Closing the "reassurance gap" in downtown Albany

north pearl street 2012-08-08

Yesterday Jerry Jennings and a group of downtown Albany business people stood in Albany City Hall to reassure everyone that the Pearl Street area is on the edge of a major change that will turn the city's downtown into a 24/7 community.

You probably know the reason for this affirmation session: the comment from Ralph Spillenger -- the owner of the Bayou Cafe and the soon-to-be-closed Jillian's -- that his business had failed, in part, because people are afraid to go downtown because of crime.

So, who's right? This situation is complicated because so much of it depends on perception.

But there are ways to make it clearer.

Standing next to Spillenger at yesterday's press conference, watching him, he appeared to be heartbroken by everything that's happening. Anyone in his situation would be. He says he's invested more than $1 million in Jillian's and it failed. He's probably felt like he's been fighting an uphill battle, and it has to be upsetting to see crime -- or even just bad behavior -- happening while trying to keep things afloat. From that perspective, it doesn't really matter what people say about the broader picture, if you see crime happening firsthand, crime is a problem. It'd be easy to latch on to that as one of the reasons things have gone the wrong way.

So Spillenger let loose in the Times Union and on Facebook and "people are afraid to come to downtown Albany" became one of this week's big stories. It's an idea that fits easily in people's minds and discussions. For so long there's been a perception that cities are not safe places, that they're crime riddled. Spillenger's comment was just another log on that fire.

Downtown Albany Crime -Press Conference .jpg

Yesterday's press conference was an attempt to dispel that image. Albany police chief Steve Krokoff told the gaggle that crime is actually down in Albany -- citywide it's down 17 percent this year, and in the North Pearl area it's down 50-60 percent. But, he acknowledged, people still perceive the area as unsafe. He called the difference a "reassurance gap." "There's a difference between what statistics tell you and how people feel," Krokoff said. He told the crowd at the press conference that the city, police, and area businesses need to work together to close that reassurance gap.

Standing behind the mayor yesterday were a host of business people who know that. Store owners, restaurateurs, and business leaders -- they've done well downtown, and are happy to be investing in the area. They can see downtown Albany as a place people will want to live and shop and visit. They're already having success. As we found out during Real Estate Week, most of the new apartments in the downtown Albany area are rented, and there's even a waiting list for some of the units that are still in construction. If you're one of those developers or business owners, you're probably thinking downtown Albany's looking pretty great right now.

Closing the gap

So how to close this gap, to somehow reconcile these varying perceptions of what's happening there?

Here are a few ideas:

Keep fighting
Crime is down in the Pearl Street area? Great. Keep pushing, even on the little stuff. Let people see that you're making the effort.

Show us the data
It's fine for the APD to cite crime stats, but the city could do a much better job sharing this sort of data with the public. So regularly publish the data in an understandable way. Make it easy for people to look up the data for neighborhoods so they can see what's happening. The APD has a crime map -- and we applaud the effort -- but it could be much better. We hear that department is working on some new ways of sharing info with the public, so we hope it's moving in the right direction.

Tell the story
Good things are happening in downtown Albany? Great. Tell people about it. Over and over and over again. If you don't tell your own story, someone else will tell it for you -- and there's a good chance you're not going to like the way do it.

We've thought for a while now that some of the urban areas of the Capital Region could use some marketing -- not just to people outside the area, but to people here, even people in those cities. It's easy to get stuck thinking something's the way it's always been, so you have to nudge people out of that. There are a lot of talented marketing people around -- some of them right in downtown Albany -- maybe they can help.

Provide opportunities for people to be there
There are already a lot of events in downtown Albany, which is good. It's important to keep coming up with opportunities for people -- whether it's young people, families, older people, all sorts of people -- to spend time there. Every visit is a chance for people to form their own perceptions of the place.

And there can virtuous feedback loop to that, too. We had a good time at the outdoor movie at the Empire State Plaza this week -- we had dinner downtown, the walked over for the movie. As we were watching Captain Kirk, it struck us that there were hundreds of people basically lounging, having a nice time, outside in the city at night. That sends a message that, hey, you can be safe here.

Understand things aren't always going to be smooth
If downtown Albany really is undergoing a transformation into a 24/7, multi-use neighborhood, there are going to be some bumps along the way. As the crowds change, and new competition arrives, the existing businesses will have to adapt. That probably means some of them aren't going to make it. And while that's very difficult for the owners and the people who work there, it's not necessarily a bad thing for the city.

Change is hard. Changing people's perceptions might be even harder.


Since my place of business relocated to Troy, Albany is less the center of my life than it once was. But I will say that I have never felt particularly unsafe in downtown Albany. A few months ago I hung out after First Friday downtown in Corning Preserve for an hour or so. Had the place pretty much to ourselves and it never occurred to me that maybe we should be fearful. We spent a good bit of time wandering the streets and ended up at one of the Pearl St. bars (damned if I remember which one) and enjoyed ourselves before heading out of town.

I think the thoughts you've expressed here are all good. I know I'd love to see Albany become a more vibrant place to be at night with stores, restaurants, and entertainment venues all thriving. Count me among the older crowd though.

This article is ridiculous and crime is not the issue here. The real problem that the whole downtown bar scene is changing and Jillians and the Bayou are not. People are not going there because they don't want to pay a cover charge when there are plenty of other fresh new bars like The City Beer Hall and the Old English Pub that don't have a cover charge. Also the entire downtown scene is moving out down Broadway where Wolfs and the Barrel Saloon are. Trust me, Ive been downtown many a time and I feel much safer in downtown Albany then I feel hanging out in downtown Arbor Hill. The truth is that Bayou and Jillians are just old and need to be rebranded.

I don't know if the Downtown BID (Bar Improvement District) is safe or not, but I will say that I've rarely ever seen such a violent knee-jerk reaction to criticism.

I hope they can make it work. I've seen it all: the big announcements, the marketing efforts, the commercials with catchy jingles... it's been going on for years. None of it's quite caught on.

Personally, I think Albany needs to to look west to get a clue, at what they've done in Buffalo:

I really want to weigh but I'm not sure what my thoughts are yet, so some reactions to the above comments first;

@ SOMEIDIOT - you're absolutely right, the Bayou/Jillian's vibe is just not where it's at any more (perhaps it never was). Whatever replaces Jillians needs to be 100 % it's own creation and not retread. Great opportunity there I think. But I believe the people have spoken and City Beer Hall/Wolf's/Lark St. are the places people want to be.

@ Rob - I disagree. I don't think Buffalo's a great model for us and here's why. From what I've read elsewhere Buffalo's basing its resurgence on its (relatively) close proximity to Toronto. I don't know about you but I'm sick of people telling me that "Albany's great cuz it's such a short drive to NYC/BOS/Montreal/ETC. C'mon, that doesn't make actually living in Albany any more enticing. But perhaps there's something else about Buffalo you can share? I just know they're making the Toronto thing a big deal as of late.

@someidiot ... You arent such an idiot. I agree. Those bars are both pretty lame, imo. Let's not forget that Jillian's already "closed" because it wasnt working years ago. Big surprise, people still dont care.
It's also about who they're targeting, the Coors Light beerpong kegs and eggs crowd isnt driving new business. Wolff's, Merry Monk, Beer Hall..Abbey in Scntdy, Browns in Troy...even Tess' taps at McGs, and dp's too Spot a trend here? ok, Bayou had a nice selection so maybe this point is weak. But what im getting at, tastes have changed, we're all grown up now. What was Jillians offering to whom? Jennings hinted at this a bit too.

On safety vibe...Recently the missus and I couldnt wait to go to the Merry Monk on Pearl. Nice night, sat outside. In the span of our great beers and dinner we had three different encounters with passing-by characters that made us uncomfortable and wishing we sat inside. There is definitely a sketchiness that pervades that neighborhood. I dont recall seeing one APD patrol the whole time. So, maybe the city could step up a little as well. I may not agree with Spillenger but he's not
completely wrong.

Fine. As long as nobody tries to remake this creepy commercial that plays every five minutes on TV in Syracuse.

I think one way to reduce crime, or more importantly, anxiety, about downtown and the Pearl Street area is to bring in more businesses that would cater to people who actually live there. Right now we have plenty of bars and night life in the area, but not much in the way of restaurants, pharmacies, grocery stores. I can buy a beer, but I can't go buy tylenol or a sandwich within walking distance. Current Pearl Street businesses, exclusive of the bars, all use 9 to 5 hours to cater to workers int he neighborhood and not residents. A neighborhood is built not by tourists or club-goers, but by the consistent business and the watchful eyes of people who actually have a stake in its survival. Why is there nowhere, at all, to buy fresh food in the Sheridan Hollow/Ten Broeck neighborhoods?! Make these neighborhoods more liveable and they will become elevated by the people who live in and care about them!

@Jenna - I absolutely agree with your statements. I also live downtown a block away from Pearl St. and when I get home from work, downtown Albany is pretty much a ghost town. Why is it that the only place to get drug store items is at Rite Aid on Pearl St. and it never seems to be open at convenient times. Many of the delis and restaurant only caters to the 9-5 workers. Also, do we think that having less places to patron at night will decrease crime?? I think that is a mistake, with the closing of Sneaky Petes, Jillians, etc...there are many more bars than there are clubs, nowhere to dance, in my opinion this promotes more violence with more people on the streets at night.

Remember, the Big House/Skyline - why not make that a Macys. With all of the side streets in this area that currently house abandoned shops and restaurants; why don't we have stores that people are interested in shopping at: Gap, Old Navy, American Apparel, Victoria Secret, Zara(we don't even have this anywhere in cap dis.), H&M, Guess, etc..; downtown could be a shopping area that drives business and helps the bars/restaurants by bringing in a consumer crowd. I know I would love that....less trips to crossgates and colonie center. As of right now, it seems to me that Downtown operates between the hours of 9AM-5PM and 11PM - 4AM; Closed on Weekends during the day...

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