Monday, October 11, 2010

Albany, New York

As I mentioned previously on my old site, I spent my college years in Troy, NY.  Troy is across the river and just to the north of the state capital of Albany.  The Albany do I put this much of the Northeast, has had ... challenges? ... with urban blight over the past 30, 40 ... 50 years.  I've always felt it's a region with so much history, character and potential, but for some reason, nothing seems to be going their way out there.  But, like here in the Merrimack Valley, there is a can-do spirit out there.  Their paper, The Times Union, appears to have a blog writer who covers urban issues as part of his real estate task.

So, I was Googling around today and by chance stumbled across an interesting blog post associated with the Times Union.  The article was Poll result: Interstate 787 was a big mistake.  The brief article, and many of the comments (this paper, unlike ours, seems to be written for and by a left-leaning populace*), discuss how the riverside interstate highway, much like Boston's old Central Artery, cut the city off from its waterfront.  As someone who lived in the area for years and drove 787 plenty, it's worse than that even because it's underused.  Worst traffic jam in Troy?  Trying to head east out of the city on Route 7, where it went from four lanes to two, on its way to Troy's suburban grocery store and Wal-Mart (the closest grocery store to downtown Troy closed about 2002).  Being ex-rural soon-to-be perfect suburbia out there, there were no real alternate routes.  Back to Albany: Albany's population has fallen from 130,000 in 1950 to about 95,000 today.  While I won't claim that 787 destroyed Albany (I don't think that's fair), it also didn't help it thrive at all.

In Lowell, we might lament the JFK Civic Center.  Well, look what Albany did to itself in the 1960s (allegedly in response to redeveloping a blighted neighborhood): Empire State Plaza.  That's right: tore down an entire neighborhood (about half the size of the North End) for an underground mall, a dead plaza, and some international-style concrete high-rises.

Take a look at an areal view of downtown Albany: note all the pavement, the expressways, how they cut the downtown in half and away from the river.  Look at the Empire State Plaza mega-block, then notice all the vacant lots around downtown (this article on a site by a retired San Francisco urban planner, compares what's wrong with Albany with what's right with Portland, OR).

But, like I said, people out there, like people here, are getting it.  Notice this anti-freeway letter to the editor:  Don't Widen the Northway.

It is nice to see that, at least in some (sizable) circles, interest in re-urbanizing America.  It's nice to see things like Speck's report here in Lowell, and the sentiments of preservation and human-scale living in places in much worse shape, like the Capital District around Albany.  It's also always heartening to see how well Lowell does at this stuff in relation to other struggling cities in the United States.

* A left-leaning media source is going to favor "socialist" topics like urban planning, so why The Sun supports taxpayer-funded, subsidized things like the Hamilton Canal District and Speck's plan is beyond me to be quite honest.



    Sound familiar?

  2. Great article, Brian. The comments, as usual, are kinda fun as well.

  3. I'm usually not a skeptic, but for some of the blighted upstate New York communities, it's hard for me to see what their *hook* might be.

    It's like, with Lowell we've got all the great things that you've written about here on the site (and that Jeff Speck mentioned in his closing comments)..the history, the proximity to so many Boston-area jobs and universities, the location as a Merrimack Valley hub, etc.

    With a place like Albany, I can see where they've got history and affordability. Both are great, and both would make Albany attractive for someone *forced* there (i.e. a medical resident or a New York state gov. employee), but it's hard for me to see what the major draw might be if a city like that is really going to rebound.

    Ditto for many other such places, definitely to include New London, CT (a downtown shell of what it was during the Cold War submarine boom days).

  4. Connecticut has some really charming cities, but yeah, a lot of them are beat up badly. Upstate New York, even more so.

    I recently finished a book called "The Artificial River" that talks about the boon the Erie Canal was to that area, and the problems that also came along with it. The book ends with the 19th century, with the canal being the lifeblood of the region. Today, with the canal long replaced by trains, the St. Lawrence Seaway, etc...well, technology giveth, and technology taketh away.

    Sometimes I get a nagging suspicion about Lowell in that regard as well. We are a city that ultimately came into being for only two reasons: Pawtucket Falls, and proximity to ports at Boston. When they became less important draws due to steam taking over manufacturing, Lowell started a long decline. Is there enough of the pie left around high tech for us to benefit? We've largely been left in the dust here, even though our physical structure (mills make perfect software shops) and regional talent says we should be thriving.