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Restoring Albany

I will be honest: I was prepared to be pretty skeptical about Storm Cunningham’s Albany 2030 lecture last Thursday. He came across as a person with something to sell—which, as the CEO of a fairly young consulting firm that purports to help cities on their way to revitalization (“the world’s green revitalization facilitators”), he is. His website throws “TM” after a heavy smattering of catchphrases and boasts quotes from Big Bankers in praise of his latest book.

But never let it be said that I let appearances keep me from giving someone a fair hearing. And I’ll say this: Whether Cunningham has really discovered anything new, or just figured out how to package and explain some stuff that is old hat to some of us so that people will listen, I’m really glad he came to Albany, because he said a lot of things we need to take seriously.

Cunningham’s main theme is what he calls “the restoration economy.” In short, he says that three global “crises”—environmental contamination, corrosion of the built environment (i.e., everything, everywhere, is falling apart) and “constraint” (i.e., there’s nowhere left to build that doesn’t displace something we’d rather keep)—mean that the economy is shifting completely away from “development” to the “re” words: “redevelopment,” “restoration,” “reuse,” “renewal,” etc. We need, he says, to take the assets we have—natural, built, cultural, social—and work on passing them on to future generations in better shape. To the usual mantra of “sustainability,” he throws some ugly slides of open pit mining and polluted waterways up on the screen and says “You want to sustain this?”

Resilient revitalization requires an ongoing quest for improvement, starting with, and indeed explicitly based on, all the great stuff we already have that’s languishing.

You have the ingredients, now you need the recipe, he told us. I’ll bet he says that to all the cities, but since we know it’s true here, having just spent a fair amount of time cataloging our numerous strengths and assets in the visioning process, it doesn’t matter too much.

I can’t summarize all of his points in this space, but a few stick out as particularly important: To replicate another city or region’s success, replicate their process, not their projects. So, not their convention center/downtown housing/new museum, but the way they made their decisions and created their partnerships (partnerships! partnerships!) and rallied everyone to the cause.

Not surprisingly, Cunningham has a catchy name for what he sees as the most important part of the process: a “renewal engine,” which he defines as a permanent organization, preferably a public-private partnership, devoted to continually pushing renewal forward based on a shared vision. (As opposed to, say, a project here by one city department and an unrelated project there by a nonprofit, etc.)

Happily, Cunningham was also very insistent on needing public engagement, from the beginning, from all quarters.

He steered clear of specific prescriptions for Albany, which was appropriate given that (1) he doesn’t know that much about the city yet and (2) that would be, in his own admonition, “backwards.” Visioning first, then strategy and planning, then projects. Make the city a place employers want to come; don’t subsidize employers who wouldn’t want to be here otherwise. The details are up to us. (Hopefully, since it’s up to us, some of the wonderfully nuanced statements of inclusiveness and equitable renewal that generates opportunity for all that came up in the visioning forums will hold firm alongside the enthusiasm for “rising property values!” that Cunningham used more than once to illustrate success.)

However, there was one nearly universal point to all his stories whose relevance for Albany was unmistakable. To quote: “If you have a great body of water, and you’re not revitalizing, something’s wrong.” Well let’s see, what might that be? Three digits, already dangerously falling apart, perhaps? I’m looking forward to the public engagement part of that design process, which, as Planning Dept. Director Doug Melnick noted in the Q&A session, needs to happen soon so we know what we want to do with 787 before the state gets around to trying to fix/upgrade it as it is.

Perhaps the most interesting, or novel, comment came during the Q&A, when someone raised the inevitable question about lack of trust in government, the reality/perception of backroom dealing and lack of transparency. Given that “corruption” and “lack of investor confidence” came up frequently in Cunningham’s presentation as things that could kill momentum toward revitalization, there was perhaps a quiet feeling in the room of “this is all great, but is it accessible to us?” Cunningham noted that he hadn’t added that into the slides for Albany: it’s a common problem in older, struggling cities. And it does have to be addressed. But not, he said, and this was the twist, necessarily first.

As long as a renewal engine of some sort can get going, with momentum provided by a range of engaged stakeholders working together, and there’s some interest from investors and some clear sense of possibility brewing, then any non-transparent, unfair, buddy-buddy dealings are going to threaten things people have a stake in, and they’ll be toast, one way or another. (I imagine the process will take a little more work than that, but I can see his point.)

So if you were holding back from the planning process out of cynicism, in a word: don’t. See you April 22-24 at the next round of forums.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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