What is the next life of the southern edge of Albany's downtown?
That's the question at the heart of the request for proposals (RFP) issued today by Empire State Development for the collection of land that had originally been gathered for a convention center. From the RFP:
With its large size and premier location in the heart of downtown Albany, this Project offers a unique opportunity for a major development in the City's urban core. The Site features convenient proximity to the area's transportation access points and is less than a quarter mile or closer to the City's commercial, cultural and governmental destinations. The Project will serve as a key component of the City's initiatives to attract urban re-investment downtown to meet market demand while simultaneously revitalizing the area with a vibrant mix of uses.
So, yeah, this project -- whatever it ends up becoming, if it ends up becoming -- could be an important part of the ongoing redevelopment of downtown Albany.
Here are a few bits from the RFP that caught our eye, along with a few thoughts...
The site is on about 4.5 acres on the southern edge of downtown Albany. There are also about 1.9 acres of adjacent city streets.
Empire State Development is clearly aiming for some sort of mixed-use project. The RFP clearly states that "Market rate housing must be a component of any Proposal." And one of the priorities is "revitalizing the Site as a destination to serve workers, residents and visitors alike, both during the work day and into the evening and weekends."
The oldest building in Albany -- the 287-year-old Van Ostrande-Radliff House, at 48 Hudson -- is adjacent to some of the parcels included in the project. And the project site includes 50 Hudson, also a historic building. The RFP notes that, "Scale, setbacks, and context of new development should be respectful of both of these historic properties."
The project site also include historic warehouse buildings along Broadway (the E-Comm Square buildings). "These properties are reflective of a historic fabric that is important to the City--therefore priority will be given to proposals that show creativity in integrating these properties into the overall development."
Also: Liberty Park, the city's oldest park, is nearby (but not part of) the site. The place barely registers as a park now, so it would be interesting if new development could highlight it.
Would you like to buy a street?
There are a few city streets within the project site, and according to the RFP, a developer could possibly buy those streets from the city and reconfigure the streetscape:
With the principles of connectivity and walkability in mind, and as indicated above, Proposals may include the purchase of Streets and reconfiguration of the impacted street grid for optimum Site development. However, proposals should avoid creating city blocks that are too large, as they tend to discourage walkability, disrupt connectivity and limit opportunities for creative corner developments. The City of Albany recently passed a Complete Street ordinance and will be implementing complete streets design guidelines within the next year. Any reconstruction of City streets should consider complete street principles to the greatest extent practicable.
We have this theory that the discussion around every development project at some point ends up focused on parking, at least for a while. From the RFP:
The Site currently contains extensive surface parking. Respondents should provide adequate parking for the number of visitors and residents anticipated to be generated by a Proposal. Respondents are encouraged to leverage the use of existing district parking structures. An opportunity also exists to partner with the Albany Parking Authority on the construction of a new parking facility.
Of course, one of the big questions for this section is what's considered "adequate" parking. And to what extent can transit play a role? Those two questions ended up being a big topic of discussion for the Park South redevelopment, and it's reasonable to think they could surface here.
The say so
The state -- specifically ESD and the Office of General Services -- is fielding the proposals for this site. And the state owns the parcels (or can buy the parcels it's currently leasing). So what is the city of Albany's influence in picking the winning proposal? From the RFP (emphasis added)
Proposals may be reviewed by ESD, OGS and other City and State officials. Reviewers will consult with the City regarding the proposals. The sale of the Site may be subject to approval, as required under applicable law and regulation, which may include approval of the ESD Directors, the Commissioner of General Services, the Public Authorities Control Board, the Comptroller of the State of New York, and the New York State Attorney General.
It will be important to watch how everyone involved here interprets the word "consult."
For what it's worth, Albany mayor Kathy Sheehan was quoted in the ESD press release: "By working together the City and State will create a development that is vibrant and integrated into our walkable, livable, urban fabric."
A few thoughts
This (potential) project reminds us of the Park South redevelopment project, both because of its size and in what it's trying to accomplish: a residential/retail/office project on a site that's been essentially wiped clear.
The RFP doesn't mention guidelines for project cost. But just for some rough perspective, the cost of the Park South project was announced at $110 million.
New residential has been a big trend in downtown Albany over the last few years, with about 300 new units opened and more on the way. The Impact Downtown Albany consultants projected that downtown could add another 2,000 units over the next decade. And presumably this potential project could represent a large chunk of housing. (Again, for a rough comparison, the Park South project includes 265 units.)
Another part of the residential angle for this potential project: To what degree will there be an effort to create apartment units with rents that are closer to, say, $1,000 per month rather than $2,000? Up to this point, developers have asserted that cost has pushed them toward creating high-end housing downtown. So, is there a way to work the numbers -- or just an outright request -- to open things up for a more diverse range of rents?
The big thing
Something that occurred to us while reading through the aims for the site: Could this project "just" be a chunk of residential with offices and some relatively small-scale retail? Or does it need a big centerpiece of some sort? And if so, what could that be?
Back in 2013, Omni Development had pitched this site for an aquarium/science museum/IMAX theater project. Publicly, at least, that idea seems to have fizzled.
The South End
One of the (many) interesting aspects of this (potential) project is that it's on the south side of Albany's downtown. Much of the recent downtown development has been focused along State Street, or farther north (with many eyes also looking toward the Warehouse District even more to the north).
It will be worth watching to see if this project helps focus more attention on that southern side of downtown, and by extension, the South End. And is there a way for this potential development to better knit together the South End with downtown?
A quick look at a satellite view of this project site makes one aspect of it immediately, strikingly clear: It's fenced in on two sides by highway, both I-787 and the arterial leading to the ESP. It's yet another example of how the choice to build those roadways continues to shape the area. The arterial, especially, plowed a divide between downtown and the South End.
There seems to be some momentum to seriously reconsider the future of 787. And it will be interesting to see if a major project on this site affects any of the thinking around the topic.
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