Thursday, December 29, 2011

Friday is Inauguration Day-Time for a Fresh Start

Well, it's finally here-out with the old, in with the new!

That's the spirit of New Year's. Why not extend that spirit to City Hall as well?

In celebration of the end of the Roefaro debacle, a big inauguration ceremony is planned for Friday, December 30th, 2011. The new Mayor, Robert Palmieri and Common Council members will be sworn in and on Sunday, the past four years will be but a memory.

What a memory!

Let's have a final review. Remember, when our man Dave first got elected? The promise of a new, fresh start?  It was quite exciting. There was a chance that things could be different somehow. And, for a while it was. But, it happened. The thing we most feared. The job changed the man.

It happened at first in small ways. The secrecy and the closed door, hush-hush meetings. The lack of direction and leadership from the top. Then, "King" Dave decreed that he was the the only reason that anything good would ever happen in our little city.

Let me explain. Once, at a meeting to discuss the stalled parking garage project, the king launched into a tirade explaining how truly important he was. "I am the only reason anything good ever happens here," he snarled. "I make it happen! NOTHING will ever get accomplished here, no one in Albany will ever help us if I am not Mayor!"

The shocked attendees, a mix of department heads and local consultants, filed quietly out the door of the Mayor's conference room. We all knew, somehow, that it was all over. The job changed the man.

Or, possibly the job just intensified the man that was always there. Maybe, a job like being mayor, can never really change someone. Perhaps, it just enables the true personality to shine through, unencumbered by the bounds of what is acceptable in private business.

Or maybe it's the power. Being mayor, even of a small, struggling city like Utica, can bring a lot of power to an individual. Whether it's real or perceived power, it can change a person. We have seen that throughout the years. And, we have paid for it as well.

So, Dave Roefaro, becomes mayor as a local business man and leaves office a "King." His words, not mine.

Now the cycle begins again. A new man, a new era. Will Rob Palmieri declare himself king one day?
I doubt it. Will the job change him? Hopefully not.  He has inherited a super-human challenge from his predecessors. I don't think he will have much time to dally with royal titles.

This is truly the make-or-break moment that our city has been waiting for. Or fearing. It all depends on the man at the top.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Around the City with Bobby Sullivan: Dave Roefaro-King of Kings

Around the City with Bobby Sullivan: Dave Roefaro-King of Kings: It's Christmas Eve and I promised myself no more Roefaro-inspired political blogs. However, when I read on the OD website the comments made ...

Dave Roefaro-King of Kings

It's Christmas Eve and I promised myself no more Roefaro-inspired political blogs. However, when I read on the OD website the comments made by "HRH Dave," I just could not pass it up!

"When you are the king, everyone wants to kill the king. I don't want to be king. I want to stand next to the king."

Yes friends, that is apparently the quote, as reported by the OD, that our mayor said in his farewell speech to the common council.

I know. I could not believe it either.

As I thought about it further, however, it makes perfect sense. It reflects the extreme hubris and sense of entitlement that is the hallmark of the Roefaro administration. A man who fancies himself to be the "KING" certainly cannot waste his time ruling over the peasant population of a place like Utica.

No sir, a King like Dave has to show how Royal he truly is by constantly visiting other places, like the kingdom of Las Vegas. While there, he can be pampered by a bevy of "ladies in waiting" and, while wearing the suitably monogrammed royal terrycloth robe, walk up and down the red carpeted halls of the Bellagio or some other royal palace.

After that exhausting state visit, he can spend some quality time in one of the small royal principalities of the Kingdom of Florida. While there, he can work on his tan (looks good  in royal photo-ops) spend time on the yacht of one of his many Duke friends, and possibly fit in a few rounds of the most royal game of golf.

But, even a hard working man like our very own King Dave has to return to the kingdom eventually. Not before one of his many state visits to the truly important Kingdom of Albany, where he is revered as one of the favorite rulers of the state. While there, he can put his royal connections to work bringing home the vast amount of riches that he has delivered to our grubby, grateful little hands.

But, alas all fairy tales must end. Now, King Dave has announced that he doesn't really want to be King after all. He has abdicated the throne. No more riches. No bejeweled roundabouts, a harbor that will never see a royal yacht. It's back to reality for us, the commoners of Utica.

Now, we must be content to be ruled by a non- royal. A common, everyday man. Why, even Diana, heir to the throne of Poland, fled her palace to avoid this cruel, wicked fate.

And, what about our soon to be former King? Where will he end up? What will his future be?

History has repeated this story many times. From Czars, to Sultans, to Kings, they have all ended up in the same place.

Farewell King Dave!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Memories of Christmas in Utica

Driving downtown the other night, my mother commented that, "Ed (former Mayor Ed Hanna) would be very upset if he saw what our downtown looked like. He was the only mayor who cared."

I immediately thought of how many other citizens of our city must feel the same way. True, the Hanna years were rife with controversy, wild antics and a general uncertainty of what could possibly happen next! He did understand one thing though-how to market downtown.

Ed Hanna was a man with a vision for Utica. I don't have any idea what the entire vision was, but I do know he wanted to make downtown special. The white lights were a start. Possibly emulating the cities of Europe that he and his wife were rumored to have traveled to extensively throughout their lives, he began to wrap downtown in white lights. Trees, fences, buildings-all were part of his grand scheme to make Utica the upstate "city of light."

Christmas was just the beginning. Back in those days, my friend Nick Jamsiuk, who worked in the Engineering Department, had but one job-keep the lights on! He would, during an evening of light watching, receive numerous calls from the mayor making sure that not a single light was out. Now, to know Nick was to realize that he was about the only person in town who could handle this kind of job. Unflappable, he approached his duties with a quiet demeanor that contrasted all the more with Hanna's  over the top personality.

The result was a downtown that looked exciting, especially at Christmas. People would actually drive down to "see the lights." There was a sense of magic back then, that something was happening in our little city. And, downtown was the beneficiary of this initiative.

I remember, many years ago, that one Christmas I decided to do all my shopping downtown. Every single gift was to be purchased at a shop that did not exist in a mall or a sprawl center. It was, I recall, the most "Christmasy" shopping experience I ever had.

It was early evening and a light snow was falling. Salvation Army bell ringers were stationed around the town and the shops were welcoming and warm.

Reid-Sheldon was my first stop. For gift selection, downtown or anywhere, Reid-Sheldon was the best choice. Lubere's was also on the list for the ladies in my life who needed that special article only carried by this quaint old survivor of the corset era.

Of course, Woolworth's was a needed stop for cards and wrapping paper. And, maybe a parakeet? Who can forget that, at one time not so long ago, we actually had a downtown store that featured a parakeet department!

Sam Montana had a sport shop and you could still buy a tie downtown.

It was a great time. And, I did it all on foot. No parking lots needed!

That was many years ago and the downtown that I remember then was a ghost of the place that my parents knew when they were young. Today, most of the shops that I knew are also long gone, victims of time, changing tastes and a general  abandonment of downtown as a relevant place to be.

Will we ever be able to shop for Christmas again downtown? Today, there are still many fine eating establishments-why not a gift certificate? Heidi Foote and Paul Balzano still operate their fine jewelry stores. There are several antique shops, Jerry Dischivio's on Oneida Square and Antiques Plus downtown. Hey, there is Tebb's Head Shop and Puff-n-Stuff, the new generation of downtown merchants!

So, it's not a total loss, it's just different. And with some help and encouragement from local government, downtown could rise again. Maybe not the same as we all knew, but vibrant, fun and relevant.

And maybe, just maybe, our new mayor will have a vision for downtown. Some white lights, maybe?

It couldnt' hurt!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Downtown Parking-Here We Go Again!

Oneida County Executive Tony Picente took a jab at another attempt this week to ressurect the Park Ave. parking proposal that was rejected back in 2007. His plan then, as now, is to basically close the portion of Park Ave. that fronts the Oneida County Office Building. In its place would be built additional parking that would serve county government. The traffic would be re-routed up John St. and around to Rutger.

The idea was flawed then. Unlike fine wine, it has not improved with age.

Let me make full disclosure. I admire and respect the county executive. We graduated from  Notre Dame together, a zillion years ago it seems. I think he has done an admirable job governing a county that has seemingly insurmountable issues. That makes it even harder for me to understand why he keeps pushing this rather bad idea.

First, I do not subscribe to the idea that we even need more parking downtown. Look at the maps. Look at the statistics. The parking problem is a perceived one, not a reality. Let's examine a few things that contribute to the lasting belief that there is not enough parking downtown.

The Union-Blandina Parking lot is usually almost empty. Take a drive down any day of the week. Why not make it a county lot? If the  county workers need parking, mandate that they park there. Its only a few steps from the Charlotte St. entrance. It would also relieve the congestion from county employees parking on the street.

The  same situation exists at the Boston Store parking garage. The upper deck is almost always empty! Take a look for your self-just about any day of the week, there it sits, a parking garage with no people using a great portion of it.

For that matter, why is Utica just about the only municipality in the state not to have parking meters? That would eliminate the problem of downtown workers parking on the streets all day. More open spaces on the street would signal to people that there is plenty of parking downtown.

The money collected from the meters could be allocated to downtown development, promotion and beautification. We have a city with a budget that allocates NOTHING to downtown. Zip. Zero.

If you are not going to maintain your central business district with the resources necessary to manage it properly, then do something! At least meters would be a steady stream of income. We know what we get when we depend on elected city officials. That's right. Zip. Zero. Nada!

The state did a huge disservice to the citizens of this city when it demolished it's crumbling parking garage and replaced it with a closed VIP lot for high ranking state officials. Never mind the struggling businesses and rank and file state office building employees. The big shots all get convenient, free parking!

Back to Park Ave. When the Oneida County office building, or the "waffle iron" as I like to call it, was built in the '60's, government always got its way. Whole neighborhoods of spectacular 19th and early 20th century architecture were wiped away for the sake of "urban renewal."The O.C. building was just the start.

 Now, we want to further sacrifice the city for the sake of government expansion. Enough already! I understand the desire to provide close, accessible parking. We do not, however, have the same land mass as the suburbs. We will never have the ability to offer mall type parking. And we should'nt. We are a city. We need to start acting like one.

The County Executive stated that "this is not the 1920's. We need to have good development in the city."
He's right. If this was the '20's, the project would be a done deal. No public input. Just a series of smoke-filled back-room deals. And that would be it.

No, it's not the 1920's. Thank God. We have a chance, through public discourse, to make sure the best decisions are made for our city. And, lead by advocacy groups like Landmark's, we actually have a chance to facilitate good development.

So here are a couple suggestions.

Take The Mauro's Glass, Franks Auto, and the carwash properties and relocate them. Somewhere in the city. And square off the campus, surround it with an iron fence, and create the parking that is apparently, so desperately needed.

It would vastly improve the look of the neighborhood. It would also provide more parking.

Or, maybe we should just offer free parallel parking classes. In all honesty, I have never, EVER had a problem finding a parking spot downtown. Maybe that's because, thanks to Gigliotti's Driving School, I am an expert parallel parker!  If more Utica drivers could parallel park, the perception of a parking problem would evaporate overnight.

And so would the dented fenders.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The North-South Arterial Debate-Who Will Win?

In Utica, projects of necessity seem to always become fodder for political debate, finger pointing and accusations of grandstanding. Case in point-the arterial project.

The local office of the DOT, headed up by regional director Mike Shamma, realized that the repair plan for the roadway could become a political hot potato. So, they conducted a series of very public hearings, design charettes and multiple plan presentations-beginning in 2009!

As Commissioner of UED at the time, I attended many of these presentations, met privately with DOT staff and was intimately aware, throughout the entire process, of what the end result would look like. I think what the designers and engineers came up with was the best plan for the city. Here are a few reasons why.

First, the firestorm of controversy seems to be the separation of West Utica from the rest of the city if the plan proceeds as designed. That conclusion is flawed. The bed of the arterial rests over the former Chenango Canal. Once the major North/South route for commerce, the canal connected Utica in a way that contributed to its growth in the second half of the 19th century.It also separated West Utica from downtown with water.

It was filled in after railroads took the place of canals. It separated West Utica now, not by lazily moving packet boats, but by roaring coal fed locomotives carrying their wares throughout the state.

Sometime after WW2, our regional planners decided that a major north /south roadway, this time for automobile traffic, was needed to grow the local economy. The arterial was born. Now, trucks and automobiles separated West Utica.

Popular urban legend in Utica tells the story of how the road was supposed to be elevated throughout the populated neighborhoods that it was to travel through. Supposedly, the politically connected pastor of Holy Trinity Church at the time was able to get the state to bring the roadway back to street level, arguing that it would somehow damage the church and school if it was built elevated as planned.

I do not know how much of that is true, but I do know this: numerous young residents of West Utica have been killed throughout the years trying to cross on foot or on bikes. Having an expressway running through the heart of a city will always be risky. Perhaps, had the road been elevated, these sons and daughters of Utica would have been spared the cruel fate that collided with their young lives on the arterial. We will never know.

Today, the plan presented minimizes the risk to the public in several ways. First, a pedestrian bridge at Sunset Ave will carry residents on foot and bikes safely over the traffic below. Second, the closure of Warren St. will stem the flow of pedestrian traffic at that popular crossing point, reducing risk even further. Finally, elevating the traffic over Court will transform that intersection from the crazy, confusing tangle of traffic and pedestrians into a safer, calmer and more inviting gateway to West Utica.

Sounds good to me. And, it looks good as well. Jim Zecca, the West Utica (now at-large) Common Council representative and Harmony Speciale, the West Utica activist and newly elected Oneida County Legislator, disagree with the plan. They feel that it will "cut off" West Utica. They favor a "boulevard" design that could help with economic development in the city.

They have a point. And they have every right to make that point.The fact is, this type of design will not work here. It was studied, debated, discussed ad-nauseum!  We all arrived at the same conclusion-there is just not enough developable land to make it feasable. The entire east side of the arterial is virtually land locked. So, there is only room for the west side to be developed. And, the amount of developable space on that side ( minus the Bossert site) is negligable as well. Why build a boulevard if there is not enough land to develop anyway?

What Zecca and Speciale need to make sure of is that the Bossert site gain greater access upon completion of the project. Developer after developer who have looked at the empty acerage agree on one major point-it needs access from north traveling traffic in order to make it attractive to potential investors.

West Utica residents have asked for years for retail/grocery store development at that site. That cannot happen without improved access.

Also, they should be fighting for the preservation of the two historic homes, slated for demolition, that sit under the current overpass on Lafayette St. These can and should be saved  by the DOT and preserved for future use. We cannot keep destroying our architectural heritage, what little we have left. Pick up these two gems and move them to another site!

Traffic on Rt. 12 is a nightmare from 3pm until 6pm every day. Give motorists a break and let them get to where they are going without having to sit and wait. Our area, our city will be better served with a roadway that keeps people moving!

As far as development is concerned, lets look at a boulevard that already exists-Oriskany! There is a project area ripe for development. The former Foster Paper site, The old baseball field, all ready to go. Let's put our resources over in that section of West Utica.

Stop stalling and build already!