Lark Street and the competition among the Capital Region's hip urban areas

Lark Street corner with Hudson Ave

By Sandy Johnston

In January AOA ran a piece with a variety of thoughtful responses about the future of Lark Street. I'm grateful to be given the opportunity to chime in a little, as a planner and as a resident of the neighborhood.

As a relative newcomer (I've been on Dove Street since August 2013), I can't claim to have experienced what many people seem to regard as Lark's heyday; but, as is probably apparent if you've read my writing before, I believe strongly that while localized familiarity matters, comparative experience is highly useful as well.
Though reasonable people disagree on the extent of the problem, there seems to be a general sense that Lark Street is suffering from something of a commercial and cultural malaise.

But why? Surely there are multiple factors, but perhaps we can identify a primary one. In the spirit of Hanlon's Razor, I think the most obvious answer is probably the biggest single factor: the stagnation of Lark, perceived or real, is intimately linked to the exciting growth of other neighborhoods in the Capital District that offer similar cultural amenities.

Lee Cohen of The Daily Grind wrote in his comment on the original article: "The big difference now are cities like Troy and Schenectady are resurrecting from the dead. People are feeling the excitement of cities coming back, businesses opening, apartments being renovated, just like they did on Lark Street."

I've just returned from brunch in downtown Schenectady as I write this, and the revival of that area as a competitor to Lark on the "hip and artsy" scale is clear, as is that of downtown Troy.

Pete Saunders has written eloquently at the Corner Side Yard about the ways that the problems of cities with lower demand for urban neighborhoods and amenities are different from those of higher-demand areas. The gist of his argument is that if overall regional demand for an amenity --usually housing in his examples, but hip urban commerce in ours -- is low, increasing supply in one discrete area can detract from the flow of investment, resources, and creativity to others.

To test the hypothesis that this effect is at work on Lark, I aggregated Census data that counts the number of workers in the arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation, and food services industries -- the kinds of jobs I associate with a healthy Lark -- and tracked them over time in geographic areas roughly representing the greater Lark area, downtown Schenectady, and downtown Troy. The interface I used is only updated through 2014, so it won't include the most recent results -- and Census data should always be approached with caution at this small a scale, anyhow -- but the trends are certainly informative.

Lark Street hip employment graph Sandy Johnston Data from Census LEHD, through the OnTheMap interface. "Lark Street" (blue line) is defined as the 12210 zip code; downtown Schenectady (orange) as 12305; and downtown Troy (gray) as a polygon bounded by the Hudson River, Poesten Kill, the ridge line, and roughly Hoosick Street. (Here's a larger version of the graph.)

Hmm, what have we here? "Hip" employment almost doubled from 2002 to 2014 in both downtown Troy and downtown Schenectady. Indeed, Troy's "hip" economy seems to have almost doubled just in a three-year stretch from 2011 through 2013. As of 2013, downtown Schenectady's arts, food, and accommodation economy was roughly the same size of that of the area around Lark Street, despite Albany's larger and wealthier population.

Lark was able to keep up through 2013, growing its "hip" economy at an impressive 28 percent rate from 2002-2013. After 2013, though, something more negative happened. It's exceedingly likely that the 46 percent drop in Lark-area entertainment and hospitality jobs in just one year that is reflected here is a data artifact -- and in a few years, we will know for sure. What is clear is that Lark no longer enjoys the regional dominance in this economy that it once did -- and that it has stagnated, whether to a more or less dramatic extent -- as a result.

It's not a stretch to imagine that once upon a time, Lark Street would have captured all or most of that growth in the "hip" economy of the Capital Region. But now it has competition. And that's not a bad thing!

It's not a stretch to imagine that once upon a time, Lark Street would have captured all or most of that growth in the "hip" economy of the Capital Region. But now it has competition. And that's not a bad thing! The overall quality of life in the Capital Region is undoubtedly boosted by having more economically vibrant urban neighborhoods. Ideally, having some level of competition means a community like Lark Street can't sit on its laurels; it forces each municipality, each neighborhood, each store and each restaurant to up its game. But encouraging competition between geographic areas has, perhaps, run up against one of the still-fundamental realities of the Capital Region: despite a reviving demand for urban living, this is still a mostly suburban region, and one with a fairly mediocre housing and real estate market.

That means that -- for the moment -- a limited demand for "hipness" and urban-style commerce is being divvied up between more geographic subareas than has been the case for most of the past 40-50 years. Indeed new competitors, such as Albany's Warehouse District, are emerging all the time. That's not necessarily a bad thing. But it means that there are real challenges facing Lark Street.

In my next post, I'll take a crack at how to think about solving some of those challenges. Update: And here's that next post: Ideas for Lark Street's longterm future.

Sandy Johnston is finishing up his Master's in Regional Planning and a certificate in Urban Policy at UAlbany. He blogs at and is a vocal presence on Twitter @sandypsj. Before moving to Albany, Sandy had lived in New Jersey, Oregon, Iowa, Connecticut, Chicago, Jerusalem, and New York City. Sandy lives in Center Square/Hudson Park with his partner Gabriella, a state worker, and their two cats. You can reach Sandy with comments or complaints through his website.

Earlier on AOA: What if tearing down I-787 could actually improve traffic?


I disagree that hipness is an indication of what's going on with Lark St. You're looking at secondary, reactive forces and not the underlying issues. First, consider what happened to the real estate market in 2012. Interesting how that corresponds with declines in your graph of businesses renting commercial space from developers. Combine that with initiatives taken by Schenectady and Troy since 2012 to foster the resurgence of development and small business and the fact that Albany absolutely sucks as a place to develop or start anything (because of local government, not because the demand isn't there) and you have a recipe for a sustained recession. There is one exception, local gov seems pretty keen on getting things going in the warehouse district and there's been a lot of action over there as a result. My hope is this will create a demand for nearby affordable housing and the city can do something with the mess of housing northeast of Clinton. I guess we'll find out.

I have two thoughts:

1) I've heard before that as Lark became increasingly hip over the course of the 90s and early 2000s that rents for those commercial properties under went significant increases. The story goes (as was told to me by a barber on Lark St. - so you know it's legit) it got to the point where all the little hip indy shops that made Lark "the village" in the first place couldn't afford the high overhead. At that point the only thing left that could afford to operate on Lark were bars, which Lark hasn't been able to retain with the demise of John DeJohn and new competition from the warehouse district.

2) This whole idea that Lark is in a downspin period often seems to me to come from people who are a little older. To be clear, I'm including people my age in that demographic. People in there 30's and 40's who feel like Lark isn't what it used to be. But the fact of the matter is, they aren't what they used to be. Lark street was cool to them when we were in our 20s and bar hoping on a Tuesday night. In truth though, those people don't want to do that anymore. Furthermore, if they did, they would feel like the vibe was so very different as a new younger cohort had taken the place of the like-minded similarly experienced folks they used to bump into there. To build on that, let's talk about what is still on Lark and hopping for those still inclined to hang there: Daily Grind still doing there thing, and there's the new hipper Stacks. Bars like the Wine Bar, Bombers, Lionheart, and Oh Bar are practically institutions at this point. There are nice/cool newish specialty stores like Past Times, Exscape, Seasons,the Natural Food Store, and Brew. Not to mention older standards like Alacrity, Hallorans, Downtube, and Romeos. There's some decent "ethnic" food places like Shogun, Rain, Sukhothai, Oasis, as well as some Indian, pan-asian, etc. And of course you still got tattoo and piercing shops, dive bars, a million places to grab a slice after hitting the bars. And this list isn't nearly complete. To me that seems like a street that's got a lot going on (for those with an interest in it), not exactly like an area in decline.

Maybe what it actually all comes down to is more like what Yogi Berra said, "Nobody goes there anymore, it's too crowded."

Don't ever think that Lark Street is EVER too crowded Yogi....I bring my European relatives here to visit and after we walk from Dunkin Donuts to the old Subway at the other end the reply is always..."what else you got" should be the center of commercial life in the city and it's not.....and I don't know why......I guess it's because it doesn't know what it is...Is it just another area? Isit dive bars? Is it high end dining? Is it for college kids? Is it for a quick way to drive from hood to hood? Is it REALY Greenwich Village???? Is it safe or dangerous? Is it clean or dirty? I guess it's a little bit of all the above which is why it kind of stops and stutters....I know what the warehouse District is or Delaware or The Point area....Lark I'm not so sure.....

Thank you AOA for this article! It is this type of civil discourse that makes me proud to be a resident of the city of Albany and provides so much value to its residents. Being able to see the broad perspective, from a diverse range of folks, helps to gel some internal thoughts I’ve had about this corridor and the city in general. It is my hope that the immediate Lark community and the city leadership can really seize on this feedback by creating short, medium, long term action items and get at it (e.g. cleaner permitting, small business assistance and education opportunities, enhance pedestrian safety features, better cross-city ties via transit, etc.)

When folks talk about Lark dying, I think that is a gross overstatement about the reality of things. The beauty of cities is that they evolve, Lark is no different. In my mind, for every business that closes, another (sometimes two) pop up, so you do see a natural cycling of establishments on this corridor. Yes, some historic anchors have gone under (e.g. Justin’s), but by and large I see a much more diverse set of options and retail (e.g. Brew, the skate shop, Brake’s, Lark Natural—yes, we do have a small grocery store on this stretch, why do we overlook this!!) and a lot of new, young energy. Yes, Lark isn’t the sexy corner of the city, that seems to be enjoyed on the Warehouse District’s mantel, but that is just a subjective moniker and business still seem to be thriving on Lark.

With that said, we can further diversify this corridor and should really get creative on both the retail and recreational options that could be provided on this half mile stretch. This would help retain the existing residents (which includes a lot of young families of late, preferring an urban environment to the suburbs), draw in new families, and gasp, bring in outsiders (as much as some of the natives try their hardest to keep this corner a residential gated community). Closing the street, even if on the weekends or Friday nights, to encourage pop-up vendors, street artists, and the like to set up shop (and yes, Grafton Street in Dublin would be a great model!!), or a weekend farmers market, would go a long way for existing residents and bring in others.

I do agree with some of the sentiment here that certain time periods within our lives cause us to look at our urban fabric through different lens. As a college student, Lark was the place to be for cheap food and some decent beer. Today’s college students probably disagree and find themselves gravitating towards the Warehouse District. However, now that I’m in my 30’s, I appreciate Lark for all of the amenities it has to offer in satisfying all those other demands in life beyond drink and food. I think we under appreciate all of the services that can be found this narrow corridor we call Lark and I think we put too strong of an expectation on this stretch by trying to think it should be like all the things NYC has to offer. The majority of the NYC has stretches that offer far less than Lark can, and the few stretches that offer far more do so because of the concentration of folk in the vicinity. It’s the way things are, and at least in Albany’s more vanilla world (due to size and population), why having a collection of diverse neighborhoods is essential in order to move about the city to itch that “unexpected” or “something new” scratch us urbanites tend to get.

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