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.
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.