Scanning the Capital Region's bid for half a billion dollars from the state

the site
The project floated for this site in downtown Albany is almost unbelievably big.

How do you make the case that you should get $500 million?

The regions competing for one of the three Upstate Revitalization Initiative awards from the state released their plans this week.

We read through the Capital Region's plan -- which includes a proposal for a huge downtown Albany development -- and here are a few things that caught our eye...

This isn't even close to comprehensive look at what's in the plan. You should definitely skim through the plan yourself if you're interested.

Those downtown "catalyst" projects

Downtown Albany
The Capital Region plan includes some big real estate projects, notably the one floated for the former convention center site on the southern end of downtown Albany:

Late-stage talks are underway with a private-sector developer interested in turning the unoccupied site into a vibrant residential and commercial development. The confidential preliminary proposal would include 1,203 housing units, 408,000 square feet of commercial office space, and 295,000 square feet of street-level retail, which combined will help to restore this blighted neighborhood's special urban character. The investor had ´┐╝signaled willingness to commit over ~$750M in private investment across this project and another Albany-based Catalyst Project.

The scope of this teased project is almost unbelievably big. Some context:

+ 1,200 housing units would double the amount of new housing for downtown Albany that's been added, or is in the pipeline, in recent years.

+ 408,000 square is roughly equivalent to adding another DEC building's-worth of office space to downtown Albany.

+ 295,000 square feet of retail is equal to (for example) the space in the enormous Walmart on Washington Ave Extension plus the Colonie Center Whole Foods.

What makes this even more surprising is that when the state previously issued a call for proposals for the site, a lot of the prominent local development firms passed on the opportunity, and the whole process appeared to be stuck in some sort of mystery phase.

The Biz Review's Mike DeMasi has been trying to find out what's up this latest proposal, and again notable developers -- both Columbia Development and Omni Development -- have said it's not them.

Warehouse District

Albany Warehouse District, looking south of Broadway, 2014

The plan also pitches Albany Warehouse District has a potential clustering spot for software companies. It refers to the area as potentially being called the "Soft-Warehouse District." (Just... don't do that.) Further:

A community-focused investor has created a concept plan for the area and has had extensive conversations with the city to further the plan's design. It will include several defining elements beyond company attraction, including: 1) creating a safe and reliable connection between the development, the waterfront, and the southern end of downtown Albany; 2) building an innovative partnership between the existing Albany Housing Authority development to the west and prospective tenants to create industry-specific training; and 3) complement existing hospitality businesses with an eye toward maintaining an urban feel in the development plan design (e.g., street-level retail, wayfinding).

It's not really a secret that investors and development companies have been looking at the Warehouse District, so this isn't surprising. But it also points to the neighborhood turning into something much different than what is now.

First Prize

First Prize Center.jpg

And yet another potentially huge real estate development: Some sort of mixed-used development at the First Prize site on the Albany/Colonie line.

The proposed "First Prize Center" will be a mixed-use lifestyle center, successfully integrating residential housing with shopping, restaurants, entertainment, and office space. It will incorporate core principles of new urbanism - pedestrian-friendly design; energy efficient, high-density residential spaces; and design centered around community and public space.
The project will include a variety of uses for the land and create jobs and economic impact in a variety of forms. It will have 240,000 square feet for a hotel; 40,000 square feet for a conference center; 35,000 square feet for parking; 30,000 square feet for a fitness center; 160,000 square feet for retail; 250,000 square feet for office space; ~1,100 residential units; and 40,000 square feet for a cinema.

Again, that is tons of new space. (And a new movie theater? There are two large multiplexes within just a mile or two of that spot.)

Inequality

It' notable to us that the Capital Region's plan so prominently highlighted issues of poverty, as well as as income and educational inequality. (This is maybe the first time we can recall a document like this explicitly discuss Gini coefficients.) A clip:

Unemployment rates and educational attainment in the Capital Region vary by race and income. In 2013, unemployment rates for black and Hispanic residents were nearly twice that of white unemployment. Nearly 20% of residents with less than a high school degree were unemployed, which is more than twice the unemployment rates for high school graduates (8%) and those with some college or an associate degree (7%), and nearly six times higher than unemployment for those with a bachelor's degree or higher (3%).

These are important topics, so it's heartening to see them get some attention in this context. The plan includes a handful of potential initiatives aimed at expanding economic opportunity for a wider number of people -- from workforce training to a revolving loan fund for businesses and programs in neighborhoods with high levels of poverty.

CDTA

proposed capital region transit center site
image: Capital 20.20

The plan includes proposed funding for CDTA's two planned BusPlus lines, as well as new transit centers in downtown Albany at the Hudson-Green Parking Garage and at the Albany-Rensselaer train station. That center at Albany-Rensselaer would become the new station for intercity bus service. And the already-existing BusPlus red line (the one travels along Route 5 between Albany and Schenectady) would be extended to include the train station and the site of the Schenectady casino.

Health data

One sort out-there idea in the plan is a proposal to create a "Population Health Technology Cluster" in the Capital Region that would bring together the region's healthcare institutions, tech firms (including IBM's Watson system), and research institutions to develop new ways of using health data. A clip from one of the initiatives that the plan proposes could be included:

Selecting a specific neighborhood to saturate with state-of-the-art healthcare solutions, sensors, tele-health devices, and wearables (e.g., a "Digital Health District"). This special economic zone would attract the world's leading hardware and software makers to invest and deploy their latest technologies.

There's also talk of health data sharing and aggregation, health plans developing new patient incentives, and employers recruiting employees to participate. Theoretically, there are a lot of potential good and interesting insights that could come of this sort of stuff. But there's also reason to be skeptical about issues of privacy, consent, choice, and who ultimately benefits.

CRAFT Biz Hub

As you'd probably expect, the plan includes a bunch of proposed initiatives aimed at helping start-ups and people such as "creative" industry freelancers. One that caught our eye, just because it's an issue we've touched on a few times before, is the "CRAFT Business Hub," which would include a $20 million revolving loan fund for agriculture-related projects. A clip:

The fund will award loans for start-up and operating capital to businesses in agriculture, food, and tourism looking to expand and/or improve their operations and create new jobs. The fund will prioritize entrepreneurs located in rural areas across all eight counties. In agriculture, additional priority will be given to farmers who are recipients of the New York State's New Farmers Grant Fund, a $1M grant fund created in 2014. Our farmers have gotten increasingly older--the average age of farm operators in the Capital Region is 59, and more than 50% of Capital Region farmers are over the age of 55. By prioritizing recipients of the New Farmers Grant Fund, the Capital Region hopes to build on the statewide initiative's efforts to encourage new farmers and young professionals to enter and/or stay in the agriculture and food space. In addition, CRAFT will also prioritize businesses that are transitioning from traditional crops to specialty products and/ or repurposing for tourism purposes. In the tourism space, prioritization will be given to those expanding to accommodate more traffic and/or attract more visitors in the off-season.

This area has some remarkable agricultural assets -- high quality farmers' markets, an abundance of good apple orchards, specialty crops like maple syrup, and so on. Maybe there's opportunity there with a little help.

Earlier on AOA

+ Scanning the Capital Region Economic Development Council's proposed priority projects for 2016

+ Reading through the Impact Downtown Albany playbook

+ One version of the next Warehouse District

+ A snapshot of Capital Region income

Comments

Can they fill that much retail and office space in downtown Albany? I think they'll be able to fill the residential, but that much retail space requires the same kind of national chain stores that are in Latham or Wolf Road. 300,000 square feet would be more than 7 Marshall's stores. Unless downtown is in the running for the Costco (unlikely) or the Cabella's (still pretty unlikely but maybe less so), what stores would open in downtown Albany?

How about spending some $$ to put the utilities underground. The current poles and wires look like something from North Podunk.

Man, I love the idea of burying cables, but can't imagine how much that would cost given that we can't even maintain our sewer systems (though no exploding manholes this year... yet). Let's roll that into ripping out 787?

I'm waiting for that one person to cry that there's no river access.

I'm no expert, just passionate about seeing a successful downtown, but I've heard anecdotally from more than one source that while downtown has some high vacancies as it relates to Class A properties (the best of the best), the chief reason they can't fill the space is that functionally a lot of these properties don't meet the needs of today's companies. Here's to hoping that the developer behind this plan for the former convention center site, has taken that to heart and is seeking to provide the Class A retail/commercial space that many companies are seeking, but Albany can't provide.

The Class A space that presently exists will hopefully be filled in by secondary companies that move in by the catalyst of having significant new companies downtown through the new development or can be converted to apartments/condo's as has been the case for the past decade (and rapidly increasing over the past few years).

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