Members of the public who attended the final public workshop for the $10 Million Downtown Revitalization grant on Tuesday, January 31st were stunned by the first-time unveiling of a proposal for the construction of a 50-unit apartment building with first floor retail space at the old OEO site on South Exchange Street. $1.5 million dollars of DRI funds have been approved for the project.
The meeting featured a presentation by City Manager Matt Horn and DRI consultants Bergmann Associates which detailed the proposals that have been recommended for funding with DRI money and will eventually be approved by New York State at the end of February.
The surprise project, “Exchange Commons,” is extremely similar to two other proposals from 2005 and 2009 for the same location and from the same developer, Massa Construction of Geneva. Over the years, Massa has been awarded a large number of projects both for the city and in the private sector, including the Geneva Visitors and Events Center, Lyceum Heights Apartments, the Social Security Building, the FLCC Viticulture Center, and Lyons National Bank. In 2015, Massa Construction hosted large campaign signs for Geneva City Council candidate Gordon Eddington at their headquarters on Pre-Emption Road and at one of their downtown building lots. Eddington is now one of two Geneva City Councilors-At-Large.
Since the first DRI public workshops in October, there has never been a mention of the “Exchange Commons” project. So how did this wholly unexpected addition to the DRI proposal, which is the second-most costly item on the list of approved projects, make the final cut?
Before exploring how this proposal was presented and then accepted so quickly, let’s look at the project itself and why it’s garnering such harsh initial feedback from the public.
“Exchange Commons” is being promoted as a “market value senior housing” venture, with “small scale retail” on the first floor. The PowerPoint presentation from Bergmann Associates, architects of the DRI process, claimed that “25 retail sector jobs” will come with the project, which “fills market demand.”
It should be noted that this is housing for independent senior living, not assisted living, so there are no added services for seniors. In addition, “market value” means that these are not affordable for lower-income seniors. The claim that there’s a significant demand for seniors to live in high-end apartments in downtown Geneva is dubious. For many seniors, a downtown nightlife geared toward a younger demographic might not hold much appeal. Seniors also may not find that living within a few hundred feet of railroad tracks is their best option for a quieter lifestyle, either. There is no clear demand in downtown for this type of housing and no clear indication that it will provide downtown a financial boost, yet Massa is getting $1.5 million dollars of money earmarked for downtown revitalization.
Downtown Geneva has no shortage of retail space, although many properties may need first-floor updates. There is no clear demand for completely new retail construction in downtown, and there is no justification for new, strip-mall-esque retail spaces in downtown, especially when that construction being subsidized by $1.5 million dollars that is targeted for revitalization.
The claim that the project will result in “25 retail sector jobs” should be closely scrutinized. Where do these numbers come from? Are these full-time or part-time jobs? With no clear demand for new retail construction, it’s hard to take seriously claims of job creation, and these claims must be thoroughly examined with $1.5 million in revitalization money on the table.
Downtown Geneva includes a collection of 86 buildings that are included on the National Register of Historic Places. One swath of historic properties extends from 369 Exchange Street to 555 Exchange Street, adjacent to the vacant site where the proposed “Exchange Commons” will be built. Will this new development reflect, and blend with, the historic character of the street?
Let’s take a look at an artist rendering courtesy of the Geneva Believer graphics department:
If you’re a proponent of chimneys, and you believe that you can never have enough chimneys, then you’re probably feeling pretty good right now. If you dislike or are ambivalent about chimneys, it should be evident to you that this structure will sharply clash with the historic downtown streetscape surrounding it. “Exchange Commons” would blend neatly into the generic Anytown, USA commercial strip, among the Applebee’s, Red Lobsters, Home Depots and Microtels, but it doesn’t belong in historic downtown Geneva, especially with a price tag of $1.5 million of revitalization money.
As noted earlier, Massa has presented a similar proposal to develop this same parcel twice in the past, in 2005 and again in 2009. Both of these earlier proposals included a tax abatement request with a 30-year sale-leaseback with the Geneva IDA, and both times, the proposals were defeated.
Because the “Exchange Commons” proposal includes an “economic development” facet, which is the retail space, it is eligible for a tax deal. Market value rentals alone would not be eligible for the same tax break, which could explain why the unneeded retail space is shoehorned into the proposal. Massa could also ask for a PILOT tax deal as well, and judging from a recent request for a PILOT, which was granted by the Geneva IDA, the developer stands a very good chance of getting another.
As readers know, the City of Geneva is a city that places an enormous tax burden on homeowners, due to around 60% of property in the city being off the tax rolls for a variety of reasons. The people of Geneva do not deserve yet another construction project that gives tax relief to wealthy developers.
The parcel in question is owned by the city…which means, if you live in Geneva, it is owned, in part, by YOU. YOU have a right to help decide what the city plans to do with that property.
The Geneva Comprehensive Plan includes multiple references to mixed-income housing for downtown and the entire city. This is the largest housing proposal for the DRI, with the largest dollar value being allocated, and not only is it not a mixed-income project, it’s a project that limits eligibility of residents according to age. If the city wants to laud their Comprehensive Plan and boast about how it is informing all of their actions and activities with the DRI, they might need to go back and read the parts on housing.
“Exchange Commons” is unimaginative, unattractive, and unnecessary.
Does the infusion of $1.5 million dollars of revitalization funds into a project that has not been publicly vetted, will likely require a tax abatement deal, will add a structure that clashes from the architectural beauty of downtown, will add unnecessary new retail space, will provide high-end senior rentals with no added services, and is in conflict with the Comprehensive Plan, appear to be a sound economic decision for the future of our city?
It certainly sounds like a terrific opportunity for economic growth…for the developer and for anyone in the chimney sweeping business.
Building 12 Redux
This eleventh-hour proposal that’s been foisted on an unwitting populace echoes another fiasco that involved the same consultants, Bergmann Associates, back in 2007. The “Building 12” story was noted in a previous article (Our Families, Our Dollars: DRI Consultant’s Heartless Proposal), but it bears repeating here:
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.
And now we find ourselves in 2017, with Bergmann AGAIN presenting a last-minute, surprise proposal for a new construction project that the public didn’t know about and doesn’t want.
What Do We Have to Lose?
There were a number of projects that deserved the DRI funding boost but failed to make the final cut.
A plan for a public beach, which would benefit Genevans of all social and economic backgrounds, was rejected, but $750,000 was allocated for a new marina near the long pier, which will only benefit boat-owning visitors and residents.
Plans to renovate Bicentennial Park, an important piece of downtown public space closest to the most financially challenged wards in the city, which received a large amount of public support throughout the DRI, was completely scrapped, while plans were approved to erect a ‘Welcome to Geneva’ sign ($100,000 in DRI money + $100,000 “local match” = $200,000 total) which will helpfully remind visitors where they are, and which will ironically be constructed next to Bicentennial Park. It seems that nearly every DRI proposal that would improve the quality of life for residents of all economic and social backgrounds was eventually eliminated.
One of the projects that made it through the DRI selection process, before it was dismissed at the final Local Planning Committee meeting, was the Geneva Resiliency Center. Proposed by Family Counseling Service of the Finger Lakes, here is a short excerpt from the Geneva Resiliency Center’s proposal to the LPC:
The Geneva Resiliency Center is a community based, community driven initiative that integrates private and not-for-profit sector partners working together to bring awareness, support services, advocacy, training and jobs in a collaborative way, aligning regional and city strengths, fostering the overall health and well-being of the community and reducing poverty. The Geneva Resiliency Center will be at the center of the DRI, the very fabric that make Geneva a desirable and sought out community in which to live, grow and give back. THE GRC fosters economic growth and development by investing in people. This proposal supports workforce development and supports entrepreneurial efforts, as well as the development of safe and affordable housing.
Eliminating the visual and social impacts of blight, and alleviating the economic and social challenges facing our most economically disadvantaged residents was highlighted in the initial DRI submission as being the focus of these funds; the Geneva Resiliency Center will deliver just that. In the proposal, the city announced they stand ready to take advantage of a progressive approach at community revitalization; this proposal certainly encompasses that approach. The GRC proposal directly impacts all of the DRI principles and strategies outlined in the city’s proposal.
The GRC would feed and enhance inclusiveness efforts by addressing income disparities in the areas of job creation, driving private investment and reducing poverty by engaging citizens and encouraging their voices and leadership within advisory groups that will help drive and mold the GRC’s infrastructure based on first-hand experience. This gives the collective community a voice and ownership, as opposed to another creation from “privileged” leaders who are seen as dictating or implementing changes based on their perceptions.
With a Comprehensive Plan and an application for the DRI grant that both identify the goal of addressing poverty in the city of Geneva, the Resiliency Center was the only viable project in the DRI process that would legitimately work toward achieving this goal. While many of the selected proposals will encourage tourism and provide benefits for middle-and-upper-middle class residents and visitors, the Resiliency Center would address economic and social inequality using unique and cutting-edge concepts. Providing critical services, but most importantly, roadmaps for community-building and upward mobility for our lower-income neighbors would offer economic and social benefits for all of downtown and beyond. The Resiliency Center requested slightly more than $1.3 million dollars, and included detailed and workable plans. Geneva had the opportunity to fund this novel and transformative project, but failed to capitalize on the opportunity.
And in place of the Resiliency Center, we get a chimney-covered hotel/strip mall monstrosity on South Exchange Street.
Our Downtown, Our Revitalization. Tell Them “No.”
With the DRI proposal now going through the final approval process, it is imperative that concerned citizens let the folks at the New York State Governor’s Office know that we don’t appreciate having a highly questionable construction project slapped onto the final list of recommendations at the last minute.
First, contact the New York State Governor’s Office at this link. They will be making the final decision to approve the funding, so tell them that you believe the process has been compromised by the consultants in the final 48 hours of the selection process, and that this construction project should not be approved.
Next, contact everyone that you can on the Local Planning Committee and tell them to stop the “Exchange Commons” project, and to fund the popular Resiliency Center project.
You might want to contact Bergmann Associates, but that probably won’t make any difference. Bergmann appears to be far more interested in organizing community feedback theater in which residents are given the false impression that their opinions matter than they are in actually engaging with and acting on behalf of the people of Geneva.
To see the full list of recommended DRI projects, click here: