The Key To Utica’s “Next Steps”

The Urban Phoenix’s “flight” began in Utica, New York over 2 and a half years ago, and since I first reported on the initial rumblings of urban revival in their long-dormant downtown, development projects both present and future are suddenly busting at the seams.  The success of character-driven coffee shops and shop-local bakeries on Genesee Street have exploded into talks of a hospital, sports complexes, a craft beer museum and a casino.  Once quiet and broken, Utica’s downtown is now saddled with an almost overwhelming abundance of possible developmental directions.  With the city buzzing about the future and debating which direction to take, one void VERY few are talking about might be the most important and the least expensive to fill.  It might go unnoticed by many, but if correctly addressed will be admired by all.  In the meantime, Utica, New York has a crippling barrier to downtown growth.

Pedestrian and cycling infrastructure.

There, I said it.  Now, for the half of you who didn’t instantly dismiss this as hipster-millennial propaganda and are still reading, I thank you.

Utica’s pro-local movement has always impressed me.  The pride in Utica’s re-emergence is palpable… I have had the good fortune of experiencing it first hand on the dozens of occasions I have visited.  But the hard truth is, Utica will never take the next steps to maximize its potential until it addresses serious pedestrian and bike safety, connectivity and attractiveness issues.  Below are just a few examples of how this can be done.  Keep in mind, this is not an indictment of this city’s shortcomings… for a city its size, Utica has been hit about as hard as any city in New York State with regard to economic hardship.  We can all understand that every city must deal with issues of prioritization, and the concepts below are not always tops on the list.  Also, many of these issues ARE currently in the works of being addressed by local planning, so relief in some areas is on the way.  That being said, here’s what needs to happen if Utica is to take the next steps toward its former prominence.

Pedestrian Safety Needs To Be Addressed

Utica has what I like to call an “Urban Canvas in Waiting” in their historic Bagg’s Square neighborhood, featuring slow and narrow streets, and an abundance of old buildings just itching to be transformed into the next Central New York hot spot.

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But as lofts are being constructed and businesses are starting to enter this area once more, pedestrian connectivity to the rest of downtown Utica, which is just a stone’s throw away, is abysmal.

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Google Street View Image
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Google Street View Image

Four lane, high traffic roads surround Bagg’s Square, with crosswalks but NO PEDESTRIAN SIGNALS.  I have personally made dozens of trips through this area on foot, and crossing these streets is perhaps the most unpleasant and frankly dangerous pedestrian experience I’ve ever had.  The painted crosswalks are almost comical in the absence of any other pedestrian safety feature as 8 lanes of traffic intersect, often at higher speeds.

A key element that brings residents and visitors downtown and keeps them there is the option to park their car and visit shops, restaurants and venues on foot.  As it is now, this is simply not a safe or enjoyable option in many parts of downtown Utica.

Genesee Street Needs To Be Two Lanes, Not Four

“Street Diets” have become a very important piece of urban rebirth in cities all across the country.  The “skinny” of it is, 4-lane streets like Genesee are generally recommended for traffic counts starting at around 15,000-20,000 vehicles per day.  Genesee street through downtown Utica sees an average of 10,000 cars per day, even less in some spots.  There is absolutely no need for Genesee street to have so many lanes.  Redesigning Genesee street from 4 lanes to 2 lanes with bike lanes and parallel parking would increase safety, lower automobile speeds and create a generally more welcoming environment for foot traffic and cyclists.  The image below is a before-and-after plan by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency for one of their streets, giving a clear example of how a street diet works.

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Photo: San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency

This would honestly be a game changer for Genesee Street and downtown Utica, creating a safer, more enjoyable environment for pedestrians and cyclists, a more beautiful design for everyone, and a more fertile and approachable environment for on-street businesses.  While some may balk at the idea of restricting automobile traffic, remember that adding an extra minute (if that) to your commute as you navigate Genesee Street would likely do wonders for downtown’s landscape.  Slower traffic and fewer lanes have been shown to increase socioeconomic returns for businesses on streets like these.

Sidewalks In Many Areas Are In Rough Shape

Many people will read this article and say “why should we improve the condition of our sidewalks, nobody uses them!”

Exactly.

Fixing and upgrading pedestrian infrastructure is key to welcoming a walking culture in any area.  I’ve walked the sidewalks between Genesee Street and Varick Street many times, and not only are they unsafe, their appearance does anything but invite the traveler on foot.

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I mention this area on purpose because now and even more so in the future, this corridor is going to be vital to the success of Utica’s vibrant downtown.  Connecting Genesee Street with Saranac and the Varick Street nightlife scene is going to be even more crucial to the city’s success in the coming years.  Unfortunately, these corridors are currently in rough shape, with sidewalks and structures that are in extremely poor condition.  The proposed new hospital would replace many of these buildings, although this is already a hotly-contested issue that continues to play out in local politics.

Genesee Street, however, has many sections with beautiful sidewalks that invite the walker and improve surrounding aesthetics.

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Google Street View Image

The bottom line is, getting a handle on decaying sidewalks can be the first step to promoting a walking culture, which encourages growth across the city by giving residents and visitors a comfortable car-free option.

Virtually No Bike Lanes

Cycling for recreation, transportation or connectivity in downtown Utica is something else I’ve done extensively, and let me tell you, it’s not fun.  The absence of any bike lanes, save this small strip of bridge over the railroad tracks to downtown sends a clear message to cyclists that this is not a place for you.

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Google Street View Image

It sounds ridiculous to talk about bike lanes in a town where economic hardship and job loss has been the story of the last 50 years, but cycling infrastructure, like improved pedestrian amenities has been shown to bolster local economies by getting folks out of their cars and allowing them to experience their cities at the street level.

Furthermore, Utica is about to add bike share to the mix of entertainment and transit options for residents and visitors.  The logical next step would be to add a system of bike lanes that encourage use of this service.  Otherwise, simply providing bike share in a bike-unfriendly environment won’t do much to maximize this potentially game-changing amenity.

In The End It’s About Making A Connection

Everything I’ve spoken to in this piece ties in to one simple, untapped strength that Utica has yet to unleash… that’s the power of a beautifully centralized downtown.  Below on the map, I’ve highlighted 7 locations that are key to Utica’s present and future success.  Varick Street, The Aud, Bagg’s Square, the train station, Franklin Square, Stanley Theater and MWP Art Institute.  Left off this list is The Utica Zoo, which is a tremendous piece for the community, but is a little outside the area I’m speaking to.  This area includes great food, entertainment, nightlife, some retail, local sports AND a growing residential scene, all in the same mile-to-mile-and-a-half area.

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Simply stated, the pedestrian and cycling amenities mentioned above would help unlock Utica’s potential to become one of the most walkable downtowns in Upstate New York for residents AND visitors alike.  With so much action (and more on the way) inside a 20-minute walk and 6-minute bike ride, this area is a prime example of what makes small cities like Utica tremendous places to live, work and play.  But before this potential is unleashed, walkability needs to be practically but vigorously addressed.

Many will read this and dismiss it, citing the fact that there are many things Utica must accomplish before pedestrian and cycling amenities are talked about with any seriousness.  And perhaps they are partially correct, but eventually, there is no question that tackling the issues mentioned here would do well in addressing other issues impacting Utica today and in the future.  Sometimes cause and effect in our urban areas are hard to see, but one thing we know is that with little doubt, making our cities more walkable and bikeable is key to livability and socioeconomic success for Utica and any city in our great country.