PEF member takes a stand for her neighborhood, organizes campaign to oppose development – The Communicator
August 16, 2019
PEF member takes a stand for her neighborhood, organizes campaign to oppose development
BY KATE MOSTACCIO
As statewide Health and Safety Committee chairperson, a former member of that same committee, and a member of the statewide Article 18 Committee, Lindsay Bonanza has experience giving PEF members a voice on issues that affect their workplaces.
Now she’s taking that experience and using it to give her neighbors a voice on an issue that will affect their homes.
In May, Bonanza and her neighbors learned that the Kelberman Center, which serves individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), was awarded a $15 million grant to build a mixed-use building in their residential neighborhood on the site of the former Sunset School on Sunset Avenue in Utica.
The development would include main floor office space and conference areas for the center, as well as 60 apartment units. Twelve of those units would be reserved for the developmentally disabled and those with ASD, while the other 48 would be workforce housing, targeting individuals making between $25,000 and $55,000 a year. Those tenants would be offered a break on their rent, a stipend, or other incentives to aid the 12 people living in the Kelberman units.
Bonanza and her neighbors have no issue with the proposed housing or the targeted tenants but they do take issue with the lack of communication and the size of the development. “We have no problem with the housing of anyone in need of housing,” she said. “That’s not our stance. Our problem is that we didn’t know about it. They did one story in one local newspaper.”
The few people who saw the news article, Bonanza said, thought the proposed development would likely be revised during the review process when people realized it was simply too large. In addition, some neighbors had been approached by a Kelberman staff member who spoke of a 12-unit development with office space and assumed that was the entirety of the project.
“At no point did they [the staff member] mention the other 48 units and demolishing the building,” Bonanza said. “To say we were a bit bewildered to find out this humongous project was literally going to bulldoze in our back yard … I jokingly blame PEF because I instantly went into organizing mode.”
Bonanza created an informational pamphlet and targeted the U-shaped area around the former school. “That’s when I learned only three people had been approached by anybody, and they had been lied to about it,” she said. “I started calling the mayor; I called our councilman; I called state legislators; I was calling everybody. How could this happen in our teeny, tiny neighborhood and how could nobody have told us about it?” The information wasn’t being made available, so Bonanza went above and beyond and rooted it out.
Neighbors are concerned with the size not just for aesthetic reasons. The city of Utica is old and while that gives the homes their unique character, it’s not a positive thing for its infrastructure. “We have sewer and water problems,” she said. “The zoning maps show this area is low density. Everything is set up and working for a low-density neighborhood. Adding a high-density facility is only going to add stress.”
As far as the neighbors know, there also haven’t been traffic, water impact, or sewage studies. “They’ve supposedly done an environmental study,” she said, “but they’ve not provided us with anything. They’ve showed us pretty pictures and said it’s going to be OK.”
Neighbors were originally told the deal was done. Bonanza has since learned that’s untrue. “The project is actually not finalized,” she said. “The property is still owned by a multi-millionaire.”
There is irony in the owner, she said. The Kelberman Center had been casting the story as a crumbling neighborhood in need of revitalization. “The building is crumbling, but that’s not the fault of the neighborhood,” Bonanza pointed out. “It’s not a struggling neighborhood.” In fact, she said, property values have stayed flat or even increased in recent years.
So what do the neighbors want? What is the message Bonanza is carrying for them?
“We’re just asking them to reduce the project,” she said. “It’s too big. Anybody who looks at the property knows it’s not going to fit there. It’s a 1.6-acre lot. They plan to put a four-story building with 96 parking spaces on it.”
The Kelberman Center developers haven’t broken any laws. Since the land is zoned “Planned Development Extraordinary” it allows “a wide variety of uses,” according to the city of Utica’s Planning Board agenda from May 2018.
Additionally, Bonanza thinks the Kelberman Center missed an opportunity to involve the neighbors in the inclusive community they are trying to build.
“We are people with a lot of heart,” she said. “They are missing the opportunity to include us. If they open their doors we can make this work for all of us. We could be a footprint for this type of community.” Bonanza said the center could have come into a community and met a group of people who just didn’t want them – instead, “We’re people that actually want to see you succeed.”
Bonanza and her neighbors are upset at being excluded from the inclusive housing project. “They’ve underestimated this tiny little neighborhood as people who would just roll over and let it happen,” she said. “But we’ve come together and banded together. We have lawyers, teachers, activists, one of our neighbors is a grant writer, retired nurses. We are all educated and well-meaning people. It’s very upsetting that they really thought they could just roll in over night and just bulldoze.”
Using some union activism lessons, Bonanza set up a Facebook group — Save South Utica’s Neighborhoods. And they have a hashtag rallying cry, just like the ones PEF is using to build support for the Contract Team — #ItsNotOver and #BuildItSmaller.
“There’s a lot of misinformation and half truths,” Bonanza said. “All we want is the right story out there. Include us in their inclusive community. Make the project smaller. We’re not telling them they’re not welcome.”
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