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Shovel Ready: Razing Hopes, History, and a Sense of Place:
Introduction and Thesis Outline

Go back to: Shovel Ready Home | Acknowledgements | ahead to: Downtown Growth and Decline

[This information is from pp. 9-13 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.]

Lively and healthy downtowns are typified by a complex network of interwoven and interdependent activities and users, interacting in close proximity within an environment that is constantly changing. Each change in use or user has the potential to affect many other uses or users of that environment. This complexity and interdependency makes diagnosing and solving the types of problems that invariably occur extremely difficult and far from certain. The problems of a city and its downtown are also inextricably tied to the surrounding neighborhoods, towns, and outlying cities as well as external factors of which cities have little control over. To say that a city could solve the problems of its downtown without considering federal and state policies that affect it, land-use decisions that border it, initiatives that nearby cities have engaged in, or changes in the economy at large would be necessarily naïve. By clarifying the planning process and understanding their goals, cities will more easily be able to frame their problems and create strategies and objectives to reach their goals. By exploring their built environment and the many forces that have shaped it, cities can begin to understand where they are and begin to articulate a vision for where they want to go.

This thesis is an examination of one particular city, Schenectady, New York, and the problems besetting its downtown, which today is a largely vacant and underutilized area of the city. It is one of the many liabilities within the city that needs to be turned into an asset. Although many of the local case studies and initiatives examined are particular to Schenectady, the lessons learned and the approaches outlined might be of use to many small- or mid-sized cities. In addition, the concept of projecting an image and considering what their story is, will also have relevance to other cities.

This thesis is divided into three sections, with a number of chapters within each relating to the overall theme of the section. Section One will provide background material on downtowns in general as well as background on Schenectady's downtown. Chapter One, Downtown Growth and Decline, will consider the development of the downtown in American cities from the mid-1800s until the present. It will consider some of the differences in size, and outline some of the general forces that have affected them and the solutions that have generally been employed to deal with them. Chapter Two, Schenectady's Downtown Story, will look at how the city and downtown relate to the site of its original settlement, and track some of the major forces that have affected it since that time. It will also briefly cover some of the planning and redevelopment issues that the city has dealt with and highlight some of the projects as they relate to what was going on in the national scene as described in the first chapter. The final chapter of this section, Chapter Three, Character, Image and Other Reasons Downtown is Important, will underscore many of the positive effects a downtown can have on the city as well as outlying towns and suburbs. An understanding of why downtowns are important and the roles that they play or should be playing is crucial to the mission of cities that have embarked on programs to revitalize their core. Without this background and understanding, it is difficult to respond to the many critics who question why so much time, energy, and money should be spent on the downtown.

Section Two of this thesis will deal with past projects and proposals that occurred in Schenectady. The first chapter within this section, Chapter Four, Urban Renewal and Yesterday's "Town of Tomorrow," will deal with grand visions of the past, starting with Schenectady's "1947 Town of Tomorrow" plan and the many urban renewal schemes that followed throughout the 1950s, 60s and even into the 70s. Although they started as a number of individual projects, they were collapsed into one major project that erased a residential section of the downtown east of the City Hall. Chapter Five, Assumptions, Directions, and an Overall Vision, will look at the planning process as a simple problem solving process and explain where many of those plans, projects, and initiatives seem to go wrong. Chapter Six, Rethinking the 22 Block Urban Renewal Project, will build on the tools and understanding developed in the previous chapter, and consider what alternatives Schenectady could have explored by using the simple problem-solving technique described. It will also look at what effect the overall vision or story of the downtown has on its direction. Finally it will consider the effect that a different way of thinking would have had on the form of the city. Chapter Seven, Other Projects to Learn From, will briefly outline a few other projects that occurred in the downtown and apply the model of thinking and problem solving to see where they went wrong and consider if the mistakes could have been avoided.

Section Three will consider the future of Downtown Schenectady. Its first chapter, Chapter Eight, A Tale of Two Downtowns, will consider two different downtowns in transition as well as the directions that either could take and where it might lead them. Chapter Nine, Understanding Downtown's Direction, will consider the trajectory that different decisions and projects have for downtowns. It will look at the current developments that are underway in Schenectady, and explore the characteristics of those types of developments and consider what type of downtown they are leading to. Chapter 10, New Initiatives for an Old Downtown will make recommendations about Schenectady's downtown and consider developments and initiatives that would help direct it towards being a downtown of character, hope and one which exhibits a sense of place.

Although the point of this thesis is to add to the discourse of downtown revitalization, it will not be filled with prescriptive fixes or formulaic models that can be applied to Schenectady. In some ways, this approach has been tried in the past and the current condition of the downtown will easily illustrate the ineffectiveness of such an approach. This thesis is written with the clear understanding that even with endless research, it is almost impossible to understand how or why each decision was made. Likewise, it is impossible to know for sure what motivated the people involved, or what assumptions led them to believe that the proposal they were advocating would solve the problems that they had identified. But through published reports, press releases and other documentation, we can begin to get a picture of the public side of what the goals and motivations behind each project were. But more importantly, the outcome of each project will help illustrate the effectiveness of each.

In some ways, this thesis tells a set of stories about the circumstances and outcomes of the various attempts to repair the downtown of Schenectady. As Kevin Lynch wrote in A Theory of Good City Form, "The city may be looked on as a story, a pattern of relations between human groups, a field of physical force, a set of linked decisions, or an arena of conflict." In many ways, when a city begins to understand the story of its past and the forces that have shaped it, it can begin to look at adding to that story and reinforcing the image that it wants to project. When the story is only about the past, or concentrates exclusively on the present, the story is inevitably stagnant and dull. When the present is seen as part of the continuum, the story can be rich and meaningful, as many cities have found. Many of these cities which are talked about as comeback cities, cities back from the edge, cities that have been revitalized, reborn, or renewed, have rediscovered their story, capitalized on it to create a new image, and used it to guide their revival. Providence, Rhode Island's renaissance is a story of a once forgotten river, uncovered and brought back to life. Lowell, Massachusetts' rebirth is the story of rediscovered mills and a city that continues to learn from itself. Saratoga, New York's success is one of renewed respect for historic resources and the stories behind them. Each of these cities has figured out that before you can get others to discover your city, you must rediscover it yourself.

In many ways, this thesis is a series of stories, linked by time, location, and process. It is a story about a city filled with thousands of citizens who give up so much of their time in an effort to improve their community. It is a story of a business community that has historically tried to come together to solve the problems of the downtown. It is about architects and planners who have worked tirelessly to try to dream and envision what Schenectady could be. It is a story of politicians and other leaders who have worked hard and fought against tremendous odds to "bring back the downtown."

But unfortunately it is also the story of a city that has yet to realize the potential of two of its greatest downtown assets — its buildings and its story. It is a story of political infighting, and coalitions often based on power rather than on sound ideas. It is a story of a city that has failed to coordinate the many disparate efforts of individuals and groups working hard to save the downtown. It is a story of leaders whose understanding of preservation is more out of date and obsolete than the buildings they claim are no longer of use. It is story of a city that has yet to discover the many benefits of a small, coordinated and incremental approach to revitalizing the downtown. It is the story of large projects and the seduction of big, and quite often, federal money.

But perhaps most unfortunately, it is a story of a city that has spent the last 50 years gradually (and sometimes not so gradually) erasing the history of its previous 100 years. It is sadly the story of lessons learned, unlearned and not yet re-learned. It is in essence, the story of a city that has yet to discover its own story. This thesis is written with the hope that it will add to the dialog, expand the visions, and play some part in getting Schenectady to rediscover and perhaps tell a new version of its story so that it can begin to write the next chapter.

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