Utica’s Bagg’s Square: An Urban Canvas for a Future Masterpiece

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I travel to Utica several times a month on the average, in part because there are so many rich stories to tell.  The other part is that I just love spending a day there.

But in all my time in Utica, all the times I’ve gotten off the train in the heart of what will likely be the brightest jewel in the city’s crown of neighborhoods in the next 10 years, I’ve never taken a real solid stroll through Bagg’s Square.

DSC05996.jpgFor those who don’t know Utica, Bagg’s Square is a series of small streets on the north end of downtown.  The city’s historic Union Station is one of the only active buildings in this long dormant, almost ghostly-empty neighborhood of small streets and beautiful old brick buildings.  It is an area that the city has been actively promoting both to developers and residents alike, and slowly, the Bagg’s Square neighborhood’s blank canvas is beginning to see the first brushstrokes of an urban masterpiece.

As I walked through the neighborhood last Friday, I quickly understood why this is such a coveted area.  To the untrained eye, these streets appear to be empty and depressing.  To people like me, there could not be more excitement about the future potential.

DSC05971.jpgDSC06006.jpgDSC06134.jpgThe streets are narrow and beautiful (despite the snow!).  As we’ve learned, small streets mean slower traffic, which translates to walkable neighborhoods, which compliments economic growth.  And then there are the buildings that line the streets… multi-level brick structures, perfect for mixed-use “live/work/play” space, complete with hidden charm and lots of history, begging for a developer to harness it’s potential.

dsc05972dsc05977dsc05997dsc06010Indeed, several of these buildings have already been repurposed into downtown lofts or offices with first floor retail.  This is the new trend that builds upon a very old and successful model for creating strong urban neighborhoods… the idea that you can live, work and socialize, and do it all in the same area.  Bagg’s square today is a rare example of a thriving micro-community in waiting… a sort of “here for the taking” next generation urban marketplace.

A great example of what Bagg’s Square could look like is River Street in Troy, New York, where an area with a similar layout has turned into a gorgeous, bustling urban destination in just 5-7 years (see below).  IMG_6018_tonemappedIMG_6126_tonemappedIMG_6407_tonemapped-8IMG_6013_tonemapped-2IMG_6420_tonemappedMuch has to happen before Bagg’s Square can hit it’s stride.  Utica needs to greatly improve pedestrian and cycling amenities in and around the area.  As it is now, there is simply no safe, signal controlled crosswalk that links Bagg’s Square to the rest of the city.  This will continue to be a major deterrent for the neighborhood until it is aggressively addressed.  In my experience with small Upstate New York cities, the area between Genesee Street and Bagg’s Square might be the most unwelcome and at times unsafe areas for pedestrians I’ve ever seen.  Specifically, lack of pedestrian signals or any sort of “traffic calming” amenities across Broad Street, as well as minimal pedestrian infrastructure to cross Oriskany Street need to be addressed.  Solutions to some of these issues, especially regarding Oriskany Street are in the works, and will greatly improve walkability at the north end of downtown.  Improving walkability is always a difficult case for local government… while it has been shown to have a drastic positive effect on local development, it can be a hard sell for a city that faces a number urgent issues.

Finally, in walking through Bagg’s Square, I couldn’t help but think of the possibilities.  It’s going to take time, out-of-the-box ideas and of course some investor dollars to turn this current ghost town into a thriving urban center. But the pieces are there, the right elements are in place, and I promise you in not too long a time, this will be one of Utica’s brightest downtown gems.