Auburn city officials are optimistic that at least one of the two city-sponsored projects to receive funding through the state's Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant will start rolling this year — and that's despite a history of litigation at the site.
In July, state representatives came to Auburn to announce that two projects — one to construct a new public safety complex, the other to create a downtown event plaza — will receive a significant amount of state aid. Details to build the event plaza, which will eventually fill an empty, city-owned lot at 1-7 State St., could be finalized before the end of the year, according to state records.
It's uncertain if the State Street project could see renewed opposition, though.
In 2014, the same site was slated to become a performing arts center, but the plan dissolved after Auburn attorney Joseph Camardo Jr. filed numerous lawsuits challenging the legality of the project, including a claim that a ground vapor environmental assessment at the site, the former Kalet's department store, was not adequate.
Four years later, Auburn hired an environmental firm to design a public event plaza and conduct more extensive soil testings. The analysis found the site to be clean, and no further tests were required. However, Camardo said at the time that this second test was also done improperly.
"I invited the city to get together with my consultant from the beginning and they ignored me. They spent all this money on a botched test," Camardo told The Citizen in April 2018.
Despite Camardo's opposition, the city pursued and secured state funding for the site's development. The project was awarded $1 million in DRI support, pushing the $1.6 million project toward a fully funded benchmark. According to Auburn's DRI plan, the plaza's construction is scheduled to begin next spring.
Although he's optimistic about the plaza's completion, Auburn City Manager Jeff Dygert said he couldn't promise the project wouldn't be challenged.
"While I cannot guarantee that there will be no opposition to the proposed State Street event plaza, I can tell you that I have had very positive and productive conversations with Mr. Camardo focused on a compromise that would enable all of us to move on and hopefully bring this project to completion," Dygert said in an email to The Citizen last week.
He added that publicly discussing particulars of the conversations "would not be appropriate" at this time.
Camardo did not respond to a request for comment.
Tracy Verrier, executive director of the Cayuga Economic Development Agency and co-chair of the Auburn DRI planning committee, said she couldn't comment on the State Street site's previous legal issues. She did say, though, that the city "made an active effort to get input and feedback from neighboring property owners" during the the event plaza's planning process. Verrier said she was one of the individuals contacted by the city, as CEDA operates across the street from 1-7 State St.
According to DRI documents, the 5,000-square-foot plaza will be designed to "complement and enhance adjacent retail stores and restaurants, and establish a flexible public space for events, festivals, and socializing." The city's Department of Public Works will provide maintenance for the space.