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What’s Your Vision for Albany?

by Miriam Axel-Lute on January 21, 2010

A couple weeks ago, at the packed-to-the-gills grand opening party for the new Delaware Avenue library branch, another parent in the neighborhood commented that looking around him, he was suddenly struck by the fact that he felt like a part of a community, for the first time in his life. My husband said his first reaction to this was to think it was a little hokey, but then he looked around at all the people we knew—through our kids, through local businesses, through activism, through gardening, through chatting on the street—gathered in a public space that was brought about through our votes and support, and thought, “No, he’s right. That’s what this is, isn’t it?”

Now imagine if you were going to a celebration in 20 years of something that had dramatically changed the whole city of Albany for the better, something that you had identified and advocated for and joined with your neighbors and with people from the other side of town to prioritize and get the relevant parties to act on: What would it be?

It’s time to come together and get those ideas on the table. Though there were some delays due to state grant funding, the heart of the Albany comprehensive plan process is now underway, and the first step is creating a vision for our city in 2030.

Now, I and others have had some pretty strong critiques of the many planning processes in the city over recent years. Some have been inaccessible or unwelcoming to large swaths of the city’s population. Others have seemed window- dressing, with a certain limited scope of already-determined project possibilities overriding residents’ more radical or creative goals.

There is good reason to believe this time will be different. The city has hired a consultant, Place Matters, to focus entirely on resident engagement. Early indications are promising: The first round of public forums include three meetings scheduled at three different times of day in three different parts of the city. There will be kids’ activities (and their ideas will be incorporated). Resident-hosted house parties will discuss the same topics as these forums for those who “can’t or won’t” attend a large meeting. Social service organizations are being engaged to reach their clients, and churches and schools are being engaged to reach their networks. Physical door-to-door flyering is supplementing online and TV/radio promotion. Cell phone technology will be used to engage young adults in sharing their experiences of their city, and the large meetings will involve technology allowing anonymous voting on priorities by everyone present, reducing the advantage the loquacious sometimes hold in such contexts.

The other side of outreach is of course implementation. Many people in Albany feel “planned out.” We have a host of neighborhood or single-issue plans, plus the Sustainable Design Assessment Team report from 2008, which, though citywide, was a whirlwind one-month process that resulted in an interesting if scattershot document that hasn’t really been acted upon—the city says it was considering it a “dry run” for the comprehensive plan process.

The differences with a comprehensive plan are that we will take the time to do this right and especially that it will tie all of those other pieces together into one vision for the city of Albany as a whole. A comprehensive plan is comprehensive—it won’t cover everything you can think of, but zoning and land use, housing, economic development, transportation, community facilities, parks, and infrastructure at least will be on the table, and those things can be catalysts to foster the more intangible things—public safety, a sense of community, a cultural scene, an environment of opportunity for our children—that are so important.

It’s also worth noting that state law says our land use regulations will need to be in accordance with the plan, which is a little piece of authority none of our other plans get. Also, developing steps and partnerships for implementation is part of what WRT, the lead consultants, consider to be part of their job.

But a comprehensive plan done right will also, importantly, be a plan with a much larger constituency than any of the others, and it will be driven by a vision that we hammered out together and that will stick with us and unite us in a way that the rushed process and various (good) technical recommendations of the SDAT did not. For turning around Albany’s sense of what’s possible, that may be at least as important as the content.

Of course, that only works if we actually participate. (You knew that was coming, didn’t you?) The Web site is albany 2030.org. Upload memories, photos, videos to help the consultants know what makes Albany special to you. The forums are January 28, 29, and 30. I encourage you to attend and bring neighbors, and also to think of the people you know who won’t/can’t attend, but who might come to a small gathering in your home (or workplace or congregation), and host a house party.

This is not an election or a single development project. This is a plan that will outlast the current administration, and all of our current short-term battles. So if we want to make some points loud and clear about our priorities for our wonderful city, now’s the time.