This page conforms to the XHTML standard and uses style sheets. If your browser doesn't support these, you may not see the page as designed, but all the text is still accessible to you.

SCHENECTADY DIGITAL HISTORY ARCHIVE

Bringing the heritage of Schenectady County, New York to the world since 1996

You are here: Home » City of Schenectady » Shovel Ready Home » Chapter 10: New Initiatives for an Old Downtown

Shovel Ready: Razing Hopes, History, and a Sense of Place:
Chapter 10: New Initiatives for an Old Downtown

Go back to: Shovel Ready Home | Understanding Downtown's Direction | ahead to: Findings and Conclusions

[This information is from pp. 117-133 of Shovel Ready: Razing Hopes, History, and a Sense of Place: Rethinking Schenectady's Downtown Strategies, a master's thesis in city planning by Christopher Patrick Spencer (MIT, 2001), and is reproduced with his permission. It is in the Schenectady Collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at Schdy R 711 Spe.]

People will return to the cities. Our empty downtowns with their multistory buildings are the new frontier of residential housing. And minimal expansion along city peripheries at truly urban levels of density could accommodate levels of growth that would otherwise despoil miles of countryside as rural sprawl. Let cities be cities.

Terry Pindell, A Good Place to Live: America's Last Migration

If the future of downtown Schenectady is to be one of liveliness and excitement, a vibrant local economy, a fine grain and healthy mix of old and new, and a place of opportunity for its citizens it must begin to reconsider the path it is on. If it does become this kind of a downtown — one that fits the needs of its own residents — others will invariably discover it too. But to get there, the community must first decide collectively, that is where they want to go. They must understand that Schenectady is a city with great character, a rich history, and a series of stories waiting to be told and enhanced. When it does, then strategies and objectives can be developed to help lift the downtown and put it on a new course that will lead towards realizing the community's goals and vision. But this will require a new collective mind-set, a different attitude about what constitutes progress, and overall, a new way of thinking about how to revitalize the downtown. Paraphrasing Roberta Brandes Gratz, author of The Living City, the city needs to stop thinking big in such a small way and begin thinking small in a much bigger way.

When Daniel Burnham said, "Make no little plans" it is doubtful that he meant that cities should only take on large projects or avoid small ones. Rather it might be taken to mean that whatever a city does, its projects, plans, or initiatives, should be part of a larger plan and a more comprehensive vision of the future. Every small step that a city takes in the direction of its story adds up, while even a few big missteps can prevent a city from ever being able to tell its story in a way that is interesting or captivating. This does not mean that big development projects should not happen, but they should not occur in isolation and should always be part of the larger vision and build towards the community goals. When new development destroys more character than it builds, and only creates areas of intense monotony, it cannot be considered progress. The city must at the same time seek to become a small business-friendly community. It must create residential opportunities in the downtown as well as strengthen those on the periphery. The city must be willing undertake low-cost approach or interim measures that may not have the immediate visual impact, publicity, or individual career advancement of large projects. The city must recognize and build on existing assets as well as understand how to recognize current liabilities as future assets. And the city must begin to value good design, but at the same time understand the limits of design.

Immediate Low-cost Initiatives

Clean Windows and Active Storefronts

There are a number of small low-cost projects that the city could begin to implement immediately to help improve its image and counter the look of its vacant downtown. While the City Mission has been doing a commendable job with its volunteers in trying to keep the downtown clean — sweeping sidewalks and picking up trash — more resources are needed to expand these types of efforts. The city or some coordinating organization should be working to ensure that every store window is as clean, interesting, and as well lit at night as possible. This would obviously require the cooperation of a number of active as well as absentee owners. Once they understand how this type of initiative would help make their buildings and spaces more marketable they might prove to be more receptive. Organizations, clubs, and businesses that have no street-level exposure could be encouraged to create displays in the vacant windows. At the same time, the sidewalks should be not only swept daily, but cleaned on a regular basis. Likewise, street cleaning in the area should be stepped up. Wherever feasible, anything covering the upper windows of the buildings should be removed and those windows cleaned on the inside and out.

A number of cities have instituted similar programs as well as one that is sometimes referred to as a "lace curtain" initiative. As strange as the concept sounds, the idea is simple, the cost is low, but the effects can be dramatic. The idea is to put curtains or some other inexpensive treatment in the upper windows of the vacant buildings and turn a few lights on inside, at least for part of the night. This would help prevent the windows from looking like black holes during the day, and helps to create the appearance that the upper floors could support life. Together, these initiatives would help to transform the downtown's image and that of its older buildings. Instead of the downtown being seen as a collection of blank second and third floor windows and vacant store windows with faded signs announcing going out of business or building for rent or building for sale, the downtown would begin to exhibit signs of life, warmth, and become a visually more interesting environment. When people feel the downtown looks completely empty and lifeless, it is much harder to initiate programs to encourage people to live or take the risk of opening up a business there and perhaps even harder to get others to frequent the businesses that are already there.

Street Lighting

Another low-cost step that could be taken immediately would be to improve the street lighting in the downtown. While a number of new historically accurate replicas of earlier street lighting standards have been installed with a whiter light source, most of the downtown is still illuminated by high-pressure sodium light which give off a depressing dull orange light. Where the city owns the lights, they should change over to a whiter source, either metal halide or an improved color high pressure sodium lamp; where the lights are owned and maintained by the local utility, they should be encouraged to do the same. This low-cost step would improve the nighttime image immediately, rather than waiting until all the standards have been replaced with the historic ones that the city has chosen.

Parking

Fig 10.01 [enlarge]

Street pattern of downtown area.

Fig 10.02 [enlarge]

Impact parking lots have had on the integrity of the street pattern.

On-street parking should be introduced wherever it is currently not permitted and where traffic flow will allow. This will help existing businesses that are still in the downtown by encouraging more impulse buys, and enticing more people to come downtown. On some of the overly-wide, urban renewal era streets such as Franklin Street and others around city hall, diagonal parking should be considered. This parking adjustment would allow more cars to be accommodated per/linear foot of street front and help to narrow the road and slow vehicular traffic, while encouraging more pedestrian traffic. This would also help the city determine which of the many individual surface parking lots are not operating to capacity and therefore might be candidates for redevelopment. Downtown streets that have become highways must be turned back into streets. It is vital that the streets not be given over completely to cars, however, they must not prohibit them either.

Interim Measures

In examining the process that led to the elimination of parking on State Street in 1984 and the subsequent redesigns for it in the last few years, it is obvious that an opportunity to deal with a simple problem, using an almost zero-cost, interim solution was missed. Because the volume of traffic is not great enough to require two lanes, parking could have been permitted immediately for the cost of painting a few lines. It would have allowed the city to study and determine if that would justify a more costly long-term solution. This would have saved a number of businesses that have left or gone out of business since the study first began to advocate putting on-street parking back. If this interim approach had been used in 1984 — eliminating parking on a trial basis without reconfiguring the street, the city could have saved millions of dollars, and retained a viable retail street in the downtown. Unfortunately, the city then and now, has not realized the value of small projects and interim solutions and remains determined to apply the "big fix" to small and often simple problems.

Business Development

Thinking Small

One of the shortcomings of Schenectady's efforts in revitalizing the downtown over the past 50 years or more has been its lack of emphasis on retaining, expanding, or attracting small businesses. It is especially evident in light of some of the current initiatives where millions are being spent on attracting larger companies that are already in the region, while the smaller ones are often ignored. The Metroplex Development Authority recently spent $2.45 million to move a regional headquarters of Time Warner Cable and its 276 jobs less than ten miles, from Washington Avenue in Albany to a previously undeveloped site on High Bridge Road in Rotterdam, which is in Schenectady County. The site was described by Metroplex as "shovel ready and pre-approved for development." A number of people wrote to the local newspaper and argued strongly that they felt it was a lateral move and would have no positive impact on Schenectady. Time Warner was already located in the region and Metroplex only projected that 30 new jobs would be created. It is unlikely that many of those employees will switch their residence to the city of Schenectady. Despite Metroplex's own studies which suggest that these types of big development projects do little to help the host communities, they felt it was a justified use of taxpayer money. Part of their assumption was that having another Fortune 500 Company in Schenectady County would enhance the business community and that new growth from that company would likely come from Schenectady. Nonetheless, Metroplex funded over twenty percent of the total project cost for a company that needed a regional headquarters nearby anyway and certainly had the capacity to fund the entire project by itself. In addition, the project likely required costly infrastructure upgrades and the development of a new site; it created a vacancy at its former site, and failed to enhance the city's downtown or bring new jobs to the region.

If instead, Metroplex had used those resources to help small businesses, the benefit to the region and city could have been much greater. By investing $2.5 million and giving $50,000 to either relocate or develop 50 small companies or retail establishments with ten persons each, the city would have benefited with 500 new jobs. Businesses of this size would also be more likely to support the ones already in the downtown or provide a base for additional businesses. It would not have required any major public infrastructure improvements, and the city would have been more likely to gain some of the employees as residents. It would also be unlikely that the city would lose all or most of these companies at once — as is often the case when there are only a few big companies rather than many small ones. (As has been the case General Electric and American Locomotive.) But as of yet, none of the development authorities, economic development corporations, or other entities that are involved in the downtown have recognized or targeted small businesses as an area or sector of the economy worth supporting.

Become the Leader in Small Business Development

Schenectady is not alone in outspending its budget to lure big businesses into the city. Many of the cities and towns around Schenectady target the same big companies, wasting valuable taxpayer resources by competing for the same market segments rather than trying to identify one that is underserved. Schenectady could become the leader in the area of small business development. By creating an environment that is friendly towards them and one which encourages and facilitates their growth, the city would stand to benefit and get a better return on the taxpayer's investment. The buildings in the downtown could be adaptively reused — preserving and enriching the built environment rather than degrading it. This would help the city provide a unique place which suburban locations would not be able to match.

As many have noted, the city has a product to sell that it could market to attract small businesses. "With its low real estate cost, low housing costs, extensive pool of highly trained workers, diverse educational institutions and opportunities in town or nearby that have very good reputations, as well as a number of cultural and recreational amenities within a half hour to hour's drive, the city has a lot to offer small businesses." By attracting small businesses first, and creating a downtown that is more livable and convenient for its residents, the city would have an easier time attracting bigger businesses down the road. Those businesses are currently not attracted to the downtown because of its condition and the problems that it presents them in terms of recruiting and retaining workers. As one business owner noted, "The downtown currently has no sex-appeal. While there is certainly potential, big companies don't buy potential, they buy the sure thing." There are a number of other communities that have much more to offer in terms of that than Schenectady, therefore, the only thing the city can offer big businesses is money. To do this, the city will have to outspend their rivals to overcome its current sex-appeal deficit. "Rather than go after companies that you have to bribe, the city should look at those companies that will actually appreciate what the city has to offer them." Those businesses in the long run will likely be more loyal and add more of value to the community. They will also create an atmosphere that will help to attract other businesses. But until the city realizes that it must stop "going after the big fish using the wrong bait," it will continue to waste taxpayer money, create little of interest, and miss out on a golden opportunity to build a diversified economic base and a downtown filled with liveliness and opportunity. (1)

Residential Opportunities

Create Housing Above Stores

Many of the organizations working on issues of downtown revitalization or redevelopment recognize the need for a density of nearby residents to help support the downtown. But typically they have looked at the issue from a more zonal philosophy than a fine grained one. Few have strongly endorsed housing mixed into the downtown and many continue to envision the downtown in small zones with arts and entertainment in one area, professional offices in another, and perhaps residential on the outskirts. One problem with relying on the residential population just outside the downtown is that the downtown is for the most part isolated from its surrounding neighborhoods. This makes it difficult to encourage nearby residents to come into the downtown, especially when they are confronted with so many hard edges that must be overcome in order to get there. Many of these are a manifestation of urban renewal projects which created wide, treeless streets with no active uses along them and acres of barren parking lots that leave the nearby streets undefined. The city must therefore begin to introduce housing into the downtown and repair the fine grain and life of the periphery if it hopes to reconnect the downtown with the surrounding neighborhoods. Adding trees along parking lot-bordered streets will probably not create corridors of great interest pulling pedestrians into the downtown.

Add Residential Early in the Process

In 1999, a collaborative study of the downtown was conducted by Hunter Interests Incorporated, an urban economics, finance and real estate development firm from Maryland; Sasaki Associates of Watertown, Massachusetts; O. R. George & Associates of Silver Spring, Maryland; and Synthesis Architects of Schenectady. Out of this came a master plan for the downtown and a set of design guidelines for the downtown as well. While the Hunter Downtown Master Plan for Schenectady does emphasize the need for housing in the downtown, the report recommends that housing be considered in the latter stages of development. But if the city is considering expanding the retail and business environment of the downtown, housing should be addressed in the early stages. Residential relocation for most is much easier and less involved than major business relocations — therefore housing could be implemented rather quickly. In addition, retailers and other service establishments tend to follow the residential population rather than the other way around. Certainly the city should have learned this lesson. In the early 1950s, as people began to move out to the suburbs they were not moving to locate near the new shopping centers; rather the shopping centers were moving to locate near the new residential developments.

Encourage a Mix

As the city begins to consider downtown housing, it is important that it seeks to create a mix of people and not just rely or expect to suddenly have all the young professionals move there. A residential population that is not diversified would do little to stimulate the mix of businesses that will attract others. Rather than target that segment of the population that every other downtown is targeting, perhaps the city could begin by considering what segments of the general population are not being well served within the community and would benefit most from the convenience of a downtown location. Within the city, there is a large segment of the population who as they retire, begin to look for a living situation that does not require the upkeep of the older homes found in most of Schenectady's neighborhoods. For many of these people, the choices are limited to situations such as the condominium developments outside city. But if the downtown began to be seen as a safe, clean, and more active place to live, many retired couples and individuals might trade the isolation of the suburban developments for more urban settings. This would also greatly benefit the downtown, creating a density of people whose schedules are not as regimented as many of the people who work downtown. In addition, these people would patronize a number of businesses that cannot be supported just by the office lunch crowd. And while some seem to think the downtown should be targeting one specific age group, the reality is that the needs of different age groups are not that different. The presence of more people of retirement age would help support a number of businesses that younger people need too. For the downtown to survive it must pursue a healthy mix of ages, incomes, and people.

Student Housing

Another demographic segment of the population that would benefit from living downtown is the local college students and others in that age group. If there are enough housing bargains in the downtown, this group will begin to fill them. Like retirees, this group also has a more flexible and off-hours schedule than those working full-time. Not only would these two groups be served by decent downtown housing, but the downtown would benefit from their presence in the mix — more than if it was filled with just the 20-40 year-old professionals that many in the city hope to attract. The reason for this is that as a group the young professional would offer no more support to the daytime businesses than the office workers. But by starting with the senior and student populations — those with more flexible schedules — some of the basic enterprises that most find vital to have nearby would have the core support needed to be in business. Those business would make the area more attractive to the younger professionals, who together with the college-age group, would be able to begin to support a local night club, bar, or restaurant scene. As all of these groups in varied ways contribute to the downtown, it would become a more enticing place to visit for those people who don't live there. This influx of people that do not live in the downtown or even the city, added to those that do, would contribute towards creating an environment that is dynamic and exciting — one that is able to meet the needs of a diverse group of people and enterprises.

Recognizing Assets

Missed Opportunities

Over the years there have been a number of public and private developments (such as the museum and senior housing) that have been pushed to the outside of the downtown rather than being pulled into it. The city is then left with trying to devise ways to bring the users of these developments into the downtown to add to the critical mass that is needed to support the businesses and services there. Many of these were not seen as opportunities to strengthen the downtown and therefore were not seized upon. One example is the Schaffer Heights senior housing tower that was built at the corner of Nott Terrace and Eastern Avenue. This location, just east of the 22 Block urban renewal area, effectively prohibits any of its residents from walking downtown even though it is only a few blocks away. Nott Terrace, through its street widening and lack of on-street parking (which would act as a buffer), has become a barrier or another edge rather than a seam pulling the two sides together. Combined with the lack of any street trees, the breakdown of its fine grain uses and buildings, and the long expanses of parking lots that border the street, it has not become the type of thoroughfare that anyone would want to walk along to get to the downtown. And although Nott Terrace and Schaffer Heights are located on a public bus route, residents would have to cross five lanes of traffic if they were to take a bus downtown. None of them seem willing to take that chance. While many of the seniors have their own cars, the center does schedule weekly trips to the supermarkets and nearby shopping malls. No rides, however, are offered into the downtown.

Originally Schaffer Heights was supposed to be completely self-sufficient with the first three floors occupied by commercial spaces that would fulfill the residents' needs. It was to have amenities such as a grocery store, hairdressers, doctor's offices, and a number of other establishments that would have benefited the residents — the same type of services that a typical downtown would offer. Despite the fact that the building has 118 apartment units, it never had enough density to support those commercial uses. More of the commercial spaces are rented, for typical office type uses, and are not incidental or beneficial to the residents' needs. (2) They are, however, the types of businesses that would be welcome in the downtown and perhaps create more spin-off benefits by being located there.

Loss of Focal Point

Fig 10.03 [enlarge]

Loss of church as focal point.

Fig 10.04 [enlarge]

View from focal point blocking building.

Fig 10.05 [enlarge]

Although the church is not at the end of Nott Terrace, the bend in the road puts it directly in view from Nott Terrace and State Street.

The additional three floors, which the developers of Schaffer Heights insisted were needed for the commercial spaces, added to the overall height and bulk of this already unsightly and poorly constructed residential tower. It now completely obstructs the view of one of the city's most recognizable landmarks — Saint John the Evangelist Church — from the other end of Nott Terrace. At the same time, the city and Schenectady 2000, a largely volunteer group, have been seeking ways to improve the entrances to the city and the downtown and enhance many of the treeless, edgeless streets. The impetus of this initiative came partially from the President of Union College who had been trying to improve the routes that prospective students would use in coming to visit the campus. Prior to the construction of this residential tower, the church was as a focal point or terminus from the end of Nott Terrace near the top of the State Street hill. As prospective students coming in from Interstate 890 made their way along Broadway and up Veeder Avenue, the church would have come into view as they reached the top of Nott Terrace. Despite the fact the church is not located at the far end of the road, it was still a focal point because the bend in Nott Terrace put it directly in line from that point. Once prospective students passed the bend in Nott Terrace going towards Union College, a new focal point would come into view — the "Blue Gates" of the campus.

If the 118 residential apartment units had been located in the downtown instead, it would have been beneficial to the residents as well as downtown merchants. It might have spurred even more housing to meet the needs of this largely ignored demographic segment. It would have also preserved a view corridor of one of the most distinct, character defining landmarks in the city. In addition, the commercial spaces that were inserted into the tower would be better served in the downtown and add to the mix of businesses there. Unfortunately, then and now, any new construction in or near the downtown is viewed as progress, regardless of how bad the siting of the building is for its users or how much it dishonors the public realm.

Turning Liabilities into Assets

Schenectady needs to be able to envision some of it current liabilities as potential assets. One way to do this is to examine and determine which of the current liabilities could benefit from one another, and through this mutual benefit, be turned into assets. To do this often requires "thinking outside the box" and developing unlikely coalitions or partnerships. In Paterson, New Jersey, new thinking is turning old liabilities into assets and being combined in a way that will begin to improve the school system and at the same time revitalize the downtown.

Bringing Communities and Schools Together

The public schools in Paterson were facing overcrowding and an overall decline in the standards of the schools while at the same time the downtown was undervalued, underutilized and in need of revitalization. With the help of MIT Professor Roy Strickland and a group of MIT students, a series of workshops began to envision ways to integrate the schools into the community. The concept was entitled Designing a City of Learning [free PDF viewer required] and it involved developing a number of smaller subject-focused academies in the downtown and utilizing existing resources such as libraries and local gyms, rather than duplicating them.

Inherent in the concept for Designing a City of Learning was the idea that the physical integration of smaller schools and academies into existing and underutilized buildings in the downtown would be a major catalyst in the area's revitalization. Integral to this concept was the creation of a partnership between schools and community — allowing students to become part of the process and enabling them to be "agents in their own city's renewal." Beyond the physical integration, this concept sought to develop and suggest ways to create curricular linkages between schools and community. Vital to this concept was the idea that students should not just be studying the world around them, but should be involved in improving it. By integrating the learning into the "real world," it was believed that students would become valuable contributors to their communities, and gain a sense of empowerment by knowing that through participation, they could in fact affect change. Furthermore, through this community outreach approach, the students would be exposed to a number of different skills, trades, careers, and educational opportunities. They would inevitably become more informed and respectful citizens of the city, perhaps even one day returning to work for or in the city or school system in a more professional capacity.

The built and natural environment around Schenectady, like Paterson, holds an infinite number of lessons and opportunities for learning. Much of what students are expected to learn in a classroom or a book is all around them — but often outside the confines of the school building. By experiencing and interacting with their environment, the lessons they learn would be much more real and meaningful — as well as long lasting.

Within Schenectady's downtown, a number of these satellite-type schools or academies could be developed around issues of preservation, planning and design, environmental issues, or even around careers in fields such as hotel management and culinary arts. The programs could be linked to colleges in the area as well as businesses and professional firms engaged in these fields. By reusing some of the existing building stock in the downtown, and taking advantage of the public library and other resources, these academies would not need substantial buildings or facilities other than classrooms, space for studios, and computer or science labs.

Students within a planning type program might explore many of the initiatives behind a National Trust for Historic Preservation's Main Street Program which could be implemented in the downtown. Students would add to the volunteer force of such a program, and would likely engage the professionals in a number of thought provoking ideas, as they are typically untainted by what others say will never work. They would bring a fresh perspective to the process, but more importantly Schenectady would be involving a generation in the downtown that otherwise would have little or no connection to it.

Design

Raising the Standards

Fig 10.06 [enlarge]

Buildings built to the edge of lot line or the "build-to-line" and still appearing inviting and allowing for penetrability.

Fig 10.07 [enlarge]

Bank built to the build line, but the effect degrades more than it adds to the street.

For many years, the quality or aesthetics of design were not primary considerations for commercial buildings that were being developed within the downtown or even within the city limits for that matter. When buildings such as the Broadway Center, Schaffer Heights, or the Summit Towers were built, many were not exactly excited by their designs. However, they were just glad to see something going up after the long period of buildings coming down. Today people are more likely to look at the new MVP building and actually say things like How did that ever get approved? or Doesn't the city have any guidelines for design? Even the mayor feels that design is important and that he will be judged by some of the buildings that are built during his administration. The city does have design guidelines in place, although they are only used as recommendations and have no real "teeth" or power.

The design guidelines were developed by Sasaki and Associates as part of the Hunter Master Plan for Downtown Schenectady that was completed in 1999. With regard to Veterans Park and the spaces around it, such as the MVP site, the guidelines recommend establishing a continuous street wall. In addition it suggests that buildings should be "appropriately scaled" and that designs should avoid "excessive setbacks" and have "active ground floor uses." In addition the design guidelines recommend that when parking garages front the street they should be "designed to integrate into the street wall. They should have façades that relate to the scale, proportion, and character of the surrounding buildings." It is clear from the design of the new MVP building that either the design/build team did not have access to the design guidelines or chose to ignore them. About the only condition that they partially met was making the parking garage relate to the surrounding buildings, but that could be because the entire MVP building itself has the characteristics and intimacy of a parking garage.

Guidelines and Performance Expectations

Despite these setbacks, the design guidelines will hopefully contribute to making the quality and characteristics of design part of the discussion when new buildings are being planned. But the design guidelines would have more impact and insure better outcomes if they were expanded to include performance expectations rather than the "one size fits all" approach. It is not enough to say for instance, that "Street trees should be planted in pairs, with each tree in the pair planted fifteen feet apart; each pair of trees should be planted thirty feet from the next pair. The trees should be ornamental and yet dense enough to provide a visual barrier between the road and sidewalks which may then be perceived as separate pedestrian streets." The implications of guidelines such as that must be better understood to ensure that it conforms with the performance that is expected or desired for the trees in relation to the buildings, shopowners, pedestrians, and those residing or working on the upper floors. Historically streets such as State Street were lined with majestic Elms which grew tall and somewhat narrow, were open enough to filter sunlight and still provide shade. They also provided an "umbrella" or ceiling for the street, could be trimmed so that lower branches did not obstruct the views of the shops or some of the upper floors, and helped prevent excessive upward spill of light from the ornamental post-top street lights. The recommendation in the guidelines to plant dense ornamental trees along streets such as State Street if followed may actually have effects that were not intended or desirable. They would obstruct the view of the shops and signs from the street and provide only minimal shade. Their dense outward growth would interfere with the function of the street, the trees would block the downward light from a 20-22 foot tall post-top street light standard, and they would prohibit the view of the sidewalk from the upper floors. In addition, their stunted shapes are perhaps less interesting in terms of sculptural quality than real street trees are. Given the many months that the trees go without leaves, this should be an important consideration. If they are dense enough to provide a barrier between the sidewalk and the street it would also make viewing the shops and activities across the street more difficult.

As critical as good design is to the appearance and character of the downtown, design cannot do everything. When good designs are combined with a bad program, such as a single use office building with no ground floor activity, then the effort is less worthwhile and any positive effect on the liveliness of the downtown environment is severely muted. The downtown might be thought of as great theater that relies on audience participation. No matter how good the design or breathtaking the stage set, if the show is boring, the audience will leave.

Proposed Project

A New Chapter in Schenectady's Transportation and Manufacturing Story

Fig 10.08 [enlarge]

The former Union Station.

Fig 10.09 [enlarge]

Rendering of the proposed Western Gateway Transportation Center, celebrating the present and honoring the past.

One of the most promising big projects that is being envisioned is the creation of an intermodal transportation center where long distance buses, trains, taxis, and local buses will come together. It is a project that has the potential for many value-added benefits. This is a project that would serve the people of Schenectady and some of the outlying areas, as well as some people from much farther. The combined location and mix of uses will invariably create cross-benefits, as people who arrive by rail will be able to transfer to a bus and perhaps patronize nearby shops during their wait. It is an idea that has been a long time in coming. The idea of bringing together buses and trains in a concentrated location was advocated in the 1948 Schenectady Plan. But the buses ended up on lower State Street, the trains stopped coming, and the majestic Union Station was lost.

The design of the new station takes many of the elements and imagery of the old station and combines them in a fresh new way that creates a sense of importance and dignity, without being a mere copy of the old. It also has the potential to greatly enhance an entrance to the city which is currently as degraded and unmarked as is possible. This new station not only celebrates the trains which arrive at the city throughout the day, but it celebrates the importance the railroad has had on the community and its development. It serves to tell part of the city's story, and although it does not undo the mistakes of the past, it could begin to show that the city has at least learned from one of them.

The addition of the transportation museum could help to illustrate the role that transportation has played in the city's development as well as the city's role in the transportation of the country. Combined with the GE Hall of History, this center could play an exciting role in the education of many of the city's school children who know little of the city's development and the industries that made the city what it is — giving meaning to its motto: The City That Lights and Hauls the World. It would also help to improve and transform the image that others have of the city. These are stories waiting to be told and stitched back into the fabric of the downtown.

The Western Gateway Transportation Center by itself will not save the city, and if not planned and considered carefully may do more harm than good. Some of cities that have created intermodel centers, or at least areas where transfers from one form of transportation can be made to another, have created areas largely avoided by the rest of the community. The coming together of hundreds of people in a relatively small area does not guarantee liveliness or activity. If people are dumped into these areas with no opportunity to do anything while they wait, these areas will have no life, activity, or excitement. The plans for this center must accommodate food, entertainment, retail or other places that can serve these people during the varying lengths of stay.

All of these projects and initiatives must be part of an overall goal and long-range vision for the downtown and should help to tell the story of the downtown and the city that the community wants to tell. None of the projects by themselves will save the downtown. Together, all of them can contribute if they are part of an ongoing commitment to make the downtown an interesting and livable place that fulfills the needs of the community and the many outlying areas. If the projects and initiatives are done with the idea of telling and enhancing the story of the downtown and the city, such as the proposed transportation center does, then the projects will be that much more meaningful and worthwhile.

Go to top of page | back to: Shovel Ready Home | Understanding Downtown's Direction | ahead to: Findings and Conclusions

You are here: Home » City of Schenectady » Shovel Ready Home » Chapter 10: New Initiatives for an Old Downtown

http://www.schenectadyhistory.org/schenectady/shovelready/10.html updated October 22, 2010

Copyright 2010 Schenectady Digital History Archive — a service of the Schenectady County Public Library