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Auburn's great divide: How urban renewal, the Arterial have affected the city

  • 11 min to read

Forty years ago, Auburn was in the midst of one of the most transformative periods in its history: urban renewal.

The transformation mostly consisted of three distinct but inseparable components: the demolition and replacement of several downtown buildings through the City Center Urban Renewal Project, the construction of the Arterial highway and the creation of Loop Road.

Even today, conflicting feelings linger over the transformation — many of which concern how Auburn, with assistance from the state and federal governments, accomplished it.

Feelings about the long-term effects of the transformation are just as split. Auburnians past and present say some parts of urban renewal were good for the city, while some parts were regrettable.

And they don't all agree which was which.

Boyle Center

The Edward T. Boyle Center in Auburn.

Innovation vs. preservation

When speaking to urban renewal in Auburn, hints of disappointment colored Michael Quill's voice — even when talking about the positives.

Auburn's mayor lived through the construction of the Arterial as a native and, starting in 1973, a firefighter. Serving abroad in the Marine Corps for four years in the late 1960s, Quill said he missed much of the City Center Urban Renewal Project, and returned when the bulk of it was done.

Regardless, Quill described himself then as a young man who never really appreciated what the city lost until years later.

Many buildings were dilapidated and, with little hope for repair, cleared away to usher in Auburn's downtown as it is today. Auburn real estate agent John Bouck, who worked in an office at 7 South St. at the time, said several of the structures deserved to be demolished. Foreclosed upon by banks, they had fallen into unsalvageable condition.

Bouck recalls standing on the floor above the accounting office of Harry Parlin, near the corner of Market and Genesee streets, when a plumber told Bouck to look out a rear window. The plumber then dumped water into a toilet — water that Bouck then saw pour out of a pipe jutting from the banks of the Owasco River. Bouck said the water splashing into the river with a boom was "one of the grossest things I've ever seen."

Still, Bouck and Quill revere particular casualties of urban renewal: the Flatiron Building on Genesee and Market streets, the Woman's Union across from Memorial City Hall, a collection of doctor's offices along William Street, M. Herron Hardware, the State Street armory.

Quill said he rolled with the transformation at the time — "Things change," he shrugged. Now, he wonders what could have been.

"I'm sure the city government at the time had everybody's best interest in mind, but it certainly would be nice to go back and see those old buildings. What they were," Quill said.

The loss of the Flatiron Building in 1975, in particular, may have been the catalyst for a local historic preservation movement that would later save Willard Memorial Chapel, the Auburn Schine Theater and other structures.

Mike Long, an Auburn historian and former interim city manager, said that in the mid-1980s, a group of people from the community began gathering for lunch at the Schweinfurth Art Center to reminisce about the Flatiron and other buildings lost to urban renewal.

Many of those people would go on to form the Community Preservation Committee, which secured a state grant to acquire the chapel at the end of the decade and, eventually, saved it from demolition. In the '90s, the Schine, Harriet Tubman residence, Thompson AME Zion Church, South Street Area Historic District and other sites joined the chapel in obtaining protective landmark and historic register statuses.

"There was a new philosophy to maintain and preserve what you had," Long said.

The Flatiron Building, Long said, had actually been taken off the National Register of Historic Places by the office of then-Mayor Paul Lattimore. Lattimore served as Auburn's mayor for 16 years, seeing the city's urban renewal initiatives to light.

Decades later, Paul's son, Tim, now a Cayuga County legislator and an Auburn mayor from 2004 to 2007, was Quill's political rival for years. And yet, they share some of the same regrets about urban renewal: That it destroyed some of Auburn's history with the razing of several structures.

At the same time, Tim Lattimore said the demolitions made way for the development of several senior housing centers throughout downtown Auburn. Now, the Boyle Center on Genesee Street, Stryker Homes on Loop Road and Schwartz Towers on North Street are mainstays in Auburn. As is another addition to downtown Auburn due to urban renewal: Wegmans.

"I like the fact that we take care of our seniors," Lattimore said. "I like the fact that Wegmans is a cultural center. They were dying on Grant Avenue before we moved them into downtown Auburn."

Culturally, urban renewal, the Arterial and the Loop Road have also come under fire by Auburnians at large. A recent The Citizen poll asked whether the transformation had a positive or negative impact on Auburn: 81 percent of respondents said negative.

Bouck chalks the negativity up to human nature. Though he agrees that urban renewal had its unfortunate outcomes, he feels its boons to business and accessibility have been overlooked by "constant, chronic complainers." Their gripes about the city's transformation likely originate from more of an emotional place than a logical one, he said.

Melina Carnicelli, mayor of Auburn from 2000 to 2003, acknowledged some psychological impact of the Arterial in particular. The thoroughfare made poor impressions on visitors who saw some of the city's worst neighborhoods, she said. To that end, during her term, Carnicelli spearheaded an effort to beautify stretches of the road's median by planting wildflowers and groundcover.

Carnicelli, however, doesn't believe the period was any more of a blow to the city's morale than the ethnic and other fissures that have persisted in Auburn since its founding. A college student at the time, she recalls the Auburn public mostly favoring the city's urban renewal projects — though the Flatiron Building's removal did give them some "sticker shock."

"I think the promise of being modernized was very appealing to the decision-makers and adults in the community," she said. "But when our beloved buildings and infrastructure started coming down, we got some buyers' remorse."

Arterial traffic patterns

Clark Street in Auburn was converted into a dead end to make way for the Arterial.

Access vs. activity

Both Bouck and Lattimore can remember downtown Auburn before the 4.5-mile-Arterial highway was sutured through it.

Workers in yesteryear's manufacturing industries throughout the city would get out at around 3:30 p.m., Lattimore recalled. Downtown would be their route home, resulting in traffic jams outside Auburn's retail businesses there.

The hours between 3:30 and 5 p.m. were gridlock, Bouck said. Retailers along Genesee and other central streets would not benefit much, he said, because nobody would want to stop, especially after just getting out of work. The Arterial, then, was an ideal way to decongest downtown during rush hour, Bouck said.

"I don't know how Auburn could do any better without the Arterial," he said. 

Lattimore sees it differently. Maybe drivers wouldn't stop, he said, but the traffic gave passersby a chance to see the items on sale through the storefront windows as they scuttled home.

The Arterial solution to the traffic was two one-way thoroughfares traveling east and west through Auburn. Grant Avenue splits into the Arterial at Seymour Street, where it remains segregated until reaching the city's border with Aurelius.

The project was "supposed to help," Lattimore said. A goal of the highway was to offset the heavy truck traffic coming to and from Auburn's manufacturing facilities — many of which have since departed — to give them a more direct route without holding up downtown.

Regardless, Lattimore continued, the new road funneled traffic more toward incoming national tenants along Grant Avenue to the east and the then-developing Fingerlakes Mall to the west.

According to state Department of Transportation data from 2014, the most recent year from which data is available, a daily average of around 25,000 cars crosses the intersection of Standart and Grant avenues, making it the busiest in the city. By contrast, Genesee Street — between South Green and Market streets — averaged around 8,100.

DOT statistics further show that average daily two-way traffic along the Arterial has grown by around 7,000 vehicles since 1977 — the year after the road's installation was finished. The department could not explain the reasons behind the traffic growth.

Accident data on the Arterial was unavailable through the DOT.

When the roadway opened in November 1976, there was a learning curve for drivers getting used to new — and sometimes unsynchronized — traffic signals. Most recently, a fatal motorcycle crash at the Seymour Street intersection in 2014 prompted state engineers to add a left-turn signal for westbound traffic. Meanwhile, sightings of wrong-way drivers on the Arterial — though rare — still occur.

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The Arterial's heavy traffic flows make it advantageous when it comes to bringing customers to Bass Pro Shops and other businesses that draw from beyond Cayuga County, said Meg Vanek, executive director of the county's tourism office. The thoroughfare provides easy, efficient travel for tourists and high visibility for their destinations, she said.

Much less visibility is provided by the Arterial, Vanek said, when it comes to businesses on Genesee Street and elsewhere in downtown Auburn. She suggested improving signage and slowing traffic as solutions to that problem.

The latter action, she said, could also solve another Arterial problem: Tourists staying at the Hilton Garden and Holiday inns who want to cross the busy road to shop or get a bite to eat downtown.

"It's an easy walk, but you're crossing what seems like a fairly major thoroughfare," she said. "There could be ways to make it more comfortable."

Beyond its effects on tourism, Mayor Quill said the Arterial offers emergency responders a much more direct route through downtown Auburn than the segmented streets it replaced.

Then again, a one-way is a one-way: With the fire department bordering the eastbound Arterial, fire trucks looking to head west must first travel in the opposite direction. The fire department has since adapted to the Arterial, as have most who live in Auburn, Quill said.

The same could be said for the Auburn Enlarged City School District — though there were some hiccups along the way, according to Gino Alberici.

A city native who raised six children through the Auburn school system during urban renewal and served on its board of education for most of the '80s, Alberici said some parents were concerned about their children crossing the Arterial to school.

There were volunteer crossing guards back then, he said, but school administrators nevertheless realigned parts of the district — causing some children to change schools — in order to accommodate the roadway developments.

It was also early in the urban renewal period, in the late '60s, that Central High School — which is now used by Health Central on West Garden Street — was closed as Auburn shuffled facilities in response to rising student numbers. In 1970, the district welcomed its 3,000 high school students to the new Auburn High on Lake Avenue.

Lattimore said the Arterial might have taken traffic away from Auburn's core, but moving the high school to the city's outskirts "took the heart and the youth out of the city and changed the whole dynamic."

The closeness of the four former high schools — East, West, Central and Mount Carmel — allowed children to walk instead of relying on buses, mingling with businesses, food joints and retailers along the way, he said. Lattimore now believes it's slower going for youth downtown.

"The biggest blow to downtown was taking the high school out and moving it to such an isolated spot," he said. "It's a beautiful area but the activity that the high school drew fostered a lot of things downtown."

The Auburn school shakeup is one sign of the same mindset that many officials feel motivated the Arterial's construction: cars first, people second.

Former Mayor Carnicelli said city officials at the time were more concerned about which direction cars traveled and how fast they could get through downtown — and less about how friendly the city was to pedestrians and businesses. Those priorities, she continued, turned downtown from a destination into a detour after the Arterial was installed.

"It wasn't designed to welcome people to our city," she said.

Loop and Genesee

Loop Road and Genesee Street in downtown Auburn.

Convenience vs. commerce

Like the City Center Urban Renewal Project and the Arterial, the Loop Road appended to downtown Auburn's streets in the mid-1970s is a subject of debate.

The project added curved segments of road between North and Genesee, Osborne and Lincoln, and South and William streets, and closed Exchange Street to traffic. Also closed was State Street between Genesee and Dill, but after businesses languished in the new State Street Mall, the downtown block was re-opened to one-way traffic in 2004.

Bouck, who leases many properties inside and outside the loop, called the road Auburn's "biggest boondoggle." It directed the eyes of drivers not toward storefronts, he said, but their backs. And downtown's urban renewal initiatives had created a dearth of space for parking, so retailers couldn't adapt to their new points of ingress.

"The Loop Road really served no function," Bouck said. "Circling downtown was a poor idea. From the perspective of a business, you want traffic. Not congestion, but people traveling through."

To solve the parking problem, the Auburn garage opened in 1979. However, being a garage and seeming distant from many of the area's businesses, the structure made downtown even more feeble competition against Fingerlakes Mall and Grant Avenue's plazas, which offered on-site parking.

In concert with the Arterial, then, the Loop Road had a centrifugal effect on Auburn's commercial growth, Bouck said: Urban renewal flung it from downtown to the city's west and northeast fringes.

"Any time I have a major company that wants to come into Auburn, they typically tell us they want to locate between Standart (Avenue) and Lowe's," he said.

Downtown, meanwhile, emptied. Bouck recalls being asked by the city, sometime in the '80s, to remove his many "For lease" signs from the area's display windows.

"You could have thrown a bowling ball down Genesee Street at noon and not hit anything," he said. "I couldn't sell anything."

Despite the vacancies, Bouck remembers rental rates slightly rising because the supply of buildings downtown dwindled.

Downtown assessment values also rose at a similar pace, and for similar reasons. John Brennan, who worked as the city's assessor for 28 years starting in the early '70s, said Auburn's value underwent a slight market increase every year following urban renewal.

The former assessor credits healthy housing demand for the rise.

"I think urban renewal might have had something to do with it, with all the people that were displaced," he said. "Some people were looking to buy. Other people were looking to sell. The old saying: Supply and demand."

However, record retention law only requires the city of Auburn to keep assessment records for the past 10 years, so records from the period are not available. Furthermore, the Cayuga County Office of Real Property Service has a gap in its electronically scanned assessment records between the years 1919 and 1995.

The demolition during the city center project also removed a substantial chunk of properties from the city's tax rolls for up to a couple years, Brennan and Bouck said.

Downtown Auburn didn't see any of the residential growth Brennan described: In the name of maximizing the area's commercial potential, the city amended its zoning laws in the 1960s to minimize upper-story residential use. Like the influx of national retailers on downtown's periphery, the code change exacerbated the effects of urban renewal.

Former Mayor Carnicelli called the change "the beginning of the end of downtown."

The city may not have had the foresight to see those factors: the commercial trends that made Fingerlakes Mall and Grant Avenue such drains on downtown, the severity of outlawing so many of its residential spaces.

But many believe the city didn't even have the foresight to know what it wanted to do with most of the property it razed.

Both Bouck and Connie Reilley, former executive director of the Downtown Auburn Business Improvement District, said the city oftentimes went ahead with sites' demolition before finalizing their development plans. Reilley, who suggested this haste was due to deadlines for federal funding, said projects like the Genesee Mall seemed to be thrown together "helter skelter."

Today, though, downtown is on the rebound, Reilley believes. She cited the mid-2000s revision of the city's zoning laws to encourage upper-story residential use as one cause. Bouck cites the area's shift toward service businesses, such as breweries and restaurants, as another.

Reilley even departs from Bouck on the Loop Road, pointing out that it has facilitated the steadily rising number of street festivals the area hosts. Without the road, she said, the city would have a much harder time closing Genesee Street for events like Majorpalooza and Founders Day.

A recent proposal to close the stretch of Loop Road between North and Genesee streets, Reilley said, could be even more beneficial to the city, which envisions a regional public market on that site.

Or, Reilley cautioned, closing the road could repeat the mistakes of the period in Auburn's history that created the road in the first place. 

"There's a lot of things to iron out if they really do it," she said. "I think they need to get perspective from the public and the businesses involved to avoid what happened with urban renewal."

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Staff writer Greg Mason can be reached at (315) 282-2239 or Follow him on Twitter @CitizenMason. Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox.


I'm the features editor for The Citizen and, and have been here since 2006. I also cover local arts and culture, business, food and drink, and more.

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