Over the past seven or eight years, Albany officials have started the process to revitalize the city. It began with the adoption of the 2030 Comprehensive Plan and continued over the past two-years with the updating of the city’s code, known as Re-Zone Albany. These planning processes to make Albany the capital of capital cities were much needed actions, but in order to close the divide between planning and actual doing will take “bold” thinking according to Gene Bunnell, Ph.D in Planning Studies.
Professor Bunnell was the guest speaker at last week’s Capital District Regional Planning Commission “CDRPC@50” Kick-off event at the University Club. The Commission is celebrating its 50-year anniversary with a series of events, and Bunnell is promoting his latest book, Transforming Providence – Rebirth of a Post-Industrial City. This book is a follow-up to his 2002 work, Making Places Special: Stories of Real Places Made Better by Planning. I read Making Places when it first came out, and was interested to hear Bunnell’s insights on Providence fifteen years after he first wrote about that city.
Bunnell’s talk focused on comparing the two capital cities: Providence, R.I. and Albany. He spoke on how close the cities are in size, percentage of rental households (both above 60 percent) as compared to home-ownership, the proximity to a major water body and the deleterious effects of Interstate highways cutting-off parts of the cities from their city centers. Another way the cities are similar, like Rome, Italy, they are both built on seven hills.
I have been to Providence a few times over the years (Okay, decades, I’m old), and I have seen the transformation the city has made from the “armpit” of New England cities, to being a case study on urban revitalization. Also, being a political junkie of sorts, I was fascinated by the trials and tribulations of Providence’s notorious mayor, Buddy Cianci. (For a good history of Mayor Cianci, read The Prince of Providence by Mike Stanton.) Not only are the two cities similar in certain demographics and geography, but you might see similarities between Buddy Cianci and some past Albany mayors. However, while Cianci believed in the preservation of his city’s historic assets, Albany’s mayors destroyed them. (Remember the three hundred-year-old rum distillery that was unearthed during the excavation for a parking garage near Clinton Avenue. The site drew thousands of visitors in just a few days, before Mayor Jennings had it filled in and let the garage be built on top of it. What a tourist attraction that would have been for our city, but, alas, a mayor without vision doomed our history to the piling-pounding machines.) Thus, whereas Cianci encouraged efforts to revitalize his post-industrial city by promoting “bold” ideas such as rehabilitating the homes on College Hill, not demolishing them, Albany’s past mayors chose to bury our city’s history under a parking garage.
Professor Bunnell’s presentation brought to mind a discussion I had many years ago with a former Assembly member. This was during the early stages of trying to get the State to pony-up the funds for the convention center. I suggested that instead of a convention center, we establish a Rebuild Albany Authority and ask for only $25 million (not the $70 million for the convention center) to finance the authority. The authority’s mission would be to finance the rehabilitation of Albany’s vacant/abandoned buildings. The authority would partner with labor unions for the rehabilitation portion of the mission. The unions would be required to hire young people from the neighborhoods, place them in apprenticeship programs, and then guarantee them employment after they finished the training program. The authority would also have a revolving loan fund (see Providence) where prospective purchasers of the newly rehabbed homes, could borrow the money to buy the homes. They then would make ‘mortgage’ payments to the authority. Thus guaranteeing a continuing funding source for the authority years into the future.
I thought this authority could accomplish many things: eliminate the vacant building problem; increase home ownership; teach lifelong skills to our youth who were having trouble finding meaningful employment; increase the city’s tax base; bring new residents into the city; and be the catalyst for reviving our downtown neighborhoods that were neglected for decades and had their fabric destroyed during the so-called urban renewal initiatives of the 1960’s. The response I received from the Assembly member was that this idea was “not sexy enough” as compared to a convention center and that it would not fly. So much for “bold” thinking.
Providence not only saved its historic neighborhoods, uncovered its paved-over waterway, and moved rail tracks to transform the “armpit” of New England into a showcase urban center, it also had to deal with an interstate highway problem. I-195, like Albany’s I-787, separated parts of the city from the city center. Rhode Island spent many years studying how best to relocate I-195 so as free-up acres and acres of valuable land that was just used for highway supports and contributing nothing to the rebirth of Providence. The highway was realigned, a portion of the old I-195 was removed and a whole new section of Providence is now ready for development. In addition, pedestrian amenities, like a bridge and walkways were constructed as part of the realignment. New York State must do the same thing for Albany when it finally decides the future of I-787 (see my column of March 28). Albany should not settle for anything else.
Professor Bunnell pointed out that revitalizing a city takes “bold” thinking, a comprehensive vision, community involvement, financial support from all levels of government, and private-public partnerships. He also emphasized that it takes years to implement the plan. It does not happen overnight. In Providence’s case, the planning for the rebirth of the city began around 1980 and is still going on today. Mayor Sheehan understands this and has taken steps to put into place the recommendations of the 2030 Plan, starting with the Re-Zone Albany initiative. One wonders where Albany would be today if we had previous administrations with a vision for Albany’s future by both incorporating and preserving its history and moving forward with sexy and “bold” ideas.