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Schenectady Outside the Box
Creative ideas for the Electric City that go beyond conventional wisdom


Seems like it’s awfully easy to make fun of Schenectady these days; it’s suffered a number of hard knocks. Poverty and population statistics and fiscal spreadsheets for the city are not looking cheery. But when you talk to the residents of Schenectady, they’ll remind you that Schenectady also has an awful lot going for it, from gorgeous parks and beautiful and affordable old homes to venerable cultural institutions, strong history, the Mohawk River, and some great places to eat.

Rebirth and revitalization comes from building on strong points, and getting creative about the very real challenges: fiscal, physical, and social. So Metroland has collected some ideas for helping Schenectady back on its feet. We asked for ideas that were quirky, positive, and specific, without regard to how immediately “realistic” they might seem. They’re not from politicians, but from people from different walks of life with different connections to the city of Schenectady.

None of these ideas will be enough by itself to complete a transformation of the city. Some of them may not even be good ideas, or might contradict each other. But a number of these ideas together, or others they inspire, worked into a coordinated vision and implemented by a coalition of people who keep being creative about hard questions, could be an incredible catalyst. We look forward to writing about it as it happens.

Help or hindrance? I-890.

Send I-890 Packing

Here’s an idea to help Schenectady recover: Deconstruct Interstate 890, which runs through the city in what once was Pleasant Valley, a natural heaven that used to run through two working-class neighborhoods that are now two severely depressed communities: Mount Pleasant and of course Hamilton Hill. Hmm . . . could this have something to do with the highway? Ever stop to think that the only people whom the highway serves are people commuting into the city from the suburbs, which would essentially make it easier for people not to live in the city?

No city planner will tell you that highways are good for cities. On the contrary, they will tell you they destroy cities. I don’t believe Schenectady is an exception. There would still be stores in the city had there not been a highway to feed people directly to the malls outside the city. [Editor’s note: Cities from San Francisco to Milwaukee, Wis., to Portland, Ore., have in fact decommissioned and removed downtown highways, though usually ones that were obstructing access to waterfronts.]

Schenectady, as an urban entity, must thrive on pedestrians. Cars and cities are very incompatible, so the focus must be put on mass transit, and creating spaces people want to be in and walk in. Without 890, it would be much quicker for residents to shop in the city than to shop at a mall outside of town.

On the private level, the urban lifestyle does not compete with suburbia, but on the public level, or what we all share as a whole, the suburbs could never offer what a traditional city does.

—Jackson Strong
Planning to move to
Schenectady after college

Zoom Zoom!

I just love Schenectady. Not only because I was born, raised and educated here, but because Schenectady is unique. It has a great history, from its fame as a “broom making” leader to its success with the Schenectady putter, from the Edison Electric Company to companies making steam locomotives. Schenectady has also had a diverse population over its 400-plus years of existence. From the Iroquois and Mohawk, Dutch beaver-fur hunters, and African slaves to the current mix of white, Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern and Eastern European, we are all Schenectadians. Schenectady has farmers, factory workers, fast-food servers, educators, professionals, cops and firefighters, old-world ethnics, and people of diverse religions.

So what appeals to such a diverse group? What is it that everyone could enjoy?

NASCAR! What is more fun than seeing your name-brand products racing around a track at lightning speed and with fearless abandon? What could be more fun than seeing your favorite drivers pulling onto Erie Boulevard in their caravans of 18-wheelers? Talk about the parade effect. It would put our Christmas parade to shame. And can you imagine Dale Earnhart Jr. trying to pronounce “Schenectady?” It would take him at least five or six years to get it right.

There are a couple of spots right in the city that would benefit from a NASCAR track, including the old steel place along the Mohawk River between Nott Street and Freeman’s Bridge Road. Let’s call it the “Schenectady Raceway.” There are even federal tax grants and incentives that could be applied to NASCAR tracks. The city is getting into waterfront development and that would be a great place to install a line of docks for race fans. You’d be surprised to discover how many NASCAR fans also have multimillion-dollar boats.

Another spot could be the old Campbell Plastics property on Campbell Avenue. The city doesn’t want it because of the contamination, so if nothing else, it could be turned into an overflow parking lot for the upwards of 160,000 fans that would come to see a race here.

Usually you see jets doing a flyover at each NASCAR race. Rome Air force Base is just a few minutes away at Mach 1. Not to mention our very own Stratton Air Base with our very own pride, the C-130 and the 109th Airlift Wing.

We have the land, we have the means.

—Pat Zollinger

Schenectady resident and founder of the message boards

Schenectady’s Historic Stockade District

Back to the River

The greatest single asset the city of Schenectady has is totally untouched: the Mohawk River. Every major city that has recovered in the Northeast has developed its waterfront: Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh . . .

At present, from the end of the Stockade on Erie Boulevard to the Freeman’s Bridge is a stretch of land used by heavy industry and called the Nott Street Industrial Park. From the road the property has a natural grade to the water making the visibility of this area key. It is large enough to hold marinas, hotels, nightclubs, a sports arena, riverfront high-rise housing, festivals, a travel center for RVs, shopping, etc. But today all you see are 70-year-old dilapidated, oversized warehouses.

The river itself has changed from being polluted to one of the best fisheries in New York state. It is highly navigable, and is connected to the intercoastal waterway. One could travel anywhere in the world from right here, which should make a strong attraction for recreational boaters of all types.

—Warren J. Camp Member

Get the Tax Incentives Right

Cities not only provide a much more efficient use of our natural resources, but also build our social capital. For city revitalization to be successful, cities must attract employers that provide living wages, provide affordable housing for the cross section of all social economic classes, and provide recreational/entertainment amenities that can be accessed by all.

Schenectady is full of prime-location, utility-rich brownfields (former industrial sites that are or might be polluted). One suggestion I have heard for encouraging brownfield reclamation, and preventing future abandonment, is to restructure the city property tax. Currently, the city property tax is based on dollars per assessed value. The higher the building value, the higher the property taxes. As a property is polluted and abandoned, it is worth less and the taxes go down accordingly. This system rewards those who let their property devalue. Under this system how can you motivate people not to let their property run down?

If instead a new property-tax structure could be implemented where property tax is based on property location and size regardless of the building condition or value, the property-tax structure would motivate property owners to invest in their properties as opposed to letting them devalue.

Another option to this system is to tax the value of land minus the building. Parcels of land that have a high socially created value—such as property located close to public utilities, post offices, parks, museums, libraries, schools, businesses, and other services—would be taxed based on the value of the land whether they are a vacant lot or a seven-story hotel.

—Gary J. Lessard

Schenectady resident and recording secretary for the ARISE Regional Renewal Task Force

Save for a Snowy Day

Schenectady should be allowed to establish reserve accounts for weather-related expenses (in other words, snow). Currently, most municipalities set their budgets based upon “averages,” capriciously spend the monies when the season’s need is below average, and borrow when it’s above, which passes an interest burden on to the taxpayer. Instead, cities should be allowed to have accounts that don’t have to be spent annually—funds in interest-bearing accounts that cover the averages. Averages, after all, are the result of multiple years.

Oh, and the first legislator or mayor who so much as suggests tampering with the funds must be flogged—publicly—by any and all who can whirl a cat-o’-nine-tails.

—Mike Powell

Schenectady resident

Encourage Internal Boosters

I moved to Schenectady in 1995. My husband was born and raised in Schenectady, and in 2000 we purchased the house where my husband grew up. I love this city. Everything you could possibly need or want is right here—neat little bookstores, great restaurants (not all of them Italian, either), unusual shops, museums, art galleries, theaters, parks . . . everything a great city should have. The one thing Schenectady needs, though, is for more of its inhabitants to embrace a positive attitude toward their community. If Schenectady’s own residents don’t believe Schenectady is terrific, then how do they expect the rest of the Capital Region to believe it?

In 2004, I began working at the Chamber of Schenectady County, to develop and promote tourism for the county. Tourism is an economic development tool—as more visitors come to Schenectady, more sales tax money will roll in, and Schenectady will end up benefiting financially. Tourism dollars will allow the city to create a better quality of life for its residents, and can help solve the city’s fiscal problems.

Schenectady Museum grounds

People ask me: “Why would anyone want to come to Schenectady?” My answer is, “Why wouldn’t they?” We’ve got Proctor’s Theatre, the Schenectady Museum, Union College, annual events like the Festa Italiana and the Holiday Parade, the Stockade Historic District (every bit as charming as Salem, Mass. or Alexandria, Va.), and of course our wealth of regionally famous culinary jewels.

The problem, again, is this: many of Schenectady’s own residents aren’t even aware of the wonderful treasures the city holds. And if they don’t know about them, they can’t sing their praises to potential visitors.

To inspire Schenectadians to get to know their city, the city should give each Schenectady resident a “Destination Pass,” which would offer free or discounted admission to all of the attractions and tourist destinations within the city. Each stop would punch the card, and when the pass is completed, the card would be sent back to the city and entered into a drawing. The grand prize? One lucky homeowner would receive a 100-percent discount on his or her current year’s property tax bill. If the winner is a tenant, the city would pay her or his rent for six months.

—Wendy Glasser

Tourism development coordinator, the Chamber of Schenectady County

The Mohawk River

Bring in the Cyclists

The 35-mile-long Mohawk-Hudson Bike-Hike Trail currently goes onto local roads when it goes through Schenectady. With a little coordination and planning, the path could be better integrated into the Stockade.

Currently, the trail extends from Island Creek Park, a few miles south of Corning Preserve, to beyond Schenectady County west along the Mohawk River and the New York State Heritage Erie Canal corridor. As the bike path traverses Schenectady, it runs through the Union College campus and what is being developed as Little Italy. From there the trail breaks up as it goes through the historic Stockade area, where Schenectady began as a fur-trading post, and runs through the grounds of the old 1925 Van Curler Inn, which is now Schenectady County Community College. With a little Heritage Corridor funding and some planning, the amenities and signage could be increased on this part of the trail, and it could be made accessible from the Schenectady YMCA, integrating the trail more fully into Schenectady.

The trail could also be a way to bring people into the city, with more city events surrounding the Tri-County River Ride and the final day of the weeklong Erie Canal Ride.

—Gary J. Lessard

Schenectady resident and recording secretary for the ARISE Regional Renewal Task Force

Think Regionally

Many local residents blame city politicians, plant closings or other very local events for Schenectady’s decline. But how do such local explanations account for the fact that Albany, Troy, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Utica—indeed, the central urban places in 56 out of New York’s 57 counties—have all experienced similar population and economic decline? New York’s only core community that, relative to its neighbors, is better off today than it was in 1950 is Saratoga Springs.

For the past half-century, New York’s “rules of the game” have been to divide up the entire state into 1,545 “little boxes”: cities, villages, and towns with inflexible boundaries, and to encourage uncontrolled suburban sprawl. That combination condemns New York’s core communities to demographic, economic, and fiscal decline. (New York’s central cities have the United States’ second worst credit ratings after New Jersey’s—another “little boxes” state.)

To revive Schenectady, and New York’s other core cities, a governor and the Legislature need to change the state’s “rules of the game.”

Throughout the South and West, state laws allow cities to annex new growth, becoming diverse and economically and fiscally healthy “big boxes.” It would be ideal, though quite a challenge, for a governor or legislators these days to consolidate New York’s “little boxes” to create healthy “big box” cities.

But even without that, state government can mandate meaningful, anti-sprawl, regional land-use and transportation planning. It can mandate regional, “fair share,” workforce housing—meaning areas that have an increase in jobs must provide a proportional increase in affordable housing for the workers. It can mandate regional tax-base sharing, in which taxes are distributed throughout a region more fairly. For example, rather than the small jurisdiction that happens to have a mall getting all the property and sales taxes, the whole county or region—which provides workers and shoppers and infrastructure and feels the competition from the mall—shares in the revenue.

State government can make the many “little boxes” of New York act more like a “big box,” revitalizing the Schenectadys throughout the state.

—David Rusk

Consultant to ARISE, author of Inside Game/Outside Game, and former mayor of Albuquerque

Go Green, See Green

As with any municipal government, Schenectady is responsible for a whole pile of things that use up energy—offices, schools, vehicles, equipment, park facilities, etc. The cumulative costs of heating, cooling, fueling, lighting, and otherwise juicing up all those components of the Electric City is unavoidably a large chunk of change. That means it’s also an opportunity for change.

While energy efficiency is often considered a luxury that only bohemian and wealthy cities like Berkeley, Calif., can afford to play with, doing a full-scale energy efficiency overhaul for the city would be easy, and safe, on the budget. There are companies out there called Energy Service Companies (or ESCOs) that make such a project nearly risk-free. An ESCO does a thorough energy audit; creates a plan that will dramatically reduce the city’s energy usage; and helps with financing, monitoring, and often maintenance. The customer pays for the capital costs of the project out of the energy savings that are realized: if there are no savings, the ESCO eats the loss.

And the savings can be big. The Beaverton, Ore., school district is saving $42,000 per year just with software that provides power management for their computer networks.

But embarking on such a project wouldn’t only be a long-term investment in the city’s bottom line. It would also bring wonderful publicity to the city. Energy improvements to the schools would provide built-in, hands-on science lessons for the students. Efficiencies of scale could allow some homeowners to get in on the energy-saving act. Depending on the creativity of the improvements installed, some of them could also become eco-tourist destinations, and showcases for other local governments. And most of all, a commitment to environmental friendliness and innovation will give the city a forward-thinking reputation that’s appealing to people with choices about where to live.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

News editor, Metroland

Promote Downtown Living

While Schenectady appears committed to its downtown, I would strongly encourage adding substantial residential development in the center city. Residences are necessary to balance the commercialization process with a 24-hour ambiance.

To make this possible, appropriate grant programs, low-interest loans, and governmental assurance of timely project review and approval process should be available. Architectural standards and design guidelines should be provided in a manner that allows the development community to easily understand and accommodate the city’s desires.

A comprehensive plan should be created and used as the organizing vehicle to establish Schenectady’s long-term transformation. Developing and adhering to a community vision with fiscal prudence is achievable. Keeping the message simple and quality residences close to or in a vibrant downtown will breed success.

As we have learned in our work throughout the country, neighborhood revitalization and downtown vitality go hand-in-hand. Schenectady didn’t reach its current condition overnight and ultimate rebirth must occur steadily, a step at a time. The notable success we have led in Saratoga Springs attests to this conclusion.

—Bob Bristol

Principal at Saratoga Associates, and one of the original instigators of Saratoga Springs’ grassroots recovery

Pay to Live Away

When corporations want to build here they always seek a tax abatement. OK, I’ve got one. So long as the owner of the company, or a majority of the board of the company, resides within Schenectady County, the property tax they pay will be pegged to the purchase price until ownership changes hands or a majority of the board changes. Current properties will be similarly pegged to the current fair market value.

For those who want that 10-year declining abatement thingy, sure! But we have these tennis courts, playgrounds, pools, and so on that need attention, and we’ll even let you put up little signs (very little) saying that you’re caring for them (we’ll tell you how little). Don’t want to be a part of this? We’ll tax you by the nail, board, and brick!

Think about it. Fred from Delaware wants to open a distribution center in town. He finds a property, say, on Barrett Street, that’s perfect, and he can get it for a cool 200 thou. However, if he just lives here in county (and Fred is the kind of guy we want to live here—he’s successful) he can build a 60-story complex, complete with penthouse, and pay property taxes based on only 200 thou for the rest of his life—but he must actually live here.

—Mike Powell,
Schenectady resident

IT to the Rescue

What would make the city and county great is a consolidated effort to develop an information-technology infrastructure for all government agencies in the county. The efficiencies this would provide to government affairs would be astronomical. Central to this effort would be a countywide personnel directory. Much like a typical phone book, it would give government employees the ability to locate each other.

Also, each employee would get an e-mail address with a consistent domain name. Currently there are multiple domain names for different government offices in the city alone. For instance, for the police and for City Hall. It is very unorderly, confusing, and not professional.

Once this foundation exists, we could move on to advanced projects like systemwide calendars, and online 24/7/365 government services.

I would also suggest implementing countywide wireless broadband. This could be free, as downtown Philadelphia is planning to do, and many cities have done on a smaller scale, such as Manhattan did with Bryant Park. Or it could be for a fee that would earn the city some money from both residents and visitors, while still being cheaper than individual broadband accounts would be, as Grand Haven, Mich., is doing. Either way, this is project that would put Schenectady at the cutting edge rather than the rusting edge.

—Earle Flynn

A 30-plus-year resident of Schenectady who earns what it takes to live in the ’burbs but chooses to live in the city because he likes it

It’s All About Education

My suggestion would be to convert Schenectady County Community College from a two-year college into a four-year college. Optimally, this newly expanded four-year college would occupy the now mostly vacant tract of land where General Electric’s main Schenectady plant diminishingly still exists. SCCC could also acquire all land surrounding its current location, at the corner of Route 5 and Washington Avenue, by a one-mile radius. An obvious obstacle would be acquiring the land from GE, but with their new commitment to clean the land it seems they are ready to make some sort of move.

I propose this idea because it has many benefits for the city. First, it would put to use a tract of land that has been unusable for a very long period, and take advantage of a tremendous amount of existing infrastructure, like roads.

Second, colleges attract successful people, like teachers, administrators, researchers, business people, and of course students. Successful people are the cornerstone to any good city. They are more important than Empire Zone grants, in my opinion. Academic people are generally positive and upbeat, which ultimately attracts other successful people.

Third, a direct benefit to the county of Schenectady if SCCC was a four-year college would be that county taxpayers would no longer have to shoulder the county’s annual contribution of one-third of the school’s budget (not to mention the unpaid amounts of the state’s annual contribution), resulting in savings in the millions.

—Earle Flynn,
Schenectady resident

Teach the Kids to Renovate

We have programs at the high school for arts- and science-focused education. We should add one for the building trades. By partnering with SCCC and the trade unions, we could have kids learning carpentry, electrical work and plumbing and other aspects of the construction/building trades. Perhaps with enough of SCCC’s involvement we could get kids graduating high school with as much as half of their associate’s degrees completed, with the rest completed postgraduation at SCCC proper. You’d have lots of kids out into the workforce by 18 or 19 with not only a degree, but actual skills and abilities valuable in the marketplace.

If there were a good program of preservation/restoration, much of our vacant, city-owned housing stock could become real-life classrooms and projects for these kids, and then could be sold on the open market, with the profits paying overdue bills and taxes on the properties, as well as helping to fund these programs.


Schenectady resident

It’s Not Crowded Over Here

The city of Schenectady has been complaining that the municipal golf course is a money-losing endeavor. We could change that.

There have been several silly news articles over the years about how golf courses are constantly overbooked in Japan and how it’s often cheaper for the Japanese golf enthusiast to get on a plane to the United States to play a round of golf.

I think the city should put together a panel of seriously committed and knowledgeable residents who can implement “Japan/Schenectady Golf Tours,” where excursions can last a few days to a week. Southwest flies directly to the Albany Airport non-stop from Las Vegas so that would also be a great place to market this tour.

The golfers wouldn’t be spending their entire week at the course; they have to eat, sleep and sightsee, too. The tour would include shows at Proctor’s, a room at the Parker Inn, and a tour of Union College. Those old Trolley buses that the city tried (and Union College still uses) could be pulled out of the mothballs and put into action. But the main attraction would be the Schenectady Municipal Golf Course.

—Pat Zollinger

Schenectady resident and founder of the message boards

A few extra thoughts . . .

Bring back the canal where Erie Boulevard is.

Turn a massive industrial parcel (say Alco, or some of GE’s land ) into a gigantic greenhouse/terrarium, producing vast quantities of food for the local market. Tomatoes, bananas and the like all year. . . . Every exotic and rare fruit, vegetable and useful plant would be grown and available right here.

Have us be the main hub of a regionwide light-rail system, with trains running from Saratoga Springs to Albany, Amsterdam to Troy, and all points angled out from here.

Rather than going to court over GE’s demands for tax reductions, ask instead for a trade-off, like a hands-on science museum celebrating the innovations that have come out of Schenectady. Or, if GE is developing some new technology for alternative energy or water treatment, say, it should built a prototype here, for use by the city. That would be useful and cost-saving potentially for the city, and GE could bring investors here to see it in operation.

Create a state park on the three vacant islands in the Mohawk River that are currently overgrown with trees, brush and power lines.

Tell GE we will never charge them a single dollar in taxes of any kind ever again, provided they bring (and keep) their employment levels back up to 30,000, with at least half those employees living within the city proper.

One of the businesses in Schenectady’s new Little Italy District

Make Schenectady the ravioli capital of the world, with a ravioli festival in the new Little Italy neighborhood. We can have cheese ravioli, meat ravioli, mushroom ravioli, fried, boiled, steamed, handmade, machine-made, Italian-made. We could even have goat ravioli to show we embrace other cultures.

—Various contributors

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