A few weeks ago, as I sat in the back of Room 2-C in the Albany Capital Center listening to the consultants’ presentation on the “Downtown Albany Planning and Feasibility Study” relating to the future redevelopment of the original convention center site, it became quite apparent that the divide between where we want to be tomorrow, and where we are today, is at least as wide as that eight-acre site.
But, let me digress for a moment before getting into the meat of the matter. Why, in this brand new facility, was the Albany Convention Center Authority (ACCA) holding a special public meeting with no sound system in use? The public and the press sat a hundred feet or more back from the acting chairperson, and it was almost impossible to hear what was being said. This is unacceptable. I hope the ACCA will use microphones and speakers at their next meeting. If that is not possible in this modern facility, then, perhaps, a bullhorn could be passed from member-to-member as they speak so we can hear what is being discussed.
The first, and probably biggest obstacle to overcome before any development of this site can happen, is for New York state to decide which state entity is going to take control of the property. Currently, the ACCA is the landowner. However, according to their legal advisors (and I agree), the ACCA is constrained from being the property manager/sales agent of this land by the narrowness of their charge under the state legislation that created the ACCA. The ACCA pointed this out in its public notice for the meeting: “The Authority was created to meet an immediate need…of convention activities.” To separate the ACCA from the unneeded property it bought, it was proposed that the Office of General Services (OGS) take over the marketing of the land. Never happened. Then, Empire State Development (ESD) was going to be the lead agency. Never happened, but they did fund the $250,000 “Planning & Feasibility Study.” So, as of today, the ACCA has ownership of eight acres of property that it can’t sell or transfer, except under extremely restrictive Public Authorities Law guidelines. Thus, until this situation is straightened out, any future redevelopment of the site is in limbo and the land remains untaxable.
I gave the report an Incomplete, because the two conceptual plans presented by CHA Consulting, Inc., et al., left out more than it put into the report. The two concepts were basically the same: 200-300 one- and two- bedroom apartments; expanding the green space known as Liberty Park; demolishing the vacant art deco-style Trailways bus station; some retail; inclusion of 48 Hudson Avenue – the Van Ostrande-Radcliff House (Block 1 of the 7 Block design format) in the plans for a residential structure; a possible movie theater; and, of course, lots of parking. What it left out: creating a transportation hub at the Greyhound Bus terminal site; a connection to the Hudson River and the Slater; the future of the Irish American Heritage Museum, which is looking to expand and needs a larger space; the future home of the Albany Firefighters’ Museum; a Hudson Valley Welcome Center; or any other cultural amenity/tourist attraction.
This major oversight may not be the direct fault of the consultants; it may have been part of the directive given to the team from ESD. Guidelines that limited the study to only the exact layout of the original convention center site, and to totally exclude not-for-profits from any consideration in favor of another market-rate apartment building. The study does reference Albany’s Dutch history, but it makes zero suggestions on how to connect present-day Albany to the historic Fort Orange and Beverwijck community.
There was no proposal for constructing a fossil-fuel-free community that could serve as a model for future urban development, such as using solar panels and geothermal in the design of the new buildings. The 54-page report did reference rain gardens, porous surfaces and catch basins as environmentally friendly amenities in three very short paragraphs. But these suggestions are about as basic as you can get when talking about easing the effect we have on climate change through “Smart Cities” development.
I found no imagination in this report. No “bold” thinking, as Prof. Bunnell suggested was necessary for Albany to become a more vibrant city. I think one reason for this same old, same old report/study is because ESD used the same consultants used in the past. (I saw some of the same faces at the presentation that I saw 20 years ago when the school district was planning the rebuilding of our school buildings.) This is by no means a knock on CHA, it’s just that we may need to bring in a group that is not familiar with Albany. A group, like the city did with the ReZone Albany consultant team, that can see Albany with fresh eyes, with no preconceived notions. A team that thinks outside the Albany-is-Albany box and sees potential that familiarity misses. The consultant team referenced earlier studies when researching what would be feasible for redeveloping the site. A redevelopment plan that the report states will take at least seven years to accomplish. Well, add in the wasted time delay until the proper state entity takes control of the marketing the site, the use of old reports/studies, and a minimum of seven years to complete the project, and you could be looking at designing a community that is no longer what the next generation of city dwellers is interested in calling their home. Bold and futuristic thinking is needed here, not the same old, same old of this report.
Where’s the Beef? The report never mentioned homeownership opportunities, just more rental property, as if we don’t have enough of that already. The study mentions making this new neighborhood family-friendly, but only proposes one- and two-bedroom apartments. Where are the proposals for single-family or two-family homes and workforce housing and affordable units? Or, is this proposed community targeted only to singles or couples with no children and in the upper-income tax brackets, thus making another section of the city off-limits to low-wage workers and families with children?
Originally, they called this report a “draft.” On the ESD website, it now states that it is the “Final” report. Well, if this is “final,” ESD wasted a quarter-of-a-million dollars, for this report is nowhere near a finished product. I think I have to change my grade of Incomplete to an “F” for failure to think boldly and to look beyond yesterday’s studies to tomorrow’s possibilities.