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Which City Do You See?

Allow 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 window.

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.

“[My 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 the former.

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 same.

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 paradigm.

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 greed.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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