Destination supermarket as development catalyst

south downtown Albany near South Mall Expressway

Over at Politico New York, Jimmy Vielkind pitches the idea of using a Wegmans to anchor development at the former convention center site in downtown Albany. A clip:

The Rochester-based grocery chain has a nearly religious following in the areas of upstate New York where it operates, but there are no outposts in the Capital Region. In locating a store at the vacant site downtown, it could simultaneously provide a needed amenity for the struggling neighborhoods nearby and create a regional attraction that would draw people from the surrounding office towers and suburban communities.
Imagine a supermarket with a street-level cafe opening onto Hudson Avenue, beckoning to pedestrians along Broadway and Pearl Street or people in town for a show at the arena or a convention up the hill. Several floors of rental housing or condos above the store -- perhaps with requirements that some units be affordable -- that will give a further boost to the burgeoning residential options in the old business district and prevent the area between the Pastures and Sheridan Hollow, two predominately residential areas, from seeming lifeless after dark.
Call it the Wegmans effect, a development strategy for lagging urban areas rooted in designer cheese. Wegmans, or something like it, could do for Albany what Fairway did for Red Hook.

To be clear: There's no indication that Wegmans is actually considering this -- a spokesperson for Wegmans says as much to Vielkind, noting the company has looked at the Capital Region in the past but seen more opportunity in places such as Maryland and Virginia. And he figures it would take a push from Andrew Cuomo to make it happen.

The former convention site has been the subject of some intrigue recently because the Capital Region's Upstate Revitalization Initiative proposal included mention of an almost unbelievably big "catalyst" project there -- 1,200 housing units, more than 400,000 square feet of office space, and 295,000 square feet of retail. As you know, the Capital Region didn't get one of the $500 million grants. Before that, there had been a pitch to build an aquarium, which also fizzled. Now it's unclear what -- if anything -- is going to happen at the site.

One of the interesting angles to this topic is the question of whether downtown Albany should by vying for some sort of high-profile development piece like a Wegmans or (insert some other large, big-name retailer/project) -- or if it's better off cultivating the steady bit-by-bit development it's experienced in recent years.

Earlier on AOA:
+ The plan for the former Jillian's building, and cultivating retail in downtown Albany
+ Scanning the Capital Region's bid for half a billion dollars from the state
+ Wegmans? Really? Please explain.


Wegmans will save us all!!

Well, yes -- I'm sure people in "struggling neighborhoods" can't wait for the advent of farm-raised EU certified organic shrimp.

With the influx of additional housing downtown, a store with brand recognition such as Wegman’s would definitely bring additional interest and opportunity for further growth to the area.

My dream would be to bring Picard’s to the capital region.

“They've got everything in there from meat to frozen soups and spices. You can buy a little packet of ostrich chops or duck legs stuffed with prunes and sausage. And they're sold just in plastic bags. They've taken the stigma out of frozen food. And every French person I've talked to swears by this store, especially people who have kids, because the food is really, really good. And if you opened one of these in the United States, you would just be minting money. You wouldn't be able to count the money fast enough. I guarantee you, it would be such a huge success.” - David Sedaris, “American’s in Paris,” This American Life

Beyond being a huge fan of Wegmans, I believe placing a store at the "former convention center site" in downtown Albany would be a phenomenal idea. It would provide a catalyst for more positive growth in the city's core and work to correct a massive food desert to under-served areas. Wegmans already built a store right outside Boston with a similar concept and the neighborhood around it is flourishing. This would be such a boon to Albany.

Unfortunately this site is in the armpit of 787. I don't see it getting developed to it's full potential until that highway is taken down.

I couldn't find the link to the article in your article, so here it is:

Editors: Thanks. The link tag was malformed, so it wasn't showing up correctly. It's fixed now.

Jimmy is great, and I love that he's thinking outside the box yet again. But while this is a great explanation of why Albany could use Wegman's, it doesn't explain how Wegman's needs Albany. Man, it would be nice, though.

Hey B:

I think they would make money hand over fist. As the only store in the Capital Region, they would draw costumers (not every-week for my groceries customers) from surrounding counties as well as nearby neighborhoods. They would also benefit from thousands of people who are downtown for work -- the ESP along holds over 10,000.

Jimmy Vielkind

I get why Wegmans doesn't see opportunity in the Capital Region. We are flush with grocery stores. The big three of course being Hannaford, Price Chopper, and recent interloper ShopRite. Not to mention Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, and a plethora of local ethnic stores as well as a few cooperatives. Plus the more than 50 farmer's markets that are scattered all over the area.

But I've heard the conspiracy theorists suggest that Wegmans won't open stores here because it and Price Chopper have a secret agreement not to step on each other's home territory. To put that theory to bed; if it were true, it would put both companies in serious legal hot water. That's collusion, and it's highly illegal. It's also unethical and would be a public relations nightmare.

Love Wegmans, love the idea of a supermarket downtown, which is basically a food desert, but can't we do a little better for this site?
I understand Veilkand's criticism that Albany keeps looking to "hit home runs" and to an extent, that criticism is valid. But this is a lot of land downtown that could be transformative- indeed, by its very location could integrate Albany's downtown with its South End.
I know there are a lot of ideas out there: aquarium, high rise, community college (love that one), but the most intriguing idea I've heard is a Dutch village.
Hear me out.
That area of downtown has Albany's oldest building (the Van Ostrande-Radliff House), which would make a great visitor's center. The area could be developed as a mixed use neighborhood in the style of a Dutch village. I think a windmill would be a great addition to the skyline, calling back to our roots and perhaps even usable for green energy. It would fit architecturally into the immediate neighborhood in the South End (the pastures), while a visitor center would be an ideal complement to the convention center (and just down the street!)
Anyways, it wasn't my idea and I cant claim credit, but I think it fits a multitude of needs in that we need more housing downtown, a grocer, retail, and in a manner that fits the history and scale of our Smallbany. In Veilkand's terms, think of it as a double.

I wouldn't like to see a grocery store there(especially keeping parking lot space). My hopes is that 48 hudson could be renovated so the dutch history could finally get some spotlight; and along with that maybe there could be some green space or modern/historic aspects brought to that area of the city.

It's one of the last gaps of the city that could be brought to life in a creative way. I'd hate to see it cheapened by the likes of some behemoth retail sort of thing.

Thought one of the "progressive" place like trader joes whilefoods or honest weight would have built there but naw keep it in the strip mall areas-burbs.having said that why doesn't anyone ever mention attracting some businesses there to BUILD an economy around? How many food stores do we need before we are saturated? Yeah yeah food desert etc not withstanding. How about attracting some PRIVATE business to EMPLOY people and create some wealth? Some pharma, life sciences, hi tech, low tech, financials, research, ANYTHING to provide pay checks for the people to shop at Wegman's? An economy can't be based entirely on state workers, crony nano tech, and sub shops!

Wegmans is a suburban retailer, none of their stores are urban format and just one for Brooklyn is in planning. Plus, as much as I enjoy shopping there, they have gone up market in recent years, even leaving downtown Syracuse because locals couldn't afford to shop there anymore. How about a Market Basket? I think though officials are right to try for housing. A neighborhood needs about 5% of the city's population have life after dark and with about 900 apartments downtown today, more housing is just what the area needs.

What Steve N said. It's all about territory. Unfortunately this is P Chops turf.

Don't we have enough grocery stores already? Sure there is a need for one downtown, but it should be a good moderate store that has what the average shopper needs- not a "Destination Store". If you want a place for artisan sausages and specialty cheeses downtown, then campaign for a delicatessen.

I agree with Sam, it would be foolish to do a major project in this area without considering/deciding the future of 787 and the Albany riverfront.

There's been plenty of talk on that, but it would be great to have some of it turned into park / green space, maybe linking to the Corning Preserve. There's room for more than a grocery store!

Okay, Jimmy, I'm trying not to be a naysayer because I'd really like to see more ideas like this, so yeah, I'll buy it. There is a difference though between a destination market and leaning on the 9-5 crowd for sustainability. Not that those things are mutually exclusive but it's a shift from the original premise.

The folks at Wegman's (and Hannaford, Price Chopper, Shop Rite, etc.) aren't dumb. If this were going to be a huge moneymaker for them, they'd almost certainly have already identified that and gotten a project rolling. Either they haven't seen potential or there are serious roadblocks, or both. The points brought up by Capitalize Albany mentioned in the article can't be the whole story, so what's stopping a big retail project? Also, thanks for pointing to the Red Hook Fairway, though I think Red Hook is different enough from Albany... and how large is the average Wegman's in comparison? Lots of questions I'd love to hear smart peoples' thoughts on.

And one final slight naysay: supermarkets tend to bring in customers who park, shop, then drive off. Not a lot of ancillary purchasing spilling over into the strip malls they're attached to. Ideally, downtown development would be in a form that encourages people to stick around to patronize and enjoy some other parts of the city. Not saying this can't be done with a grocery, but would be nice to see addressed as part of the concept.

Please look into why cities form in the first place. Usually geography with river access is first and then a potential to take advantage of the geography to start businesses and establish trade....then come the follow on things like grocery stores, nail salons, sub shops! Albany needs BUSINESSES...that aren't state controlled!!! Boston was able to take down its' I91 elevated highway because THERE WAS BUSINESS and INDUSTRY FLOURISHING all over the place and it was the natural EVOLUTION of the city to return it's waterfront access to the people....not the other way around....although now that the seed businesses are in place others are coming and joining now that the highway is down. Albany will not suddenly flourish just buy taking down 787!!!!!

While a nice thought experiment, and no offense to suburbanite Jimmy Vielkind, I think a low density concept such as this would be an incredible waste for such a core parcel of the city. I could see this as a ground level piece to a larger package, but a standalone supermarket (no doubt awash with asphalt for parking) is not the best way to go. With that said, part of me agrees with the sentiment that we don’t need to go big or go home on this, but I think there are plenty of smart (and sensible) options worth exploring, that don’t require being a mega project (though I still maintain, something like the Potsdamer Platz would be an excellent mixed use development for this section of downtown

At the end of the day, I think something unique that could be called a destination, but which respects the locals in the surrounding neighborhoods and corrects a lot of the misdeeds from prior mega-projects (looking at you ESP and 787) is what is needed. A unicorn of a project to find, maybe, but I think it’s worth taking the time to work this out, rather than rush it through a state sponsored, state forced bid. The fact that they hit the pause button, in my mind, is a positive indication that they want to think smart about this corridor, not a negative outlook on this parcel and its development potential. I think we can start with vetting all the wonderful suggestions that have been mentioned in various similar threads, to include looking at the city’s history and celebrating it through a museum/visitor center, to establishing some greenspace that is more effectively linked to the waterfront, to modernized commercial/residential mix used infrastructure tied to a premier transit center.

What is this area's obsession with supermarkets? We have SO MANY supermarkets. What we need is some sort of exciting, mixed use catalyst like Providence created with The Arcade:

Providence is actually an amazing model for what Albany could do to redevelop its downtown. They are another small(ish) state capital with lots of state and higher-ed owned properties. They un-convered the river that ran through the city in the 90s under Cianci. They removed a section of highway that cut downcity awkwardly. They launched a campaign to get people to see Providence as a "knowledge district" and creative capital. Providence has become a foody destination. It is full of hip shops, and walkable historic streets. Young people are moving there (and into those hip microlofts!). Let's think outside of the box the the convention space. My vote is still for the museum of political corruption - but maybe we add some microlofts for those corrupt politicians to live in during legislative sessions?

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