Made In Utica has big plans for a relatively small piece of property in Bagg's Square West.
The community group is taking steps to launch the early phases of Handshake City, a proposed urban container art park that would fill roughly 4,000 square feet of a vacant city-owned property at Whitesboro Street and Railroad Street. Container parks use refurbished shipping containers as repurposed structures, such as storefronts and stages.
Found in Brooklyn, Long Beach and other cities, container parks are designed as adaptable and movable. Made In Utica would rent container space to local businesses with Handshake City, named after Utica’s moniker popularized in the 1970s.
Justin Parkinson of Made In Utica said he equates the concept to "the Airbnb for retail."
“Obviously, we want to put development in here,” Parkinson said. “We would just rather it be park-style development that goes to creative use and creative art. If it means keeping containers here, putting more containers on them and having that become its own identity? Awesome. But if it means packing up and this left as a park in three years, that’s good too.”
Made In Utica has reached an early agreement with the city to temporarily use a roughly 40-by-100-foot space on 26-28 Whitesboro St., a parcel that has been marketed by the city’s Urban Renewal Agency for at least a year.
Parkinson and fellow Made In Utica member Katie Reilly pitched Phase One of Handshake City — four containers, each outfitted with multiple vendor spaces — last week to Utica Mayor Robert Palmieri and Brian Thomas, the city’s commissioner of Urban and Economic Development.
Palmieri said in a statement he is "supportive" of the concept.
"I recently met with Made in Utica and it's exciting to see young individuals investing their time, resources and creativity in promoting the Utica brand and implementing projects that will enhance the quality of life for our residents," he said.
Thomas said city officials are working out the arrangement as to whether it will be a lease agreement or a permit through the Urban Renewal Agency. Temporary is the key word, as the city will continue to market the parcel even if Handshake City moves forward.
Thomas said there has been interest among several lower Genesee Street businesses to use the parcel for parking. He said he believes it is possible, however, that the property can someday accommodate parking, public space, private development and neighborhood connectivity “if designed correctly.”
“Like the mayor, I’m supportive of it as a temporary use for the property,” Thomas said. “However … the long-term goal is a combination of permanent development, getting the property on the tax rolls and getting permanent parking.”
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The 26-28 Whitesboro St. property, acquired by the city in lieu of back taxes in 1993, has been vacant since 1994 after the existing structures were demolished following a fire. The property was environmentally remediated in 2017.
Frank Elias, owner of Utica Coffee Roasting, expressed interest to the Urban Renewal Agency that January to eventually use the parcel for business expansion. Thomas said Elias’ offer never really progressed further, however. Elias could not be reached for comment.
Plans for Handshake City, Reilly said, have been in development for the last couple months. She said the goal is to start shaping up Handshake City as early as May for weekend use this summer in conjunction with Made In Utica programming.
“The programming should supplement the commerce, while the commercial business should also bring people down to enjoy the programming,” he said. “It should work hand in hand, hopefully.”
The next step, aside from signing an agreement with the city, is raising funds and volunteer support. Reilly said Made In Utica has ideas to expand with more elements down the road, such as a performance stage and a dog-friendly green space, but those ideas are flexible and have not received approval.
Reilly said the group would seek a permit to close that part of Railroad Street during events. Given the size of the usable space, Parkinson said Handshake City will rely on parking spaces in the surrounding area.
“That’s such a big thing for us: encouraging walkability between neighborhoods,” Reilly said. “Getting people to come from the train station to here, go to Utica Coffee or whatever’s going on at the Aud. We want to be street-front right front and center.”
Made In Utica initially sought for the city to stop marketing the property in light of a 2014 study of the Bagg’s Square area completed by Rust2Green.
The study envisions a larger Bagg’s Square Park to link existing Main Street elements — such as the Children’s Museum — with trails, green space, perimeter parking and the “Bagg’s Pipe,” a connective tunnel that would extend beneath the North Genesee Street exit to Broad Street.
Rust2Green is supportive of the Handshake City concept, said Paula Horrigan, Rust2Green New York director and associate professor in landscape architecture at Cornell University. She said the idea is an example of tactical urbanism, which is creating temporary spaces to experiment with a concept to build momentum for a larger project.
“The revitalization of that particular neighborhood isn’t about reclaiming buildings,” Horrigan said. “It’s about creating a livable, beautiful environment that feels like a place you want to stay. … This kind of concept or idea of putting a public park or square back into Bagg’s Square is a really powerful concept. It really has the potential to stimulate the redevelopment of Bagg’s Square and, in a larger part, the city.”
Contact reporter Greg Mason at 315-792-5074 or follow him on Twitter (@OD_Mason).