Mike J Bosak
As first printed in the: Utica Phoenix
On Thursday, November 16th, 2017 a 30% Design Drawings (Site Plan) from the NBBJ architectural firm were revealed by Mohawk Valley Health System (MVHS) at the DoubleTree by Hilton – Hotel Utica, to great fanfare.
It is interesting to note that
While this event was anticipated for a long time, nothing could have prepared one for the shock that ensued when the Site Plan was finally revealed. It was, for all intents and purposes, much worse than anyone could have imagined or anticipated. Besides a complete and total disregard for any existing structures, and, in fact, taking far more of them than what they would reasonably need, among the most disheartening aspects are the acres and acres of additional surface parking. This sort of suburban “green space” is far more appropriate at the St. Luke’s Campus.
Urban sprawl is the antithesis of good urban design. It is the opposite of smart growth and “green” building sensibility. The artist renderings on the front page of this edition clearly demonstrate the possibilities that an infusion of money for upgrades and façade improvements, could bring to these sites, instead of tearing down of scores of existing structures, many of which are in good condition.
There has been a considerable amount of discussion and rhetoric on the need, desirability, and location of the proposed new MVHS hospital. MVHS is a private, not-for-profit and tax-exempt company that was developed primarily to consolidate the operations of the three Utica hospitals Faxton, St. Luke’s, and St. Elizabeth’s, into one cohesive operation to eliminate duplication, increase efficiency, focus on specialization of care, and reduce/eliminate debt.
To this end, several years ago, MVHS began looking at a modernization plan that would consolidate its operations into one location, the roughly 64 acre St. Luke’s Hospital site in the town of New Hartford, just over the border with the City of Utica. The MVHS Board of Directors unanimously voted on a study to pursue consolidation at St. Luke’s. This was fine, as MVHS is a private entity, and if they decided to expand and/or consolidate on their campus, then it is within their purview to do so.
Now, almost three years ago, word began to come out that MVHS was looking at alternate sites other than the St. Luke’s Campus to place a new, consolidate hospital. Why, when the St. Luke’s site appears to have all of the necessary amenities: plenty of available land which they own, easy access off of Route 8 / 12 and Burrstone Road? Additionally, there is a relatively new state-of-the-art co-generation heat and power plant, a helipad, and a location right across the street from one of our regional centers for higher education, Utica College.
The rhetoric on why the hospital needs to be built in Downtown Utica which has been perpetuated by MVHS and “the powers that be” includes a series of feel-good partial truths and arguments that appear on the surface to be valid, but prove to be misguided, inaccurate and misleading when given more careful scrutiny. We will list them here not necessarily in order of most importance.
“The hospital HAS to be built Downtown of we’ll lose the funding.”
The enabling legislation specifically avoids naming any specific location, but says that it must be built “within the largest population center of Oneida County.” Ironically, that location would place the St. Luke’s Campus at dead center. And, if this was true that it had to be built Downtown, does that not raise questions and concerns about the underlying motivation of “the powers that be” that would demand this? By the way, who ARE those “powers that be” and who will gain from controlling this demolition, remediation and construction?
The City’s Master Plan took many months of hard work and discussion, cost the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars and included input from scores of dedicated area residents yet, it is continually and perpetually ignored. Nowhere in either the City’s Master Plan (of which I was an advisory committee member) or in the Utica Gateway Historic Canal District Plan is there ANY mention of a “superblock” hospital.
“It’s all about the healthcare”
Well at least, it should be. But it is not. If it was, the location would be the least of the concerns but would point far more strongly toward the less congested, more bucolic setting at the St. Luke’s campus where the MVHS Board of Directors originally intended.
“The Columbia Street / Lafayette Street corridor is mostly abandoned and blighted with vacant buildings”
OK, I’ll concede that there are some vacant lots in this area, some vacant buildings that do not appear to be in the best condition (which sounds like a Code Enforcement issue to me) and some that have seen better days. There are one or two businesses who shall remain nameless that most would love to see leave the area. However, the MAJORITY of the buildings in the Columbia-Lafayette corridor are occupied with businesses that are operating, paying property and sales taxes, and are not a drain but an asset to the City’s “bottom line”.
None of the existing property owners have been given a chance to expand, to improve their properties or do anything of substance due to the looming specter of the downtown hospital taking their properties. Many of these are longtime businesses in the area spanning several generations: Metzler Printing, Wilcor International, H.J. Brandeles, Clemente Novelties, Citation Services, the Salvation Army, The Bargain Grocer / Compassion Coalition, Urbanik’s Paint, and many, many more.
If these businesses will be displaced because of the downtown hospital, most will likely do one of two things: relocate out of Utica or close their doors for good. There might be one or two of the smaller businesses that would choose to relocate within the City limits, but that would likely be the exception to the rule. Furthermore, current appraisals on the properties are well over a year old, and likely obsolete.
With a finite MVHS budget for building acquisition, most business owners will be hard-pressed to get a reasonable price for their property. Those who refuse to accept the offers given to them will be subject to “eminent domain,” defined as “the right of a government or its agent to expropriate private property for public use, with payment of compensation.” By definition, this action is borderline illegal because MVHS is a private NFP corporation that should not be acting as “an agent of the government.” In fact, it smacks of fascism.
This entire attitude is reminiscent of the old “urban renewal” mentality of the 1950’s and 60’s when huge swaths of declining Downtowns were systematically eviscerated through callous, careless, and misguided demolition. It was the errant belief that “shovel ready” urban core sites would be prime for shiny, new building development. It is widely regarded that urban renewal was “a colossal failure” and a huge “waste of taxpayers’ money,” particularly in the smaller cities like Rome and Utica. When private developers did not materialize to scoop up these prime downtown locations, the government was forced to locate their offices on these sites (State Office Building, County Office Building, and Utica City Hall) and federally-subsidized housing projects (Kennedy Apartments).
It also reminds one of old-school politics where gentrification and displaced persons and families were secondary to perceived economic advancement. Washington Courts and Goldbas Apartments and their subsequent removals are examples of these flawed ethics.
The City of Utica Police Maintenance Facility, constructed less than 20 years ago, and that taxpayers are still paying for, has been targeted for demolition. It is a travesty for the City to sacrifice this new facility that is responsible to maintain the Police Department fleet and also to impound vehicles involved in serious accidents for potential evidence. With this facility gone, the Police Department and adjacent City Court building (another more recent building not likely paid for yet) will be not far behind. Again, Utica taxpayers will be expected to demolish these city-owned structures, remediate the sites, acquire new property elsewhere, and pay to build these three structures, two of which are not even fully paid for yet. Insanity.
Property and sales tax revenue lost due to the loss of the existing businesses in the Columbia-Lafayette corridor will be more than offset by property taxes and sales taxes generated by new professional doctor’s office buildings.”
For this, there is one word: P.I.L.O.T. “Payment in Lieu of Taxes” is the standard development enticement tool for virtually any new major development project. There is no clear indication that there will be a market for even one, let alone two, medical professional buildings. Therefore, the property tax argument is disingenuous, and the sales tax revenue increase even more so, particularly as it has been addressed above in that there will be no appreciable increase in foot traffic and/or increased sales due to a downtown hospital.
“The hospital will generate business and further economic development downtown”
The “business” part of this statement would certainly be true during the construction phase that would include considerable building demolition, site remediation, and utility and infrastructure work. Construction workers might patronize local eateries and such. However, after the construction is completed, and the work crews have gone elsewhere, that “business” would disappear with it.
There is no proof that an operating hospital generates any noticeable, sustainable business outside of its own structure. These modern facilities are all designed to be self-sustaining, with an internal cafeteria and coffee shops. Certainly, if hospitals generated that much outside business, the areas around the three existing facilities would be meccas of commerce, which they are not.
And speaking of demolition, one needs to consider that MVHS has stated that they will NOT be responsible for the demolition. So, by inference, it will be the responsibility of the City of Utica taxpayers. Older buildings are generally loaded with asbestos, lead-based paint, and other potential contaminants which will be VERY expensive to remediate, eliminate, and dispose of, again at the taxpayer’s expense.
The other assumption is that hospital workers will all seek to live Downtown so that they could walk to work. The hospital staff that exists will all be relocated for the three existing facilities, and presumably, they all have homes of their own. While future hires may choose to live in a Downtown loft environment, it would be on a case by case basis, hardly an economic housing boom. That might occur with the advent of Utica Nano at the Marcy site, but that has little or nothing to do with a downtown hospital.
Therefore, the only probable economic development that could occur with this concept is that MVHS would likely sell their 64-acre St. Luke’s campus to the Town of New Hartford or to a private developer who would then in turn theoretically, put it back on the tax rolls and develop it as a business park (with that new, state of the art co-generation plant to provide heat and electricity to potential new businesses). This would essentially steal businesses from their current locations, but not necessarily realize any new development. This would create economic development for New Hartford, but NOT for Utica.
Furthermore, still more City land will not be paying property taxes (currently in Utica, 40% plus of the properties are non-tax paying; this would push it much higher) and/or sales tax.
“Anticipation of a Downtown Hospital has driven the current “Downtown Renaissance”
While it is difficult to know exactly what motivates entrepreneurs to start a business or purchase and redevelop properties, the message that such groups as The Landmarks Society of Greater Utica have espoused for well over forty years has finally hit home: Adaptively reuse existing structures; they are the fabric that defines the city. Historic buildings, districts, and neighborhoods matter, and they are desirable and “cool” locations to redevelop, to work in, to live in, and to thrive in.
The continued success of the Historic Baggs Square District and the Brewery are clear examples of success in the reuse of existing buildings. Gerber’s Tavern, Utica Coffee, Utica Bread are all examples, The Tailor and the Cook’s recent national recognition as a restaurant of excellence mentioned in particular its historic restorative ambiance and setting.
The establishment of a ‘superblock’ hospital would destroy the viability and walkability of connecting these examples of Utica’s authentic entrepreneurial organic resurgence.
“The Community is largely behind the Downtown Hospital Plan”
Has anyone ever even asked the Community? The General Public, the Taxpayer, the Voter? The affected Business Owners? Not really. Community forums hardly allow the public to speak and voice their opinions. However, when they do, the majority of those in attendance do NOT support the Downtown Hospital Concept.
Furthermore, a recent telephone survey conducted by RoboCent, Inc., authorized by Main Street Patriots, of 636 respondents concluded that 51.42% (327 persons) did not support a downtown hospital / did support a new hospital at the St. Luke’s campus. Of the remainder, 23.11% (147) supported a downtown location and 25.47% (162) were undecided. If even a small fraction of the undecideds were given straightforward, factual information, I’m certain that they would determine that the Downtown location is wrong. In any event, the trend when asked seems to be that the Community does not support a downtown hospital BUT DOES support a new hospital at the St. Luke’s campus. This is a critical point, because Community Support is a determining factor in the MVHS Certificate of Need (CON) application, and I believe that this community support is not there, but no one is bothering to ask (or, worse yet, is completely ignoring it). As an aside, the same survey asked respondents if they supported the Mayor and Common Council members who voted to extend their term limits; 441 or 73.75% were in opposition.
“It will be fairly easy to come up with redevelopment plans for the remaining unneeded hospital facilities.”
We have already discussed the likely fate of the St, Luke’s site, even though there are several vacant buildings located across the street at the Utica Business Park and a glut of office space available in other sections of the City. A new business park is like a new mall; you don’t get “new” occupants, but rather you “steal” them from other existing locations, creating additional vacancies. It has been stated that Faxton would remain for out-patient cancer care and possible MVHS office space (but, according to CEO Scott Perra, “that could change.”) The nursing home facility at St. Luke’s would likely remain, as would the School of Nursing at St. Elizabeth’s. However, “that could change.” Marketing huge, very use-specific buildings is a challenge at best, and demolition would be astronomical. Recently, MVHS suggested that “some services will remain at each site.” This seems to be a perpetually moving target.
“The so-called evacuation Red-Zone” does not really matter”
No one hopes for disaster, but the wise prepare for it. The recent series of train derailments involving freight cars with highly flammable, potentially explosive, or otherwise very dangerous chemicals and loads in North America, some of them catastrophic, underscores the need for strong concern about the location of strategic facilities, particularly in the location and construction of NEW strategic facilities. A case in point is the Lac-Megantic derailment disaster in Quebec, Canada in 2013 that killed 47 persons and destroyed a large portion of that city’s downtown. It is one thing if the facilities are already in existence, but why would anyone deliberately locate such a single, critical facility within a half-mile of a rail line that is used to transport hazardous materials and chemicals that could have disastrous results if there was a nearby derailment? Perhaps that is why MVHS is now saying that “some services will remain at all of the existing facilities”. “Really?”
“It will cost about the same to build this hospital Downtown as it would at St. Luke’s”
This is another in a series of half-truths. If you speak strictly about the cost of the building construction, this may or may not be true, depending upon whether construction would be high-rise or low rise. HOWEVER, when you take into consideration: acquisition of private property and businesses, demolition/remediation/disposal of (contaminated) debris, substantial infrastructure improvements, the $43 + million parking structure the OVERALL cost of constructing a Downtown hospital is staggeringly more expensive. Would it not be wiser to place at least a portion of that extra cost into healthcare improvements and paying down the MVHS existing debt? Besides, the cost of building this parking garage, which only covers a small portion of the anticipated parking needs for the hospital, Aud and the proposed “U District”, is scheduled to be a 60% / 40% split between the taxpayers of Oneida County and the City of Utica (although as taxpayers of Oneida County, it seems that Utica taxpayers will shoulder a larger percentage of the cost). To build this at St. Luke’s would require either no parking garage or one that is significantly smaller, further reducing the cost compared to the Downtown site.
“It’s set in stone, it’s a done deal”
This is true only if we, the concerned citizens, voters, and taxpayers let it be. While it is true that money has already been spent on the 30% design drawings from NBBJ, it remains a much less costly project to build at St. Luke’s when ALL factors are considered.
Community support is a crucial component of the MVHS Certificate of Need (CON), and it is doubtful if the majority of the affected public (users, employees, taxpayers, citizens) supports a new hospital in a Downtown location. They do, however, support a new hospital if it was built on the St. Luke’s campus.
Furthermore, the ultimate cost of this project, as proposed, will be staggering, not only from a purely monetary standpoint, but in terms of people and businesses displaced, and jobs, sales and property tax revenue lost.
The cascading effect of the Downtown proposal will require taxpayers to shoulder the costs of a parking garage for at least 30 years that will basically be given to MVHS. Add to that the massive burden of property environmental remediation and demolition, and now the new likelihood of the loss of the Police Station and City Court Building (the latter constructed in 1997), as well as the Police Maintenance Facility (only 12 years old!) in favor of a brand new collocated DPW / Parks Department / Police Station / Court House / Police Maintenance Facility. ALL OF THIS will be paid for by taxpayer’s dollars.
In terms of MVHS, taxpayers will foot the bill for a private, not-for-profit entity that will not pay any property taxes and will generate a mere pittance in sales tax revenue.
The $300 million “promised” to the hospital is also (state) taxpayer money, will not cover the entire cost of the project, will not generate new jobs (there will actually be fewer jobs), and we have had no say in any of this.
It is time we had a say in how our money is spent and how our city is further developed. We must demand a say, demand accountability from the politicians who were elected to serve us, and we must insist on the truth from MVHS.
The Common Council still has the power to stop this fiasco by voting NO on the Parking garage. Utica constituents MUST TELL their Council person and those “at large” how against this they are. SPEAK UP NOW – or pay for it in perpetuity.
For more comments speaking out against a ruinous Downtown Utica hospital concept, please see; #NHD TV and #NHD RADIO. More Voices Against The Downtown Concept, and still more at Please Register My Comment About The Utica Hospital
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