By Peter Bianco
On Wednesday, December 23rd, at 6PM Oneida County hosted a live online public hearing via webx. The properties proposed to be taken using eminent domain were described. Members of the public along with some of the property owners were on the call or video. There were about 33 people visible on the call.
For those who missed it the record will remain open until the 23rd of January. Send comments or files to firstname.lastname@example.org for consideration.
The participants in the meeting questioned the use of eminent domain and the necessity for additional property to create parking for the hospital.
The Commissioner of Public Works for Oneida County, Mark Laramie shared this image for the proposed parking garage. Mr. Laramie noted that the project entails the construction of a 1,050 space,three-level parking garage.
According to Mr. Laramie, this location was selected primarily due to its joint proximity to the new Mohawk Valley Health System Hospital, Utica Auditorium, Utica City Courthouse, and the future Nexus Center. “No other location under consideration,” he said “could realistically serve all these facilities.”
Which begs the question, what were the other locations under consideration and why is it necessary to provide parking for a hospital and three non-hospital entities all in one location?
It is worth noting that the justification of what gets considered and what gets left out, shifts to suit the needs of MVHS. Mr. Laramie is using the Nexus Center as justification for the use of eminent domain. However when the hospital was conducting its environmental review, Nexus was left out. The effect of the Nexus Center on traffic patterns could have caused the downtown site to be deemed unsuitable as a hospital location.
This hospital project has been full of examples of ‘hokey pokey,’ putting things in and then taken them out.
Common council president Mike Galime pointed out the parking garage was originally justified with County filing for the overall MVHS hospital project. It was then removed from the project and parking was justified with the surface parking.
Council president Galime is under the impression that no environmental review has been conducted for the proposed parking garage since it was segmented from the original project.
Regarding parking for the Nexus Center, ” If more parking was necessary, then site controls should have been obtained for whatever parking was necessary before all other plan developments were sanctioned or created by the county,” said Council president Galime. He also cited concern regarding hospital project being a private project, albeit funded by public dollars; but the garage would not be justified for public use. “[At] this juncture, the land was taken for the purpose of a private entity,” said the council president.
There seems to be a shift in who is paying for the garage and what it is being used for. Early on the parking garage was said to be for the hospital and the Utica Aud and the city would pay 40% of the cost. Now it is being advertised as public parking garage that is also for the City Court and the Nexus Center.
The County’s Facebook page description of the hearing says, “Oneida County eminent domain public hearing for the public parking garage for downtown Utica hospital.” This contradicts Mr. Laramie who says taking private property from citizens is necessary because this is the only site that can serve these other non-hospital facilities.
Brett Truett, whose property is being threatened by eminent domain, shared the image below after the hearing. This satellite image illustrates currently available parking areas that could service the Utica Aud and the city court.
In the meeting Mr. Truett stated, “Just because the hospital drew a parking garage on top of properties they didn’t own, I don’t believe that should move the government to take these properties.”
Removing the burden of parking for the non hospital buildings reduces the number of spaces needed at the hospital site.
Utica common council member Celeste Friend commented, “It’s not at all obvious to me that this additional parking of this new garage is in any way necessary.”
The councilwoman requested an official report be submitted to the common council detailing how many parking spaces Utica’s other two hospitals currently use compared to the surface parking spaces that the downtown hospital currently has access to. She also requested data on parking spaces for the Washington Street garage and the Kennedy Street garage, and an expanded Kennedy Street garage.
“I think using eminent domain to seize private property from citizens for a project that has not been shown to the public to be necessary, is extremely inappropriate,” said council member Friend.
She also clarified that the common council has made no commitment to help pay for this parking garage and advised caution on the part of the county of using the strong arm of the government to seize private property from citizens when it is not at all obvious that it is in the interest of the public to do so.
This raises the question, if the county solely responsible for paying for this parking garage shouldn’t the public vote on this expenditure? Especially with the uncertainty of the economy.
Joseph Cerini is another property owner whose property and business is being threatened by the counties use of eminent domain. Cerini and his business Citation Services has been on Lafayette street in Utica for twenty years.
“The county, I don’t believe they have secured funding yet,” said Mr. Cerini. “To go ahead with the project without funding is not something that should really be done. I don’t even know if it’s legal.”
Katie Aiello owner of Character Coffee, in downtown Utica stated “Eminent domain is theft, in its simplest form.” She added “We don’t know that there’s proof that we need [the parking garage]. We can’t afford it.”
Mike Gentile was brief stating “There hasn’t been a valid argument to say that the parking garage is necessary, and we do not have the funding; and I don’t want to see another building with metal structures and nothing else to complete it.”
Councilman Delvin Moody commented “if we use eminent domain to build a parking garage which everyone is saying we cannot afford, that in 15 or 20 years, we’ll be right back here with another parking garage that is underutilized, and we spent a lot of money to pay for it.” He did say however he was not against using eminent domain if the data merited its use.
County legislator Tim Julian stated, “An original part of this plan was there had to be a re-use plan for St. Elizabeth’s hospital.” Mr Julian said he was told by Mr. Scholefield and other MVHS representatives, at a meeting on January 20th of 2020 that they would have some sort of plan available to us by that Friday. He has yet to receive that plan.
According to legislator Julian”[The reuse plan] needs to be done and taken care of, first and foremost, before any talks of taking any other properties, or doing anything construction-wise takes place.”
MVHS was quite aware that the site where they wanted to build a parking garage was unavailable before they started building the hospital in that downtown location. This is the business plan of the Hammes company who MVHS contracted with. In their video “Real Estate 101 for Healthcare Executives,” Hammes says “don’t limit your ‘universal potential opportunities’ to sites that are ‘on-the-market.’
MVHS made a gamble that they would acquire these properties of private citizens for their own use.
The fact that MVHS began building their project should not be used to justify the taking of property of private citizens. Alternate sites do exist for parking in the downtown location. There are adjacent parcels to the northeast, west, and south of the current hospital.