By JENNIFER HILL • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
ONEONTA – Before there was parking on Dietz Street, there used to be homes.
“I spent a lot of time looking at maps of old Oneonta,” said Bob Brzozowski, executive director, Greater Oneonta Historical Society. “I think we forget that space used to be houses and buildings.”
The City of Oneonta Planning Commission held a public hearing this evening on the proposed Lofts on Dietz, which will include low-cost living and studio spaces for artists, drawing comments from supporters and detractors alike.
“I offer my enthusiastic support,” SUNY Oneonta President Barbara Jean Morris wrote in a letter read by City Clerk Nancy Powell. “Creation of the Dietz Street Lofts would help alleviate the shortage of middle income in the city to which so many young college professionals have been subject.”
“This housing plan is an exciting prospect for those of us in the healthcare sector,” A.O. Fox Hospital CEO Jeff Joiner said in his letter. “Housing is one of our principle challenges in healthcare recruitment. I cannot express enough my support for the DRI’s effort to build new lofts downtown.”
But during the public commentary midway through the meeting, praise gave way to opposition – at times vehement – to the proposal. The mixed-use development, which will have 64-units of affordable housing, including 40 units designated for artists, and space for a gallery and other businesses on the first floor.
As in the past, the opposition was from fears of inadequate parking. The proposed building will be built partly on the Dietz Street parking lot and eliminate 50 parking spaces.
“The parking study the city did is flawed,” said Johna Peachin, who owns The Peachin Group at the corner of Dietz and Main Streets. She said it assumed people would be willing to park far away from downtown and walk longer distances than they would in reality.
Peachin also criticized the city for “moving 40 artists into luxurious apartments while “doing nothing to help the single mother…so she has to suffer because she is not an artist.” And on the letters praising the project, Peachin said, “the property is not for them.”
Bob Pondolfino, a dentist whose practice is on Dietz Street, called the city’s parking study “B.S.”
“Your 2016 study said parking was a significant factor in the economic viability of Oneonta, but it’s more significant because the majority of the consumers do not reside in the city limits,” he said.
Pondolfino also stated that two proposals for Downtown Revitalization funding, the Westcott Lot and the Transit Hub, were “canned” because 205 parking spaces would be lost.
“I am vehemently opposed,” he said, his voice rising. “This thing is just insane. Do artists employ anyone, do they do anything?”
Charles Hartley, an artist, opposed the Dietz Street project because the city “would never get the parking back” once it was built. He pointed out that if the downtown is revitalized, it will draw more people the city who will need parking spaces.
“I think you’re uninformed about what artists do,” Hartley said in response to Pondolfino’s statements. He said he made money from having his works in shown in galleries, mostly in Binghamton.
Kathleen Pietrobono, who owns a funeral home on Dietz Street, worried that the large number of people coming for funerals would have to spend time finding available parking spots and would have walk from far distances. “I can’t expect my clients to do that, especially elderly ones,” she said.
Other had mixed feelings about the project.
“I love the idea, but I think it should be built in a different location,” said Lyne Bolstad, Walnut Street. “I think losing the parking spaces will harm the city.”
A few members of the audience spoke enthusiastically about the project.
“I think it’s essential for a city that has different cultures to have a place for them to come together and I see this project doing that,” said Peter Schulman.
A special meeting will be held Wednesday, Nov. 6 to do a site plan review for the project.
Mayor Gary Herzig attended the Planning Commission meeting and said he welcomed the different points of views and discussion because that is “exactly how local government works.” He defended the housing and parking studies the city had conducted as well as hearing from residents ideas for revitalizing the city.
“We have a real opportunity here, and it is about our children and to be a city for the future,” Herzig said.