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Measuring Livability

Dividing the city into focus areas, the Albany 2030 community workshop entertains public ideas on the issues of urban design, traffic, and public transportation

by Erin Pihlaja on July 26, 2012

On Tuesday night in the Albany public library, members of the Cecil Group, a Boston-based planning and design firm hired by the city of Albany, met with around 30 people from the city and surrounding areas to discuss transit-oriented development in Albany. The evening’s activities concluded a two-day community workshop, a recommendation of the city’s Comprehensive Plan, Albany 2030.

“I came here because I have a vested interest in making sure the city is heading in the right direction,” said Steve Alvarez, owner of multiple properties in Albany. “The desirability of living here is terrible and it could be fantastic if they resolve some of the issues.” Alvarez would like to see better planning that includes walkability and bikeable options.

After a brief presentation including a slideshow of housing, parking, streetscaping, and architecture from other municipalities, the crowd broke into four groups to discuss what they would like to see if the city were to implement changes to its infrastructure. The areas of focus were North Manning/Allen at Central (referred to as “commercial”), Clinton Square (referred to as “downtown”), and Quail at Central (referred to as “neighborhood”). Josh Fiala of the Cecil Group also said that future sites may include areas around a bus line on Western Avenue or Washington Avenue, and a corridor along the river at the North Broadway and South Pearl sections.

Each committee was led by a facilitator from either the Cecil Group or the city of Albany. Participants were presented with blank designs of three different types of streets as well as types of building styles. Using paper elements representing street lights, roof styles, traffic lanes, bicycle racks, bus stops and other design elements, groups were asked to visually lay out how they would like to see commercial, downtown, and neighborhood areas within the city.

Opinions varied throughout the groups. Some people liked the idea of historic facades, others made the case for contemporary designs. Green spaces were favored by all, but placement was debatable. All seemed to agree that the heights of buildings should be kept to a minimum in neighborhood areas, but that increasing the heights in downtown districts was acceptable. It was a lengthy process, and most participants felt that they needed more time.

The topic that was most divisive was sharing the road space in commercial sectors, in this case Central Avenue. Many people brought up the idea that the road was “too dangerous,” but only one group suggested changing the lanes of traffic from four to two. It was difficult for any of the groups to conceive of the addition of biking lanes, although two of the groups suggested creating a wider sidewalk with a designated bike lane to address the issue.

John-Jay Steinhardt, an Albany resident, felt that the workshop was helpful. As an advocate for people with disabilities, and someone who is dependent on the bus system, he was concerned with how parking was looked at in the design process. “Albany has a problem with access at bus stops,” he said. “There are signs that allow parking at the stop, which keeps the bus’ ramp from reaching the curb. It makes it impossible for people in wheelchairs to board the bus.” He noted that he has brought the issue to the city’s attention and he was told that they would address it. “I expect that they will do their job,” he said. “I want to see the report.” The Cecil Group estimated that they would have this report sometime in October.

“I hope you all saw that when there is not enough space, something’s got to give,” said Steve Cecil, founder of the Cecil Group, at the end of the evening. “One size does not fit all. You need to be creative to get this all figured out.”

Another public meeting on transit-oriented development is expected to be held at the end of September.