A Lunch in Schenectady

As I wrote in my take on Albany’s assets as a city, one of the distinctive things about the Capital District is its unique tri-city arrangement, with Albany clearly the dominant city but Troy and Schenectady each contributing to the area’s feel. In a little over a year and a half of living here, I haven’t spend nearly as much time as I should in the other two cities, perhaps speaking to a cultural disconnect between them (part 2 of my take on Albany coming this week!). I’ve spend a decent amount of time in Troy and very little in Schenectady, perhaps intimidated by the oh-so-long 25-minute drive (or the transit trip that takes longer now than it did in the streetcar era)…or more realistically, by Schenectady’s reputation as a post-industrial wasteland hostile to urbanism.

Well, today I spent some time there. Wanting to take advantage of the gorgeous weather (above freezing for the first time in God knows how long!) G and I took off to Schenectady for lunch and a brief walkabout. I can hardly claim that we got much of a comprehensive look, even around the small downtown area, but even the brief glimpse we did get proved informative. Schenectady is pursuing a promising route of downtown revitalization, which is beginning to show real fruits, but it’s got a lot more to do before it has truly re-learned how to be a city.

As in Albany, the core of Schenectady’s downtown is formed by a business district centered on a grand boulevard that slopes down a hill and is known as State Street. Though inarguably less impressive than Albany’s, Schenectady’s State Street–which slopes west toward the former location of the Erie Canal and the still-extant Mohawk River–is still intriguing, and a decent place to start an urban revival.

Looking up State Street from Broadway

Looking up State Street from Broadway

Immediately behind the camera State Street dips beneath the CSX/Amtrak/Delaware & Hudson tracks and the platforms of the desolate (but soon to be refreshed!) Schenectady Amtrak station. Just beyond that is the intersection with Erie Boulevard, built over the former canal channel when the enlarged Barge Canal system opened. In other words, this picture gives you a sense of the proximity of Schenectady’s downtown to the area’s past and existing transportation assets.

Looking down State Street from near Lafayette

Looking down State Street from near Lafayette

This is the upper end of the State Street strip, looking west from Lafayette street. Visible at mid-right is one of the centerpieces of the downtown Schenectady revival, the building housing Quirky. Quirky is a “social product development company” that relocated 180 employees to Schenectady last year, building on its partnership with GE (the once-and-still-though-diminished titan of Schenectady’s economy)…and on almost a million dollars in economic development tax credits and grants. It’s being touted as a keystone of the renewed downtown, along with Proctors theater (no good pictures here, sorry) and..

Mexican Radio!

Mexican Radio!

Mexican Radio is a somewhat upscale, hipster-oriented, veggie-friendly Mexican restaurant with branches in Greenwich Village, Hudson, NY (basically Brooklyn North, but actually), and, as of 2014, Schenectady. The restaurant is housed in a gorgeous, beautifully renovated old retail building on the corner of State and Broadway; my picture doesn’t do it justice, but you can see more on their website.

Oh, you ask, the food? Decent, a little overpriced, but I’d go back. Nice date spot.

A couple more State Street pictures:

Beautiful..and vacant.

Beautiful..and partially vacant.

This building to some extent illustrates the challenges of downtown Schenectady’s not-quite-recovery. It’s a newly renovated, gorgeous specimen with a facade in cast iron, but at least one of the floors is vacant–and it was far from the only vacancy we saw.

Sorry for the glare!

Sorry for the glare!

This building houses the Parker Inn and Suites. I can only imagine the screams of “Out of context! Out of scale!” if someone proposed inserting it between its neighbors today.

 

 

wpid-20150222_141912.jpg

The pedestrian mall of the vintage “Drive to me!” type

 

 

Branching off of State is the other leg of Schenectady’s downtown renewal efforts, the Jay Street pedestrian mall. It’s an attractive place for a pedestrian mall–a narrow street that wouldn’t make much sense for cars, with numerous little shops. But it’s marred, again, by high rates of vacancy and by things even more basic, such as the fact that the snow clearly hadn’t been removed for quite a while (a problem, indeed, all over downtown Schenectady). It’s hard to navigate around a pedestrian mall when one is slipping and sliding at every step. Also, signs to parking are omnipresent and serve mostly to remind why, as planners have now realized, pedestrian malls have largely failed in this country–it’s hard to maintain a vibrant street life when your patrons largely drive in from the suburbs.

Schenectady City Hall. Note un-cleared steps.

Schenectady City Hall. Note un-cleared steps.

Schenectady City Hall occupies the block bounded by Jay, Franklin, Liberty, and Clinton streets. It’s a gorgeous building with incredibly detail..and it was really clear that no one had bothered to clean the snow off the front steps. True, little city business happens on Sundays, and we had just gotten a few inches the day before, but wouldn’t one expect a city that takes itself seriously to make pedestrian access possible?

Another shot of City Hall.

Another shot of City Hall.

The post office next door to City Hall. Nice building too.

The post office next door to City Hall. Nice building too.

Hard to see, but that's an Amtrak P42 sitting in the station amidst a sea of parking lots.

Hard to see, but that’s an Amtrak P42 sitting in the station amidst a sea of parking lots.

I’ll have to spend more time there when the weather is better, but it’s clear that there is some movement in long-moribund Schenectady. Progress is fragile, though. Quirky could turn out to be a bust. Mexican Radio could pack up and take its hipster cachet back Downstate. As things pick up downtown, the city and its merchants will have to take their urban responsibilities–things like making sure the damn sidewalks are clear–more seriously. Eventually, the city will have to overcome the inevitable resistance to building over the ring of parking craters that isolate downtown from the neighborhoods. And the city will have to manage the tension between downtown development and making sure its even-more-downtrodden neighborhoods get some attention. I’m not as bullish on Schenectady’s future as I am on Albany’s–there’s a hell of a lot of work left to do–but there’s definitely some hope.

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Reflections on Albany, Part 1

As Albany is buffeted by snow and cold, I thought I’d take some time to reflect on my time here and what I’ve learned about the city. There are a lot of really wonderful things about living here, but the city also suffers from some serious problems (both self-imposed and external). Albany is, more or less, the 6th place I’ve spent a year or two of my life, so I have a number of lenses through which to examine it–and of course Albany, too provides a lens for looking at other places I’ve been. I’ll do this in several parts, this first is on the assets that, in my opinion, make Albany special. I would certainly not pretend this is comprehensive, and it reflects my interests above all. Enjoy!

Assets:

1) Fantastic architecture and history

This is quite possibly my favorite thing about living in Albany. Though little of Albany’s original Dutch architecture survives (one of the city’s great tragedies), most of Albany’s pre-WWII architecture is truly spectacular, buoyed, in no small part, by the largess of New York State government. Witness H.H. Richardson’s 1883 City Hall, regarded as one of his true masterpieces:

220px-AlbanyNYCityHall

Via Wikimedia

 

A personal favorite  (despite its racist iconography), the Art Deco Home Savings Bank building downtown:

via Wikimapia

via Wikimapia

The residential architecture, too, can be spectacular. Take in the beautiful row homes (where they remain) on Clinton Avenue in Arbor Hill, one of the city’s roughest neighborhoods (albeit absurdly named one of APA’s “Best Neighborhoods” last year):

Even the Empire State Plaza, monstrosity though it may be, shines gorgeously in the setting sun. $2.2 billion (in 1970 money!) may have gone down the drain on that project, but it didn’t all go to waste; the buildings are almost entirely clad in marble, giving the Plaza a feeling of beauty and quality rare among Modernist projects.

Albany, of course, is one of the oldest cities in the country; the 1686 Dongan Charter is the oldest city charter still in operation in the US. Sadly little of the city’s Dutch heritage remains, but history pervades walks around downtown Albany. I live in an 1854 building four doors down from the house where gangster Jack “Legs” Diamond was gunned down, probably by a hit squad of Albany detectives–an event chronicled by Albany’s leading literary light, William Kennedy.  The family of Learned Hand, the most influential US jurist never to sit on the Supreme Court, had a home a few blocks down. I worked until recently right across the street from the original building of Albany Academy, where in 1824 Joseph Henry discovered electromagnetism. It’s pretty damn cool. And the Historic Albany Foundation has done a really good job popularizing with homeowners the practice of putting up little historic plaques on their buildings with information about the original builder and owner.

2) Fine-grained grid, especially downtown

Albany wiped out a lot of its downtown during the construction of the Plaza, especially the southern part, but enough remains to remind us of what once was, and could be again. Among American cities I’ve been to, only parts of Boston and small sections of Lower Manhattan can rival the European feel of downtown Albany.

downtown

Downtown Albany. Observe grid.

 

My favorite block for illustrating this is the north side of downtown’s main commercial drag, Pearl Street, between Steuben and Columbia:

3) Room to grow

The idea of mass gentrification and high demand for urban spaces hasn’t quite reached Upstate New York yet. Albany was home to around 135,000 people at its peak; it is now around 97,000. There are plenty of open spaces and former industrial areas open for development. Albany will inevitably rebound somewhat from its long doldrums, and it would be a shame to see displacement of the city’s long-time lower-income inhabitants when that occurs. There’s no reason for it, and there is plenty of room for the city to grow before anyone gets displaced. The city has been actively trying to encourage residential conversions downtown, an approach that is starting to take hold, and which I think is a hugely positive development.

4) Innovative and above-average regional transit system

Growing with New Haven’s sclerotic bus system, I have been pleasantly surprised by the levels of service provided by the Capital District Transportation Authority. The key routes run every 10-15 minutes throughout the day; not great, but pretty good for a midsize city. There’s a decent limited-stop bus service linking Albany and Schenectady along the key Route 5 corridor, with plans in the works for two more that would link Albany to the university and to Troy; it falls short of true BRT, but it’s a major improvement on all-local service.

CDTA's planned 40 miles of limited-stop service

CDTA’s planned 40 miles of limited-stop service

CDTA still only recovers about a quarter of costs through the farebox, and its on-time performance is just now reaching the 70% range (though improving rapidly!) But it is–from everything I’ve seen–a very responsive and thoughtful agency whose performance is generally dragged down by its mandate to provide region-wide services rather than focusing on productive urban routes.

5) Stable economy

One benefit of being the state capital is that Albany has had a much more stable economic experience than many of the other cities in Upstate New York. Albany never developed the industrial base that Buffalo and Rochester did, but has also been spared the traumatic experience of deindustrialization.  Government expands and contracts, but New York State’s is huge, and provides a very strong regional economic base. Albany’s economy has traditionally lacked the dynamism characteristic of innovative economies, but in the age of Late Capitalism, is that such a bad thing?

6) Out-of-class cultural resources

I’ve already covered Albany’s deep history. But the city is, largely, thanks to state government, home to various museums and performance venues that provide a cultural experience more typical of a much larger city. Among others, The Egg brings in nationally-prominent acts.

The only building on the Plaza not primarily clad in marble, for obvious reasons.

The only building on the Plaza not primarily clad in marble, for obvious reasons.

7) Fantastic natural setting

Albany sits on the cusp of not one but several broader regions with spectacular natural traits. There are, well and truly, few parts of the country better and more beautiful than the Hudson Valley. Back in college I used to buy produce from Samascott Orchards‘ stand at the Columbia farmers’ market; now I live half an hour from the actual orchards, and have had the pleasure of picking tomatoes and other produce there myself.

Caprese salad, with pick-your-own tomatoes from Samascott Orchards, home-grown basil, and fresh mozzarella from Bennington, VT.

A reminder of summer: Caprese salad, with pick-your-own tomatoes from Samascott Orchards, home-grown basil, and fresh mozzarella from Bennington, VT.

 

Hudson River Valley. West Point (US Military Academy) visible

Hudson River Valley. West Point (US Military Academy) visible

Albany is also just an hour or so from the Adirondacks–a wilderness so special protections are written into the New York constitution–and the touristy Lake George region.

8) Relationship with other cities in Capital District

Albany is only one of three primary cities in the Capital District (a name with no legal meaning that has nonetheless acquired some popularity). It’s the largest; Schenectady checks in around 55,000 and Troy around 60,000. Each city has its own brand and image. Schenectady is the struggling post-industrial city, divested from by ALCO, GE and other major employers (though it did just get a casino!). Troy, once a center of clothes manufacturing (among other things), has been on the rebound as an arty, dense river city in recent years, though it’s still grappling with a dysfunctional political tradition (and, if anything, Troy has even better architecture than Albany).

The one-time trolley system connecting Albany, Schenectady and Troy. via http://alloveralbany.com/archive/2013/04/05/riding-the-trolley----everywhere

The one-time trolley system connecting Albany, Schenectady and Troy. via http://alloveralbany.com/archive/2013/04/05/riding-the-trolley—-everywhere

The three cities play off of each other, creating a (mostly) friendly rivalry that provides different options for different living styles in the region. There’s also Saratoga Springs, a smaller (about 45,000) adjunct to the region that lends a distinctly upper-class, touristy flavor to the area. Economic ties between Saratoga Springs and the other cities are surprisingly weak, but it’s still considered part of the region, about a 45-minute drive away.

9) Close to NYC

Shocker: this will appear on both the list of assets and the list of challenges. Albany’s connectivity to NYC isn’t great–trains take between 2:20 and 2:40, buses longer, and driving longest of all if the traffic is bad–but it’s close enough for a weekend or even a day jaunt. Obviously Albany suffers by comparison to NYC in terms of resources, but it’s also close enough to make a decent, much more affordable alternative for creative types fleeing housing prices.

10) 20-minute city

Few trips around Albany take more than 20 minutes by car. Transit trips can be a little longer (the average transit commute in Albany County is around 32 minutes), but it takes me about 20 minutes to get to school, traveling most of the city’s length.  It’s a nice change from Chicago (where I moved from) or NYC.

11) Affordability

Albany is cheap, cheap, cheap (and Schenectady and Troy are cheaper still). The median single-family home sale price in the past year was $164,000, and even in Center Square, with its large, old, elegant rowhomes (many with basement rental units as well) and walkability, listings rarely exceed $300,000. Nor is Albany’s situation comparable to New Haven, which has a relatively anemic single-family sale market and an incredibly tight, competitive rental market. It’s harder to measure average rent, but I’d say 1-bedroom rents in Center Square–generally the most expensive rental area in the city–start around $700 for basement units and go up to around $1200 for really nice units. We pay $800 plus (very expensive, all-electric) utilities for a large, quirky 1-bedroom with in-unit washer and dryer on the third floor of a walkup on a nice corner.

12) Strong higher education sector

University at Albany (SUNY), the College of St. Rose, Albany Medical Center, and others, bring thousands of students into Albany every year; other regional institutions include Siena College (Latham), RPI (Troy), Union College (Schenectady), the Sage Colleges (Troy and Albany) and Skidmore (Saratoga Springs).

UAlbany's Uptown Campus. If the Empire State Plaza is Good Modernism, this is Bad Modernism.

UAlbany’s Uptown Campus. If the Empire State Plaza is Good Modernism, this is Bad Modernism.

SUNY made a poor decision in the 1960s to move its campuses out to remote, self-enclosed areas surrounded by acres of parking, and UAlbany is no exception. But many of the students still occupy the “student ghetto” in the Pine Hills neighborhood–for better or for worse–and contribute much to the city’s vibrancy, as well as its talent pipeline. The Cuomo administration has sought to capitalize on the region’s educational resources with various initiatives, and it seems a natural place to start in creating a more vibrant regional economy.

That’s it for now. Stay tuned for more…

Transit’s Native Habitat

Jake Anbinder had an interesting, challenging piece in The Week a couple of weeks ago about the question of whether now-lower gas prices would hurt the recent gains in transit ridership. He argued that while transit as a whole has made statistical gains over the last several years, in fact numbers have declined in many Sunbelt cities, even as some of them build out impressive new transit systems.  Jake wrote that “The key indicators for mass transit will come from those booming urban areas in the south and west of the country — cities in which people own cars, but where effective land use and transit planning have the potential to reduce the need for them.” In other words, the key test for transit in the 21st century is its ability to adapt–to conquer–an environment that’s entirely hostile to the factors that traditionally support it.

Jake’s piece got me thinking about the opposite question. If transit has been struggling in the sprawly Sunbelt, how has it been doing in the dense, walkable cities of the Northeast–cities that, though mangled by urban renewal, often retain the “good bones” that reflect the transit-dependent way they developed? In other words, if transit faces an uphill fight in its battle to seize new territories, how is it doing at defending the heartland? We all know that transit systems in major cities like Boston, New York, and Philadephia have seen a revival in recent years–in fact, Jake wrote that “The increase in New York’s subway ridership was actually larger than the net growth nationwide, as the latter statistic included decreases elsewhere in the country.” For me, the much more interesting test is how transit did in second-tier, midsize Northeastern cities–cities that are walkable and fairly dense, but much smaller and with much less traffic congestion than NYC or Boston, and that have little or no fixed-guideway transit infrastructure.

As such, I gathered up some of the same data Jake did–the American Public Transit Association‘s factbooks, covering ridership data from the years 2006-2012 (the data lags two years behind real time, so 2013 isn’t yet available). I looked into the ridership numbers from a number of transit systems in midsize Northeastern cities. Here are the results. I make no claim that this is comprehensive or that I chose systems to look at by any scientific standard–indeed, cities like Newark and Trenton are excluded in part because it’s hard to disentangle ridership on the various parts of the New Jersey Transit system. Apologies that the sheet is something of a mess; I’m keeping it open for editing when newer data becomes available. Trips are unlinked.

(you may find it easier to just look at the spreadsheet un-embedded here).

By and large, Northeastern transit has more than held its own. Of the 18 systems I looked at, only 3 lost ridership between 2006 and 2012. A few showed anemic growth, and a few made spectacular gains. Of course, we’d expect transit to gain ridership during a recession, but the growth has apparently continued even as the country slowly pulls itself out of recession (something I know to be true at least for the major systems in Upstate New York).

Here’s a crude visualization of the geography of gains and losses:

Northeast transit 2006-2012

Zoomed in on Southern New England:

southern new england transit 2006-2012

Across all 18 systems, the average growth in ridership was 11.06%–well above population growth or economic expansion (indeed, many of these cities are shrinking). To be fair, much of the additional ridership is tied up in Rochester’s 44% gain (I have no idea what happened there!), but many of the other areas more than held their own. The three metros that lost ridership–Manchester, Binghamton, and Scranton–seem to suffer from a combination of suffering economies and cultural conservatism.

Transit is still a difficult business in smaller and midsize cities. Smaller cities employ fewer of their own residents, so their geography of employment is less transit-friendly. Smaller metros are less likely to be able or willing to levy dedicated taxes or other funding streams. Weekend service is a dicey proposition financially. Smaller systems usually have lower farebox-recovery ratios than larger ones. And in general, discussions about transit tend to be dominated by bigger, flashier systems and infrastructure projects. In Connecticut, for example, the state has–justifiably–invested in bus rapid transit and better commuter and intercity rail, but has largely allowed the bus systems that feed them to deteriorate.

And yet, in many midsize Northeastern cities, transit has thrived in recent years. And in general, it’s done so without much support from state-level policymakers. Perhaps the most glaring example is right here in New York, where (among other abuses) Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2015 budget proposes putting $150 million into suburban park-and-rides on Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road,  while keeping Upstate transit operating assistance flat (as it has been for the last five years). Keep in mind, Upstate transit leaders are asking for a modest $25 million in operating assistance in the new budget–1/6 of the amount proposed for those park & rides. The doomsday appeals coming from Upstate transit agencies have been particularly colorful this year, with Syracuse threatening to cut late night service and all service on Sundays, and CDTA (Albany/Troy/Schenectady) saying the budget places its two planned BRT-lite routes at risk.

Upstate Transit 2006-2012

Ridership growth in Upstate New York, 2006-2012

Realistically, transit in Upstate New York and in these other cities will keep plugging right along. But as the extremely modest request for additional funds from Upstate transit agencies illustrates, the success midsize-city transit has found in recent years is fragile, and hinges upon (by transit standards) extremely small amounts of money. When it comes to bang-for-taxpayer-buck, there are few transportation investments that can make as big an impact for as small a cost as helping out transit agencies in cities that are naturally conducive to walkability and transit. How much would it cost New York State to provide enough operating assistance for all Upstate transit agencies to run their key routes every ten minutes throughout the day? Flashy, important projects like NYC’s Second Avenue Subway are great. But let’s not forget the unsung heroes of transit’s success story–the little agencies fighting for scraps and still showing some spunk.