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!


  1. Bob

    This was an excellent summary of the issues. I couldn't agree more with the points you've made.


  2. Your perception of past history is wrong on many points, and the "public" process supposedly used to reach the present design is legally flawed, but I will not address these issues because I do not want to distract from my main point: The perspective of people who live or have businesses in the neighborhood is missing.

    Sunset Avenue is the main N-S artery that collects most of the local Utica traffic west of Genesee. Severing it will be disruptive and cause inconvenience. Warren Street is the only E-W connection across the arterial between Noyes and Court Streets. More disruption and inconvenience results when that gets cut. Lincoln gets cut off from Court St and its traffic is sent over Roberts Street where two cars cannot pass each other if someone is parked. This will cause inconvenience for adjoining property owners, probably require elimination of on-street parking, and possibly create a safety issue.

    DOT estimates that the furthest people will have to go out of their way will be 1/3 to about 9/10 of a mile or 1-2 minutes. Assuming that these numbers are correct (2 minutes for 9/10 seems incorrect if a traffic light is encountered), they are deemed by DOT to be insignificant. While such distances and times may be insignificant from the perspective of suburban commuters, they are VERY significant to those who live in the area and are only trying to go a couple blocks to go to church or visit a friend. The reroutings are disruptive to day-to-day activities for these people.

    West Uticans do not need an extension of New Hartford's Rayhill recreational trail. Nor do they need a sculpture trail. Yet, they are expected to give up their time, convenience, and shoeleather for these amenities. West Uticans need more connectivity with their neighbors, but they are getting less.

    Those who will bear the burden of living with this beast are (1) ignored, (2) told what is good for them, or (3) called obstructionists. In short, the needs of the people who are expected to be "hosts" to this project are minimized for the "greater good."

    In the long run, however, based on past history this project not only will hurt West Utica, it will hurt the entire city and the region. Utica had a relatively good street grid that has been incredibly disrupted. Whitesboro St. is a prime example of the result. It is cut off from Main, and cut off from itself. It no longer distributes traffic into the heart of West Utica like it once did. Its traffic carrying capacity is wasted -- but taxpayers still pay for maintenance and plowing. Columbia Square, deprived of through traffic and ease of access, is dead, and worse, the whole Whitesboro St. strip has become the place for crime. It is Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design in reverse, by reducing exposures to traffic.

    If Utica continues to fail to pay attention to the humble needs of its most humble residents, the City itself will fail.

  3. Bobby, thanks for posting on this subject. I'd just like to get more voices around the table on this issue - regardless of their position. I think urban development around here would be greatly improved if there were more voices at the table to begin with. While we might not entirely agree on everything, we do have common ground on the issue of East/West access to the Bossert Site. I think this is going to be more important going forward because Sunset and Warren are being closed off. I'm putting most of my energy in that direction - including this stretch of the arterial in the development plan. (The latest I remember is that the project will not include anything for these two exits - at least not now...and I hope I've got that right...) Maybe if we have more voices around the table, something really beneficial will happen in this city going forward. Again, thanks for posting!

  4. Strikeslip,
    How is my perception wrong on past history? Instead of just saying it, you should back up your conclusion. Was this not the Chenango Canal? Was there not a major railroad track that was located on the site? If i have made an historical error, I would appreciate your corrections.
    As far as the closure of warren St. is concerned, I live on Cottage Place. Have you ever seen Cottage at Lincoln at rush hour? It is a nightmare of congestion. I am inconvenienced every day as are my neighbors. Traffic whizzes by on Lincoln on their way to 12 and that will hopefully be abated by the closure of the Warren St. feeder. The huge traffic nightmare on Lincoln will calm enough that I do not believe it will affect Roberts St. Again, I am a lifelong resident of this neighborhood. I LIVE here and am on these streets every day.
    As far as the Rayhill trail is concerned, how do you know what West Uticans want or need? Have you done a poll? A survey? I personally think the Rayhill trail extension into West Utica would be fantastic! You say West Utica needs "more connectivity with their neighbors." What a perfect solution- a wonderful trail that connects New hartford and West Utica!
    We could debate the horrible decisions of the past in regards to street reconfiguration and urban renewal. I probably agree with you on most points. Where we differ, I believe, is what we do about it today. I don't feel the project as presented as planned will hurt West Utica. You do. Fine. We agree to disagree. And I celebrate our right to do so. I just happen to think that there was plenty of discussion because I was there for most of it.
    The real dilemma, if you want to talk about bad planning, is the county insistance on the Park ave closure project. That is a project that needs to be stopped dead in its tracks NOW! And I hope you can help to do just that!

  5. Map from Ca 1940 shows RR crossings at Thorn, Oswego, Noyes, Sunset, Warren, Roberts, Court, Columbia, Lafayette and Whitesboro Street. Thus, the RR was Not a Barrier.

    An 1839 map shows almost all of the EW streets contacting Chenango Canal spanning it: Thus, the Canal was Not a Barrier ... In fact the Canal was a boost to the local neighborhood because, if you were lucky enough to own property along the canal, you had *direct access to it* . And therein likes the important difference from the Arterial.

    The Arterial IS a barrier because it is *limited access.* Adjoining properties have no access ... one has to go to cross streets for access. That probably would have been OK but they also closed several cross streets (Thorn, Kirkland, Roberts) which reduced connectivity.

    Anyway, that corrects your misunderstanding of the history.

    I went over Cottage and Lincoln this evening at 4:30 and didn't notice any problem ... though if you tell me there are times of congestion I don't doubt you.

    I grew up on the West Side, the family homestead is there, and I am there practically every day, so I understand what is going on in the neighborhood.

    The answer is not cutting off street connections like Warren . . . It is improving the ones we have to make them work better ... and to create new ones to give people more options. Like the roundabout which improves connectivity by eliminating people from having to go out of their way to make movements. The DOT's idea to REconnect Lincoln to Burrstone is terrific. While some will grouse at having another light at Burrstone, it will restore some of the function to the currently wasted traffic capacity on Lincoln. I would love the light (along with the left turns) returned to York at Burrstone (Or maybe a Roundabout). More traffic would be sent over York if Whitesboro St were reconnected -- making the Psych Center a potential spot for re development. New Burrstone is an example of the problems of arterials in a city context. It makes no sense to employ street contours and dimensions that encourage people to go 50 MPH when the stretch is only a few hundred yards long.

    The Arterial system destroyed the functioning of the local street grid. It is no longer intuitive when you get close to an arterial. The new proposal exacerbates the problem: The NO turns now needed to go from S Utica to Varick over Sunset Ave will be replaced by 5 turns when Sunset gets cut off. That is not progress! Local connectivity gets sacrificed for Regional connectivity -- but why should we have to choose either or? It is a matter of being motivated to find the right solution.

    Something we can agree on totally is Park Ave! What are they thinking? Check out my posts from 2007. Park Ave is THE BYPASS of the Downtown Core for E Utica streets as well as a good example of 19th century street design. Although part of the bypass function was lost when the EW arterial took over a piece, the remainder is now Improved with the Roundabout. Anyway, you can count on me in that fight!