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!

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