Introduction[edit | edit source]
The Flatiron Building (originally known as the Fairbanks Building back in the 1860's)
Urban Renewal was, and still is, a nationwide movement to rid American cities of their blighted and decaying sections and replace them with new development. The movement was, and is, controversial. Opponents of the movement cited the forced movement of people, the use of eminent domain, and the destruction of historically significant structures as detrimental to urban landscapes and the civil rights of its citizens. Proponents of the movement saw the program as vital to a city's future economic and social development, by ridding cities of slums and economically depressed areas that, in their view, inhibited a city's growth as a whole. Most American cities, large and small, were affected by the movement.
The Armory, Arsenal Street
While Urban Renewal programs were intended to help cities recover and redevelop dilapidated areas, many cities used the movement to demolish and redevelop areas that were still economically and socially viable. This view is shared by some people when discussing Urban Renewal in Watertown.
Urban Renewal in Watertown[edit | edit source]
The Flower Building
Watertown's experience with Urban Renewal began in the mid-1960's. Federal grants were given to many American cities, including Watertown. The city fathers at the time saw this as an opportunity to modernize the downtown area which was still the economic and social center of the city. The triangular block of Court and Arsenal Streets was chosen as the site for development. City Hall
Several plans were drawn up, all consisting of a modern shopping and office complexes as well as green space. This ambitious project necessitated the demolition of almost every building from the corner of Arsenal and Court Streets up to Massey Street. City Planners forced the removal of numerous business and tenants from the buildings chosen for demolition, most of which had stood for over 100 years. Some business moved to new locations, while others closed down permanently. Proponents of the city's Urban Renewal program cited numerous reasons for the demolition and redevelopment of Court and Arsenal Streets.
The Avon Theater
Among the determining factors of the time was the deteriorated condition of many of the buildings themselves. In the cases of the City Hall and the Armory, buildings built with large stone pieces didn't lend themselves to updating and change. The interior structures were generally wood or early iron skeletons difficult to update and subject to the ravages of water and fire.
The Crowner Hotel
As with many old buildings, electrical systems, plumbing, fire sprinkler and heating and cooling systems had been added after original construction, often necessitating many safety compromises for installation such as surface-mounted wiring, non-grounded electrical systems, and the use of first-generation cloth-insulated wire and components that were seldom updated to newer and safer technology. Standards for occupancy, hallway and stairway widths, number of stairwells, emergency lighting, fire exit numbers and locations, marking and door hardware were virtually non-existent until the late 1950s, and the cost to update buildings to meet even rudimentary life and fire safety codes--even if, for instance, hallways or stairways could be added or widened--were prohibitive for most building owners.
The Liberty Theater
In addition, pre-demolition inspections revealed leaky, sagging and broken roofs covering abandoned top floors in many Arsenal and Court Street buildings, inhabited only by generations of pigeons--living and dead--and their waste that sometimes came up to inspectors' knees. The safety concerns and limited use of upper floors with their costly maintenance was more than likely one of the considerations behind the decision by planners to raze these structures.
As the nation was coming into the scientifically-booming 1960's, planners looking to the future saw the groundswell of the "need for new". The pace of societal change and "space-age" styling in homes and cars was the new frontier. The North Country was able to compare itself to the rest of the country through television, and "new!" was the rule for the future. Forward-thinkers saw the future of retail businesses as boxy shopping centers built specifically for retailing with lots of parking and access.
The City Center Mall
The city proceeded with the demolition while the new development was still in its planning stages. The federal grant the city received fell far short of the actual cost of the projected development. For two years, three blocks of streets became vacant lots, while planners struggled to come up with a viable project that could be developed with the funds available. Finally, in 1970, the City Center Mall and two adjacent department stores opened, while at the Corner of Arsenal and Court Streets, a small park and fountain were built, the rest of the space designated for parking. Woolworth's Department Store moved from its home on Public Square to become the City Center Mall's anchor store. The structure built on the corner of Arsenal and JC Penney Arcade Streets became home to the JCPenney Department Store, while the new building on the site of the old City Hall became home to Howland's Department Store.
Legacy[edit | edit source]
In the 1980's, the modern retail development of Urban Renewal would not survive the expansion of outer Arsenal Street and the opening of the Salmon Run Mall. The City Center Mall housed Woolworth's and several smaller shops until 1996, when The Woolworth Corporation closed its stores across the country. Today, the building is home to Stream, a technical support call center. JCPenney moved to the Salmon Run Mall in the late 1980's. The JCPenney building was long ago demolished, the site now occupied by the Jefferson County Court Complex. When Howlands closed its doors, the building was later to serve as a church then housing several tenants as the Liberty Building.
Urban Renewal's legacy is looked upon by some with regret. Many of Watertown's most recognizable buildings were demolished while they were still active and vital. The modernization movement of the mid 20th century has been replaced today by one of revitalization and restoration of Watertown's historic buildings.
Some Notable Buildings Lost During Urban Renewal[edit | edit source]