Thinking about the future of the neighborhood around UAlbany's downtown campus

rezone albany downtown ualbany group marking map

What should the future version of the neighborhood around UAlbany's downtown campus look like? What sorts of services, establishments, and amenities should it have? And what the heck do you call that area?

Those were some of the questions that came up Monday evening during the first Rezone Albany public event focused on imagining and shaping the future of the neighborhood at the heart of the city of Albany. It is, as Albany planning director Christopher Spencer explained to the crowd, an attempt to see how connections can be made among the university, the neighborhood, residents, and businesses.

Monday's event was about gathering ideas from the public. Here's a distillation of what people had to say, along with a few thoughts.

groups at the rezone event

What's the main street of this neighborhood?

One of the consistent themes of the group presentations made by members of the public at the end of Monday's session was a desire to see a critical mass of commercial activity somewhere in the neighborhood -- shops, services, places for people to hang out, and so on.

And in most neighborhoods, when you're talking about that sort of stuff you're also talking about a "main street" or prominent intersection. Think about a college campus you know well -- you can probably also name the nearby off-campus street where there's a bunch of shops, restaurants, bars, and services. As Jason King of Dover, Kohl -- the consultancy leading this neighborhood-focused series of Rezone Albany events -- pointed out, almost every college campus in a city has one of these streets.

A possible candidate for the "main street" or "crossroads" of the downtown UAlbany campus neighborhood is the intersection of Western Ave and Quail, in part because it already pretty much serves that purpose now. There are currently a few restaurants right around there -- Washington Tavern, Ginger Man, Crave, Mild Wally's, and others -- and it has the sort of building stock that does and could support commercial use. And if you widen the scope a little bit up and down Quail Street, there are businesses such as Hudson River Coffee House to the south and Mr. Pio Pio and Last Vestige to the north. (By the way: Mary Jane Books moved over to Washington Ave.)

As one group said during its presentation, Quail Street could be the next Lark Street.

So one of the questions is how can the city and university and neighborhood foster what's already there and build upon it? Maybe part of the process is just explicitly referring to that stretch of Quail at Western as that main street corridor, maybe with signage or streetscape elements. And perhaps there are things that could be done with zoning to encourage it.

Will there be a parking garage? Should there be a parking garage?

rezone_albany_ualbany_downtown_parking_study_area.jpg

A big chunk of the presentation that opened Monday's event was dedicated to everyone's favorite topic: parking. The consultancy Nelson Nygaard studying parking in the neighborhood -- looking at how much parking is currently available, how much demand there is for parking, along with ways to manage demandthrough things like encouraging use of transit -- and it expects to have a report by the end of this year.

It'll be interesting to see the results of that study, because the sense we got from people at the event -- both through their comments and clicker voting during the initial presentation -- was that many people there didn't necessarily think parking was that big of an issue.

Maybe that changes in the future if/when UAlbany completes its planned $60 million renovation of the old Albany High School building at Western and Lake into the new home of its new engineering college, adding more than 1,000 students, faculty, and staff to the neighborhood. There's already talk of UAlbany potentially building a parking garage somewhere in the neighborhood -- maybe on its Thurlow Terrace parking lot -- at some point down the line. And people at Monday's event seemed more or less OK with that, recognizing that a parking garage could provide more spaces without eating land like surface lots.

So we suspect that if UAlbany does end up going that route -- and school officials on Monday said it's only currently thinking about whether a garage would be necessary -- its reception will be less about the fact that it's happening, and more about how it's happening. That is, if the garage isn't ugly and fits into the context of the neighborhood, people probably won't mind.

Earlier on AOA: Six not-boring parking garages

What about Washington Ave?

There's currently a stark difference between the feel of Western Ave and Washington Ave through this area. Western has a real neighborhood feel along many of its stretches, while Washington feels wide and kind of cold and barren.

A few of the groups mentioned a desire to bring more life to Washington. One mentioned investigating traffic calming -- like the Madison Ave Road Diet -- and protected bike lanes for the street. And another suggested improvements to Beverwyck Park to make it seem more open, and less like a giant block.

Where are students living?

Liberty Terrace
Liberty Terrace on the uptown campus.

An interesting angle that came up in one of the small groups was the idea that new options for student housing on Albany's uptown campus -- including the apartment-style Empire Commons and the more recent Liberty Terrace -- have pulled students out of this neighborhood. There could be something to that because UAlbany's enrollment total has been more or less flat over the last decade (though there are plans to increase it). And the pull could be even stronger as the new private dorms open across from the uptown campus on Washington Ave.

If that is the case, it's an example of how changes in one part of the city can affect another part miles away. And it also prompts the question of whether the city would be interested in encouraging more students to live in this neighborhood. Or maybe there are incentives or other methods to encourage other people associated with the university to rent or buy homes nearby.

It's worth noting that there are still many students who live around the neighborhood. And UAlbany does have dorms there -- the Alumni Quad on Western Ave houses 800 UAlbany students and 300 Saint Rose students.

Connecting streets

Google Map of 42.663,-73.7767577

One of the fun things about these sorts of events is the Sim City-like aspect of the discussions, with people talking about what might happen if a large building was constructed, or the path of a street changed, or a park was created.

An idea that apparently bubbled up in multiple groups Monday: Connecting the currently isolated section of State Street between Ontario and Cortland Place to North Lake. As one group discussed, doing so would create a mini-corridor with Beverwyck Park on one end and the downtown campus on the other. And it could serve as a thoroughfare for students moving between the Alumni Quad and the campus.

What do you call this neighborhood?

There have been multiple attempts over the last decade to rebrand this section of the city. So it was interesting/funny to see people's reactions to some of the those names when they were put up for a clicker vote during Monday's event. Two of those names from the past -- the "Education District" and "NoMad" (for north of Madison) -- both bombed hard in the voting.

The names that seemed to have the most support: Ones that kept it simple and were non-cringe-inducing, like... midtown or mid-city.

rezone_albany_ualbany_downtown_pano.jpg

What's next

On Thursday there's another public event at which the consultants will be showing renderings and other possible ideas for the neighborhood. It's at 6 pm in Milne Hall room 200 on the downtown UAlbany campus.

Earlier on AOA

+ Looking at the future of UAlbany's downtown campus -- and the neighborhood around it

+ One early version of the next Warehouse District

+ Thinking about the direction of Central Ave

+ Thinking about the future of the South End

Comments

The city's recent attempt at creating underground parking spaces in this neighborhood did not work out well.

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