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!