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.

wpid-20150429_134900.jpg

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.

wpid-20150429_135424.jpg

 

 

 

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:

wpid-20150429_135638.jpg

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:

wpid-20150429_135926.jpg

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.

wpid-20150429_141420.jpg

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.

Advertisements

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.

Parking Oversupply in Center Square and Hudson/Park, Albany

In a paper presented at the annual meetings of the Transportation Review Board, and neatly summarized by Eric Jaffe at CityLab, Rachel Weinberger and Joshua Karlin-Resnick of planning consulting firm Nelson/Nygaard demonstrate in quantitative fashion what observers of the urban condition have long known–that complaints of “there’s no parking!” are generally exaggerated, and most mixed-use areas are actually systematically oversupplied with parking when all parking in the area is considered. To quote from the abstract,

Defining sufficient supply as that which would leave 15 percent of spaces open, we find that parking is oversupplied by 65% on average. Differences in oversupply are not systematically explained by commute mode share, region, type of place, or any other dimension we were able to identify. Indeed, oversupply in places that have identified parking shortages averages 45%. The finding suggests that parking is often oversupplied to such an extent that it is non-binding on travel decisions and has become unmoored from the typical relationship between supply and demand.

To many urbanist observers, that American parking policy has led to irrational excess and inefficient decision-making is hardly a surprise; there are few planning issues more emotional for the lay stakeholder than parking, and it’s a realm where pressure from the people often triumphs over demonstrable good policy (though, to be fair, the economics of parking can seem counter-intuitive to a layperson). I’m already on record as a fan of Nelson/Nygaard’s work on parking given their terrific (albeit entirely ignored by the relevant policymakers) work on Albany’s Park South urban renewal boondoggle, so I thought I’d offer a few words here in support of this paper’s observations.

My neighborhood in downtown Albany, Center Square (technically, I live in Hudson/Park, since we’re a few doors down from the border between neighborhood associations, but people generally refer to the whole area as Center Square), is known, as far as a neighborhood in Albany can be, for its difficult parking situation. It’s a dense, mixed-use neighborhood; the housing stock is primarily 1-4 unit rowhouses, with a few larger buildings mixed in. Center Square is also home to Albany’s premier college bar and arts scene, Lark Street, and a number of other businesses, some of them mixed in with the residential blocks.

Recently, after a 25-year fight with state employees unions, the neighborhood gained permit parking, a status that was confirmed and extended by the state legislature in the last hours of its session last year (yes, despite strong “home rule” principles, New York cities have to get legislative approval for such things). I’ve only been here a year and a half, but I hear that the permit system–active only during daylight hours–has significantly improved the curbside parking situation during the day. At night is a different matter; the parking spots fill up both with neighborhood residents returning from work and with visitors experiencing the area’s nightlife.

Zone A of Albany's permit parking system.

Zone A of Albany’s permit parking system

Center Square is definitely one of the few areas in Albany (and really, in all of Upstate) where it’s possible to live car-free; my partner G and I own a car because G’s state job is near-impossible to reach by transit. I haven’t been able to find definite data on rates of car ownership in Albany, but I suspect that one-car-per-household is fairly typical in Center Square, with families with children owning more, and more than a few students and other people on the lower end of the income spectrum carless by choice or necessity. The Times-Union article linked to above noted that there were about 5,300 permit applications in the first year of the program, for about 2,750 spots, but that in the second year of the program that had fallen to about 2,600 applications. I suspect the latter number is closer to the real demand from residents (the city also issues permits to local business owners), and that many of the initial applications may have come from state workers hopeful they could get in somehow. There are, for the record, roughly 8,630 people living in the three census tracts that make up Zone A in the permit system.

In real life, it’s generally not that hard to find a spot even at night. I’m rarely able to find a spot on my block when returning after about 8 PM, but I’ve only had to walk more than a block once or twice since moving in. The nighttime parking situation is annoying, but not a major lifestyle problem. But here’s the thing: the 2,750 on-street spots to which the permit system applies, as Weinberger and Karlin-Resnick remind us, are far from the only parking spots available to residents of the neighborhood. There are numerous spots available in Washington Park (a popular retreat during snow emergencies, when one side of each block is closed), and dozens of homes and buildings with one or two spots in a garage or small lot. There are also, and more significantly, numerous garages and surface lots for off-street parking in the neighborhood, some of them attached to specific institutions, some aimed at state workers who park and walk to work in the Plaza or other state office buildings. To get a sense of just how many there are, I did a quick sketch of polygons over the ones apparent from the air in Google Earth, covering what most people consider to be the core of Center Square and Hudson/Park (i.e., not all of Zone A):

CS parking 2

I don’t have the time to go out and do an actual count of the spaces that all of these lots add to the neighborhood’s overall parking supply, but I’d estimate that, conservatively, it’s a supply of at least an additional 500-800 spots. The most prominent lot–the one at the corner of Swan and Hamilton that takes up most of a block–has, according to Parkopedia, 173 spaces; the garage on Lancaster between Dove and Lark adds another 125.

But here’s the catch: because parking in the neighborhood functions for two very different markets–for residents and for daytime workers–most of these off-street lots contribute little relief to the on-street parking situation. The lots intended for state workers (such as the two cited above) set their rates to exploit desperate commuters, and as a result are almost entirely empty at night. Both the Hamilton/Swan lot and the Lancaster garage set night/weekend rates around $90/month; low relative to major-city rates, certainly, but absurdly high in a place like Albany. The result is that–naturally–the major off-street parking resources are almost empty at night, and contribute neither relief to circling parkers nor revenue to their owners. The other lots–those belonging to churches, the neighborhood’s numerous policy and lobbying groups, and the like–are also typically empty at night.

In other words, there is plenty of parking in Center Square. The perception of a shortage is just that–unmoored from an reality of demand or supply, just as Weinberg and Karlin-Resnick would have us believe. The situation in Center Square is perhaps more complex than the norm because of the dual markets functioning in the neighborhood, but it’s not that hard to get a grasp on. I’m not sure if reducing the “parking crunch” is even desirable–and given the area’s walkability and transit-friendliness, it may not be–but it’s eminently possible with a little bit of coordination. The perception of a parking shortage in Center Square is driven by the same factors that drive parking oversupply in other areas–zoning assigning parking requirements by institution rather than by context or need, lack of coordination among business and institutions, and reluctance of residents to pay for parking.  The solution, if indeed one is needed, is in fact quite simple:

Get everyone (the owners of the garages and lots, local institutions, and private homeowners willing to rent out their excess parking spots) in a room to coordinate a neighborhood-wide rate for off-street parking.

If everyone could just get in a room to talk–that coordination thing again–the garage owners could find themselves with more revenue from local residents parking in their lots overnight, local homeowners with extra spots could have a little extra cash in their pockets, and everyone would find it a little easier to park. Such a solution would also, presumably, obviate the need for new developments in the area to add even more parking. I imagine such a rate would fall in the vicinity of $40-$50/month, which, though it might not be affordable to all neighborhood residents, should be attractive to enough of them to make an impact. It’s a solution that would be easy enough to implement. But then, since when has American parking policy taken the easy or common-sense way out?