The sad truth is that the proposal for an 11-screen cinema at One Monument Square deserved to die. It deserved to die far more than the proposal for a non-profit to tear down Leonard Hospital and build affordable housing, whose death resulted in Troy issuing a 2.5-million-dollar bond to tear down the aging, asbestos-filled liability. Some claim that a failure to develop the former City Hall site now, mixed with persistent NIMBYism, would give Troy a reputation bad enough to scare developers away. If Troy has such a reputation, Troy already has it. So be it. If Troy has it, it’s because this process has been plagued by impropriety ever since Tutunjian tore down City Hall on New Year’s Eve (a Totally Normal thing to do). Tutunjian now warns that people may fall in love with the river view from Monument Square, forgetting that he made the hole—afraid that an incoming Democratic governor would try to screw the good people of city by clawing back what Senator Bruno gave. If Troy has it, it’s because of city council president Carmella Mantello’s unpredictable grandstanding that killed the Leonard Hospital redevelopment.
So woe to the city planner who relies on the largess of a single politician to bring wealth to the city. Woe to the city whose politicians’ idea of governing is to drive the city deeper into debt just to make a handful of constituents happy.
But Troy doesn’t have such a reputation. Like many cities, Troy is, if anything, too friendly to developers. The city’s Industrial Development Authority appears to give tax breaks to projects that might come to the city anyway. Bow Tie’s claim that its cineplex would bring 10,000 people a week to downtown Troy was taken at face value by the city, despite being false on its face (their other area cinemas have vastly underperformed such promised numbers). Vic Christopher claimed he would have opened his luxury restaurant seven days a week, but he has apparently never been to the movies on a Tuesday, when cinemas scrape by with a few dozen patrons. Somehow its “luxury” amenities would bring more people in—even as such amenities are increasingly standard in the battle against Netflix and people won’t pay extra for them. And so on. Bow Tie’s business plan seemed to be to hope Troy continues to gentrify, that new urbanism would bring more patrons downtown over the long throw of their tax break. And Bonacio Construction would cash in by building the biggest cinema it could convince Bow Tie to operate, rather than a more modest six or seven screens. I had bet a friend five bucks that, should the thing get built, it would close within two years of their tax break expiring.
To many citizens, there appeared to be some collusion between planning commissioner Steve Strichman and developers he had worked with previously in Schenectady—and yet now Troy is “unfriendly to developers.” Even as Strichman works to bring LAZ Parking to Troy from Schenectady in a no-bid process, there’s Definitely No Way he favors companies with which he already has a relationship. Nevermind that handing parking to private managers, by definition, will drive costs up for the people of Troy because, well, they have to make their money somewhere. I’m not saying there was collusion, and normally I wouldn’t want to fault someone for doing business with folks they already trust, but even the slightest hint of corruption is enough to taint a process. Democracy matters.
Woe to the city that relies on deals made by capitalists behind closed doors for sustainable development.
Leonard Hospital failed because it failed to get community buy-in, and the city council buckled to pressure (even though that pressure looked like racist dog whistling to many outside the neighborhood). A robust process that considered the good of the whole city may have gotten it built, just as a more robust process would have killed an 11-screen cinema from the start. What Troy needs is more democracy, not less. What Troy needs is more friendliness to citizens, not developers. City Hole may be a hole, but it is the people’s hole.
That hole remains empty, and some of the grants for it once again risk being clawed back because it’s been a while. Regardless of what happens, that real estate will only become more valuable in the coming years. The city owns it, and because they—we—own it, the people of the city maintain leverage, even without grants, over what gets built there. Any future RFP must have parameters based upon the long-term plan for downtown and the waterfront. For now, we’ve got an empty, publicly owned waterfront lot in the middle of the city and folks should be creative about using it. And Troy must figure out how to reign in the undemocratic IDA, and maybe even abolish the damn thing (because the tax incentives they offer businesses don’t even work). And let’s hope Bow Tie and Bonacio follow through with their renovation of the American Theater, just up River Street, like they planned, promised, and got grant funding for.
Troy’s fiscal ship must get righted, but tax breaks upon tax breaks push the cost for city services onto the poor and the middle class, and away from those with the most resources and most ability to pay—like the proposed garbage fee does. Those with capital to invest and those harvesting rents from the working class should be the ones paying the most. Until such reforms, every major development involving public land will continue to face the backlash that One Monument Square and Leonard Hospital have seen. Troy can’t simply fill City Hole, we have to make the city—forgive the pun—whole, with sustainable development. Too many developers and would-be Troy boosters would prefer the former, but the neighbors, the small businesses, that is, the people—we want the latter. There are countless other holes in the city, from parking lots to vacant buildings, and Troy deserves a just and fair process for development that emphasizes the long-term interests of residents over those of developers and absentee landlords.