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…

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4 thoughts on “Reflections on Albany, Part 1

  1. Pingback: A Lunch in Schenectady | Itinerant Urbanist

  2. Pingback: Reflections on Albany, Part 2–Challenges and Problems | Itinerant Urbanist

  3. Hi D:

    Your two-part piece concerning ALB came to me from a good friend & former AA classmate, Ted Bouloukos.

    I grew up in ALB & all the while thought (naively) I would make it my permanent home. My parents & grandparents lived & had their own businesses there too, during what could arguably be described as its Golden Years in the 19th & 20th C. So, I know well the shoes in which you’re walking as an ALB observer.

    I hesitate in contacting you because my appraisal is so sour & negative. I have to squint very hard to find even the remotest light at the end of the tunnel. Indeed the only light I can find is virtual rather than real, knowing of the nature of business cycles where peaks & troughs sow the seeds of their own reversal & ultimately correct themselves.

    In my humble opinion you quite correctly put your finger on the reason why ALB has not yet corrected: Apathy. That and a host of other every disappointing reasons.

    I have resigned myself to the notion that if & when the correction ever comes that I will have long been six feet under.

    But that hasn’t stopped me from watching, hoping & even praying that I’m wrong. As you know, cycles have indicators — the lead, lag or can be coincident. The single most important indicator that would convince me a turnaround is underway would be an announcement by a national grocer of plans to build a grocery store in downtown ALB.

    I’m not holding my breadth.

    Regards,
    Francis Farrell
    AA 1976

  4. Pingback: Albany has a Choice to Make | Itinerant Urbanist

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