The serious point behind the playful “Geneseo Yes, Genrietta No” slogan that PDDG adopted long ago is that the retail development that has sprawled out 20A is changing the character and identity of Geneseo.
It is this same concern that led the Town Planning Board to require Newman Development Group, as part of its soon-to-be-released evaluation of the impacts of its proposed Gateway Town Center proposal, to identify a community that has faced similar Big Box pressures and evaluate the impacts of those pressures on that community.
Newman picked Oneida, a small city in Madison County, approximately 30 miles east of Syracuse along Route 5. To see for ourselves what Wal-Mart and its spawn hath wrought, Corrin Strong and I headed east on a road trip Tuesday. What we found is a small city, similar in total population, in traffic volumes, and in Big Box sprawl, but different in many other respects from Geneseo. (See Corrin’s report in his Clarion Call column)
Oneida was once a small industrial city of the type common to upstate New York, including Seneca Falls, Schenectady, and Gloversville. Its principle industry was silverware and its principle employer was Oneida Ltd. After peaking in the early 1970s, those days are over. Oneida Ltd is all but closed. Other industries are gone, replaced by the nearby Oneida Indian Turning Stone Casino.
Oneida’s industrial core, adjacent to its once-vibrant Main Street and surrounding residential area, has weakened. (Imagine Geneseo without the college.) Many storefronts in the central business district are empty or underutilized. Surviving businesses are largely service-based, with few retail businesses. Large homes are in decline, many having been converted to commercial use or rental properties. (A photo album of our trip is posted on The PDDG File).
The action now is on the western fringe of the city, at the intersections of Route 5 and 365A. At this intersection – known locally as Five Corners – a Super Wal-Mart opened in the mid-1990s. In the years since then, a steady progression of other large and Big Boxes has followed; first a Sears Hardware, then a Tractor Supply Store, and a few months ago a 170,000 square foot Lowe’s. Smaller boxes have also come. Large parcels of bulldozed land and signs advertising retail zoning indicate more is to follow in short order.
I’d estimate there are currently 600,000 square feet of retail sprawl in the immediate vicinity of the intersection, with much more planned. That compares to 400,000 or so square feet currently at the intersection of 20A and Volunteer Road.
So, how is Oneida holding up to the pressure? Downtown, not so well. Surely the downtown’s problems predate Wal-Mart and sprawl, though just as surely 600,000 square feet of floor space and $150,000,000 or so in annual Big Box sales have come at the expense of many locally-owned businesses.
Most poignant was Dowlings’ Hardware, which served the community from 1850 until just before Lowe’s opened. The lack of traffic, the lack of parking meters, and the lack of parked cars also tell the story of what sprawl has done to Main St.
Head out Route 5 toward the Five Corners and the blight segues into sprawl. First comes the fast food chains, one of each it seems, then the car dealerships, then the Big Boxes. Traffic on Route 5 is heavy. The NYS Department of Transportation last counted cars in 2004, before Lowe’s, and found more than 20,000 a day converging at the Five Corners and more than 18,000 in the fast food district a few miles away. That’s perhaps a few hundred more cars than on 20A when last counted, also in 2004 (and before our Super Wal-Mart opened).
The burden of moving these cars through the intersection of Routes 5 and 365A has been eased some by the industrial strength, five-way four lane intersection at 5 and 365A. The most recent widening of these roads was paid for by the developer of Lowe’s, at the insistence of DOT, and at a cost of $1.12 million.
Having glimpsed our possible future, I have seen that we will need a whole bunch more road to make it “work.” And any fix is likely to be temporary; as Oneida makes clear, sprawl begets sprawl.