City Do You See?
me to posit something here tical: Maybe Albany actually needs
more investors from New York City. (Or Saratoga Springs
and Amsterdam, like in Troy.) At least they, in theory, know
what makes cities work.
OK. I don’t really think that’s true. Local ownership, with
the money staying local, and the owners reachable and accountable
and having a personal stake in success because it’s their
city, not just an investment, is clearly preferable. And being
from a big city doesn’t mean you understand a small city.
I was just channeling the frustration of people like Lissa
D’Aquanni. D’Aquanni owns the Chocolate Gecko, a gourmet chocolate
shop on Delaware Avenue in Albany. She also owns the three-unit
commercial building (with parking!) in which it is housed.
She gutted and renovated the building a few years ago, turning
it from an eyesore into an anchor in the community.
That building, 540 Delaware, is part of the reason I moved
to the Delaware Area Neighborhood. Having it there goes on
the list of things I love about the neighborhood, along with
being able to run out to Cardona’s Market in the middle of
cooking dinner when I realize we’re out of cheese/eggs/onions
without even turning off the stove (OK, I generally do turn
off the stove), deciding to catch the late show at the Spectrum
10 minutes before it starts and still getting to see the previews,
and smelling the bread baking in Prinzo’s through my kitchen
Having good, useful, local businesses within walking distance
of my house is a major factor in my quality of life, and a
major reason I’ve chosen to live where I live. Though I appreciate
beautiful, well-kept homes (and aspire to have mine qualify
as such some day), I wouldn’t be happy with a fancier neighborhood
that would put me in my car for small errands more often.
Lots of my neighbors would agree. We are the sort of folks
cities wish there were more of: people who are not inclined
to flee to the suburbs.
Anyway, back to 540 Delaware. When D’Aquanni decided for various
personal reasons to sell the business and the building, she
didn’t figure the building would be a hard sell, even though
she only wanted to sell to someone who shares her commitment
to the neighborhood and local independent businesses. The
building is in perfect shape, with stable tenants, and already
turns a profit. It has parking on a bustling main road where
parking is in short supply. A no-brainer of a good deal, right?
But apparently all local investors and developers can see
when they look at the building is how it would be a nice space
for the likes of H&R Block. I agree with D’Aquanni’s reaction
to that—forget it. No one moves somewhere in order to live
within walking distance of H&R Block, not to mention a
drive-through anything. No one moves to a city because it’s
become more suburb-like.
accountant] said that people [used to] buy businesses or properties
and be willing to wait 10 years for their investment to pay
off,” recounts D’Aquanni. “Now, folks want their investment
to pay off immediately, one to three years.” And the chains,
of course, can make that happen by paying higher rents upfront.
That dynamic is worth a column to itself, and will get one.
But I’m not sure that’s all that’s going on. There are also
local investors who aren’t particularly chain happy. Unfortunately,
from D’Aquanni’s experience, many of those appear not to want
to deal with commercial at all. People like one prominent
attorney in the area who looked at the building, but told
D’Aquanni he was really “only interested in two-family housing.”
That’s too bad. There are a lot more people out here who,
like myself, can manage to buy and maintain one home for themselves
than there are people who can afford to buy a small commercial
building and keep it rented out to businesses that people
want to live next to. But the latter is what will inspire
Think about downtown development—a healthy downtown needs
people living in it or near it, but successful downtown revitalization
projects rarely start with the waterfront condos. First
they focus on having something people want to buy a waterfront
condo near besides just waterfront. Neighborhood folk and
downtown folk may have different kinds of business districts
they’re interested in living near, but the principle is the
I don’t want to paint folks in our region who have the kind
of money to invest in projects like this with too broad a
brush. Some of them get it, and are doing great things in
our neighborhoods. Of the others, I’ll bet most of them don’t
want our cities to all become mini Wolf Roads. They
may know that a region is only as strong as its cities. They
don’t want urban problems spilling outward. They want a fun
city to which they can come to see an art flick and sip cappuccino
on a Friday night.
But for the most part, they still live in the suburbs.
In places that worship the almighty “single-family home,”
places where the quality of a neighborhood has everything
to do with its housing, and practically nothing to do with
the quality or proximity of the nearest shopping plaza. And
therefore the importance of independent neighborhood retail
to a city isn’t quite getting through to them. It’s a different
At least that’s a theory, and one I like. Because I’d rather
think it’s not all about the short-term profit. And
because it’s easier to shift paradigms than it is to temper