Other Places I’ve Been and Will Be, and More Schenectady Pics

It’s been a busy few weeks. As part of my internship with the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, I’ve had the opportunity for my writing to show up in a couple of other places.

With the push on to fund the MTA capital plan, I had a piece in the Gotham Gazette about the need for political leadership to make a new plan happen. “Lead, dammit” is of course a cliched, boring thing to ask of lawmakers, but I think there’s some decent blame to be spread around here. And I make the argument that while the MTA is not sliding backwards into the 1970s, it may very well be slipping into the same kind of death spiral as WMATA is currently experiencing.

I also had a two-part series on Tri-State’s own Mobilizing the Region blog about the Capital District Transportation Authority’s BusPlus “Bus Rapid Transit” system, existing and planned. Originally written as one long post, it (correctly) got split into two to keep lengths manageable. The first post is a primer on BusPlus, including the existing line from Albany to Schenectady and the planned routes to UAlbany and Troy. The second (and for me, more interesting) post is about what various stakeholders can do to make BusPlus a truer BRT system.

I also have several posts coming up on Mobilizing the Region, including one about the economic impact of the MTA capital plan on Upstate that should be going up in the next few days. I’ll also be taking a look at the Capital Region MPO‘s long-range visioning plan and their just-getting-off-the-ground study of the future of the I-787 corridor along the Hudson waterfront.

As a total aside, I spent five hours traipsing around in the oppressive humidity at Union College in Schenectady for a site visit for a Jewish retreat I’m involved with. A few pictures:

The original site of the famed American Locomotive Company  is now a carwash.

The original site of the famed American Locomotive Company is now a carwash.

The headquarters of the Golub Corporation, a major brownfields project, has won multiple environmental awards, including LEED certification, despite being fairly  anti-urban and surrounded by parking lots.

The headquarters of the Golub Corporation, a major brownfields project, has won multiple environmental awards, including LEED certification, despite being fairly anti-urban and surrounded by parking lots.

Like many colleges in urban areas, Union is busy buying up all the property adjacent to campus it can get its hands on. Our guide described this teardown and new-build dorm as a "revitalization project" for the neighborhood.  I have mixed opinions on this.

Like many colleges in urban areas, Union is busy buying up all the property adjacent to campus it can get its hands on. Our guide described this teardown and new-build dorm at the corner of Roger Hull and Park Places as a “revitalization project” for the neighborhood. I have mixed opinions on this.

The interior of the unique, sixteen-sided Nott Memorial, the centerpiece of the Union campus, is really something. My picture certainly does not do this gorgeous building justice.

The interior of the unique, sixteen-sided Nott Memorial, the centerpiece of the Union campus, is really something. My picture certainly does not do this gorgeous building justice.

A Lunch in Schenectady

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

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

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

Looking up State Street from Broadway

Looking up State Street from Broadway

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

Looking down State Street from near Lafayette

Looking down State Street from near Lafayette

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

Mexican Radio!

Mexican Radio!

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

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

A couple more State Street pictures:

Beautiful..and vacant.

Beautiful..and partially vacant.

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

Sorry for the glare!

Sorry for the glare!

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

 

 

wpid-20150222_141912.jpg

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

 

 

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

Schenectady City Hall. Note un-cleared steps.

Schenectady City Hall. Note un-cleared steps.

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

Another shot of City Hall.

Another shot of City Hall.

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

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

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

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

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

The Transformation of Central Avenue/Route 5

Earlier today, @AlbanyMuskrat, one of the numerous high-quality Twitter accounts that chronicle Albany’s history, sent out a picture of a trolley along Central Ave./Route 5 on the border of Albany and suburban Colonie:

I’d known that for several decades a Schenectady Railway Company (full system map here) interurban line connected Albany and Schenectady along Route 5, part of the Capital District’s extensive former network of interurban lines. I hadn’t, however, previously seen a picture of the exact way the tracks were arranged vis-a-vis the roadway. I’d kind of just assumed that since the Albany-Schenectady road has been well trod since the days of the Erie Canal and earlier, the trolley tracks had been unassumingly stuffed in dirt next to the roadway, as so many interurbans were. But no: here is a high-quality double-track right-of-way, taking up equal-and-separate space with the road. Here’s the same view today:

central

I put the two images together on Twitter:

Central Avenue today, still the vital artery connecting Albany and Schenectady despite the presence of I-90, is much more heavily developed than it was in 1930; bridge in this view, carrying the former New York Central (now Amtrak) tracks over Central, marks the western end of a 1950s shopping development known as Westgate. The border between Albany and Colonie lies just a few feet beyond, and the rest of Central Avenue into Schenectady has taken on an identity as a typical suburban arterial, with shopping, a few lower-end motels, and a very few residential blocks that occasionally betray the area’s roots as a streetcar suburb.

But that road…formerly a balanced, shared right-of-way, Central Avenue is now a broad, high-speed (40 mph speed limit in Colonie that’s routinely exceeded) five-lane stroad dedicated entirely to motor vehicles. It is also–not coincidentally–frequently cited as the most dangerous corridor for pedestrians in the Capital District, with long distances between crosswalks rivaling high speeds as the most notorious factor.

@AlbanyMuskrat’s picture, then, sent me into a chase for images of Central Avenue as it was, rather than as it is, with particular focus on the one-time interurban railroad. Gino’s Trolley Page is the authority on all things railroading in the Capital District; the following pictures are his.

Gino's capition: Here is the scene looking East on Central Ave. in Albany.  The SRC track paralleled Central Ave. all the way to downtown Albany.  Cars and trolleys would regularly race on this stretch of road...

Gino’s caption: Here is the scene looking East on Central Ave. in Albany. The SRC track paralleled Central Ave. all the way to downtown Albany. Cars and trolleys would regularly race on this stretch of road…

I don’t know exactly where this picture was taken, so I won’t provide a modern view.

Gino's caption: Here's the waiting room and gates to the estate that is now Evergreen Cemetery. Stop 10 on the Albany line.

Gino’s caption: Here’s the waiting room and gates to the estate that is now Evergreen Cemetery. Stop 10 on the Albany line.

The same spot, in Google imagery from 2011 (note the same house in the background of both pictures):

Here’s the stop at Wolf Road:

Wolf Road stop

Wolf Road stop

I don’t know exactly where the Wolf Road stop was located, but the area today has risen from obscurity to become arguably the retail center for the entire region, drawing in shoppers from the Adirondacks, Berkshires, and numerous other areas. The trolley stop was probably located somewhere on the far side of this intersection (looking south on Wolf Road in a T at Central; cars coming at camera are coming off of an offramp from I-87).

wolf road

Here’s the area from above today:

Central wolf

The trolley tracks would have run along the southern side of Central.

I would also be remiss to not mention that there is one significant physical remnant of the interurban line’s presence in the suburban space between Albany and Schenectady, the beautiful former powerhouse near New Karner Road. Local blog-of-record All Over Albany profiled the building nicely here.

Now, the high-quality double-track exclusive right-of-way enjoyed by Schenectady Railway Company cars along Central Avenue outside the limits of dense development was not the whole story; the cars ran in mixed traffic once they entered built-up areas in both Schenectady and Albany. I present these pictures of the area’s transformation not to make the argument that the arrangement of interurbans and cars sharing a right-of-way was some kind of ideal arrangement, but to point out–as I often do–that the ways in which we develop our transportation and land-use policies are choices.

The Central Avenue corridor didn’t have to end up as sprawl; policymakers chose that outcome. They chose it by allowing a system that had provided fast, high-quality service between two midsize cities to be abandoned, and by devoting dedicated space that was originally reserved for non-automotive transportation for cars. Cars, as ubiquitous as they may seem today, were not the only historical reality; to destroy suburban transit and privilege them was in suburban Albany as elsewhere, a choice that was made, not an inevitability.

And here’s the kicker, in case you think we’ve made progress: a 1910 SRC schedule shows cars taking 50 minutes to traverse the line between State and Broadway in Albany and the terminal in downtown Schenectady. Today’s equivalent, CDTA’s bus rapid transit-lite service known as BusPlus, offers the same journey…on a schedule of 57 minutes.

Searching for a Good Albany-Area Amtrak Station Site

Albany has a train station problem.

Surprising, maybe, considering the beautiful and (by train station standards) more or less brand new (opened 2002) Albany-Rensselaer station, which typically ranks 9th or 10th out of all Amtrak stations in annual ridership. But true nonetheless.

A few days ago I got into a brief Twitter discussion with the illustrious Cap’n Transit about the state of the Albany train station:

This is, of course, an entirely theoretical discussion. Amtrak and CDTA, which owns the station, are heavily invested in the current Albany-Rensselaer station, and moving it at this point would be a waste of relatively recently spent infrastructure dollars.  In Albany, of course, politics plays into everything; the Rensselaer station is, to a large extent, one of the many fruits of that notorious porkmaster, former State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno. It is, however, exceptionally difficult to get to by any mode other than driving, despite being only a mile and a half from downtown Albany (if you don’t believe me, just read the comments on this Times-Union blog post). CDTA buses arrive only four times an hour at most, and rather than coming into the station as originally planned they stop on the street outside, in a completely non-intuitive location. Walking what should be a decent distance to downtown Albany or the Empire State Plaza requires crossing the Hudson on the concrete hellscape of the Dunn Memorial Bridge, itself a monument to highway plans that would have done irreparable damage to Albany had they gone through fully.

So the location of Albany’s train station, not to put too fine of a point on it, sucks. The question of moving it may be entirely theoretical at this point, but it’s an interesting question nonetheless. If I were given significant power to physically reshape the Capital Region (like, say, Nelson Rockefeller in the ’60s), where would I put the crown jewel of the region’s non-automobile transportation system?

Albany, of course, once had the downtown station that the Cap’n and I both wish could still exist. The building, in fact, still exists, and it is quite stately:

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

Abandoned as a railroad building in 1968, Union Station has seen use as a bank headquarters, and after sitting empty for a while is now being converted into something called “the SUNY College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering’s Smart Cities Technology Innovation Center, or SCiTI.” Once upon a time, New York Central trains (Delaware & Hudson was the other major tenant) reached Union Station from Rensselaer via the Maiden Lane Bridge, like so:

Today (well, as of 1968), the Maiden Lane Bridge is gone, and the area behind the Union Station building, which once held coach yards and two levels of platforms, looks like this:

The approach to the old Union Station, like the rest of the Albany waterfront, has been entirely amputated by I-787, with the only remaining rails, the old D&H Colonie Main, relocated to the middle of the freeway, completely inaccessible from the street. The old platform canopy now shades (a little) a parking garage.

The issue with a downtown station, then, is that not only is the old site unavailable, but so are any other potential sites along the waterfront–that is, any site close to downtown Albany.  So, where CAN one put a station in Albany proper?

One possibility is near the  much dreamed-upon Central Warehouse (proposals for reuse have included an aquarium. Yes, an aquarium), just west of the Livingston Avenue Bridge across the Hudson, on the northern fringes of Albany. The station could occupy the site currently used by the burnt-out hulk, or the short straightaway a little to the west between Broadway and Pearl. The site looks like this:

This wouldn’t move the station very far, of course, but it would get it across the Hudson and into an area with better transit service. The area around the Central Warehouse is seeing a limited revival as part of a brewery neighborhood, but is clearly in need of significant revitalization that a train station could bring. That being said, it’s still pretty far from downtown (about 7/1oths of a mile), and there are a few engineering challenges: platforms couldn’t be very long because of the curves, and it’s not at all clear that the necessary four tracks could be squeezed into the existing right-of-way.

The truth is, though, if we’re looking for a station location that will attract the most ridership, downtown Albany may not offer the most potential in any case. The 2012 ACS numbers show only around 1,100 people living in the census tract that covers Downtown, and while the city has been doing a good job of trying to attract high-end residential conversions to the area, that process had been going very slowly. When I get off my bus coming home from school in the evenings (in Center Square, a little up the hill), I’m always surprised to see that I’m one of the last 2 or 3 people on the bus; non-commute demand to downtown is just exceptionally weak. The truth is that most Albany transportation demand resides uptown, in the dense neighborhoods along Central Avenue, and the more suburbanized areas near the uptown SUNY campus.

Is there, then, a fringe station location that might have something to offer? The idea of a station in suburban Albany is not new; one existed in the large suburb of Colonie for a number of years in the ’60s and ’70s (I can’t seem to find a source for an exact opening date), closing in 1979.  Technically called Schenectady-Colonie, since due to cost-cutting measures it replaced the downtown Schenectady station, this little stop sat about halfway down the passenger main between Albany and Schenectady, very much in the middle of suburban nothingness:

Needless to say, the Schenectady-Colonie station was a ridership disaster from the beginning. (click on the linked article–come for the vintage-1979 Turboliner picture, stay for the speed and trip-time promises that are remarkably similar to today’s!) After hemorrhaging riders for years, the Schenectady-Colonie station closed for good when enough government money became available to build the existent Schenectady station, which sits on the remains of the one that was torn down under Penn Central, and is now slated for replacement itself. In any case, the Schenectady-Colonie station building still exists; the building in this picture is clearly the same one visible at center if you zoom in the map above far enough.  Of course, no station will ever be built there again; it has zero access to public transit, is in the middle of nowhere, and sits smack dab in the center of a long tangent that allows trains to exercise their full 110-mph speed.

So is there a single location for an Albany-area station that I think might be better than the current one? Given the paucity of options, I’m not sure that anything short of a total rebuilding of the Albany waterfront that brings trains back and eliminates I-787 (something I’m for, by the way) can really do the job to full satisfaction. There is one site, though, that might, to some extent, bring benefits greater than the current setup. If it were up to me, I would put Albany’s intercity train station in the empty triangle of land described by Central Avenue, the tracks, and the borders of the Railroad Avenue industrial district, just across the city boundary in Colonie:

This site has room for four tracks, is adjacent to Central Avenue, the area’s main drag, with its BRT-lite BusPlus service (as well as local service), and offers potential for development. It’s also not far from the UAlbany campus, which is a major ridership generator. It’s also just past the top of the slow, curvy climb out of the Hudson Valley, and thus stopping there won’t cost trains as much time as slowing in the middle of the sprint from or to Schenectady. The site is also a brownfield, formerly home to a National Lead plant that was shut down by the state courts in 1984 for polluting; amazingly enough given its proximity to homes, the plant was found to have been using depleted uranium and other radioactive materials in its work, and so the site has for the last 30 years been under the stewardship of first the federal Department of Energy and then the Army Corps of Engineers. With its rather notorious history, the prospect of redeveloping the National Lead site as housing is probably unappealing. But the site is transit-accessible, central, and offers the prospect of being the lever that can bring the Central Ave. corridor in Colonie into a more urban future. If magically the prospect of moving the Albany train station becomes realistic, this location has my vote.