UTICA — Scoffing, with an incredulous look on his face, Utica Mayor Robert Palmieri did not mince words when answering the question.
“You’re wrong,” he said. “You’re absolutely not even close.”
It’s no secret that Palmieri envisions downtown as a neighborhood community in Utica.
It has grown in recent years with new loft apartments, restaurants and businesses, with a sports and entertainment district and a state-of-the-art, yet controversial, hospital in the works. In that same period, Utica officials have celebrated the sales of 10 major city-owned vacant downtown properties, such as the former Rite Aid building.
The hype spurred the question: Is there a focus on downtown that is taking away from the rest of the city’s neighborhoods?
There are five such communities: North, South, East, West and Cornhill. In speaking with several members of their respective neighborhood block associations, some common concerns include absentee landlords and vacant properties, road conditions, flooding and economic development — namely, jobs.
Palmieri said the city is doing everything in its power to help neighborhood communities meet those needs and more. Saying there is an emphasis on downtown, then, is “a misnomer,” he said.
“This (downtown) was the most stagnated part of the city,” Palmieri said. “Things are much better now within the economics of the city, within the financials of the city and what people think of the city. Are there ways to go yet? Absolutely. Are we happy and are we sitting back and saying, ‘We’ve done it all?’ Absolutely not.”
Utica is in the midst of a post-recession renaissance, said Brian Howard, executive director of the Oneida County History Center.
A factory town at heart, Utica’s population clocked in at more than 100,000 between 1930 and 1960. The population dropped after many of those manufacturers left, however.
This shrinkage — just over 60,000 people live in Utica now, according to Census data — resulted in a lot of empty and blighted properties, some of which are still a concern today, Howard said. As such, new restaurants, businesses and repurposed prominent structures are “big drivers of public awareness” for downtown's revival, he said.
“The impression that I get has been that a majority of the funding, the interest, the development and the marketing has gone toward revitalizing downtown Utica and the Bagg’s Square neighborhood,” he said. “I haven’t seen a whole heck of a lot as far as dedicated efforts in any of the outlying neighborhoods.”
Danielle Smith, chief executive officer of HomeOwnership Center, hopes the impact of continued revitalization of downtown areas “will flow into the surrounding neighborhoods as well,” she said in a statement.
HomeOwnership Center is the coordinating agency for each of Utica’s neighborhood associations. Jason Flemma, an organizer with the South Utica Neighborhood Association, said continued progress into areas such as Bagg’s Square and the developing U District could lead to more citywide investments at the benefit of the neighborhoods.
“I do think there is a tremendous amount of focus — and rightly so. There’s a lot of stuff going on in downtown. It can’t be denied,” he said. “But at the same time, South Utica and the rest of the city shouldn’t be forgotten about for the benefit of one area, and hopefully that won’t ever happen.”
‘Pride in their community’
Fifty affordable housing units at the site of the former Theodore Roosevelt Elementary School in Cornhill.
The reimagining of former textile mills on Court Street to bring 130 new apartments to West Utica.
Efforts to redevelop Harbor Point in North Utica with residential, commercial and recreational opportunities.
All are among the major ongoing initiatives Palmieri and his staff point to as examples of economic development initiatives outside of the immediate downtown area.
“We’re seeing development interest in all of the neighborhoods of the city, both residential and commercial,” said Brian Thomas, the city’s commissioner of Urban and Economic Development. “We’re very aggressive about that in bringing development in and we’re assisting residential development to the greatest extent we can with the financial resources that we have at our disposal.”
With the city’s infrastructure, Utica officials are required by referendum to spend $5 million per year on paving roads. Sewer system improvements are continuous using the resources available in working with the state Environmental Facilities Corp., Thomas said.
“There’s only so many things you can do to prevent flooding, but if the capacity is overwhelming, it won’t be because we did not try,” Palmieri said. “We will clean the catch basin and we will do everything that needed to be out there, but when you have that onslaught of an enormous amount of rain or snow, we can only do what we can do.”
More than $25 million in federal, state and local funds has been allocated for demolitions, street improvements and other neighborhood initiatives since 2012. Parts of that are restricted by the regulations of the Community Development Block Grant program, which is used for the benefit of low- to moderate-income level areas.
Thomas said the city is developing a registry for zombie properties, which are otherwise vacant and abandoned parcels. The list is one of the products of a $250,000 state grant awarded for zombie property remediation in 2016. Implementation of the funding, Thomas said, is in the initial stages.
Foreclosed properties, meanwhile, continue to be acquired, marketed and sold through the Urban Renewal Agency. At this point, the URA does not have any properties for sale.
“If you drive up and down our streets at this point, there’s people infusing in new roofs, porches, windows. There’s a resurgence of people taking pride in their community,” Palmieri said. “The fact that Urban Renewal (Agency) has been very successful and has demonstrated that with the lack of foreclosures and the homes have been sold, a majority of them are city residents, whether they are from the refugee population or they are people that are investing and want to live in the city of Utica, homeownership is up.”
‘Start with the nucleus’
Any type of positive economic development in downtown will have a positive effect on the city as a whole, Howard said.
That development has not been the end-all-be-all solution to the city’s paving and vacant property needs, no, but Howard said the net result has made Utica a much more attractive location than a decade ago — and he believes Utica officials are “doing all they can.”
“The city is welcoming, there are plenty of commercial and privately zoned properties around for somebody that wants to come in and make the investment,” he said. “What it calls for is people that, like the investors today, are willing to stick their necks out a little bit and take a risk.”
He and Lucretia Hunt, organizer for the East Utica Neighborhood Association, agree that a tipping point that could really drive Utica for the better is if the Marcy nanocenter project moves forward.
Promises of a $2 billion computer chip fabrication facility — and 1,500 jobs — were dashed when Austria-based AMS, the developing company, backed out of the project two years ago. The project’s future is unclear to this day.
The jobs would be a welcome boon to Utica as a whole, said Hunt. Until then, she believes downtown’s development serves a similar purpose.
“I think it’s offered people a lot more, now. We have a lot more activities,” she said. “I think that you got to start with the nucleus first. That was where that began and I think that will spread further because more people will want to come. … If you’re cleaning up the city and you’re painting the houses and the landlords are taking care of everything, people will want to live there.”
Comparing Utica and Schenectady
Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy said he and Utica Mayor Robert Palmieri often compare notes on different issues.
Schenectady and Utica have seen their downtowns go through similar economic revivals within the last decade. Both border the Mohawk River. And both have populations in the area of 60,000 people (64,913 for Schenectady, according to the latest Census data).
Here is how McCarthy said Schenectady approaches some of the issues in Utica's neighborhood communities:
Schenectady officials typically commit $2 million in local funds — through capital bonds — over each of the last few years to street paving, McCarthy said. This funding is augmented by available state and federal funds. For this year, McCarthy said the city plans to resurface around 11 miles of roads for approximately $3.375 million, with $1.1 million accounted through funding from the state's Consolidated Local Street and Highway Improvement Program.
McCarthy said Schenectady has a vacant building registry. Property owners with registered properties must pay scaling annual fees starting at $1,000. The list has been in place for the last five years, the mayor said. Similar to Utica's Urban Renewal Agency, McCarthy said Schenectady has been aggressive in acquiring and marketing foreclosed properties as opposed to selling them through auction or other means. Last year, the city generated $1.6 million through selling approximately 85 foreclosed properties.
Schenectady has worked with the governor's office to explore stormwater recovery efforts and to develop flood prevention projects in some of the city's at-risk flood areas, such as properties along the Mohawk River.
McCarthy said Schenectady just completed a Community Needs Assessment in partnership with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — taking Utica's lead from a few years ago.
The city also offers the HOMES Program, or Home Ownership Made Easy, which is a partnership with local realtors, banks and other entities to promote available homeownership opportunities throughout Schenectady.
"We have similar projects in Schenectady ... there are similar underlying problems where we wish we had more assistance from state and federal agencies to address the infrastructure, demolish the worst properties and create some incentives to bring middle class people back into the neighborhoods," McCarthy said. "I compliment Mayor Palmieri on his efforts."
Contact reporter Greg Mason at 315-792-5074 or follow him on Twitter (@OD_Mason).