What would Albany be like today if the Empire State Plaza had not been built?

Albany skyline ESP cutout

It's Other Timelines week on AOA, in which we'll be looking at alternate histories of this place, about big and small things that did or did not happen.

Albany has a long history -- more than three centuries as an incorporated place -- so there have been plenty of "what if" points along the way.

But the biggest one, literally and figuratively, might be this: What would Albany be like today if the Empire State Plaza had not been built?

We proposed that question to a bunch of local historian-minded people...

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98 Acres in Albany

98Acres Candeub Sheridan Hollow state office plan

Instead of the South Mall, in 1962, Mayor Erastus Corning successfully persuaded Gov. Nelson Rockefeller to build a new state office complex in Sheridan Hollow. (To sweeten the deal, Corning promised that the county would finance the construction through its bond sales.) The "severely blighted" area identified by city planner Isadore Candeub was bounded by Clinton Ave and Elk Street on the north and south, Eagle and Swan streets on the east and west, with a possible extension to Lark Street. Of course, Rocky insisted on appropriating all 18 blocks from Eagle to Lark.

The so-called "North Mall" was part of a larger plan to resuscitate Albany's central business district and restore Arbor Hill's fading luster. Of course, it meant the demolition of hundreds of homes and small shops and the displacement of roughly 2,800 resident, most of them poor and disproportionately black. These former residents continue to this day to mourn their lost homes, while preservationists deplore the destruction of historic structures, including Elk Street's "Quality Row," former home to Franklin D. Roosevelt and a host of Pruyns and Van Rensselaers.

98Acres Candeub Sheridan Hollow state office plan Sheridan Ave photo

Due in part to the difficult terrain, construction of the massive modernist complex took longer and cost more than the state's overly optimistic projections. During this period, many nearby residents and businesses were driven away by the noise, dirt, and road closures -- though bars near the work site boomed.

When construction was finally completed in the mid-1970s, the adjacent areas came back to life. Gentrification traveled up Clinton Ave to West Hill and north to Tivoli Park. North Pearl shopping stabilized, and soon restaurants were packed, particularly during lunch and happy hour. Artists and musicians flocked to the warehouse district on Broadway, in search of affordable studio space. By the turn of the century, some (local) observers began calling North Albany the "new Brooklyn."

98 Acres in Albany is history project working to digitally reconstruct and repopulate the area replaced by the Empire State Plaza. Prompted in part by this question, it recently looked at the actual story of the plan mentioned above.

Anthony Opalka

With my educational background in architectural history and urban planning, I have spent a good portion of my life thinking about this question. Although I remember North Pearl St as a vibrant shopping district in my childhood when my family took the bus from Watervliet to downtown Albany to visit my mother's family near the Governor's Mansion and I took in the sights and sounds of that part of Albany in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it was in adulthood that I formed more coherent thoughts about the impact of the plaza on Albany and what might have been if it hadn't been built.

Albany: Comprehensive Plan for Downtown, what I think of as the "alternative plan" published by urban planners in 1962 as an argument about putting the plaza somewhere else, reflects my thoughts.

When speaking of what they called The Capital (sic) Hill Neighborhood, they said this:

The neighborhood, bounded by Washington Park on the West, State Street on the north, Eagle Street on the east, and Lincoln Park on the south, is potentially the most valuable high-density residential area in the city. The neighborhood has an unusually strong location for continued residential use and for new residential construction, in view of its location near two major parks, existing state offices and the Central Business District. It includes many public and semi-public institutions including the Governor's Mansion which is a residential use appropriate to the residential neighborhood.
While housing in the neighborhood is generally quite old, it is of a type which is suitable for rehabilitation. The area already has many examples of rehabilitation of brownstone and frame structures into excellent town houses. Few cities in the country are favored with this type of residential structure in a neighborhood as advantageously located as this. Where such cities have taken advantage of the opportunity to preserve such areas, as in the Georgetown area of Washington, D.C., they have created outstanding neighborhoods with great historical interest.
Continued residential use of the neighborhood is important to the future of the central business district, since this neighborhood can provide housing to higher income families living within the immediate vicinity of downtown. It is therefore considered important that the residential facilities in the area be encouraged and expanded.

In another section of the document, they also talk about the interesting residential neighborhood adjacent to the market area, essentially what is now known as the Mansion Neighborhood. They also comment on the medieval character of parts of downtown that reflect the city's (then) 350-year history and how this would serve to enhance Albany's potential as a tourist draw.

To me, this plan, while not perfect, says it all.

Anthony Opalka is the Albany city historian.

Don Rittner

Albany would be more than 9000 people richer in terms of population and diversity. The destruction of so many neighborhoods, mom-and-pop stores, and the destruction of much of Albany's historic infrastructure was a disaster to Albany. As shown in the Mary Paley documentary, The Neighborhood That Disappeared, the disruption of so many lives of mostly immigrant families had a devastating effect on the social fabric of the city.

There is nothing special about the architecture of marble that replaced the architectural diversity that marked the mall area. The architectural diversity that was destroyed and built by so many immigrants, many by hand, can never be replaced in terms of style, substance, and craftsmanship. The Mall replaced a vibrant area full of life on a 24-hour cycle. The Mall area after 5 pm is a ghost town. It is my opinion that Albany is much poorer as a city because of this monstrosity.

Don Rittner is an author, historian, archeologist, and producer.

Albany Archives

If the Empire State Plaza hadn't been built something else would have.

The state had been toying with some sort of government complex since the Capitol fire in 1911. Looking around at other state capitols on the east coast, many (not all) had moved away from the neighborhood environment and replaced their residential with park land or government facilities. I think it was inevitable with Albany as well, even in an alternate timeline.

The version that would've been cooked up probably wouldn't have been so grandiose as the one we have now, though. The homes along the State Street block were still bulldozed, with the exception for one (we'll get to that), and the area still repurposed into state office buildings, including the justice building and two office buildings. The Chestnut Street blocks suffered the same fate, but instead of buildings, green space was installed to create a boundary between the neighborhood and state buildings in the form of a park that ran from Swan to Eagle Street with an intersection at Hawk St. The park was named in honor of famed local scientist Joseph Henry.

Myers Residence State and Swan St
The Myers residence at State and Swan. / photo via the Albany Public Library

The one building on State Street to survive was the old Myers Mansion, which was turned into a historic inn that many politicians, even to this day, still frequent. Like the Historic Myers Inn, the rest of the area remained. The neighborhood that survived, the southern half of the 98 acres, suffered through much of the 1960s and 70s when suburban sprawl became a popular trend. The early to mid-1980s saw the neighborhood curse reversed, young people were moving back into this part of the city, buying the property south of Henry Park at bargain deals. It's now one of the prime spots to live in the city, similar to its neighbor to the west, Center Square.

Combined, those two neighborhoods have won numerous accolades for its preservation and is looked at by many tourists as an area similar to the Old City district of Philadelphia or the historic section of Annapolis.

Matt Malette is the creator of Albany Archives.

Maeve McEneny Johnson

When the ESP was built, families across the country were already beginning to trade stoops and sidewalks for picket fences and manicured lawns. I can't imagine that Albany residents would be any different.

Inevitably, the single family row houses would have been transformed into multi-unit, rental apartments. But who would be renovating these homes? Absentee landlords from New York City? Or a grown grandchild living in Colonie that inherited the old family house? In this non-ESP world, I suspect the latter.

Emotional investment would remain strong for city neighborhoods, in a way we don't always see today. After all, human beings fight to keep what they can see. (48 Hudson is a perfect example of passionate Albanians trying to visually recapture our story with visuals) When neighborhood-defining farmers markers, shops and parades are suddenly in danger of disappearing, I imagine there would be organized movements to save what was once so important to our families. Maybe we'd lose, but it would be worth the fight.

By the mid-2000s, millennials would flee suburbs for the convenience of urban living. Summer stoop sits would return to the neighborhood and new traditions will be born. The 4th of July firework show in Rensselaer would remain a downtown Albany favorite -- but enjoyed from our own waterfront.

Maeve McEneny Johnson, Program Coordinator at the Albany County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Julie O'Connor

South Mall 1962 plan
Click the image for a larger version.

What would Albany look like today if the Empire State Plaza had been built as originally conceived? The original plan as proposed by the Temporary State Commission on the Capital City in 1962 and 1963 was substantially different from what we see today. I think that explains, in part, why so many city residents, including some of those who lived in the "take" area were willing to go along with it. The Plaza was conceived as just one part of a plan that extended throughout downtown Albany.

In addition to the Plaza itself, there would have been: + Hotel with parking garage + High rise apartments - middle income and luxury + Pedestrian promenade leading to retail area + Heliport + Marina and yacht club + Boardwalk with restaurants + Creative arts center + Convention center + "Historic" park + Theater + Library + Private office buildings + Renovated retail core

Some of it came true, over several decades.

Julie O'Connor is part of the Friends of Albany History group, and also maintains the Capital City Vintage Fashion & Style page. She's AlbanyMuskrat on Twitter.

Carl Johnson

Imagine It's A Wonderful Life, but with the Empire State Plaza in the role of George Bailey.

OK, Empire State Plaza, you got your wish. You were never born - now look at what your site looks like. All those ugly little office buildings across from the Capitol, the ones that look like 150 State Street? Well, those are because they needed new offices, but didn't want anything blocking the Capitol. Those steel and glass towers another block south, the ones that look sorta like Ten Eyck Plaza? Well, they still needed to house all those workers... and, no, the towers don't match. No one seemed to think that mattered. And they finally built a new State Museum, over on the corner of Swan and State, but it wasn't much bigger than the old one; they just ran out of money for it.

All those blocks between Swan and Hawk, from Lancaster down to Hudson? Parking garages. Parking garages as far as the eye can see. Why? Well, you were never born, and building all that underground structure for parking was considered impractical. Even though there were still people in the neighborhood, a lot of the churches moved out anyway. Some got reused, some tumbled down.

Eagle Movie theater Hudson ave  albany ny 1930s

The Palace Theater was never saved, because everyone focused on restoring the Eagle Theater, right there on Eagle Street, but it was in a crumbling old armory building, and 830 seats wasn't enough to put on the big shows, so it closed too. With no Eagle, and no Palace, and no Egg, the cultural events moved to Schenectady. The Albany Symphony? That's the Electric City Orchestra. World famous, too. Yep, everything happens over at Proctor's now.

What happened to Hudson-Jay Park, you ask? Well, that was never a park, because the old Normans Kill Dairy was never torn down. It's a yogurt bar now.

There were some good things. Hawk Street mostly became a pedestrian plaza. The Central Market stayed in its place up on Madison and Swan, still with the foundation of the old church showing. Price Chopper, they called it later. All those houses over on the Madison end of your site, well, most of them got fixed up, and it's a nice little neighborhood. Not much of one, even though people think you're to blame for that... lots of other things pushed people out of that part of town.

So you see, Empire State Plaza, you didn't have such a bad little life after all.

Carl Johnson blogs about local history at Hoxsie.

Martin Daley

July 1961.

Nelson Rockefeller woke up in a cold sweat. It had been nearly two years since Princess Juliana came for her visit. As he fumbled for the glass of water on the nightstand the Governor remembered how embarrassed he'd been on their tour of the city that fateful, cool September day. Nelson remembered how quiet the Princess was, how a hush fell over her at the sight of dilapidated buildings, the poverty. He gulped down the water, struggling to remember the dream. "Water..." he mumbled to himself.

(keep reading)

Martin Daley is a planner and Albany native. He has a love/hate relationship with the Empire State Plaza."

Paula Lemire

I can imagine an Albany in which the Plaza was proposed, but successfully opposed by local activists and preservationists. And that the battle to fight the Plaza sparked a positive and widespread surge of restoration and purposeful redevelopment that carried over to today. That the countless historic homes, churches, and other buildings were spared for the wrecking ball and beautifully adapted to modern reuse giving Albany a much larger and active downtown than the current one which, despite some changes in recent years, is still more or less just a district of offices and (with some exceptions) smaller businesses that support the offices.

The Plaza as it exists now takes up a massive amount of space in the heart of the city, but is really not a part of it. In some ways, it's cut off from the city it occupies and many of the amenities it does offer are only for the benefit of the people who work there or visitors, but not really for the neighbors who lived around it and (to a great extent) bear the burden of it. I think that great isolation and disconnect diminishes the sense of community here.

A successful opposition to the Plaza and a subsequent wave of interest in preserving the neighborhoods and addressing those parts that were indeed blighted could have been a beautiful renaissance for this old city.

Paula Lemire is a local historian and creator of Albany Rural - Beyond The Graves on Facebook. Her family owned properties in the zone taken by the ESP, and as she said to, has "lived in its shadow for my entire life."

Comments

Detroit.

This city government hasn't had a progressive idea since they paved the streets. They wouldn't have had a clue how to save the decaying heart of the city, just as they have no clue today how to save the rest of it.

I tend to agree with Carl Johnson's assessment. We are just assuming the former neighborhood would have remained static and intact despite redlining, suburban exodus, and the loss of small businesses already occurring. Indeed, who's to say that ugly parking garages and ugly 1970s office buildings would not have replaced many decaying row houses and churches? This is what happened in other neighborhoods in the city and in other city neighborhoods throughout the country. At least ESP plaza has significant public space. It's far better than the Government Plaza in Boston, for example, and what happened in downtown Syracuse and downtown Rochester.

"The Plaza as it exists now takes up a massive amount of space in the heart of the city, but is really not a part of it. In some ways, it's cut off from the city it occupies..."

That's the heart of the problem, in this recent arrival's view (not just mine, I know). A plaza that was part of the city grid, rather than superimposed on/raised above it, could be a solid good. There's a lot of public space for kids to chase a ball, folks to stroll after dinner, etc. But it's totally enclosed. How to lure people to the Plaza for reasons other than work? The concerts and events seem like a good start, but surely there are other things that could work.

Thanks AOA for such an interesting piece. The history of the City of Albany and its tumultuous relationship with the State of NY is a very complex topic. The dysfunctional dynamics that began with ESP and eminent domain still remain today, though they go mostly unseen or unknown by the residents of Albany. The State of NY owns more than half of the land in the City and pays only a fraction of one percent in taxes. One piece of land in particular is the Corning Riverfront Park which is leased to the City - however, this lease contains a clause that allows the State of NY to take back the land if they so choose. The construction of 787 was another bad decision which cut off the entire City from the enjoyment and beauty of the Hudson River. Now, as cities around the world remove urban highways ad interstates, the State of NY will not even entertain the idea, instead choking the life out of a City desperately trying to survive. Will the State stop this behavior? No, they continue to let a large swath of land rot in the middle of downtown - the City has no control for fear or angering the beast. After reading all of this, I am left wondering - why does the State of New York hate the City of Albany so much?

I also like Carl Johnson's assessment. I realize that the ESP has it flaws, but it gets tiresome to hear how awful it is and to pretend that it would have been better if ESP had never been built. Sure, that's possible but it's also possible the neighborhoods would have fallen into decline given the trends elsewhere. The ESP isn't going anywhere, we may as well embrace instead of always looking backward and thinking, "if only...."

I disagree with the comment that the plaza is not part of the city or is even "cut-off" from it. Despite Mary's impression, I'm a regular on the plaza for a variety of reasons (running, walking, kids, concerts, events, museum, out-of-town guests, etc) and find that there are many other folks out there just like me. I live 2+ miles away and don't work downtown. All the reasons Mary listed for the plaza being attractive are true (among MANY others), but you have to take the initiative to explore and enjoy these places yourself.

Although the history of the plaza is very controversial, we're "stuck" with it now, despite what side of the argument you're on, so own it and make the best of it.

I feel like a lot of the mistakes of Urban Renewal would have been made in Albany with or without the plaza but the capacity to fix those mistakes would be greater if the Plaza and accompanying arterial roads were never built.

I was not alive before the building of the Plaza but i feel like it took much of the City's soul when it was built.

On watching the documentary "The Neighbor That Disappeared", there is at least one business that I wish could have stayed..(probably much more than that, also, if I'd been living here). Chiarmonte's Bakery. Why that in particular? Well I knew the Chiarmontes, that is, their son Tony...who became Father Tony and corralled and cajoled a bunch of unruly teens in Oneonta, NY, otherwise known as the CYO. [Catholic Youth Organization]. It struck me because just about the time his parents shop was closing and everyone was having to move, was when we really found a friend in Father Tony. He must have been going crazy with his family under pressure to move, and yet I never heard a complaint. Several years later, when I finally graduated from college, Father Tony was, of course, at my celebration party. And it makes me feel shallow that now that I had no idea what was going on with his family ... until recently watching the documentary ... putting a very real face on it. I lament the loss of the little businesses ... the Mall is super cold. When I go to the Egg now it's like a ghost town at night. (Hey...would the Egg even have been there without the Mall?) Everything is closed up waiting for the office workers on the next business day. I think Center Square is the most delightful of neighborhoods ... dappled sunlight through glorious old trees ... endless brownstones ... and the Mall's old neighborhood would have been more of the same, I think. Now the thought of it is indelibly linked to my favorite priest and the bakery that they had to close down. These days we'd practically kill for a bakery like that one rather than tasteless Starbucks pastries. I know I would. I'd probably be living down there right now.

Growing up on Jefferson Street in the late 40's & early 50's gave me a perspective of wh, at urban life was in Albany. So many proud immigrants who loved America, Followed the Laws, Regulation and Customs of this land. They sent their Sons and Daughters off to war to defend the Country that they Loved. (My Family lost a member in WW2, (My uncle Bill Bucci)

I remember so many of the locally owned and operated businesses in my neighborhood. Muraven's Market, Andrew's Restaurant, Central Market, Lombardo's Restaurant, The Sea Shell Restaurant, Hunter's Pharmacy. Glendale Dairy and so many more that I can't remember!

We as kids, played "Stick Ball" in the streets, swam at Lincoln Park Pool in the summer Slid down "Deadman's Hill" in the winter. Rode Normans Kill Dairy Horse drawn delivery wagon. (Sometimes, the Driver would let me hold the reins!)

Some of us went to Cathedral Academy where we were "Educated" by the Nuns! If you were called to go over the bridge, you knew that you were in Trouble!

I still remember sitting on the front steps of my grandfather's house during the Summer, enjoying the weather with family and neighbors! I can still remember election night, 1952. Sitting on the curb at Jefferson St and Hawk St. watching the "Bonfire"! Along with the other fires across the river in Rensselaer!

IMHO, If the Empire State Plaza was located on the Albany Riverfront,
The Albany Skyline could have been a "Gateway" to a place of History, Innovation, Inspiration and Education! The local people and businesses would have grown and flourished. Instead, they relocated to the Suburbs!

FYI: A Remake of the "Original" Fort Orange" or "Fort Frederick"..Ala "Colonial Williambsburg"!

So many possibilities lost.

So many possibilities still able to be developed!

I am proud to have grown up in Albany!

My Roots, My Home!

Take Care!

I've only lived in Albany for 34 years, so my opinion doesn't count - but here goes

With the mall plans cancelled the state still requires office space, so they acquire the footage along State Street and construct the State Street Building - in part to block the Capitol from what is perceived as a seedy neighborhood. This building - and the large parking structure behind it - overshadow the neighborhood, and families in adjacent properties move out. Over time increasingly derelict structures are bulldozed and replaced by more blocks of offices- so the State moves in piecemeal. The street traffic is intolerable.There are fires.

With space in the Capitol at a premium there is no impetus for restoration, and the grand halls are filled with cubicles as offices overflow. An unattractive "Temporary" structure is built in West Capitol Park. Plans are made to roof over the central courtyard.

An offer is made to buy the Cathedral of All Saints site and the Bishop (in view of financial stress) seriously thinks about it. In the mean while, the State buys the footage from Swan St along Washington up to the Albany Institute and erects the Washington Tower, with an attached parking garage that incorporates Elk St and is accessible from Sheridan Hollow.

Is this fantasy without support? Yes

Thank Princess Juliana of the Netherlands, Nelson Rockefeller and Erastus Corning for destroying the heart and soul of Albany's downtown. But, there are signs of new life on Broadway and Pearl Street.

So, now we have the plaza. Like it or not it is there. Lamenting over the loss of the neighborhoods is nice for the nostalgia. What we need to do now is come up with the creative ways to incorporate the plaza into our community, into our daily lives. We need to do this in a big way. I get the fact that people find the space cavernous.......because it is. There needs to be a certain critical mass of people there to make it feel "cozy", if that is possible. We need leadership in the region to come up with the creative ideas to use that space in an ongoing "conversation " with the community. Historically, it has been the arts community that steps forward to make unlivable situations attractive for development and activity that brings a more lively environment. Neighborhoods are revitalized by artists who move in as pioneers to make a neighborhood a better place to live. The plaza is a neighborhood that needs to be defined. We need some leadership here to make this happen. I would love to see all of our "creatives" get together and figure it out. Then encourage the leaders to make it happen. It's there. Let's figure out a way to make it a major asset.

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Recent Comments

Seems like they've put together realistic plans, though I wonder whether the proximity to the ESP ramps would be a deterrent to finding a residential developer. I'd really like to see that Trailways Building kept. We have so few century buildings in Albany that I'd really we rather keep them when we can. And this building is not at all shy about advertising its era. E-Comm 6, however...well, I won't cry if it comes down.

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