Monday, January 10, 2011

Case Study - Schenectady, NY

On December 4th, my wife and I embarked on Amtrak train 284 to Schenectady for a short weekend of exploration coinciding with the city's downtown holiday open house and a Dickensian performance by a local theater group.

The location of our arrival makes for a good starting point in discussing the physical form of Downtown Schenectady.  A standard 1970's-issue shitcube analogous to those found in Rochester or Depew is currently tucked into the elevated track platform (a platform that was reduced in width during that era).  That which preceded it (pictured in its prime, I didn't have the heart to show it during demolition...) was the stone-faced 1908 Union Station, built by the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad in the Beaux-Arts style, eventually demolished in 1971.

Luckily not only discussion, but action has been taken in an effort to replace this monstrosity with a true intermodal station, complete with a weather-protected connecting corridor to State Street and the Capital District Transportation Authority services.  This project appears to be close to its target funding figures with an August 2011 construction start date.

From what I could discern via my experience observing the environs, this focus on form at the train station site is an extension of a good urbanism initiative undertaken by the Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corporation.  The corporation administers state Housing and Community Renewal funds in a unique and successful 'Main Street' Improvement Program which consists of:
...a matching grant program to assist and property owners within the approved target area on State Street between Erie Boulevard and Washington Avenue, and South Ferry Street between Erie Boulevard and State Street in renovating vacant first floor commercial and upper floor residential spaces.

In addition, the improvement corporation funnels funds from the Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority (more on them later) into a facade grant program.

...for commercial properties within the boundaries of the Downtown Special Assessment District (DSAD). Leveraging a dollar-for-dollar match from property owners, the program encourages property owners to make repairs and improvements to the exterior of their buildings. The DSIC recognizes the importance of incorporating energy efficiency improvements in projects.

The authority, funded through dedicated sales tax revenues (this is crucial!), seeks to expand the county's property and sales tax bases, focusing on key commercial corridors and business parks strategically located throughout the County with a special emphasis on redevelopment of the downtown area in the City of Schenectady.  The authority appears directly responsible for much of the newly constructed or renovated (and sometimes it is hard to tell the difference!) Class A office space along State Street, all of which respects the public realm and is integrated well with commercial functions including live performance and motion picture theaters.

The reinvestment is paying dividends in the usually frustrating arena of public perception.  A 2008 Siena Research Institute poll commissioned by the authority noted that 80% of county residents visit downtown and 82% say they have an improved view of the district.

Many of my previous case studies were glorified travel guides.  This has certainly taken a turn toward the programmatic.  In an effort to not completely abandon the notion of understanding through experience/immersion, here are three areas in Schenectady worth exploring, all withing walking distance of the Amtrak Station and downtown hotels.

The Stockade

Immediately west of the station, centered on Union Street, is the Stockade Historic District.  Continuously inhabited for over 300 years, this neighborhood is home to a wide variety of Dutch and English 17th and 18th century buildings.  Greater than 40 of the historic period homes are over 200 years old.  The Stockade was recognized as New York State's first historic district.  Notable accomodations in the district include the 1818 Stockade Inn and the 1760's English Garden Bed and Breakfast.  For Jazz enthusiasts, the Van Dyck Lounge, which has seen Coleman Hawkins, Dave Brubeck, and Thelonious Monk pass through its doors, is considered one of the top listening rooms in the United States.

Union College

The first comprehensively planned college campus in the United States (Ramee 1813-1814), Union is arranged to form a large, open courtyard, facing the West and the Mohawk River valley.  The true gem and centerpiece of the campus today is the fully restored Nott Memorial.  Open to the public for visitation, the memorial was was designed by Edward Tuckerman Potter to honor his grandfather, legendary Union College President Eliphalet Nott.  The center of the memorial is completely open to the top of its dome 102 feet overhead.  Two-hundred eighty-eight restored stained glass windows bathe the interior in colored light.

Jay Street

Off-limits to motor traffic between State and Franklin, Jay Street is a mecca for pedestrians and independently operated businesses including a french crepes bistro, a tremendous bookstore, a store for all things Irish, salons, and coffee houses.  Further north, beyond the iconic Federal-style McKim, Mead, and White City Hall building and James Knox Taylor's 1912 Classical Revival Post Office, lies a concentration of Italian bakeries and eateries.


Mike Kraus said...

great information! Thanks!

Downtown hotels said...
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delosgatos said...

a wide variety of Dutch and English 17th and 18th century buildings, 40 of which are over 200 years old.

Should that be "18th and 19th century"? Everything from the 17th and 18th centuries is over 200 years old.

Bob said...

Ugh, poor grammar on my part. Did a lousy job combining two different statements.


Adam said...

I know this post is a little crusty - but I'd like to encourage you to post more...

I used to stay in Schenectady, NY all the time a GE was a client of mine. I was always a little sad to be there. While there was some hidden charm, it seemed as though there was more decay and then a HUGE highway running right through any hope of what could-have-been / once was.

I do remember playing racket ball in a awesomely old / charming little YMCA in a cool little neighborhood.