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You Gotta Believe

 

Last year when I was speaking with Judith Saidel about the report she wrote on Austin and what Albany could learn from it [Looking Up, Feb. 23, 2006], she made an observation that stuck with me: She said that a consultant she’d worked with who had worked in many Northeastern cities told her he just fell in love with Albany. But, he added, he had “never run into such negativism about problems that are persistent but can be handled.”

It’s true. Albany has a pessimism problem.

Albany is a wonderful city. It has a superb location, wonderful neighborhoods, awesome history, beautiful architecture and parks, rocking businesses, a rich cultural life, and dynamite people. But sometimes all of that gets lost.

Now, spiritedly fighting against the very real problems is one of the things that makes our citizenry great. I would never for an instant suggest that we sanitize, cover up, or let go of anything that needs exposing.

In fact, it’s not actually complaining I’m thinking of at all. I think the more troubling pessimism comes in a subtler guise: plans for revitalizing or promoting the city, proposed by supposed city boosters, that, upon closer examination, are uncreative, unambitious, short-term, or even slightly desperate-sounding.

There are a few examples of this in the ReCapitalize Albany report released last week. I wouldn’t say the whole report comes off that way. It has many good ideas and speaks highly of Albany’s many assets. But that just makes the cop-outs even more disappointing.

The issue of parking downtown is a good example. The development subcommittee’s second recommendation is “Develop a Downtown Parking Strategy and Incentive Program.” It is certainly true that parking must be considered. This is not Manhattan and everyone is not going to suddenly give up car ownership. It is also true that the report is careful to note the pernicious effects on a healthy downtown of surface lots and blank garage walls and otherwise poorly planned parking.

However, expounding about structured parking-garage design guidelines and incentives to offset the cost of parking and then devoting one titchy, vague paragraph to “Oh yeah, and we should, like, improve transit, too” is not only lame, it shows a failure of the kind of ambitious vision we need if we want a vibrant, urban, residential downtown.

Cities are not going to “compete” with the suburbs on the cost of parking any time soon, and it’s silly to think that we will. To think that we need to—and indeed, to formulate a vision that barely thinks about how we might not need to—is the height of pessimism about urban vitality. (Perhaps a symptom of not putting enough actual city residents on your committee?) Miserable parking situations don’t keep people out of Manhattan, or San Francisco, or Boston. (Or Burlington, Vt. or Chattanooga, Tenn., for that matter.) They either cough up, or they take the train, or they move downtown so they can walk. They want to be there because that’s where things are happening—culture, innovation, commerce. They want to be there because they can bump into colleagues and brainstorm projects in a WiFi-enabled plaza over lunch, pop into the next building over for a strategy meeting and drop off a job at the copy shop downstairs on the way, grab dinner at a delicious unique restaurant without having to get back on the highway, hear church bells and bustle outside their window. . . .

Yes, people need to be able to get in and out or all this will be somewhat less appealing. But the overarching vision we need is not one of making it suck a little less to park in downtown Albany, but rather one of making it 1) the place to be and 2) fun and easy to travel to and within Albany, with choices that match different needs and inclinations. I don’t mean to say the latter would be easy. This could include state-of-the-art stations, better Amtrak connections, bus rapid transit (as is proposed for the Route 5 corridor), more frequent bus service covering more of the day, bike lanes and bike parking, car-sharing programs, and probably much more I haven’t thought of.

A broader vision for Albany’s transportation is more in line with the pro-city living stance ReCapitalize Albany takes in the rest of its report. Remember those “empty nesters” that are always being referred to as one of the prime targets for a return to city living? Some of them are getting to the point where they don’t want to be driving at night, or even driving at all. Or, as noted in the education section of the report, access to job shadowing, internships and summer jobs can make a big difference to our high school students. But most of them don’t drive either. People who are moving back into cities are looking for urban. Some of them (gasp!) want to be able to not own a car. We can provide, if we decide to.

Yes, transit infrastructure is expensive, but so are parking garages. If we’re going to subsidize something, providing a jolt to break the transit-funding catch-22 of not getting increased ridership until you’ve already paid for increased service sounds like a better long-term investment to me than underwriting a company’s parking bill.

Similarly, the report suggests that the Nanotech companies getting tons of dough from the state to come here might be given “additional” incentives to put back office facilities downtown. After all this, they need more incentives? How about a community benefits agreement: a contract in which developers or businesses receiving substantial public money promises certain community goods in return: local hiring, job training, a new park, etc. The refusal to ask for any commitments in return for the subsidies implies that we don’t really think that they want to be here. It implies that we don’t think it’s the strength and lure of the awesome nanotech program at UAlbany that they’re coming for, but just the cold, hard cash, and if we look at them cross-eyed they might change their minds. This is not only unlikely, but it’s offensive to the folks at UAlbany and Albany Nanotech.

So by all means, let’s launch a marketing campaign promoting how awesome Albany is to the world. But while we’re at it, let’s plan, and act, like we believe it.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

www.mjoy.org

Check out Miriam’s new blog, The Big Questions: The Path to Albany’s First Comprehensive Plan, at: http://metroland.typepad.com/the_big_questions/

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