Thinking about the future of the South End

rezone albany south end crowd

The Rezone Albany project is focused on the South End this week. And as with the other two neighborhoods that have gotten an intensive focus during this process -- the Warehouse District and Central Ave -- there was a an event Tuesday night at which members of the public got together in small groups to brainstorm ideas for the future.

As Christopher Spencer, Albany's planning director, said to us of the overall Rezone Albany project: "We want to have the right rules in place to get what the community is looking for."

Here are a few ideas and topics that bubbled up from the working groups Tuesday night...

The DMV parcel

department of motor vehicles in Albany

It's not often to see almost universal agreement on a topic at a public meeting -- no matter the topic, there are almost always a few people who stand apart from the crowd. But when it comes to the Department of Motor Vehicles site on Pearl Street, there was a very clear consensus: People really, really don't like the shape and appearance of that site. On one of the small working group maps it was labeled as a "crater."

By our informal count, every one of the small working groups at Tuesday meetings imagined some sort of other future use for that parcel. Many of them proposed redeveloping it into some sort of mixed-use site for neighborhood businesses and services.

Jason King -- who's with the architecture and planning firm Dover Kohl, one of the consultants for the Rezone Albany project -- noted that many DMV facilities around the country are downsizing as more business goes online. So there might be opportunities in the future for something new there.

"We know that there are already developers that are interested in that [spot]," King said after the meeting. "So we're trying to get ahead of discussions they're having to inform their decision making process."

Grocery store

One of the frequently mentioned new uses for the DMV site: a grocery store or food co-op of some sort. And that makes a lot of sense, because the South End -- and all of downtown Albany, for that matter -- lacks easy access to a supermarket. (There are a few supermarkets that aren't all that far in total distance, but they're not necessarily easy to get to if you don't have a car.)

Small supermarkets are hard because the supermarket business is all about scale -- the bigger, the better from a business perspective. But if one of the supermarket companies could step up and make an affordable downtown Albany supermarket happen -- especially on a north-south bus line like the 22 -- it would be a significant development.

Update: Julie O'Connor mentioned on Facebook that the DMV site included a supermarket back in the 1960s.

The waterfront and 787


Another issue on which there appeared to be broad consensus: The view that I-787 is a barrier, especially between the South End and the Hudson River. One small group presenter joked about dynamiting the elevated highway.

Again, this isn't surprising -- there are a lot of people who feel that way. But the South End is physically so close to the river, but it doesn't seem like that because of 787 and other barriers.

Dover Kohl's Jason King said he thinks things could be changing, though. He pointed to plans for a marina along the riverfront and the development that could follow. With that development could come greater access to the riverfront, and more connections to the adjacent neighborhood -- connections that existed in the past.

"When Alexander Hamilton and Eliza Hamilton we're hanging out at the Schuyler Mansion, they would take Schuyler Street and a path down to the river and they would swim. They talk about the relationship they had to the river 300 years ago. It was a summertime swimming destination," King said as we looked at a map of the riverfront. "It's impossible to imagine that now, and I think that's largely due to the fact that almost no city I've worked in is so perfectly divided from its waterfront as Albany. So, I know it seems big, but we have to keep going with that. We have to keep pushing that conversation."

This year the state started a planning process for the future of 787. And if the crowd at one of the public meetings was any indication of wider sentiment, the longterm nature of the process -- on the order of decades -- is going to be frustrating for many people.

King acknowledged it can be a long process, but many other cities have done it. "It takes a lot of effort and a focused initiative."

Rethinking public housing

south end from Corning Tower 2014-April

A bit like 787, another prominent feature of the South End's built environment will eventually reach the end of its life and choices will have to be made about the best way to replace it: The city's multiple high-rise public housing complexes, such as the Steamboat Square Homes and the Lincoln Square Homes.

"Something is going to happen in some of these larger public housing projects. And that kind of redevelopment is more and more mixed income, across the country, and mixed use," King said. "So there's a lot of private investment that's going to happen along the waterfront and a lot of public investment -- tens of millions -- in places like Steamboat Square or Lincoln Square. So big things are going to happen here."

It was interesting to hear people's views on this topic during the opening discussion segment of Tuesday's meeting. We got the feeling that many people probably didn't necessarily want to see the high rises replaced like for like -- but there was a range of opinions on whether the replacement should be something more like town houses or some other form.


Another oft-mentioned theme during the small working group presentations was infill development. One group presenter described it as a desire to "fill in the missing teeth" in some of the South End's strings of row houses. And another group mentioned that any plan for the area should draw on the South End's strength in housing density. And the idea came up of somehow providing incentives for new homeowners and small business owners -- not unlike the way large developers get tax breaks for projects.

One of the things we took away from these comments is that people want to own a piece of the South End -- and they want their neighborhs to own a part of it, too.

The census tract that covers a large portion of the South End has one of the lowest owner-occupancy rates in the city. So we're curious if there are ways to help boost that rate -- whether it's through Habitat for Humanity-style projects or some other method.


Stitching the neighborhood back together

Multiple sections of downtown Albany and adjacent areas bear the mark of what Christopher Spencer, the city planning director, described to us Tuesday night as "urban renewal scars," spots where the urban fabric was ripped during the 1960s and 1970s.

The South End is no exception. Its northern end was cut off when the arterial for the Empire State Plaza plowed through downtown Albany. I-787 cut it off from the river. And there are multiple spots throughout the South End where the longstanding patterns of row houses and other similar-scale buildings are now missing, replaced by either high rises or one-story buildings with parking lots.

So some of this planning for the future is about figuring out ways to undo that damage. Or, as Spencer said to us: "It's about stitching things back together."

What's next

The consultants involved in this week's intensive look at the South End will be presenting some of their work (so far) at a public meeting Thursday, December 10 at the Capital South Campus Center (20 Warren Street) from 6-8 pm.


+ Thinking about the direction of Central Ave

+ One version of the next Warehouse District


Aww...a little whitewashing gentrification party. Cute.

Ohhhh yes, big scary not-exactly-a-real-thing gentrification. Because anything but rundown buildings, dirty streets and scary places are too good for the poor.

How can investing in this neighborhood be a problem? Seriously?

Legislative representative of the 1st District want to be involved or informed of future meetings pertaining to planning of my South End community.

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