On July 6, 2016, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo made an historic appearance at the Geneva Events Center and announced that Geneva would be awarded a $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant, part of “a comprehensive plan to transform local neighborhoods into vibrant communities where the next generation of New Yorkers will want to live and work.” The City’s application was one of the ten communities chosen out of over 100 that applied, and the news sparked a unique moment in time for Geneva’s residents, as ideas and suggestions on how to spend the $10 million were the subject of numerous conversations both online and on the street.
The city’s first step, as required by the state, was to spend $300,000 of the $10 million for “planning funds for private sector experts to work with a local planning committee to draft a Strategic Investment Plan that will identify specific economic development, transportation, and housing and community projects.”
When it was announced that Rochester-based Bergmann Associates would be tasked with managing public input and crafting the final plan for spending the $10 million, many Geneva residents, especially those who can remember the last time Bergmann was hired by the city as planners, were concerned and skeptical about the choice.
In 2007, the City of Geneva received a grant from the state’s Quality Communities program to engage in a “community visioning project” for the lakefront. I will try to provide a condensed version of the story, but it is strongly recommended that readers visit the No Strings Geneva blog posts on the subject.
Bergmann Associates was hired to devise a planning report for the lakefront. After months of public input and discussion, Bergmann unveiled their final report at a public meeting in August of 2008, with the sudden, inexplicable appearance of a massive residential/commercial/office construction that became known as “Building 12” to be located between the Ramada and the current Events Center. The structure was also identified in the plan as a “visitors center” in order to take advantage of state money secured by Senator Mike Nozzolio that was earmarked for a visitors center.
Throughout the entire months-long public input process, plans for this “Building 12” were never mentioned, although the discussions revealed a clear majority opposed to residential lakefront development. While the proposal for “Building 12” was eventually rejected, the people’s trust in city Council was violated, and the legend of “Building 12” became a cautionary tale for Genevans who realized that pro-development factions would go to great lengths to push their agenda, no matter what public input reflected on the matter.
It would seem that considering the fallout from the 2008 Bergmann Plan that it would be a very long time before Bergmann Associates came back to “help” Geneva with any more projects.
But it seems that eight years was long enough.
In 2016, Bergmann Associates was back in Geneva organizing public discussion sessions on the $10 million DRI award. Unlike the process that led up to the 2008 “Building 12” controversy, Bergmann would be working on a very tight schedule that would conclude with the final plan being unveiled to the public in late January, and then almost immediately submitted to New York State by the February deadline so that the City would receive the funds.
The process kicked off in October, a series of public feedback meetings and events were held, with many of them taking place during morning and afternoon hours on weekdays, and an evening session being held on the campus of Hobart William Smith Colleges. These initial meetings would be a ‘fact finding’ effort, with residents and stakeholders presenting their dreams, hopes and ideas for downtown. After many attendees expressed concerns that so many of the meetings were held during the workday, the City and consultants stated that they would try to schedule the next series of meetings during evening hours.
The December series of meetings took place on the 14th and 15th, but this time, consultants from Bergmann would be presenting a collection of projects that the public would then help to “prioritize” for the planners.
It would seem that after the December 15th Community Feedback forum at the Ramada Inn, Bergmann Associates are still in the business of “staged community theater,” and that the agenda of Bergmann and the stakeholders involved in the $10 million allocation process might be more important than truly serving the public’s needs.
After opening remarks by City Manager Matt Horn and a slideshow presentation from Bergmann’s Kimberly Baptiste, there were a few questions about the DRI process and some of the proposals. When one resident raised concerns about the loss of parking spaces where a proposed park would be created in the Seneca Street parking lot across from the Smith, Baptiste offered a brief answer, after which vice president of strategy and business development Andrew Raus of Bergmann suddenly strode in front of Baptiste and stopped all further questions, suggesting that participants speak directly with consultants with questions or concerns.
In my experience, if I ask a difficult or uncomfortable question in a public forum, and the response is that I should ask those questions at another time outside of the public forum, I can safely assume that someone wants to guide the public discussion away from those difficult topics.
At the October 27th public DRI meeting, Bergmann outlined the programmatic elements of the DRI effort, which would include poverty reduction, addressing the food desert, and mixed-income housing.
At the December 15th community forum, Bergmann unveiled a disturbingly callous plan to “address” the lack of access to healthy, fresh foods for low-income families in and around downtown.
The “Geneva Public Market” would be created with help from $500,000 of the DRI funds. This market would feature a selection of fresh vegetables and fruits from local sources. In addition, small-scale local food makers who need a place to sell their products would be able to set up and sell their wares.
This proposal sounds more like a unique and upscale tourist location, where upper- and middle-income consumers could peruse and purchase locally-sourced artisan food products. This kind of store would not service low-income residents who need a consistent, low-cost source for healthy food.
Even more stunningly inconsiderate was the proposed location of the Geneva Public Market: the consultants stated that they had already reached out to the property owner of the current Family Dollar store, and the owner was open to the prospect of kicking out the Family Dollar business in order to bring in the public market.
The Family Dollar store is a critical resource for numerous low-income Geneva residents, many of whom shop for clothing, household items, toiletries, diapers, and yes, even non-perishable food items. Removing this highly valued community resource would be devastating to a significant portion of the Geneva community.
The fact that Bergmann would even suggest removing the Family Dollar as a way to address the food access issue in Geneva reflects a horrifying lack of understanding of the downtown community and of the everyday challenges facing our most vulnerable citizens.
However, when looking at two other DRI proposals (Bicentennial Park renovations and enhancements to the Route 14/Exchange Street corridor), it might seem that there could be other motivations to eliminate the Family Dollar from the downtown landscape.
During the slide presentation, a concept illustration of the Bicentennial Park/Family Dollar area of Exchange Street was displayed (the above image is a reproduction). In this image, a refurbished Bicentennial Park was shown across the street from the new Geneva Public Market, with signage above the street featuring the City of Geneva logo. It would seem that this intersection is being targeted to be developed into a showy, eye-catching gateway to downtown. A renovated and sparklingly new Bicentennial Park would be a wonderful way to greet visitors to downtown, and the signage over the street (while not absolutely necessary) would certainly create a ‘gateway’ effect along the corridor.
However, a Family Dollar store does not fit into the desired “uniquely urban,” progressive, tourist-friendly gateway concept. A busy Family Dollar store is a reminder to everyone that Geneva has a significant low-income population in the downtown area.
It would appear that the one solution to this perceived “eyesore” at the downtown gateway is to replace the Family Dollar with an artisan food market that can be sold as a remedy for the food access crisis in the city.
Poverty Reduction? Grab A Hairnet
Another unsettling “solution” offered by Bergmann is to provide training in the food and beverage industry as a response to the economic challenges faced by many Genevans. While it’s certainly important for the DRI funds to dovetail with the Comprehensive Plan’s stated goal of branding Geneva as a food and beverage center in the Finger Lakes, it’s extremely shortsighted to only fund job training opportunities in the food and beverage industry.
While many low-income Geneva residents are willing to take advantage of training to help them achieve upward economic mobility, not everyone is cut out for, or has any interest in working within the food and beverage industry. In addition, the industry is notoriously fickle, as evidenced by the short average lifespan of new restaurants. There are also real questions about the food and beverage emphasis in our downtown district. Geneva’s downtown has a low percentage of retail shops, and a growing number of food and drink establishments. Even with a robust and growing tourism industry, there’s only so many food and drink locations that will be sustainable.
Low-cost or free job training programs for other fields are vital, if the city is serious about addressing issues of poverty.
While the city already provides a good amount of grants and other support for entrepreneurs, even more small business support proposals are being considered for the DRI funds. This type of assistance can have a positive impact, but not everyone is looking to be an entrepreneur, so other means for low-income residents to improve their economic conditions must also be available.
One DRI proposal was put forth to create a fund for existing downtown building renovations. Property owners would be able to apply for assistance, which they could then use to renovate unused downtown space for housing or other uses. However, never once during the Bergmann presentations was the subject of mixed-income housing mentioned.
Downtown Geneva’s number of rental apartments has grown in recent years, but not all of these new rentals are affordable to everyone. Gentrification is always an issue in any urban renewal efforts where luxury apartments start appearing where low-income rentals or vacant spaces once existed. However, there are apartment buildings in downtown that do offer apartments for a variety of income levels (The Guard Building, owned and operated by Dave Linger and Wendy Marsh, is one example of mixed-income housing being done right).
It’s important that there is a steady focus on mixed-income housing development in downtown, but it’s not clear that Bergmann’s plans are prioritizing this issue.
Another surprising proposal from Bergmann is the City Square project. A large portion of the Seneca Street parking lot would be developed into a public greenspace. Naturally, red flags go up for many Geneva residents due to an already-squeezed downtown parking situation. Although the consultant would not state the actual number of lost parking spaces in the proposal, it appears that at least 50 spots would be lost due to the project. The consultant did state that with any project that takes away parking spaces, there will be a plan to replace those lost spaces.
If so, how exactly does the city plan to replace 50+ parking spots in the heart of the downtown food and entertainment district?
Perhaps the long-discussed parking garage in the space between Scott LaFaro Drive and Exchange Street would finally become a reality. Of course, a multi-story parking garage would block the lakeview for a chunk of downtown and Main Street. But if the City Square park was built and the parking problems became a full-blown crisis, that parking garage pill would go down a bit easier, wouldn’t it?
I was asked some intriguing questions recently during a discussion about Bergmann’s planning efforts: why should we believe that they will listen to what the public wants? Even with a few dozen Genevans expressing their opinions about what they feel the priorities for the DRI spending should be, how do we know that Bergmann isn’t just fulfilling the agendas of a few developers or city officials, and that they won’t just submit a plan which will be rushed off to the state and approved?
Naturally, we don’t know that they will listen. We have no way of holding them accountable or monitoring whether or not they are formulating their plan according to the data they are gathering. Considering the ‘Building 12″ fiasco of 2008, we probably shouldn’t trust them to do the right thing, either.
At this point, all we can do as informed and engaged citizens is to continue to follow the DRI process, to take advantage of storefront hours or other methods to continue participating in the process, and to hold our elected officials accountable if Bergmann tries to pull another fast one on us.