park Ave. and replaced it with a gas station!

Whole neighborhoods were wiped out in the 1970's and 80's. People travel to the streets they grew up on and find nothing but weed choked empty lots and garbage and despair.

When does it stop? When is enough enough? Do we care so little for our history and the things that give us our identity that we will systematically destroy, loot, and demolish anything for profit and greed?

We have allowed our buildings to become foreclosed on by a city government that is not willing or able to protect them. They sit empty and abandoned and are soon stripped of their copper plumbing, fixtures and anything of value. Only then does the city step in, declares them unsalvageable and proceeds to demolish the remaining shell.

This scenereo has happend repeatedly over the years. Elected officials think they have the exclusive right to make every decision about the future of our city without any imput or direction from the citizens. Groups like Landmarks have to fight tooth and nail to save every endangered building from destruction.

We get little or no help from our elected representatives. And the destruction marches on.

The Scenic and Historic Comission was implemented in response to the unnecessary destruction of #2 Rutger park in the early 1990's. Even with those controls in place, the destruction continues. Someone "forgets" to check, and a demo permit is issued by mistake. A landlord neglects his property for so many years without any Codes Department intervention that, on the verge of collapse, it becomes an "emergency demolition."

The city that we all know and love will cease to be if we do not stop this systematic looting and destruction. We must demand that city hall listen and act.

If they refuse, we need to make sure they hear us-loud and clear!

"Polish Princess" spokesperson responds to criticism

Today, it was reported in the O.D. that Frank Coiro, spokesperson for the "Princess" is aghast as to why anyone would be upset by the destruction of the Mattison Mansion interiors. "It's our stuff," he reportedly said. "We can do anything we want with it."

That shows the true carpetbagger nature of this duo. Blow into town, expect the citizenry to fall at your feet and throw money at you because you are "royalty."

Are they serious? The problem from the beginning was that the woman claiming to be a Princess never really was able to prove it. She had some very impressive photos taken with some very important people. But, her supposed lineage to any royal family was blurry and it seemed that what she really wanted was to be financially supported by the people of Utica in the same way she had been supported by her Hong Kong connections.

And who are these Hong Kong billionares anyway? Why would they buy a house for 200k-cash?
And then let a woman without the means to take care of it live there? Its a story that could only happen in Utica!

Now, Lenska, Coiro and their "Staff" have scurried away to an undisclosed location, leaving the house virtually abandoned, it's precious artifacts crated up and shipped off for auction somewhere. They are going to reestablish her "Royal Embassy" somewhere in Europe.

Mr. Coiro is outraged that I made a big deal about it. He blames me for the uproar in the community. If I had not showed up when I did, they could have mysteriously dissapeared into the night and no one would be the wiser.

As luck would have it, I did show up, and now everyone knows the destruction they left behind. Hopefully, one of the Hong Kong big shots will step in and make things right. They did finance this mess in the first place.

Sorry Frank, you and your "Princess" did not have the right to do what you did. And, hopefully, you will be forced to make it right as well.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Bagg's Square West

Well, with roof repaired, hopefully the leaks are banished for one more winter!

Bagg's Square-for many Utican's, Bagg's Square is just a name from the past. They don't remember the Bagg's Square that I do, although rather murkily. Most of the important buildings and infrastructure of the "Square" was leveled in the early 1970's for the North Genesee St. overpass.

For almost 170 years before the DOT decided to wipe away an entire section of downtown, the commercial district of Utica was bookended by Bagg's Square to the north and Oneida Square to the south. In between, the social, cultural and commercial epicenter of our region-downtown-was the economic driver that almost everyone had a connection to.

But Bagg's Square, that was where the real power was located. In the 19th century, Bagg's Hotel stood on the site next to the present day Children's Museum. A grand Greek revival ediface, it had elegant ballrooms and a genteel lobby that welcomed such notables as Charles Dickens. Eventually purchased by the Proctor Brothers, it was demolished by Maria Proctor during the depression to create jobs for unemployed Utica men.

Mrs. Proctor had a small memorial building erected on the site. It's trim was designed by Tiffany, with the pyramidal shaped roof topped by a cast bronze eagle-a favorite theme of the Proctor's! It was ment to hold the records of 130 years of thge Hotel's operations. Unfortunately, these disappeared shortly after it was completed.

Bagg's Hotel was not the only Hostelry located on the square! There was also the Hotel Yates, on the West side of Genesee St. It was a more simply designed structure, catering to businessmen and travelers on the Erie Canal.

The Long Block or the Marble Block, as it was sometimes called, was also on West Genesee. It's  facade of white marble gave it its name, but that impervious material could not guarantee its survival. It was destroyed in a spectacular fire that would be the same fate for several other magnificent buildings on and around Bagg's Square.

Today, only a trace of the original neighborhood survives. But withinin those historical and storied buildings, new life is emerging. Bagg's Square West is alive with activity and is destined to become a hip, funky and cool new-old place to be!

Many years ago, I found myself on Hotel St. How I got there was anyones guess, for along with destroying everything they could, the DOT also made it virtually impossible to get to Bagg's Sq. W.
I was flabbergasted! Here was an intact remnant of the glory days of the city. It had the feel of a place that needed to be discovered. It was waiting.

 Twenty-Five years later, it's still waiting. But, little by little it is being discovered. And the people who are discovering it are the ones it needs the most.

Take, for instance, Lynne Mishalanie. The under-appreciated, creative genius behind Utica Monday Nite bought her building almost 15 years ago. Covered in green cement, the facade was waiting to be exposed. After peeling back the veneer with the distinctive "Utica Rubber Works" lettering, lynne set about creating a gorgeous storefront building to house UMN and a gallery that has featured works from local artists.

Today, Frank Elias has done the same thing at his "Utica Roasting" location. It's contagious. Chris Talgo, of Varick Street's "Nail Creek" has purchased a building in between Frank and Lynne. He is going to open a hip storefront restaurant.  The kind of place we have to go to NYC or Boston to enjoy.

You see, Utica can change. We can move ahead. This city can be as good or as bad as we choose to make it. It's all in the way we think.

We need more Lynne's, Frank's, and Talgo's! And, if some of the other stories unfolding within the walls of the buildings on Bagg's Square West are told, we will have them!

Bagg's Square West

Bagg's Square West is in the midst of a transformation. Unfortunately, I have to fix a leak in my roof, so no time to write today! Look for this story coming soon.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Dan Minor's Blog featuring comments from "Garbageman."

Dan Minor, citybeat reporter for the O.D. has a well written, insightful and oft times perceptive take on  city government. I got to know "Diggin Dan" ( not to be confused with Digger Dan) during my three most recent years in city hall. A pretty cool guy. But, don't let that placid exterior fool you. He didn't get the "Diggin" nickname for nothing!

Dan has reported all the news during the Roefaro take-down of Utica! He only missed one story-The Growest Scandal!  Poor Dan FINALLY got to take a vaca from the dysfunction and hijinx of 1 Kennedy Plaza and how is he rewarded? We schedule the blow-the-lid off press conference while he is on the road!

In any event, I didn't set out to give a history of Dan's experiences in city hall. I was checking his blog out and, of course, the number one comment was posted by my biggest fan, "Garbageman."

I wonder, who is this guy (or lady) and why does he have such a, well let's just say, a rather colorful opinion of me? I admire his obsession and I hope that he is never dissapointed by me. I mean, if I was perfect what the heck would he have to write about?

I have a couple ideas of the "Identity" of my cyber-stalker. You see, when you want to be completely anonymous, and yet you have such deep seated emotions about your subject, you always slip a bit here and there.

And Garbageman has slipped on the bananna peel that fell from his can a few times now.

I am always amused by his "I know you are but what am I" style of criticism. He is angry, bitter and probably a lonely little man who feels that anyone in the public eye deserves his brand of belittlement.

I wonder, if Garbageman  redirected that energy to an activity that could benefit the city, maybe he would feel less anger and frustration over the sad state of our hometown. Maybe he could come out of the shadows of his dark and creepy blogosphere and shine the light of positive, redirected energy on the areas that need it the most.

Nah. On second thought, stay where you are, my purveyor of all that is negative and trashy and bad. I have come to rather look forward to your ramblings of miscontent.

Especially when the subject is...yours truly!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Who's Running City Hall?

Today, while enjoying my morning coffee, I had to endure yet another O.D. article that mentioned how, along with my sister Linda Fatata and Mayoral Candidate Rob Palmieri, I was FIRED from my job as UED Commissioner.

Not that I mind being mentioned or blame the O.D. or the author of the article, Dan Miner. It's just still surreal that Roefaro did what he did. Fire half his staff, that is. And for no apparent reason, for none of the positions have been filled.

Childhood friend and confidante Dan Labella remains firmly in place, although reports vary as to how much time he actually spends in the building in these twilight days of this most dissapointing administration.

The soon-to-be ex mayor likes to blather on about how much money he saved by terminating the three of us. Unfortunately, we were the three who spent the most time in City Hall actually working.

Don't stand in the lobby or try to get on an elevator at 4:29-you may be trampled by the exodous of workers literally running from the building!

This post could go on and on about that, but I would rather focus on something more important, a great point brought up by Dan in his article. What does the next mayor plan to do about it?

Ernie Sanita is going to fire every at-will employee. A tantilizing thought, but but probably not going to happen.

Rob Palmieri wants to give every current employee a 4 month grace period to see how they perform. With all due respect to Mr. Palmieri, he had been a departmet heads for many years. He should already know how things work (or don't) in City Hall.

Cardillo wants to let his transition team interview potential candidates and whittle to just three that he will pick from. Great in theory but do we honestly believe his top choices will really be dictated by a team of people that he does not control?

Cerminaro evokes images of the type of administration he wants to have by announcing his department heads will be in "lock step"with what he wants to accomplish.

Green candidate Clemente makes the most sense here whan he simply says he wants to find the most qualified candididates.

None of these five Mayoral wannabes has articulated yet what the vision is that these at-will picks are going to promote.

With time running out, it would be nice to hear what we can expect for the next four years.

Hopefully, it will be something unlike the disaster of the Roefaro years.

Around the City with Bobby Sullivan: Developing Downtown

Around the City with Bobby Sullivan: Developing Downtown: Downtown Utica-why does it seem so hard to get it past the "idea" stage and into the development mode that just about every other large, med...

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Developing Downtown

Downtown Utica-why does it seem so hard to get it past the "idea" stage and into the development mode that just about every other large, medium and small city across the state has been successful at? Even Schenectady, the city that Utican's loved to poke fun of, has now eclipsed us in downtown development.

What are we doing wrong?

I have a few ideas that I think have hindered us in "landing the plane" of downtown turn around.


Utica residents love to hate their city. At least they love to vocalize that hate. I think they just hate the stalled progress and broken promises that they have endured for the past 40 years. A whole generation of Utica has grown up being told that success is just around the corner. It never really comes. The reaction is to grumble about how crummy Utica is, what a dump it has become, how there is nothing here and no reason to stay. For some reason they do stay and they continue to complain. If they really truly did not care, they would not even talk about it any more.

But they do care.

The 'burbs.
For many years, the Utica metro region has done everything in its power to suck the retail and commercial growth out of the already developed urban grid and transplant it to  farmland, wetlands and apple orchards. The end result-a decaying, underutilized urban fabric next to suburban sprawl that has eliminated natural green space and agricultural economy.

Are we really better off?

When Griffiss Airforce Base was closed in the mid-90's, the entire region scrambled to replace the lost jobs and economy that was generated there. EDGE was formed and most of the regional push was to fill the space. A drive through the base today presents a vastly changed infrastructure. Gleaming modern buildings and public sculpture greets visitors driving over smooth as silk roads.

A vastly different experience from a trek through downtown Utica.

The question is, why can't that same can-do regional spirt now be applied to downtown Utica? Are we not in essentially the same shape as Griffiss was in 1995?  Empty, underutilized commercial buildings such as the Harza and HSBC are just waiting for the same kind of investment that created the Griffiss redevelopment. What holds us back?

Cooperation between communities is the answer.

If you don't agree with that, just listen to Gov. Andrew Cuomo. "Parochialism is destroying NY State" he said recently. "Regional cooperation is the only way we will survive this economic downturn."

To prove his point, he created ten regions that will now compete for funding from the state for economic development. The regions that show the most cooperation will each win 40 million dollars.

How will we fare in this competition?

If the experience of the last 20 years is any indication, we will come in dead last.

We can change the attitude of every citizen of this community if we demand that our elected officials and the folks who run agencies like EDGE come up with a plan to turn Utica around. It cannot happen if everyone is not committed to it.

We can have all the high paying nanotech jobs in the world, but if the folks earning those big dollars do not want to live, visit or invest in Utica, as a region, we are sunk.