A Walk in the Neighborhood and Urban Albany

It’s drop-dead gorgeous out today, and Wednesday is my day off of classes, so it was time for a walk around the neighborhood. Since the sun is out (finally) I figured now would be a good time to showcase Albany a little bit and comment on some of the (positive and negative) aspects of urban design, planning, and urbanism in the downtown area. All pictures are taken within a mile of my apartment.

Tree budding, Hudson Ave. just east of Lark

Tree budding, Hudson Ave. just east of Lark

One of the the surprising things about Albany is that some of the monumental architecture can make it feel like a much bigger city than it really is (~97,000 people, down from a high of 135,000). Here the towers of the Empire State Plaza–the larger one, the Corning Tower, is 42 stories, and the Agency Buildings are about 20 stories shorter–pop up over the mid-rise apartment buildings occupying the valuable real estate adjacent to Washington Park as we look east down Hudson Avenue. The towers are cleverly tucked into the slope down to the Hudson so that their full height isn’t apparent, but they do put the low-rise Center Square neighborhood into perspective.


Olmstedian (though not designed by Olmsted himself) Washington Park is one of the true joys of living in downtown Albany. Here, the sun shines over the lake that is one of the park’s central features, and over the odd-duck Lake House (now mainly used as a theater), one of a very few Spanish Revival-styled buildings in the area.





Who says modern builders can’t imitate historic styles? I don’t usually walk on the block of Madison between New Scotland and Robin, so while scooting by on the bus I’ve never actually noticed that this townhouse is a relatively recent fake:


Albany has several other infill projects that are well-done imitations of historic styles; it’s something that the city does well. If that offers hope, turning the corner offers despair:


This was really the point of my walk today. The Park South Urban Renewal Plan–yes, we still use that phrase here in Albany–driven by Albany Medical Center has (just since I moved here less than two years ago!) wiped out two whole blocks of homes to put up a new mixed-use development (but mainly just parking). Just months ago, this view would have looked like this:

robin dana

The plans certainly aren’t the worst, but they’re certainly not the most urban-feeling plans either. What makes the project–the beneficiary of state tax credits–particularly outrageous is that the enormous, 800-1000 car garage (the exact size seems to keep changing) you can see under construction in the picture above is completely unnecessary.

More garage, in case you weren't convinced enough of the scale.

More garage, in case you weren’t convinced enough of the scale.

Somehow, a single daffodil survives between concrete, construction materials, and insulation material that's been left out. It's almost TOO #$@#$ poetic.

Somehow, a single daffodil survives between concrete, construction materials, and insulation material that’s been left out. It’s almost TOO #$@#$ poetic.


No seriously, it's really huge.

No seriously, it’s really huge.

What was here before clearance? Nothing particularly special, a few low-rise middle-class homes:

Looking west on Dana about halfway between New Scotland and Robin

Looking west on Dana about halfway between New Scotland and Robin

The Park South neighborhood has been in a rut for a while; many of the houses, including the ones that have survived the renewal project, are in poor shape, and this was never an upper-class neighborhood to begin with. That being said, AMC owns much of the real estate in the area and has been patiently awaiting its opportunity at redevelopment. And major institutions, for-profit or not, that hold on to large swaths of land for a promise of future development over long periods of time are virtually never good stewards; if you haven’t read my early post on Chicago’s The Valley neighborhood, go do so. Granted, it’s an extreme example, but it’s illustrative of the dangers of long-term planning for megablock development.

We’ll close the tour with a picture of something more hopeful, a new mixed-use building (retail on the first floor and apartments above) on the corner of Lark, Delaware, and Madison.


I could’ve gone with two or three more stories of apartments on top, but it’s certainly nothing to sniff at…and there’s no added parking! (the building will share with the condoized historic police station next door on Madison)

Amazing how many issues come up on a brief (1.5 miles total) stroll around the neighborhood sometimes.

Existing Parking Under-Utilized? Add More! The Story of Albany’s Park South Redevelopment

A couple of months ago I wrote a post about the parking crater that dominates the area around Albany Medical Center. Blaming the sacrifice of so much potentially valuable urban land to parking lots, I wrote a paragraph I’m now quite proud of:

What makes the Park South project even more galling is the presence of so much other essentially empty land around AMC and its sister institutions. If anyone were able to unite land-use planning for all of the parcels now used as parking, AMC could avoid ripping out old buildings in Park South and share with the other institutions an enormous parking structure (if it’s even needed!) that’s nowhere near residential areas. Instead, it appears that the city has declined to force the various institutions in the area to cooperate, and instead allowed institutionally individualized, and therefore wasteful, land-use plans to go into action.

I went on to argue that Albany should be encouraging redevelopment of those vast parking lots as a real, walkable urban neighborhood. I stand by that assertion, but in this post I want to focus more on the questions I raised in the above paragraph. The impetus is the release of a City of Albany-commissioned report on parking and transportation demand management (PTDM) in the area, focusing in particular on Albany Med’s plans for urban-renewing a large swath of the adjacent Park South neighborhood.

Let’s begin with the question of whether the planned Park South garage (now planned for almost 1,000 spaces) is even necessary. Without saying so explicitly, report contractors Nelson/Nygaard, a prominent planning and transportation consulting firm, say pretty firmly that the demand just doesn’t exist. Looking at the area within five minute’s walking time of the proposed project area, the consultants measured existing parking capacity and utilization thus:

PTDM Report, p. 9

PTDM Report, p. 9

Even at the peak time of 11:00 AM, there were more than 1,500 empty spaces within a 5-minute walk of the Park South project area. And that’s not including the AMC-owned “satellite” lots, which are located less than a ten-minute walk away (there’s also a shuttle bus). Those hold almost another 1,500 cars, and, according to the TDM report, always have excess capacity. As for added demand from the new office and residential buildings proposed for the Park South project, even the most conservative assumptions, derived from the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE)’s suburban-style standards, assume at most 822 new spaces would be needed (and remember, the developer and AMC are planning nearly 1,000).

The clear implication is that if one looks at the AMC/Park South neighborhood as a whole, rather than just considering the institutional resources and perceived needs of AMC itself, the added parking from a massive new garage in the Park South project would be entirely unnecessary; any added parking demand could be easily satisfied by existing excess capacity. Even if, as predicted by ITE guidelines, 822 more cars magically materialized as a result of the Park South development at 11 AM every morning, parking occupancy in the area would still be just 88%–within industry accepted standards of 85-90%. If the satellite lots are included (as they should be), the figure would be even lower, though exact numbers seem unavailable. Of course, if proper measures are taken, new demand won’t come close to 822 new cars every day, according to Nelson/Nygaard’s report: “If the development has a TDM program (as recommended below), the parking demand would be about 515 parking spaces (plus valet), which would translate to a supply of about 640 spaces – about 280 less than proposed. This assumes a 20% internal capture rate and a 15% TDM program reduction.” These smaller numbers, obviously, would be even more easily accommodated by existing parking in the area.

Alas, looking at the AMC area as a whole, rather than as atomized parts, has clearly long been the bane of Albany’s land-use and parking policy. In my previous blog post, I used a capture of a segment from Albany’s handy-dandy institutional land-use ownership map to demonstrate the fragmentation of land ownership, and therefore coordination, in the area:

AMC ownership

Ouch, right? Predictably (via the TDM report), this fragmentation leads to total lack of coordination in parking, with different parking lots in the area owned by several different institutions, and no attempts at cooperation:


When the companies involved in the redevelopment project assert that the project is infeasible without adding the garage, they’re considering the issue only from the perspective of the resources available to AMC, not to the area as a whole. And that’s the kind of mistake that can be disastrous for a city.

The policy implications of the TDM study, then, are pretty darn clear. When neighborhood context (and not the kind that implies “everything in the neighborhood must look alike”) is taken into account, there is more than enough parking supply in the neighborhood to meet peak current and any expected future demand, even if the Park South project is fully built out. The massive parking garage planned for Myrtle Avenue is completely unnecessary, and reflects the worst pathologies of midcentury American urban design: atomized institutional self-interest, accommodation of perceived rather than actual parking demand, no attempts to conceive of alternative ways of accommodating growth in transportation demand.

That being said, “don’t build the garage” isn’t a full policy response.

The primary challenge to parking management in the AMC area is the fragmentation of land-use policy and lack of cooperation between the area’s resident institutions. The City of Albany should establish a commission or task force to regulate transportation management in the area, with representatives from each of the major institutions in the area (AMC, CDPC, the VA Hospital, Sage College, Albany Law—I’m sure I’m missing some), the city planning department, and neighborhood residents. This body should be given power over (if not actual ownership of) ALL of the parking resources in the area, with a mandate to streamline and unify management and control.

The savings from not building the garage stand to be considerable, and should be able to fund a kick-ass TDM program for years to come. At national average costs of around $15,000/space, the cost for the proposed parking garage is probably approaching $15 million, a significant chunk of the overall $110 million project cost. The TDM study mentions that the developers and AMC have agreed to a $70,000/year Memorandum of Understanding with local transit authority CDTA, with one possible way of spending that money being for the agency to operate 2 additional buses on Route 13 (the primary route serving the hospital) at peak hours, enough to increase frequency significantly. Imagine what CDTA could do with payments of, say, half a million dollars a year to increase service on all of the routes serving Park South and AMC (see below for more transit analysis). Devoting some of the costs that could be saved by canceling or considerably reducing the size of the garage to transit and other alternative modes seems like a win for everyone.

That the Park South project has gone as far as it has without examination of these fundamental points about parking and transportation demand is a signal of the kind of desperation that economically depressed, fiscally desperate cities can sometimes show. Albany can do better. It’s time to stop wasting valuable taxable land and inviting more cars into Albany.

A Few Additional Points

  • The report makes at least one assumption that is likely to be politically controversial: it counts on-street parking spots on many streets in Park South that are currently mandated for residential permit parking as available resources. Given that the biggest parking problems residential neighborhoods in downtown Albany currently face are at night, and the vast majority of AMC demand seems to be gone by 4 PM, one imagines that residents in the area might be willing to trade their permit protections for the garage not being built, thus adding the spaces on their streets to the overall supply. Alternatively, AMC and the city could work out a deal where AMC workers could pay for on-street permit passes; many small businesses in the adjacent Center Square neighborhood own parking permits, and the point of Albany’s permit parking program is to keep out state workers in the Empire State Plaza anyhow.
  • The report mentions that as of 2008, only 2% of AMC employees took transit to work, a shockingly low number for a medical center in an urban area (though that number has probably gone up since the establishment of Route 100, connecting the city’s poor South End to AMC). Truth be told, AMC isn’t in the best location for transit; it’s around a mile from the city’s biggest transit hub near the corner of Lark and Central, just far enough to be inconvenient.  The report recommends re-routing the only “trunk” route (it still doesn’t run very frequently) serving the area, the 13, away from Holland Avenue to serve all of New Scotland; this seems like a good idea. Increasing the frequency of the #114, which currently runs twice an hour, and straightening it out so it runs down the length of Western and Madison seems like a good idea as well. According to the map (by zip code) provided in the report, which local blog-of-record All Over Albany correctly emphasized as one of the most interesting parts of the entire report, the heaviest concentrations of AMC employees are in neighborhoods centered on Western Avenue, which currently does not have an all-day direct bus link to AMC; re-routing the 114 from Washington to Western would provide this link.  Via Park South councilwoman Leah Golby, who has doggedly fought for transparency and good urbanism in the redevelopment process, it appears that AMC is preparing to enter into a Universal Access Agreement with the CDTA, which was also one of the report’s recommendations; that’s a good first step.
  • Report consultants Nelson/Nygaard also call out AMC for, essentially, not providing remotely adequate facilities for employees biking to work. That seems like a no-brainer, but it’s sadly typical of the unthinking attitude most Albany institutions seem to take towards biking (and I say this as someone who has never learned to ride a bike).  AMC is just two blocks from Albany’s first proposed road diet, which would provide the city’s first real bike lanes; it’s an obvious connection.
  • As I said on Twitter, Nelson/Nygaard deserve huge props for an unstinting, well-researched, and above all honest study, as do the members of the Albany Common Council who pushed for it. At a certain point, Albany has to start looking out for itself rather than submitting to the (often 40 years out of date) viewpoints of the institutions that call the city home. Hopefully—just maybe–this is a turning point.

Albany’s Unique Parking Crater

Streetsblog’s 2014 Parking Madness challenge, documenting the ways in which American cities have sacrificed the vitality and financial viability of their downtowns to the gods of Suburbanites Driving In, concluded recently with Rochester, NY being named grand champion. That got me to thinking about one of the more remarkable aspects of my own Upstate city, Albany–that its biggest parking crater (the name given by urbanists to formerly vibrant urban landscapes eviscerated by the unquenchable desire for parking) isn’t downtown.

Oh, Downtown Albany has a parking crater alright, and it’s a doozy:

The roughly triangular building at the lower right hand side of the crater is the city’s armpit, its depressing Greyhound station. I-787 runs along the eastern edge of the picture, and the ill-fated and entirely unnecessary South Mall Arterial runs across the lower part of the picture.  The landscape may be bleak, but at least some of this land is slated to become part of Albany’s new convention center (a, shall we say, interesting project in its own right). And sadly, downtown parking craters are part of American life, for now at least.

One parking crater, though, isn’t enough for Albany. A couple of miles away from downtown, in an area labeled on city maps as “University Heights,” the land around a number of medical and educational institutions has been turned into a vast sea of concrete and metal whose scale can only be appreciated by zooming out:

Unlike the typical downtown parking crater, to the best of my ability to tell this one never wiped out a gridded streetscape. Owned by Albany Medical Center, Albany Law School, the state and federal governments (there’s a VA hospital and at least one state agency building), Sage College, and various other institutions, as far as I know the land simply remained unoccupied as the city developed around it until the various institutions were built in their present forms from the 1950s onwards. Via @albanymuskrat, the area once looked like this:

Embedded image permalink


The city’s institutional land-ownership map provides a sense of the complexity of ownership in the area:

AMC ownership


Though a coherent region within the city, the area is owned by a variety of nonprofit institutions with little responsibility to the city itself. Albany Medical Center, the only Tier 1 trauma center between New York City and Montreal (Albany has a lot of “The only X between New York and Montreal”), is the dominant institution, and it brings hordes of drivers from the suburbs onto city streets every day. AMC’s property holdings have also advanced into the city fabric, resulting in an old-style urban renewal plan for several square blocks of the Park South neighborhood just to the north. Yes, we’re talking “rip out dozens of old buildings and replace with new ones, including a huge garage.” I mean, ok, the proposed buildings look kinda New Urbanist, but I thought we weren’t doing that kind of shit anymore.

What makes the Park South project even more galling is the presence of so much other essentially empty land around AMC and its sister institutions. If anyone were able to unite land-use planning for all of the parcels now used as parking, AMC could avoid ripping out old buildings in Park South and share with the other institutions an enormous parking structure (if it’s even needed!) that’s nowhere near residential areas. Instead, it appears that the city has declined to force the various institutions in the area to cooperate, and instead allowed institutionally individualized, and therefore wasteful, land-use plans to go into action.

But let’s think bigger than that. Imagine if instead of being a single-use, dead-at-night parking wasteland, this area around some of Albany’s most vital and vibrant institutions could be transformed into a mixed-use real neighborhood? The opportunity exists. Let’s introduce a street grid into the area. Let’s turn some of those parking lots into apartments and condos, so that the doctors and nurses and support workers who work at AMC can roll out of bed and stroll to work and don’t clog city streets with their cars. Let’s make a real, productive, neighborhood, with taxpaying businesses and citizens, in a city that desperately needs it. Let’s integrate the institutions of University Heights into the neighborhood framework around it, as Pittsburgh has managed to do even as the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center became the region’s dominant economic force:

Albany doesn’t need any parking craters. It certainly doesn’t need two. We can do better.