Our Endangered City
It has been customary at this time of year for the Landmarks Society to publish our annual list of “Buildings Worth Saving” — a roster of between 10 and 20 architecturally and/or historically significant local structures in imminent danger of being lost through deterioration or neglect.
It is a list neither developed nor taken lightly.
In 2006, with entire blocks of downtown Utica facing demolition by the City, and the winter’s harsh freeze-thaw cycles exacerbating the effects of years of neglect to numerous key private buildings, we felt it essential to look at the bigger picture of what is happening to our city and its neighborhoods as a whole.
This has brought us to the conclusion that regarding the architectural and historic integrity of our buildings, the entire city of Utica is endangered.
Disappearing Urban Fabric
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, Utica is losing its structures, context and urban fabric — the elements that make a city, a city. Once worthy of the moniker “The Landmark City,” it is succumbing to a new creeping form of urban renewal, the failed planning technique so prevalent during the 1960s and ‘70s, which became a municipal version of forest clear-cutting or strip mining.
Utica is becoming less and less a city, and more and more a suburban setting.
A contributing factor is this area’s growing propensity toward sprawl. Orchards and farmlands are forever disappearing under the individuality-challenged “McMansions” and the sprouting gigantic box stores, accompanied by seas of asphalt parking lots. While we are tempted to tout this as progress and opportunity, the fact remains that the farther out we go with our development, the harder it will be to sustain it.
“Walkability” an Asset
Urban landscape author James Kunstler, the guest speaker at Landmarks’ 2005 annual dinner meeting, spoke of the walkability of Utica as one of its major advantages. The proximity of our buildings and relative low scale of the structures could be an invaluable asset to Utica’s future, as the ever-volatile energy market continues to take its toll on the American consumer.
All cities will invariably lose some buildings for reasons beyond anyone’s control. What’s more, declining population makes it increasingly difficult to sustain certain establishments, with notable examples being our magnificent urban churches. As consolidation of parishes and congregations continues, we will see more and more irreplaceable houses of worship go up for sale and face an uncertain future.
Unfortunately, however, rather than learn from the mistakes of others or the past, we seem destined to experience or relive them. Urban Renewal, a.k.a. the wholesale destruction of entire city blocks to provide “attractive, inexpensive, shovel-ready developable land companies will flock to build on,” was largely a bitter and unfortunate failure throughout the United States. Downtowns were devastated, neighborhoods and cultures were displaced and dispersed, and the unique character of cities and their “sense of place” was forever lost to misguided planning and the wrecking ball. We have only to look to our sister city to the west, Rome, to realize the difficulty of trying to recreate a downtown 30 years after urban renewal literally obliterated it.
Utica is losing its urban fabric one building at a time, either by active demolition in the interest of “more parking” or through blatant neglect by landlords who either cannot afford or do not care to keep their historic properties in decent repair.
Vision and Plan are Keys
As successfully revitalized downtowns across the country have shown, older buildings are prime venues for redevelopment. There are already excellent “move-in-ready” buildings in Utica’s central business district. The City must become more business friendly and make others “move-in ready” as well — instead of “shovel-ready” vacant sites. It is often largely a question of matching the right entrepreneur with the proper structure. More important is having the vision and adhering to a solid economic development plan that will make it happen.
Of course, we cannot and should not rely solely on the public sector. Saving our extraordinary heritage and revitalizing our community will take everyone’s participation. Utica has a proud heritage of enlightened leaders whose business, cultural and philanthropic achievements set remarkable examples for our citizenry. These leaders built and meticulously maintained their properties, many of which are the magnificent structures whose care are entrusted to us today.
Among the most notable of those community builders of the past were the Proctors, eminent benefactors of the city in countless ways. Out of admiration and perhaps with a hint of frustration the question is sometimes asked today, where is the next generation of Proctors? — enlightened individuals whose focus is on enhancing and not destroying or endangering the greatness of our city?
The answer to that question lies within each of us — and together we can carry on the legacy.
Some examples of our Endangered City, by neighborhood:
1. Rutger/Steuben – 1 & 3 Rutger Park, deterioration of roofs among numerous issues affecting these properties that are facing demolition by neglect.
2. Bleecker/Mohawk — Meyda Tiffany/Big Daddy’s block, scheduled demolition for parking; Security Building, roof and extended vacancy.
3. Bagg's Square — REA wing, extended vacancy; Jacoby building, badly compromised roof. Remaining original, historical railroad structures (including O&W freight house, New York Central Tower 30, Schuyler Street watchman’s tower and numerous other railroad-related structures) could be preserved and incorporated into a museum setting that would complement the Adirondack Scenic Railroad operation. The new proprietor of the Union Station restaurant is building a raised dining area over the marble countertop, encasing it (see page x). Landmarks will continue to monitor.
4. Cornhill — constant and repeated loss of both commercial and residential properties, along with the general deterioration of the neighborhood.
5. West Utica — Deteriorating neighborhood fabric. On the Mohawk Valley Psychiatric Center campus, the Director’s Mansion has a compromised roof and the Dixhurst building has extensive water in basement.
6. Downtown Core — Foto Fair building (Jones-Haberer), compromised roof and extended vacancy; Columbia Street.
7. Oneida Square — Oneida Castle building, hole in roof; Knights of Columbus building, leaking roof.
8. East Utica — Constant and repeated loss of both commercial and residential properties.
9. Varick Street — Pasquale's building, compromised roof and walls, code violations.
10. South Utica/Uptown — loss of streetwall, strip mall going in at Genesee and Auburn.
11. North Utica — Often forgotten, this section of the city along Herkimer Road and Riverside Drive contains some of the city’s oldest and most historic homes. Many seem to be well-maintained, however commercial development is compromising the Herkimer Road corridor.