January 22nd will mark 3 years since I clicked “Publish” on my first story about Utica which unexpectedly launched the blog that eventually became The Urban Phoenix. At the time, I wrote about the wonderful places I visited and the tenacious people I met, a collective welcoming spirit that brings me back so often.
Today’s Utica exudes the same positive energy, but it’s tempered with a new twist. Like so many cities that have “popped the cork” on their urban revivals, the clouded questions about how and where Utica should take the next steps have started to spur furious debate. None of these debates are more publicly visible and pervasive than the discussions surrounding a proposed new downtown hospital.
Watching on social media and in the Central New York news outlets, the fury of opinionated discourse from residents, politicians and the media regarding this project is considerable. Proponents of the hospital claim it will create jobs and downtown vibrancy while replacing several blocks of blighted and unused warehouse, industrial space and vacant lots, much of which is currently unused.Opponents, specifically the #NoHospitalDowntown group, are against building a hospital in Utica’s core, an area they believe can still be developed incrementally by local business owners and investors. The idea is that, with time, this area will see a sort of “spill over” revitalization from the local business efforts in the Brewery District and Genesee Street, turning buildings that are now in disrepair into local establishments and housing.
While I believe firmly that incremental growth is the right kind of growth for a downtown area, I do believe Utica will be just fine if a hospital is built. Here’s why.
While I love Utica and its efforts to spur an urban revival around small businesses owned by people who believe in their city, I have been just as candid about the lack of walkability and connectivity, specifically between Genesee Street, Bagg’s Square and Varick Street. These areas present the highest potential for growth in downtown Utica, but I firmly believe that growth is slowed and stunted by the fact that they are physically only reachable by car. The major connectors between Genesee Street and the Brewery District are Lafayette Street and Columbia Street, both of which are in need of serious attention. I have personally walked and biked along these streets, and it’s not a pleasant experience, especially at night.
Believe it or not, the most important conversation regarding Utica’s future shouldn’t be whether or not to build a hospital downtown, it should revolve around connecting the core districts that are experiencing local business growth. As more residential projects take shape in the city’s core, it will be increasingly important for residents and visitors to connect to key locations on foot and by bike. This goal of “opening up” our cities is the model for successful urban revivals today.The proposed hospital would be built in between Columbia and Lafayette and would greatly improve the condition of both streets and their sidewalks. Undoubtedly, upgraded lighting would be added as well. Furthermore, the current plans include turning a portion of Lafayette Street into a pedestrian-only corridor, creating a permanent welcome mat for anyone looking to traverse the area between downtown and points west.
Ideally, effectively connecting districts and neighborhoods happens when incremental local growth occurs along key corridors (like Lafayette and Columbia), prompting cities to make road and pedestrian improvements in those areas. This does more than just connect two locations, it has the power to meld these locations together such that one blends into another seamlessly. If Utica’s downtown hospital does not come to fruition, this is certainly possible in the proposed area.
If the hospital project does come to fruition, it has the potential to quickly transform two key connective streets that are in horrible condition into a walkable, bikeable corridor that is safe and inviting, a sort of “red carpet” for residents and visitors who choose to travel on foot. It also creates a greater potential for employees of the hospital to leave work and travel to local establishments on foot without the need to find another parking space at their destination.
I would go so far as to say that whatever happens with this area, the most important issue is creating stronger connectivity between Genesee and the Brewery District. If the hospital isn’t built, I predict this area will be the next big thing for local development in Utica, following the ideal growth model and connecting two areas organically. If the hospital is built, however, it will quickly upgrade the walkability potential of this corridor. While not ideal, it solves a problem that I believe continues to hinder growth in the city.
In both scenarios, Utica has the chance to win. Whatever happens, Utica won’t realize its potential for growth unless it addresses the need to effectively connect its neighborhoods. And if you’re sitting there reading this, saying “why is walkability so important? Nobody in Utica walks,” you just answered your own question. Cities like Schenectady continue to grow and thrive around a downtown that is as walkable as any in Upstate New York. Utica has the same potential, but it must embrace this concept as a priority, one that is every bit as important as the hospital debate when considering future growth.