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Downtown Schenectady Master Plan — I: Executive Summary

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[This information is from pp. 1-6 of the Downtown Schenectady Master Plan prepared by Hunter Interests, Inc. in 1999, and is reproduced with their permission. It is in the Schenectady Collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at Schdy R 711 DOWf.]

In early 1999 the City of Schenectady retained Hunter Interests Inc., Sasaki Associates, Synthesis Architects, and O. R. George & Associates to prepare a downtown master plan. The purpose of the plan is to assist public and private sector leadership in addressing the shifting downtown economy and its role in the community while establishing a realistic program for coordinated shortterm action within the context of a feasible and flexible long-term framework plan.

Throughout the spring and summer of 1999 the Hunter/Sasaki team conducted more than 55 meetings and public forums with consultants, Schenectady organizations, and the general public; interviewed approximately 115 individuals; analyzed several hundred documents, data sources, past plans, and categories of information on the downtown area; conducted numerous technical and planning studies to analyze market potentials and development alternatives; prepared technical memoranda and analysis drawings to report findings and respond to specific requests; and prepared three alternative planning concepts for discussions with involved organizations and the general public.

Most importantly, while conducting this analysis and planning work, Hunter/Sasaki team leaders assisted decisions to bring new investment into downtown Schenectady immediately, and decisions on where new facilities should be located to produce maximum beneficial impacts in relation to other planned and programmed actions included in the plan. In essence, the normally sequential planning and implementation processes overlapped considerably during 1999 in a manner which was both deliberate and coordinated to take advantage of immediate opportunities, assist the proper utilization of existing facilities, and contribute to the success of future downtown investment actions included in the plan.

While the plan includes an important long-term physical development framework, the focus has been on short-term development actions which produce synergistic impacts and which together turn around the downtown economy and heighten investment confidence. The implementation of plan components such as the State Transportation Building and the new MVP Building downtown are already producing the desired impact while the plan was being completed in the fall of 1999.

In a parallel master plan the City is pursuing the development of the Western Gateway Transportation Center, a transportation center that will link intercity rail and bus service, local bus service, commuter rail, automobile, bicycle, and pedestrian traffic at a single, central location in downtown Schenectady. A major catalyst for this reinvestment in the region's and City's infrastructure is the introduction of high-speed rail service to Schenectady.

Three themes were prevalent throughout the Hunter/Sasaki team's work: initiate actions which immediately bring more people into downtown Schenectady during daytime and evening hours; focus actions on a relatively small geographic area initially, so as to maximize impacts and assist each other; and work toward the true partnership of effort that will be necessary to overcome past divisions and sustain and expand revitalization efforts already underway. These three themes are prevalent in virtually all short-term actions recommended herein, and are essential to the successful implementation of this plan.

Important aspects of the plan are the preservation of downtown Schenectady's historical character, its architecturally exciting older buildings and unique institutions like Proctor's, the Schenectady Museum, Union College, and the Stockade area, which together embody Schenectady's unique urban ambiance. Assisting the retention, growth, and prosperity of small downtown businesses is another important characteristic of the recommended plan and action program.

Another important building block for the future is the new Metroplex Development Authority. The foresight and leadership which went into the creation of a funding mechanism, Metroplex demonstrated the ability of Schenectady's public and private sector leaders to overcome differences and forge a true partnership which, in the weak market context which still exists, will be essential in financially assisting the public/private ventures necessary to jump-start the economic transformation. The important role of Metroplex funding in implementing this plan cannot be overemphasized.

Following the technical studies which analyzed market potentials and established the context for downtown planning, three alternative development plans were prepared and discussed extensively during the summer of 1999. The best features of these three plans were combined into a single master plan that describes desired future land uses and necessary public improvements and support facilities. The recommended plan is both pragmatic in terms of market realities yet visionary in terms of physical improvements which will beautify downtown Schenectady and make it an enjoyable place for existing and new activities of many types. The master plan is also flexible enough to accommodate change and beneficial future proposals which may emerge as the downtown economy strengthens.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the plan is a series of 10 development strategies that are intended to focus and coordinate short-term actions. These 10 strategies are in the areas of

The arts and entertainment development strategy concentrates six coordinated actions into a relatively small geographic area (State Street between Broadway and Veteran's Park) to create a diversified arts and entertainment district in the heart of downtown Schenectady. The most important immediate action is attracting a 16-screen cinema to downtown Schenectady — a detailed feasibility study showed positive results, and the developer of a very successful 20-screen downtown cinema in a smaller city is interested in undertaking this project. Other important aspects of the arts and entertainment strategy are the improvement and continued viability of Proctor's Theatre, establishing a restaurant row on the north side of State Street, attracting additional live entertainment establishments and galleries, expansion of Schenectady Museum, including satellite museums like the Transportation Museum at the Western Gateway Transportation Center, and implementing a festival and events schedule which includes a downtown farmer's market.

The office development strategy has the development of large new downtown office buildings as one component, and a small office strategy that focuses on infill development and reuse of existing space for smaller businesses. Significant progress has been made during the course of this study in securing commitments for two major office developments, the State Department of Transportation Building and the MVP Headquarters Building. Both of these important structures will be located in the focus area, with the combined addition of more than 1,000 workers in close proximity on State Street. Two additional large office developments have been identified in the Phase I focus area, along with a program to assist and attract other office users downtown to existing space.

The small business retention and attraction strategy is one of the most important aspects of the downtown plan, and includes financing and assistance mechanisms to help existing small businesses expand and prosper. Recommended techniques include customer solicitation measures, targeted financial assistance, expanding existing loan programs, a real estate broker incentive program, a promotional program, a matching grant program, and a first-time business move-in grant program.

The retail development strategy focuses on food/beverage establishments over the short run and escalates efforts to assist other retailing later as the downtown revitalization program matures. Key components include changing the image of downtown Schenectady to a "hip place to be" in the Capital Region, clustering to achieve critical mass, targeting galleries and specific store types, marketing directly to the college and office employees, packaging discounts with Proctor's and cinema patrons, providing customer comfort and a sense of security, and other aggressive marketing/management techniques undertaken by the new downtown management entity.

The residential development strategy becomes more aggressive in later years after the image of downtown Schenectady as a place to live has improved. Immediate action projects related to a new townhouse cluster on the edge of the Stockade District and conversion of upper level space in existing commercial buildings to artists' lofts and rental apartments would be followed by additional infill housing and new student housing as the colleges evolve and expand. Improved security and a heightened sense of security from more people on the streets will increase the attractiveness of downtown Schenectady as a place to live.

A civic events and festival strategy can be important in bringing people downtown who rarely visit the downtown area now. The master plan includes new plazas and open spaces to accommodate a variety of different civic events and festivals in and around the focus area. The new downtown management entity would assist sponsoring organizations in undertaking a full calendar of events, not only in the summer, but during the spring and fall seasons as well.

The cultural/educational strategy includes assisting Schenectady Museum expansion across Nott Terrace and closer to the heart of downtown, while assisting institutional development such as a new Schenectady arts magnet middle school downtown, locating several new museums downtown including a transportation museurn at the Western Gateway Transportation Center, reinforcing linkages to Union College and the community college, and possibly locating additional magnet arts, international and technology elementary schools with facilities and programs that support downtown cultural enrichment.

The parking development and transportation infrastructure strategy recognizes the general adequacy of the street system and existing parking facilities, and assists new developments such as the downtown cinema and the State DOT Building through necessary expansion of the Broadway parking deck, assists new parking necessary to serve the MVP Building, and identifies other downtown parking needs and changes that would occur on a phased basis as the revitalization program matures.

The management strategy describes the need for a new full-time downtown management organization like the more than 1,200 BID organizations that are rapidly improving urban areas throughout the United States. We recommend evolving the Downtown Special Assessment District (DSAD) into a larger downtown management organization which would have an experienced staff and the full time responsibility of implementing this plan by managing many of the action projects that focus on the impact area during the next four to seven years. Detailed recommendations for the changes necessary to make this organizational evolution and expansion properly are made, along with necessary budget levels and funding sources.

The public improvements strategy is essential to coordinate and link the major and minor developments included in the plan, and to ensure that they function properly. Initial public improvements focus on the core area of State Street between Broadway and Veterans Park with adjacent side streets where many initial development and improvement actions are targeted. Other necessary public improvements are recommended throughout the downtown, to be scheduled in conjunction with, and to leverage, additional private investment.

The Downtown Master Plan also includes a summary of all recommended action steps, a 54-page illustrated Design Guideline manual, and 10 case studies of similar revitalization programs that have been undertaken successfully in an array of other cities and communities. Throughout this report we have used examples of successful programs and projects to illustrate our recommendations and show where they have been successfully accomplished.

The work undertaken during 1999 in researching, analyzing, coordinating, and preparing this master plan is just the beginning. The time for downtown Schenectady revitalization is right now, from the standpoint of the prosperity of the national economy, the availability of financing mechanisms, tested partnership approaches (such as the fonnation of Metroplex) which hold promise for coalescing the Schenectady public and private sector leadership, and now the necessary plan and action program to lead the way. The challenge to the citizens of Schenectady is to set aside tendencies to pick and critique, and join together to assist efforts that can once again make downtown Schenectady the center of the city's activity and the place that everyone enjoys visiting.

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