ideas for the Electric City that go beyond conventional wisdom
PHOTOGRAPHS BY John Whipple
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.
or hindrance? I-890.
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
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
Planning to move to
Schenectady after college
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
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.
Schenectady resident and founder of the schenectadyny.info
Historic Stockade District
to the River
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
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.
the Tax Incentives Right
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.
Schenectady resident and recording secretary for the ARISE
Regional Renewal Task Force
for a Snowy Day
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.
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.
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
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.
Tourism development coordinator, the Chamber of Schenectady
in the Cyclists
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
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.
Schenectady resident and recording secretary for the ARISE
Regional Renewal Task Force
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.
Consultant to ARISE, author of Inside Game/Outside Game,
and former mayor of Albuquerque
Green, See Green
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
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.
News editor, Metroland
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.
Principal at Saratoga Associates, and one of the original
instigators of Saratoga Springs’ grassroots recovery
to Live Away
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
to the Rescue
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,
schenectadypd.com for the police and cityofschenectady.com
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
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.
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
All About Education
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.
the Kids to Renovate
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.
Not Crowded Over Here
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
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
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.
Schenectady resident and founder of the schenectadyny.info
few extra thoughts . . .
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
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
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.
of the businesses in Schenectady’s new Little Italy District
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.