More Transit in the Capital District: Appearance on Capital Green Scene, 9/3/2016

Since I had so much fun the first time, I recorded a second appearance on Capital Green Scene  on August 26th, to air over Labor Day Weekend. Always fun to talk transit (and falling-down buildings) with Bill Helmer and Brian Nearing on WVCR 88.7 FM. Here are the recordings!

Part 1

Part 2

 

 

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Trolleys and Rail in the Capital District: Interview with Capital Green Scene on WVCR, 7/2/2016

At the beginning of July I was invited to do my first radio spot, appearing on the local radio show Capital Green Scene (WVCR 88.3 FM, Siena College’s station) to talk about transit and transportation in the Capital Region. We recorded the show on July 1st and it aired July 2nd, but I’ve only just now gotten the audio files, so here they are. The interview is in two segments, embedded here separately. I had a blast doing this; hosts Bill Helmer and Brian Nearing, who found me after a few of my articles on All Over Albany intrigued them,  are great guys who ask really interesting questions.

Watch for a new segment with me on Capital Green Scene appearing on Labor Day Weekend as well…

Part 1

 

Part 2

Albany has a Choice to Make

Last week I wrote that Upstate New York needs to fundamentally change it development paradigm before it can demand more infrastructure funding. But choices about how to plan and develop aren’t just (or even primarily) a regional choice; they are, at their core, local. And at a local level, the choices are if anything even more stark.

One of my favorite planning-related books of recent years, for its challenging argument if not for my agreement with every aspect–is Chris Leinberger’s The Option of UrbanismHis argument is that given market and demographic trends, urbanism–a pro-urban agenda favoring urban growth, urban amenities, and new paradigms of transportation–is not only again viable in America, but the way of the future. While Leinberger’s case may be overstated–and his emphasis on market forces will certainly turn some off–the framing about cities and stakeholders again having the ability to make an active choice for urbanism, after 60 years of pro-suburban policy, is a useful one. And Albany is facing a critical moment where it must choose whether to make that choice.

Consider these recent cases:

Bus Stop NIMBYism

CDTA, the local transit authority, wants to consolidate several bus stops in the vicinity of the intersection of Lark and Washington in Albany, one of the system’s major hubs. The particulars of the plan are somewhat complicated and I can’t find CDTA’s graphics about it, but the gist is that it would consolidate the four stops on the corner of Lark and Washington into one mid-block stop on Washington between Lark and Dove, and pull in the current local stop at Dove as well. This would alleviate several complex situations that are dangerous to pedestrians and drivers alike. It would also allow CDTA’s #12 bus–one of the system’s busiest, running from downtown to SUNY and Crossgates Mall–to straighten out a kink in its route caused by the fact that buses can’t make a stop at the corner of Lark and Washington and then get back into the left lane to continue straight on Washington as it splits from Central Avenue. The stop can’t be moved any further west because it would create crazy congestion in the intersection, or east because buses would back up at the existing express and local stop at Hawk, just one block down.

The plan has sparked vicious NIMBY opposition–organized around a Change.org petition–led by the owners of the Iron Gate Cafe, outside of whose front door the new stop would be located. The opposition has also been given a boost by usually responsible Times Union columnist Chris Churchill, who I do think would typically recoil at the classist and racist rhetoric to which the opposition has predictably devolved (see below). To their credit, the Iron Gate Cafe owners have used relatively responsible rhetoric, affirming their belief in CDTA as a system, and limiting their complaints to the stop’s location right outside their door. Others, however, have predictably not been as responsible, as Martin Daley documented at a meeting last night that was publicly promoted by the NIMBY coalition, but not by anyone else (or believe me, I would have been there):

Of course, this kind of NIMBYish reaction happens everywhere. What’s particularly galling about this situation is that the owners of Iron Gate Cafe–who claim to value CDTA service–and their supporters haven’t even considered the possibility that government suddenly putting hundreds of riders per day on their doorstep might lead to increased business. It’s the kind of knee-jerk anti-urban attitude typically adopted by suburban NIMBYs, right there in the heart of the densest, most urban part of Albany. It’s a paradigm in which only parking and easy accessibility by car can lead to business–and the only people who ride the bus are the ones who can’t afford to eat at the moderately nice Iron Gate. It is, to say the least, a profoundly anti-urban attitude that doesn’t even attempt to understand a mode of being aside from that of the suburban paradigm. Aside from the issue at hand–to which a compromise solution may be possible–this anti-urban attitude is completely at odds with Albany’s ability to be, to understand itself as, a real city. 

Protected Bike Lanes? 

For the past several years Albany has been planning a road diet on Madison Avenue, one of the city’s primary east-west arterials. A grassroots group, the Albany Protected Bike Lane Coalition, has been vocally advocating for the inclusion of protected lanes in the final configuration of the road diet, which is to be decided upon in the coming weeks or months. Despite a thorough report, including a parking census, but the PBL Coalition, all indications are that the city is not going to include protected lanes in the final plan, primarily over parking concerns (advocates suspect stated concerns about the cost of plowing in the winter are largely a smokescreen).

Parking Galore

Albany has a lot of parking. It has so much, in fact, that even where perceived shortages exist, it’s largely because parking hasn’t been regulated well and no central organizing system exists. When Albany Med wanted to rip out two whole blocks of homes and replace them (in part) with a massive parking garage, the city commissioned a report on parking in the area from Nelson/Nygaard–and then meekly scrubbed the report from the city website when it found that the garage was unnecessary and Albany Med made it clear they were going to go ahead anyhow.

And yet–and yet! Albany continues down a path of not only not recognizing the existing oversupply of parking, but allowing even more. Capitalize Albany, the city’s downtown business development group, recently commissioned a parking study–not an access study by all modes as is best planning practice, but a parking study–that, when read honestly, basically confirmed the existence of oversupply in the downtown area at almost all times, yet called for more.

SUNY Polytechnic, the newest in Governor Cuomo’s long list of throw-gum-at-the-economic-development-wall-and-hope-it-sticks public-private partnerships, is planning three stories of student housing in downtown Albany–and three stories of parking to go with. The kicker? The downtown SUNY Poly campus is to be centered on the city’s old Union Station.

Union Station, 1948  Albany NY 1940s

Albany Union Station then, from the Albany Flickr group

albany union station 1

And now, with structured parking out back, on Bing Maps.

Aside from the absurdity of providing structured parking intended (at least partially) for students in the city’s downtown, which has literally acres of unused parking at night, Albany’s obsession with parking has serious costs. Prioritizing parking over bus stops, or housing, or other potential land uses, devalues urban land, treating it as nothing more than a place for suburban drivers to park their private property. And it sends the message that the city has nothing more valuable to do with itself than provide a convenient (“user-friendly,” as one suburban troll once told me it should be on Twitter) experience for those who don’t live there.

Albany at the tipping point

There are a lot of good things going on in Albany. Construction of residential units is accelerating in the long-depopulated downtown. The local MPO is finally studying removing the eyesore that is the waterfront I-787 freeway. I kvetch a lot, but there are a lot of really lovely things about living here.

At the same time, in over two years of living here, it’s become increasingly clear that Albany is facing a tipping point in terms of its ability to be a city. The city is facing a serious budget crisis, precipitated in no small part by the vast amount of city land taken entirely or mostly off the tax rolls because of institutional use (colleges, hospitals, state offices) or because it’s culturally believed to be valueless (all that parking). All Over Albany recently asked why people in this region are so determinedly pessimistic about everything.  For the city itself, I think, a lot of that has to do with the city’s inability to believe in itself as such. Decades of thinking about Albany’s most urban areas as little more than a destination for car-bound commuters have left the city without a self-image as an urban place–and without that self-image, Albany is left adrift in policy and purpose, unable to plow a clear path forward.

The Choice, or Not

I began this piece by framing Albany as facing the choice to adopt what Chris Leinberger calls the “option” of urbanism. But perhaps that’s not quite the right framework. The way I see it–and, admittedly, I’m an outsider, but one with the valuable perspective of having lived in numerous different places–Albany doesn’t really have that much of a choice. 60 years of being squashed by the suburban attitude, some of it self-adopted, has left the city constantly facing financial crisis, with its downtown just now recovering from being wiped out,  and with an entrenched classist, racist mentality that prevents urbanist improvements from getting done. Like many American cities, Albany’s tried suburbanism, and like most other places, it has failed. The option, such as it ever was, is no longer extant. It’s time for urbanism.

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.

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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.

The Second and Third Lives of Elite Urban Neighborhoods

Gentrification, of course, is all over the news. We hear about it all the time. We’ve also heard a lot about how poverty is a bigger problem for most American cities than gentrification. This latter point is undoubtedly true. But based on my experience living in and studying a couple of midsize American cities, I want to propose a middle ground–that what might otherwise be called “gentrification” in higher-demand markets in fact follows a somewhat different pattern in these cities.

Last week a friend sent me a link to this interesting documentary produced by Albany’s PBS station, WMHT. Though only aired recently, the footage chronicles changes that took place on the block of Lancaster Street between Dove and Swan (“Lower Lancaster” in the film’s parlance) almost 35 years ago, in 1980-81, as filmed by a cameraman who lived on the block.  The Empire State Plaza—the massive, anti-urban state office campus imposed on Albany by Nelson Rockefeller—had opened at the bottom of the block only a decade before, and its arrival had brought a wave of professional-class urban pioneers (as they repeatedly call themselves) into what had been a somewhat rundown area. The word “gentrification” gets thrown around a lot in the documentary footage, and there’s a lot of talk about the numerous lower-income tenants on the block who were then in the process of being displaced by newcomers who bought up buildings, renovated them, and rented them back out at higher price points.

But is what we see in the WMHT film really what we today call “gentrification”? Clearly, the process in action on Lower Lancaster in the film involves displacement of poorer renters—some, though by no means all in this case, minorities—by wealthier (though not by any means elite), whiter new residents who mainly own their own homes.  But it’s also worth considering the differences between the occurrences on Lower Lancaster and the typical American narrative about gentrification.

The first thing to understand is the Center Square—a name acquired by the area relatively recently, in the postwar era—has long been one of the “elite” residential neighborhoods in Albany. The block of Lancaster in question is only two blocks from Washington Park, around which clustered the toniest homes in Albany (a truly spectacular architectural legacy to this day).  The “Lower Lancaster” block itself is home to a number of gorgeous 2-3 story rowhouses, as well as the 1885 Romanesque masterpiece Wilborn Temple (built as Temple Beth Emeth), which in its day attracted the wealthiest of Albany’s German-Jewish population to the block.  All that is to say that while the area around Lark Street had gone somewhat downhill by the 1930s, with many buildings being converted to downscale rooming houses, it still retained vestiges of its elite past, both socially and architecturally.

Beautifully restored woodwork on the door of a home on Lancaster Street. Lower of two plaques at left is a federal historic designation.

Beautifully restored woodwork on the door of a home on Lancaster Street. Lower of two plaques at left is a federal historic designation.

And it was that heritage more than anything else that made the neighborhood ripe for “settlement” by professional-class types in the years after the South Mall (the original working name for the Empire State Plaza) opened. These people were attracted not solely by the proximity to the Plaza—indeed, many of them were, and continue to be, turned off by its looming presence—but by the neighborhood’s rich cultural heritage and incredible housing stock.

The Empire State Plaza looms at the bottom of the "Lower Lancaster" block.

The Empire State Plaza looms at the bottom of the “Lower Lancaster” block.

The construction of the South Mall may have depressed housing prices in the next-door blocks enough to make the risk of urban pioneering worth it, but people moved into the neighborhood because they saw a potential for its return to, if not quite the same blue-blood elite status, something similar. Many of the new homeowners and urban pioneers would form the nucleus of the neighborhood associations and activist groups that were able to stop the state’s plans for an amazingly destructive freeway through the heart of the neighborhood.

The story of Center Square—and of that block on Lancaster—isn’t a story of a working-class neighborhood ripped apart and transformed by rapacious, profit-driven developers and wealthy outsiders. It’s the story of a neighborhood that, for better or for worse, experienced an abnormal decline in status—helped along, as in many other places, by the government’s intentional, artificial depression of urban land values—in the immediate prewar and postwar decades, and that many people labored to return to something approaching its peak status in the 1970s and ‘80s. In Center Square, it was the use of luxury housing stock by the poor, not its reclamation by the middle class, that represented an exception to the historical rule.

There was, of course, incredible loss experienced in the process of gentrification.  The WMHT documentary makes clear the fear of lower-income residents unsure of their next move. And the documentary preserves some truly cringeworthy moments from the gentrifiers, who proudly proclaim themselves “urban pioneers” (like the “pioneers” of the West, they were, of course, moving into land that was already occupied) and tell soon-to-be evicted residents that “it’s not up to me” and “it’s just economics.” Perhaps 30 years of exposure has taught gentrifying developers to be a little more careful around cameras, but the words here can be quite the jarring reminder of the callousness shown by many early gentrifiers.

Nor, I believe, is Center Square’s experience of gentrification as renaissance rather than transformation unique. Indeed, I believe it might be better labeled part of a pattern of similar occurrences in smaller American cities. Certainly the two other neighborhoods in Albany that might be identified as “gentrified” in recent decades—Ten Broeck Triangle and the Mansion District—fit the same general pattern of being once-elite neighborhoods marked by outstanding housing stock. Neither neighborhood has been as thoroughly gentrified as Center Square, though neither (especially the Mansion District, despite its name) was as thoroughly identified with Albany’s upper crust as the area near Washington Park. Indeed, it is possible that the difference between the “gentrification” of Ten Broeck Triangle and the definite non-gentrification of neighboring Arbor Hill (despite the APA’s best efforts) is largely attributable to historic perceptions that Ten Broeck was the wealthier, more outstanding area.

Since New Haven—a city of mostly similar size, age, and composition–seems to be my most frequent muse for comparisons to Albany, let’s see if the pattern holds there as well. The truth is that for the most part New Haven’s neighborhoods have stayed fairly consistent in their demographic makeup since the disastrous postwar and urban-renewal era.

I’d say that if two New Haven neighborhoods can be identified as “gentrified” they would be the downtown-adjacent (as are Center Square, Ten Broeck Triangle, and the Mansion District) East Rock and Wooster Square. East Rock has always been one of the elite parts of the cities, long home to Yale professors; it is now a “grad ghetto” with a distinctly yuppie feel and a tight rental market by the standards of midsize cities. Like the rest of New Haven, East Rock had its struggles during the postwar era, but it never quite hit the depths of the Albany neighborhoods.

Wooster Square might be a more interesting case.  Originally adjacent to the city’s bustling docks (and since cut off from the water by land reclamation and a massive freeway interchange), it had a short run as a haven for the city’s rich merchants, which gave it an architectural legacy somewhat comparable to those of the Albany neighborhoods. Though some wealthier families continued to live in the area, it always had a mixed class makeup, and fairly quickly became associated with New Haven’s famous Italian community and their distinctive style of pizza. Thus Wooster Square’s primary identification in the minds of New Haveners is as a working-class Italian enclave, but it still holds the architectural and perhaps cultural legacy of its earlier upper-crust residents. Regardless, Wooster Square has seen considerable new apartment construction in recent years, with units being listed for relatively high prices—definitely what the typical American narrative would label “gentrification.”

Diagram of high-status neighborhoods in New Haven in 1909, from Douglas Rae's "City". East Rock at top; Dwight at left. Wooster Square had already declined.

Diagram of high-status neighborhoods in New Haven in 1913, from Douglas Rae’s City. East Rock at top; Dwight at left. Wooster Square had already declined.

Neither East Rock nor Wooster Square follows the pattern I laid out as neatly as do the “gentrified” neighborhoods of Albany, but they’re not that far off. The fate of the Dwight neighborhood directly west of Yale University will be a fascinating test case; formerly one of New Haven’s wealthier neighborhoods, it experienced a redlining-induced slide in the postwar years from which it has never really recovered. Dwight is showing a few signs of gentrification, sparking considerable fear among residents, but whether that process will take off has yet to be determined.

What does it mean, then, that many of the cases of “gentrification” in midsize cities are in fact less a transformation of a neighborhood into something it’s never been than a revival of its former identity? I think it helps clarify a point I’ve had trouble putting into concise words for a long time, but that others have certainly talked about: American discourse—especially on the Left–has been using the word “gentrification” to talk about at least two separate, though related, processes.

Process 1 is the pattern where ridiculously high demand for housing—mainly experienced in larger cities—pushes wealthier, whiter professionals into areas that have always, or virtually always, been lower-middle or working-class. The names of such cases, I’m sure, are familiar to anyone who follows urban issues: Harlem, Bed-Stuy, Red Hook, The Mission, Somerville, Humboldt Park, Boyle Heights. These cases are indicative of a housing market that is way out of whack; certainly, the desires of hipster gentrifiers for gritty “authenticity” play a part, but for the most part these neighborhoods boast neither the best convenience (Red Hook doesn’t have a subway stop!) nor the most outstanding housing stock. The impetus for gentrification is push, not pull.

Process 2 is what I’ve described here as being more typical of “gentrification” in smaller cities, though it certainly describes the recent changes in many neighborhoods in larger cities as well.  In this paradigm, people who we call gentrifiers are pulled to neighborhoods that have lost some of their former considerable luster. Let’s face it: generally speaking, the wealthy of the 19th century chose well. These neighborhoods have a lot to recommend them: they tend to be conveniently located and sport excellent access to downtown, green space, and other amenities. Then, of course, there is the matter of housing stock, which is solid at worst and truly outstanding in the case of the Albany neighborhoods I have highlighted.

We need different words to talk about these two processes.

They share many challenges that urban policymakers have to deal with—displacement of lower-income residents being the primary one—but I would argue that we can distinguish between on the grounds of desirability of their occurrence. Process 1 is a sign of a sick city (albeit one sick with success, or as Jane Jacobs said, oversuccess), and in particular of a sick housing market. It’s a symptom of inequality, bad policy, and all that entails. Process 2 is, despite the displacement and inarguable loss and pain that occurs, most likely a sign of a city that is healing itself. The days of the postwar federal gravy train are over, and cities cannot continue to exist as forced repositories of the unlucky, discriminated-against, or undesirable. Like it or not, cities need a base of upper middle class residents, even a small one, and they have to live somewhere. 

To some extent, the confusion in the term “gentrification” is inherent. Ruth Glass’ original definition of the term made reference only to how a neighborhood that was undergoing the process looked now, not its historic characteristics. When the term migrated across the Atlantic, it was quickly applied to areas like Philadelphia’s Society Hill: once-elite neighborhoods that had fallen upon hard times. Glass’ original idea of gentrification also had connotations of a more organic process, whereas Americans tend to apply the term both to government-sponsored transformations like Society Hill and to less organized processes like what happened to Lower Lancaster Street. Our use of the term tends to ignore historical context and nuance in favor of arguments about who “owns” a particular neighborhood or area. And that’s a problem, because not all processes that involve wealthier people moving into an urban area look the same, or are the same.

How are policymakers to respond to cries of “gentrification”? The literature on that topic is obviously voluminous, as are the feelings. That being said, I think what I have labeled “Process 2” has some lessons for us. First, the response to the challenge of gentrification should be triage. Neighborhoods that were once elite, and still have excellent convenience, amenities, and access to downtown, are almost certainly going to gentrify. The reality is that fighting that process is probably going to be a losing battle for all involved. That doesn’t mean there isn’t tremendous pain and loss of community involved—there most certainly is. But efforts should probably focus on fighting winnable battles–finding nearby affordable housing for displaced residents, leveraging new investment to create community assets, and the like–rather than trying to maintain neighborhoods in their historically exceptional stasis. Second, cities should probably plan for gentrification in once-elite neighborhoods in the medium-to-long term–even cities with housing markets that are entirely depressed at the moment. That means proactively zoning for growth, preserving affordable units, and working with landlords to prevent rising rents from displacing small businesses.

It’s not news that “gentrification” as a process differs from city to city, and that in particular there’s a huge disconnect between the experiences of “hot” coastal cities and pretty much everywhere else. Nor is it news that narratives of gentrification and displacement generally lack local and historical nuance, egged on as they tend to be by Marxist-leaning academics who seek to fit every experience into one overarching paradigm. (seriously, does any field have as big a disconnect between academy and praxis as urban studies/planning?) But I hope I’ve pointed here in a direction of understanding at least one of the “other” processes that are currently occurring in American cities. I don’t know what to call it. But I do know the word “gentrification” fails to capture most of what needs to be said.

Reflections on Albany, Part 2–Challenges and Problems

A couple of weeks ago I wrote Part 1 of this series, reflecting on Albany’s assets and positives as a place to live and an American city. After considerable ribbing from friends and family and questions about whether I’m working for the Albany tourism bureau (I’m not, and in fact I’m now interning for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, where you should check out my debut blog post), I’ve finally found the time here for Part 2, a breakdown of Albany’s challenges and problems. It’s certainly not all rosy out there–in fact, it is arguably more cloudy than rosy–so here we are.

Albany’s Problems and Challenges

1) Economy dominated by state work

This is the flip side of #5 (“Stable Economy”) on my list of positives. Despite the efforts of the Cuomo (and several previous) administration to create a high-tech hub in the region, the basis for the Capital District’s economy, and especially that of Albany, remains civil service. That provides a stable baseline for employment, but it’s not the most dynamic sector of the economy. Civil service is also incredibly hard to break into, reliant on a completely archaic system of pen-on-paper tests given at specific, obscure, and infrequent times. The cemented civil service structure brings needed stability for workers, but it also makes recruiting specific talent to government service–and to the Albany labor market generally–very, very difficult.

2) Provincial feel, perception, and self-image

The moniker “Smallbany,” used both earnestly and ironically, says a lot about Albany’s self-image. Like many such words it was initially an insult but has been reclaimed by some as a term of endearment; nevertheless, it says something real about the city. Government jobs mean a constant flow of people between Albany and New York City, so there is always a snooty New Yorker around to remind Albany natives about how backward their city is and to kvetch about being stuck here. Of course, Albany (and especially its Irish community) has long cultivated a provincial feeling of its own, captured well in William Kennedy’s novels.

3) Hard to find interest groups and people to identify with. Social life largely revolves around alcohol.

Maybe I’m just snooty relative to other students, but I don’t enjoy loud, crowded bars, and I’ve found it hard to find ways to socialize that don’t involve such things.

4) Hardened relationships between African-American community and governing class

Though I recently had to walk through a boisterous, crowded celebration of Black History Month (complete with an exhibit honoring ’60s militant group The Brothers) while leaving City Hall, Albany’s black community still largely occupies the place the O’Connell-Corning machine put it in, shut out of the city’s power structure. The black community in Albany, as in several other Northeastern cities, was not large until the postwar era, by which time the O’Connells’ iron grip had already descended. In political identity Albany is still very much an Irish-Catholic town, and for the black community that has meant decades of mostly being ignored and trod upon. Things are, I think, beginning to look up some, but for now Albany’s black neighborhoods remain vulnerable, decaying, and suffering from a legacy of exploitation.

5) Lagging on National Trends

The stereotype of second- and third- level metros is that they tend to be behind the times, and Albany is no exception, particularly in the field of planning and urbanism. Most people around here are still chasing the dream of free parking, huge lawns, and social isolation from their lessors, and, to be honest, this isn’t the kind of region that punishes that pursuit with horrendous traffic congestion or anything of the sort. Albany’s waterfront is marred by a horrendous, expensive, and unnecessary freeway, but the movement to get rid of it is barely in its nascent stages. Any movement towards better urbanism, parking policy, etc is vigorously opposed by the suburban (and near-suburban) lobby, which usually includes the state employee unions (see the next point).

6) Neglect by, and difficult relationship with, the state

Related to #1 and another flip side of #5 on the list of assets: the city’s domination by state work and state land has decided downsides. With up to 60% of the city’s land off of tax rolls–and much of that owned by the state–the city has been left with property taxes at unsustainable rates. Though the city recently got $5 million in assistance from the state’s Financial Restructuring Board, there is still need for more. The state has generally been an unsympathetic and unreliable partner, which is particularly stinging given that construction of the Empire State Plaza wiped out 98 acres of productive, dense neighborhoods and replaced it with freeways and (non-taxed) state buildings.

Institutionally owned properties in Albany, from the Albany 2030 comprehensive plan.

Institutionally owned properties in Albany, from the Albany 2030 comprehensive plan.

The state has often contended that its presence brings needed vitality to Albany and that its workers bring in more economic activity than could possibly be replicated in taxes. Of course, the vast majority of state workers drive into Albany in the morning and out at night, tearing up city-maintained roads as they go, and forming (with the help of their unions) a potent lobby for turning the city into one giant parking lot. And though the Empire State Plaza might have kept tens of thousands of state jobs in downtown Albany, it is a nearly entirely self-contained environment with its own food court, post office(s) and, soon, supermarket, all of which add up to limit its positive spillover effects. For Albany to have a bright future, the sclerotic New York State political establishment will have to stop treating it like a dump and start realizing that a livable state capital city is necessary for bringing in a talented state workforce. Of course, they’ve got little incentive to realize either of those things right now.

7) Competes both with suburbs and with other Capital District cities for immigrants and talent

This is the flip side of #8 in my previous post. True, the three major Capital District cities provide a unique mix of assets and play off of each other nicely. But Albany, though the most prominent of the three, also has to compete not only with the suburbs but with the other two cities for the immigrants who are so crucial to urban vitality and for the picky young talent that will form the basis of the next urban generation. Schenectady, though very much a suffering city economically, has attracted a significant immigrant population. Troy has been proclaimed the Next Brooklyn so many times that it’s become an eyeroll-provoking cliche.

8) Legacy of urban renewal

The tragic truth is that Albany came thisclose to avoiding massive urban renewal projects altogether. The O’Connell machine, suspicious of outsiders and in particular those squeaky-clean feds with all of the strings attached to their money, avoided taking federal dollars for urban renewal in the postwar period. That situation (which extended to housing projects as well and had negative ramifications for Albany’s black community) meant that Albany did not see large-scale slum clearance until the 1960s, as the momentum of urban renewal was starting to slow in other Northeastern cities.  I-90 missed the city to the north and the New York State Thruway to the south.

When “renewal” did come, it was provoked not by local officials but by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, whose insistent pushing–and backroom deals with Mayor Erastus Corning–eventually did wipe out the proverbial 98 acres of central Albany. The slider images from the University of Oklahoma’s Quality Communities project demonstrate the devastation nicely. I can’t embed their Albany image here, but click on the link. And the Plaza opened the floodgates for highway construction as well.

via All Over Albany, the Mid-Crosstown Arterial would have run two doors down from my apartment.

via All Over Albany, the Mid-Crosstown Arterial would have run two doors down from my apartment.

Though Albany avoided being dissected by urban freeways and having an interchange embedded under Washington Park, the (entirely unnecessary) South Mall Arterial spur leading into the Plaza and I-787 along the waterfront did more damage than arguably the Plaza had done all on its own. Although, to be fair, Albany has always been cut off from its waterfront by industry, 787 sealed its alienation from nature, and cut the approaches to downtown’s Union Station, forcing intercity trains across the Hudson to Rensselaer (see #10 below).

9) Tension between machine legacy and progressive good-governance streak 

Like all capital cities, Albany has its fare share of liberal, middle-class, managerial households; indeed, they formed the nucleus of some of the most important opposition to the longtime machine. And yet, it is only with the 2013 election of Mayor Kathy Sheehan that this technocratic class can really be said to have gained control of Albany city government. The last round of elections, in November 2014, led to several open conflicts between the progressive, reform wing of the Democratic part and the conservative wing that can be fairly said to be the legacy of the old machine.

In many ways, the legacy of the O’Connell-Corning machine still thrives. Snow removal is still ineffectively contracted out; our streets get swept every week despite a budget hole; and there is remarkably little tradition of political activism in the city. For the most part, “apathy” appears to be the predominant mode of relation to local politics in Albany. Where the old machine succeeded in suppressing voter interest for decades, the challenge of Albany’s political culture in the decades ahead will be to create an engaged, caring, educated citizenry.

10) Disjointed, incomplete, and expensive intercity transportation

A while ago I wrote about the sad situation of Albany’s gorgeous-but-inaccessible Amtrak station. The removal of the approach tracks to downtown’s beautiful Union Station meant the transfer of passenger operations across the river to Rensselaer, probably never to be restored.

Union Station, 1948  Albany NY 1940s

Union Station in happier times. Via AlbanyGroup Archive on Flickr. 

Albany’s Greyhound station, situated in a sea of parking lots in the shadow of the South Mall Arterial, is an absolute dump, and poorly integrated with other transportation options. Megabus stops at the Amtrak station. Flying out of Albany’s airport is extremely expensive and inconvenient, with limited schedules and virtually nonexistent transit connections to downtown (there’s a local bus a few times per day). Though CDTA has been on-the-ball about advocating for a new, integrated downtown bus terminal, that may or may not happen, and still wouldn’t draw in Amtrak. The disconnection of Union Station means commuter rail, a topic that gets broached every so often in the region, would likely be entirely unsuccessful since there’s no conceivable downtown Albany terminal. For a capital city, it can be awfully difficult to get to Albany.

11) Struggling schools, or perception thereof

Schools were another area neglected under the O’Connell machine. Albany’s Irish Catholics–though for most of its life the machine was less ethnically identified than others, it still had a distinct Irish tinge–sent their kids to parochial school, and the public schools were left to rot. I’m not sure the system has ever really recovered. Albany has essentially one large public high school to which most students, regardless of background, go. That could work well, but from what I’ve heard from kids who attend, it basically leads to extreme class and academic segregation. The other schools have typical urban school struggles. This is hardly a problem unique to Albany.

12) Old city problems: high property taxes, old infrastructure, regulations on small business

Albany’s an old city, and its history is one of the best things about it. But that also means that a lot of the city’s infrastructure is crumbling, and too often the city can’t afford to repair it. The roads are heavily potholed. Streetlights and traffic lights don’t work and go weeks without repair. Water main breaks are common. All of this is (not) paid for with high property taxes on the relatively small proportion of city land that actually gets taxed. It can also be a drag to do business in Albany, even (especially?) for small businesses.  Mayor Sheehan, a former city treasurer, is selling herself as a budget whiz, and seems to be making progress so far, but it seems that nothing short of a comprehensive bill of reparations from the state for the Empire State Plaza (which cost $2.2 billion…in 1970 dollars. That sounds like a nice amount, doesn’t it?) will allow the city to stop playing catch-up and finally get ahead of its challenges.

13) Perception of Albany as a place to work and little else

This is, perhaps, the biggest challenge Albany has to overcome. Though it is the dominant city in the region, it isn’t that much bigger than next-door, sprawling Colonie (~97,000 to ~82,000), and struggles to be taken seriously by the suburban hordes. Certainly the state’s actions in creating the car-oriented Plaza and giving most state employees free parking have much to do with the suburban perception of Albany as a drive-in, drive-out city, but Albany has also struggled to take itself seriously as an urban place. Most suburbanites and state workers react with horror to the idea of raising their kids in the city, if it’s even on their radar at all. I suspect that will change with evolving generational preferences. But it might take a while; Albany, after all, isn’t the most trendy place.

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…