SEEK COMPROMISE WITH
OUR SIDE OF THE STORY:
In the 1920s, the first neighborhoods appeared in South Utica, populated by hard-working people who came from every class, race and religion. Today, the area proudly retains its diverse DNA while remaining overwhelmingly owner-occupied and residential; though The Kelberman Center's statements would lead people to believe otherwise.
Those of us who live and work here want to set the record straight. We choose to live in a diverse community like Utica instead of the suburbs precisely because we like the wide range of different people that we get to be around everyday. From the beginning, we have said that we fully support the mission of The Kelberman Center. We do not object to the TYPE of people, we object to the NUMBER of them.
The proposed "Link at Sunset" apartment building is a 4 story, 60 unit building with office space on the ground floor and almost 100 parking spots on a tiny 1.6 acre lot. That is way too big for our neighborhood of historic one and two family homes. We want to compromise and have Kelberman build it at 30 units, as our motto "Build It Smaller" clearly says.
It is an undisputed fact that a housing deficit exists for individuals in the autism community. However, it is also a fact that this experiment will serve the smallest sliver of very high-functioning autistic individuals, and only 12 of them at that. Hundreds that don’t meet the requirements of “The Link” will still need housing options, which this building will not solve. On top of that, the truth is that Utica does not need 48 more subsidized housing units because there are vacancies in the majority of our existing developments. This project is a solution in search of a problem.
Kelberman’s high-density building will be jammed into a low-density, historic neighborhood without regard for its existing character. The new four story building is as tall as the peak of the school’s roof, but it is that height for almost an entire block. A 6-foot fence cannot hide a 40-foot high building.
The 100-year-old infrastructure in this neighborhood was designed to support low-density uses. What happens when you add hundreds of vehicles, dozens of showers, toilets and washing machines, and hundreds of electrical devices? The city is not planning any infrastructure upgrades or repairs, even though we have a well-publicized history of flooding and sewage issues.
Until it is actually built, you can build it smaller despite what Kelberman claims. There is still time to work with funders if they choose to. Deliverables for grants from public dollars can be changed, particularly in cases where a municipality is at fault. It is painful, but it happens. Except Kelberman has never been willing to compromise.
We understand that they have spent money on predevelopment costs, but so have we. Some of us have been doing it since the 1950s. Our weekends were spent painting and planting and mowing so property values increased. This neighborhood represents major private investment over a lifetime by many hard-working Uticans. For most, it is their retirement. Kelberman knowingly faced the same risks that all developers face, and can sue to recover money spent. We can never recover our lost property values and sweat equity.
Kelberman describes the financials of this project as a combination of private donations and grant funds, saying, ”$20 million is coming directly to our community.” This is deceptively worded. The construction will cost roughly $20 million and Kelberman will receive it all.
Every single one of those dollars is public money in some way. The grants for demolishing the historic building and constructing the new building are 100 percent taxpayer money. Those who donate money or property will receive a tax write-off, leaving other taxpayers to foot the bill. The City of Utica’s $300,000 plus is 100 percent taxpayer money. The PILOT agreement that the Oneida County IDA granted them is 100 percent taxpayer money. Finally, rents for the low-to-moderate income units will be supplemented forever with taxpayer money in some way. Yet, no one ever afforded the taxpayers or residents a say in spending it.
We did not “wait too long” to come forward with our objections – we were never notified until they knew it would be too late for us to have any input.
According to Kelberman and (Kelberman Board president) Robert Myers, this project has been underway since 2015. In all that time, Kelberman never really attempted to meet their neighborhood. Not through letter, phone, meeting or press conference. A quick Internet search shows there is no digital footprint prior to 2019. The door-to-door campaign they boast about only reached two doors. One of these neighbors has spoken publicly about the outright lies she was told. Myers told her that it would be 12 apartments and office space. They already knew the project was 60 units according to the official application they submitted.
Kelberman also claims to have put their concept out publicly. The single newspaper article they cite from May 2018 reported the project was being planned and still seeking funding. This was public relations, not official notification. All other media coverage is dated after the neighborhood began questioning this in May 2019. There was never a phone number or website for information and no “for sale” sign or concept drawing at the site. Kelberman even cancelled their meeting with the Common Council where questions could have been raised. That meeting still hasn't happened.
A project that is marketed as “inclusive” should at least try to include other people. Kelberman should not require a legal reason to do the right thing.
The City of Utica did us no better. There has yet to be a single public hearing, even though both the Planning Board and our councilman could have held one if they chose to. If you want to put up a shed or fence your neighbors get a letter - but not for a 60-unit apartment building? The bottom line is that undertaking a project of this size without any input from the people is unconscionable and undemocratic, no matter what the zoning is.
Instead, City Hall relied on a hilariously twisted interpretation of the ordinance that we call the “all cake, no vegetables” defense. They want the flexibility of their magical PDE spot zoning, but not the regulation they have knowingly bypassed that requires the site plan to come back to the Common Council for final approval. When we discovered this and pointed it out to them, they said it was a typo. In the NYS Code, Planned Unit Development and Planned Development are the same thing.
When asked to weigh in, the Common Council's lawyer said he thought we were out of time to file a lawsuit, not that we were wrong, He actually agreed with us, admitting that City Hall’s own legal team was divided. We have consulted multiple lawyers and they all agree with us too, based on when you start the clock. The city says it was when the Planning Board gave their approval (May ’18) and we are saying it is when the building permit was issued (Sept ’19).
Because the Council's legal authority to give final site approval (as per Sec. 2-29-276/278 of the code) has been ignored, we believe that the permit has been issued illegally; it should be revoked and the project should go to the Council for a vote.
We are just regular, working people and it will take $30-$50K for our neighborhood to challenge this in court through an Article 78 lawsuit. We should not have to spend our hard-earned money to right the wrongs done to us by the people we pay to represent us. But the neighborhood has decided to raise the money and do it anyway.
The Common Council still could - and should - seek the guidance of a truly independent lawyer outside of City Hall. Apparently though, a majority of the voting members lack the will to lead instead of follow. By rolling over before a legal consensus has been reached, they have abdicated their responsibilities and set a dangerous precedent for all future development in Utica.
Regardless of our situation, it is painfully obvious that binding legislation is needed immediately requiring public notice and real input for ALL projects over a certain size and budget; making sure that information that is published on the city’s website is accurate and up to date; and mandating that agendas and minutes of all public meetings be published on the website to keep citizens informed.
One final word of caution to all Uticans: this “magical” PDE spot zoning exists all over the city including St. Elizabeth and Faxton Hospitals, Harbor Point and the business park. Your backyard could be next, and you will never know until the bulldozers show up. Join us now to Save South Utica's Neighborhoods.
Public Hearings / Notification
Residents have not had ANY input AT ALL into this publicly funded project that will substantially change our neighborhood forever.
There were no public hearings, not a single one. There was no public outreach effort – no letters or phone calls to the neighbors. Stories in the media that just repeat Kelberman’s talking points are called public relations, not official notification.
The Council meeting where they asked to apply for grant money was not a public hearing. No plans were presented to the public or finalized there; neighbors did not have a chance to question or comment. Neither did the Council. Several members still share our questions about density and infrastructure but cannot get straight answers either, because Kelberman cancelled their meeting with the Common Council at the last minute.
It is an autism project
Only 12 units will be for individuals with autism. The other 48 non-autism units, originally pitched as “market rate” and “workforce housing,” are actually subsidized low-to-moderate income units (less than 62% of median income). The proposed building also includes ground floor office space, a playground and at least 94 parking spaces.
Kelberman claims to be able to pick and choose who they put in the units, most of them being reserved for staff. This is a gross misrepresentation.
There are 12 units for individuals with autism that we have been told Kelberman will select. The other 48 low to moderate-income tenants will have to go through an application process that Kelberman does not administer.
Dr. Meyers and the Mayor have both publicly stated that the Fair Housing Laws are in effect and will prevent them from discriminating or showing favoritism; they will have to allow the public to apply for the 48 apartments as well. That process will be up to administrators working under federal/state guidelines through governmental agencies.
It has also been brought to our attention by a local economics expert, that Utica’s current affordable housing options have vacancies. This means our current supply outweighs our demand. When this fact was brought to the attention of both the Mayor and Kelberman executives, they shrugged their shoulders and had no response.
Dr. Kelberman has been quoted as saying they were “thrilled to be able to build this in a neighborhood that needs some revitalization.” But, Sunset School is the only property in the area that is vacant. Sunset School is the only property that has broken windows. Sunset School is the only property that always needs its lawn mowed - not the homes in the neighborhood.
Our property values and recent real estate sales prove this fact. On any given day, a tour of the community would further prove it. Yet, the Mayor and his staff decided not to walk the surrounding blocks with us, even though they had agreed to.
This neighborhood is an intact, mostly owner-occupied, well-maintained historic area of 1-2 family homes with low density, 1-2 story office/residential space on the Genesee Street side. All of the area surrounding the site is zoned multi-family low density, which only allows for 21 dwelling units per acre. The site is approximately 1.6 acres, which would allow a maximum of about 30 units. This is a 60 unit, high-density, mixed-use (commercial and residential) building being jammed into a low-density residential area.
The property was re-zoned “Planned Development Extraordinary” sometime in the 1990’s. Due to this exotic spot zoning and the fact that it is a private property transaction, the Planning Board had a choice whether or not to have public hearings. The City decided not to despite the size of the project. No one consulted or informed the Scenic and Historic or Zoning Boards, or the residents whose homes directly border the site. They did everything behind closed doors instead.
There was no way for an average homeowner or “reasonable person” to know any of this, because the City of Utica’s official website has incorrect zoning maps. They have known this was the case for years, and have never corrected it, probably because the disinformation works to their benefit.
The bottom line is that undertaking a project of this size without any input from the people that live there is unconscionable and undemocratic, no matter what the zoning is.
The 100-year-old infrastructure in this neighborhood was designed to support low-density uses. A high-density building will put even more stress on the already crumbling systems. The City is not planning any upgrades or repairs.
South Utica already has a long, well-publicized history of flooding, run-off and sewage issues. What happens when these issues increase from the additional 80+ toilets, showers, sinks and washing machines? The City and Kelberman claim to have done a study of sewer/storm water services. Despite repeated requests to see it, or the data that would back up their claims, they have never made it public.
We already lose power multiple times per year - sometimes on clear sunny days. How will the additional loads affect the power grid? The City has not answered us on this question either.
Our traffic and parking patterns were designed for low-density uses. Adding 100+ daily users will increase wear and tear on the roads. Uticans know how hard it is to get your road repaved, no matter how many potholes it has. All visitors to the new building and office space will need on-street parking spaces. Yet, the City did not require Kelberman to do a traffic study.
The proposed apartment building will sit on a 1.6-acre (approximately) lot where the former Sunset School is now. The entire block is only 0.13 miles long (700 ft.). Kelberman wants to build a 4 story 30,000+ square foot mixed-use building with 60 apartments and office space. They are also proposing a playground and 94 parking spaces.
Photo 1 & 2:
The .13-mile (700 ft.) block from Seward Ave to Meeker Ave. This is a very short city block, surrounded by one and two-story
historic homes and mature trees.
This view is interesting because it shows Utica Nursing Center (the large building on the right). It is also a 4-story building, probably about the same size as Kelberman is proposing, but look at the difference in setting. It is on a commercial thoroughfare in a large campus-like site with a generous setback from the road and surrounded by mature trees and green space to screen the houses in back.
Homes that border the proposed 4 story, 60 unit mixed-use apartment building on Sunset Ave. They are a representative cross section of homes throughout South Utica.
Note their size and style and the mature trees.
Photos 5 & 6:
Renderings of the proposed 60 unit mixed use apartment building
Note its size and style
Photos 7 and 8:
Historic (top) and current (bottom) lot lines
The Kelberman project is just the tip of the iceberg. Utica has a significant amount of acreage with
the same "magic zoning," including everything in beige on this zoning map
(St. Elizabeths, Faxton, Utica Nursing Center and Seymour Park)
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