The Warehouse District and thinking about change

warehouse district rezoning public workshop

We stopped into the public workshop about rezoning Albany's Warehouse District Tuesday evening. It was interesting to hear people talk about their aspirations and concerns for a neighborhood that appears poised for a possible transition to something different. And if anything, it was heartening to see so many people -- more than 50, easily -- commit a few hours to discussing the future of their city on a beautiful summer evening.

Many of the ideas expressed will sound familiar: a desire for walkability, waterfront access, mixed-use housing, boulevarding 787, ways of possibly fostering businesses that draw on the arts, a supermarket. There was also a notable segment of people who wanted to make sure industrial businesses aren't pushed out.

This intensive look at the neighborhood continues through Friday, when there's another public session to discuss some of the work produced by the zoning consultants this week. So we'll probably circle back around to this topic again in the near future because there are a bunch of interesting threads.

But here's one sort-of-big-picture thought we had while listening Tuesday night...

The fundamental question in this discussion about rezoning the Warehouse District is, essentially, "Should this neighborhood stay the way it is, or should the stage be set for new development that would allow it to become a different type of neighborhood? And which choice is best for the city?"

So, as people pitched their aspirations and voiced their concerns, we were thinking: To what extent do "we" -- that is, various crowds of people, media members, city leaders, consultants, developers, all sorts of groups -- have a bias toward things changing?

In this case, we're not talking about bias in a cynical sense, that there's some sort of plot or something. But rather it's just an acknowledgement that we all have points of view and, even as people act in good faith, certain ideas or narratives are going to fit more easily into those perspectives.

"Former industrial area turned mixed-use residential/entertainment spot" is a storyline that fits neatly into many people's perspectives. There's already a template for it. The article basically writes itself. It looks good in a brochure. And a lot of various actors could benefit from that story -- there will be buildings to flip, referrals to earn, opening press conferences to appear at, restaurants at which to eat.

And if things stay the same? Well, there probably isn't going to be a ribbon cutting for the radiator shop or plumbing supply business that's open today because, well, it's open every weekday. Things staying the same isn't an event.

Change can be good. And it often feels like there's an undercurrent of (general, not necessarily political) conservatism in the Capital Region -- a bias in its own right -- that keeps us from moving things forward for the better.

But sometimes change is just change for the sake of something different and new.

So it's worth asking not just can this place change -- but should it, and why?


Save Nipper!

When looking at change in the now, I think it can be difficult to gauge a collective vision, because we all tend to look back historically by varying degrees. While I think the city and community should work hard to preserve the businesses that exist (and generally I think the community does, for the industrial nature of this corner of the city is one big selling point), I think a diversification of the neighborhood is a wise move forward. For me personally, my own historical lens takes me much farther back, where many of city’s neighborhoods were diverse creatures. Most workers resided in factory residences on premise or nearly on premise, and had easy access to eateries and shops not far from these residences, offering a vibrant, bustling community. However, zoning in the early 1900’s saw fit to only designate one type of sector in a neighborhood and upward mobility by workers who sought cleaner, larger residences away from work (especially with mass transit or personal automobiles making it less necessary to reside right outside the factory) caused these multi-dimensional neighborhoods to be molded into single purpose zones.

I think for me and many in the community, there is a desire to go back to this point in time, were neighborhoods were rounder, more complete and effervescent, and not so square that they can’t take any unique pegs coming its way. There is a lot of energy in this neighborhood, and potential, not unlike other industrial zones in other cities, that have scene remarkable change towards diverse economies. Some do it well, others not so much, so I think it will be important to take those lessons learned from our peers to make sure it is done right. I think the fact that many of the food-centric business that have opened up, also have an industrial component (e.g. kegging, bottling, etc) which honors the more commercial aspect of the neighborhood, but hints at some of the recreational needs desired by the community, means we are on the right track thus far.

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