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Shovel Ready: Razing Hopes, History, and a Sense of Place:
Findings and Conclusions

Go back to: Shovel Ready Home | New Initiatives for an Old Downtown | ahead to: Chapter Notes

[This information is from pp. 135-143 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.]

There is magic to great streets. We are attracted to the best of them not because we have to go there but because we want to be there. The best are asjoyful as they are utilitarian. They are entertaining and they are open to all… They are symbols of a community and of its history; they represent a public memory. On a great street we are allowed to dream; to remember things that never have happened and to look forward to things that, maybe, never will.

Allan B. Jacobs, Great Streets

The research for this thesis has taken me through more than fifty years of Schenectady's planning and development history and allowed me to look into the process and problems of a number of major projects in the downtown. The retrospective view and the compressed time frame within which history can be viewed makes it possible to identify trends, anomalies, or common mistakes. For Schenectady, there are a number of mistakes that seem to be repeated in project after project and a number of themes and faulty assumptions that have continually plagued the planning process. But considering the interdisciplinary nature of the planning and the politically-charged environment in which it inevitably takes place, it is sometimes understandable how projects can get sidetracked and fail to meet their expectations. Furthermore, given the hundreds of decisions that must be made along the way and infinite number of variables as well as the sometimes unpredictable externalities, it is indeed often more surprising when a project actually turns out as planned. For Schenectady, projects in the downtown turning out as expected or delivering as promised has been one of the anomalies of the city's planning history. Schenectady's past efforts to revitalize the downtown have been filled with high expectations and poor results. Much of this stems from a lack of vision or imagination about what the downtown is and what it can be. The projects and initiatives that have been undertaken show little understanding of how to weave together the stories and fabric of the past and present, in such a way as to add to the value and richness to those of the future.

Since the late 1940s, Schenectady has shown a strong tradition of tearing down old buildings. This is typically done under the faulty assumptions that either the buildings are too old, obsolete, or just not reusable in any way, and that a site without buildings is some how more appealing and enticing to developers. In many cases where this was done, development never materialized, while in others it did not happen as envisioned, or it happened as planned but in a way which runs counter to the needs of an intricately mixed community. This "rush to demolition" attitude has had a profound effect on the form of the city, its downtown, and the relationship of one area or neighborhood to the next. The loss of the fine grain of the downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods, both in the context of the buildings and their uses, has left the downtown isolated and the connections to it weak and uninviting. It has created a hole in the fabric of the city and an unnecessary gap in its story.

Many of the projects that have been built in the downtown are out of scale with their surroundings and tend to overpower rather than blend into the site. The massing and exposure of some of the new buildings as well as the large sites they occupy give them an expanse of street frontage that makes it impossible for them to fit into the context of the downtown. Few of them allow for the variations in use or the off-beat rhythm and syncopation in form that the rest of the downtown buildings exhibits. The overpowering single-uses of these buildings and their lack of ground floor space with any public purpose creates large areas where pedestrians have no reason to interact with the very private buildings or uses that border the public realm.

Over the past fifty years or more, the city has shown a marked tendency for the big projects that are almost always promoted as something that will save the downtown. Headlines and stories hail each new round of projects as the panacea for the downtown. Whether the public is swayed by the hype swirling around each one is difficult to determine. But the sheer repetition of lofty promises followed by the sobering realities of what gets built or often does not, probably does little to bolster the confidence and faith of the public in the future of the downtown. Likewise, it probably does little to enhance the image people outside the community hold of the city. The poor image of the city and its lack of a clear vision, keep many who might otherwise consider moving there or investing in its future from doing so.

The cities of Lowell and Lawrence, Massachusetts, two very similar post-industrial New England mill towns, have often been compared with each other. The story of Lowell has been one of success after success, while Lawrence has been the story of an incredibly long string of failures. The question is often raised, Why is one a success and the other a failure? The answers often point to things such as the quality, understanding and vision of dynamic leaders. They also point to opportunities and the ability to capitalize on them. With each failure in Lawrence, success becomes harder to achieve, while in Lowell success only seems to beget more success. For Lawrence, its inability to get things done only seems to push away critical outside investment and further limits its opportunities. Early on Lowell understood itself and the story it wanted to tell. It found creative reuses for old mills, created opportunities for learning, and embraced a new immigrant population that has added much to the character of the city. Lawrence meanwhile, has not discovered a story it can tell. As a city it does not yet know what it wants to be, except perhaps, Lowell.

Despite the failure of so many of Schenectady's big projects, the city still shows a marked reluctance to tackle the issues of the downtown from a more comprehensive street level approach. Inevitably, this would entail respecting the existing built environment and seeking creative ways to reuse building and spaces before rushing to tear them down. To be sure, this is not an easy approach. It does not usually grab headlines, it may not advance political careers, and it surely will not happen overnight. Yet it remains a strategy that a number cities are using. It is one that lessens the burdens on the taxpayer, but often produces a greater benefit.

The story of Troy, New York has been one of a city that has shown great respect for the downtown and the architecture of the buildings there. People during the urban renewal days "literally stood in front of bulldozers to save some buildings … a culture of caring for the older properties that continues today." For Troy, the downtown remains the heart of the community and is intricately linked to the surrounding neighborhoods. The city's collective respect for the built environment has now led to the restoration of an enormous investment in buildings such as the Rice Building which is being reused as a high-technology incubator space for new companies, with ties to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute [RPI]. The city sees it not just as the Rice Building but the intersection of two very important streets. It is a building which celebrates and honors that corner and respects and adds value to the buildings around it. The effect of that investment has spread. A number of other buildings were reused to create the Arts Center of the Capital Region, which brings in thousand of students each day. The character of the older buildings, as they are restored into first class office spaces is turning them into desirable business addresses. And the fine grain and small scale-uses which fits into the mix is making the environment of downtown Troy a desirable residential address as well. It is a city that recognizes its strength, and for Troy its "strength is the built environment." (1)

Currently there is not a consensus among the many organizations or city departments in Schenectady about how to deal with or help new businesses that want to locate in the downtown or reuse the existing buildings. There does not seem to be any "one-stop" department or organization that can best handle this issue or help new businesses find a location that is both suitable to their needs and beneficial to the overall downtown environment. This lack of coordination leads to the placement of many businesses that do not require or even benefit from street level exposure in those prime spaces. These businesses add little to those areas and would perform a real service either by being located in second floor spaces or not being located on streets that have potential for becoming a more vibrant retail area.

Despite an understanding, at least in print, for the need to introduce housing into the downtown, there have been few initiatives over the years to encourage it. There are a few buildings such as the former Barney's Department Store that have been adaptively reused as residential apartments. However, most of the upper floors of buildings in the downtown remain empty or house a largely unlawful group of citizens that do more to detract from the image of the downtown than add to it. Currently, many of those involved in the city's planning still see the downtown as a primarily business area with some retail which would be supported, in part, by the residential neighborhoods surrounding the downtown.

It is astounding how many of the decisions made about major projects through the years were so deeply politically motivated. Rather than attack the problems of the city in a concrete way, the internal politics and workings of the city often serve to prop up projects that should never have gotten past the initial proposal stage, and bring down others that would be beneficial to the community. Too often projects and even the construction of new buildings have been undertaken based not on their benefit to the community, but on their benefit to private individuals, politicians, political parties or others who hold positions of power. For the most part, these have not provided a return for the public investment that has gone into them. The response by many has been to say that's just politics or that happens everywhere. But clearly it doesn't happen everywhere and at most other cities manage to spend more time and effort working towards community goals than obstructing progress for political or personal gain.

For many years the city has looked at its built environment as expendable and has failed to realize the benefits that can be gained by respecting its existing cultural resources. The city, however, has in general been a good steward for its own city hall, a National Historic Landmark designed by the firm of McKim, Mead and White. But it has yet to formulate policies or make decisions that would indicate to any potential investors that the city sees its downtown and the building in it as assets to build upon. In fact, many of its policies and decisions have done the opposite and encouraged disinvestment in the existing buildings and promoted parking lots over buildings. For over five years the city through its Industrial Development Agency [IDA] has owned the Hough Building on corner of State Street and Broadway. This building is one of the most prominent structures along that stretch of the downtown and is vital to defining and adding identity to that corner intersection. During the time this building has been under the city's control it has continued to deteriorate, and few if any measures have been taken to stabilize the structure. At the same time, the city has been advocating for new developments at that location which do not include a reuse of the Hough Building. Those who have been in control of this building have stated that the building is too deteriorated to be saved and should be demolished. While this may be the case at this point, it raises the question of whether the attitudes and actions of some have created a self-fulfilling prophecy. As one of those in power pointed out "We're really stuck with a town of a lot of crap buildings. They're not even historically interesting." Similar to the planners-blight of the urban renewal area, this demolition by neglect that is occurring will cause more of the fabric and fine grain of the downtown to be lost. Tearing down the Hough Building and replacing it with something that looks just like it, as some have suggested, accomplishes very little and is an economically inefficient solution. Other recent proposals such as trying to save the façade of the Gazette building and connecting it to the new DOT building with glass atrium set back from it by 15 feet would have destroyed any context for the old building and would have taken the idea of the street as theater and the buildings as a stage set just a little too far.

Conclusions

Perhaps one of the longest running themes over the last 50 years in Schenectady's attempts to "help" the downtown and ensure "progress" has been the idea that tearing down buildings and making empty sites is an enticement to developers. That approach was the impetus for this thesis and the inspiration for its title. In the 1950s, the newspapers reported that "A bare spot on the face of the city is the first part of a dream come true. Houses were banged down and piles of debris shoveled out of the way." (2) Planners and politicians began to speak of removing buildings to make the sites "shovel ready." Those words remain part of the vocabulary and are embedded in the philosophy of Schenectady's city planning today. During the urban renewal period hundreds of buildings and homes were destroyed, history was ignored, and the sense of place lost — all in the hopes that it would lead to a better downtown. And for years the sites sat empty… shovel ready and waiting. Developers were not lining up as expected and when they did, they were not delivering as promised. Today it is clear that this trend and the underlying assumptions — if the city can just acquire and remove more buildings, they will be able to make the sites more attractive to developers is still prevalent. The following is from the meeting minutes of the Metroplex Development Authority: "request for action from the committee regarding this project indicating funding is necessary to acquire a 'shovel ready' site to entice developers" (3) This was in November of 1999. Schenectady continues to see old buildings not as opportunities for reuse, rebirth or regeneration, but as shovel ready sites in the making. Meanwhile other cities are capitalizing and building on their existing stock of buildings and in the process beginning to uncover and build on their stories. William Holly Whyte argues that this not only creates better design, but when old buildings are seen as a means for revitalizing downtowns rather than an obstacle, the results are worth the effort:

It is significant that cities doing best by their downtowns are the ones doing best at historic preservation and reuse. Fine old buildings are worthwhile in their own right, but there is greater benefit involved. They provide discipline. Architects and planners like a blank slate. They usually do their best work, however, when they don't have one. When they have to work with impossible lot lines and bits and pieces of space, beloved old eyesores, irrational street layouts, and other such constraints, theyfrequently produce the best of their new designs — and the most neighborly. (4)

Schenectady has spent the last fifty years or more continually trying to wipe the slate clean. In many cases the slate remains blank, and there are few ideas on how to fill it. Too often, when the slate is wiped clean, the story is also.

There are, however, a number of projects, proposals, and organizations that are cause for some optimism. One of the most unusual organizations in the way it was created is the Metroplex Development Authority. It has enough separation between politics and the business community to give it an opportunity to be supportive of projects based solely on how they will benefit the community in the long run. It has the capacity and the resources to take the lead in the effort to revitalize Schenectady's downtown. It also has a dynamic and competent leader who is not entrenched in one way of doing things but open to new ideas and a new way of thinking about the downtown. But the organization must begin to consider the findings of its own studies, and realize that big development projects offer little to the host community. If they begin to use their resources and the taxpayers' money to promote small businesses, residential opportunities, and the reuse of buildings in the downtown, they will play an enormous part in changing the path of the city and in helping to spark a rebirth of the downtown.

One of the most important proposals currently being considered is the creation of a Business Improvement District [BID] that will help encourage and promote small business. If it is created and staffed with a full-time manager who will work to place new businesses in the downtown, it will be filling a role that no other organization or department in the city is taking care of. By undertaking an inventory of downtown buildings and spaces and entering them in a database that is tied in with the city's tax department and perhaps the County's Geographic Information Sysytem [GIS], BID could help to locate new businesses in ways which create synergistic relationships with nearby businesses. The success of BID and its ability to fill the gap of small business locations and other assistance is dependent on coordination with other city departments and organization working in the downtown. If it can begin to do this, BID will greatly enhance the ability and the efficacy of attracting and locating new small businesses.

One of the most promising projects, as outlined earlier is the Western Gateway Transportation Center. It will help the city to rediscover part of its past and begin to capitalize on the richness of its story. It is an example of what is possible when the city starts to consider the resources that are already within its borders and brings them together in a way that allows each one to build and gain value from the other. It is an example of a story that builds on both past mistakes and successes. It is a story of the past being used to create a link to the future.

The story of Schenectady's other transportation system, the Erie Canal, is also rich and full of possibility. It is a story that is waiting to be rediscovered and retold. And as with Providence's uncovering of its rivers, stories can become richer with age. Like a good storyteller, Providence has embellished and continues to add to its story in ways that make it more powerful and perhaps more meaningful each year. Its river and its connection with the city continue to get stronger. Its story is not just about the past, but about the present and the future.

Schenectady's is a story about canals and railroads. It is also the story about big industries, American Locomotive and General Electric. It is a city that is replete with stories about great ingenuity and enterprising people. It can be the story of city that discovered how to capitalize on a built environment in the downtown that was the manifestation of its two big industries, and use it to reinforce and attract hundreds of new small business.

It is the story of a city that was burned and rebuilt. It is the story of a city that grew-up quickly and started to die more slowly. The stories it decides to tell as a community will determine whether it becomes a city forgotten, a city rebuilt, or one which has been reborn. (5) And as the city begins to retell, enhance, and embellish its story, it will become a city which raises hopes, builds on its history, and reinforces its own sense of place.

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