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Bigger and better? Major redevelopment will turn Proctor’s into an entertainment complex. Photo by: John Whipple
Recharging the Electric City
Metroplex takes the lead in an ambitious development effort to reinvent downtown Schenectady

By Shawn Stone

Schenectady was getting a face-lift, and everyone was delighted. A representative from the Schenectady Chamber of Commerce described the parameters of the downtown improvement project: “There will be three major areas of construction in downtown Schenectady, and they’re around Jay and State streets, the Canal Square . . . and Veteran’s Park, across from the county office buildings.” Next, a Schenectady city planner explained the rationale for the major changes downtown: “Number one, general beautification. Number two, physical construction that should improve the situation on Route 5 [State Street]. . . . ” Finally, a downtown retailer expressed his admiration for the work: “I’m very much in favor of it. . . . The project is supposed to make Schenectady more pleasant and safer. There will be outdoor vendors and cafes. I’m very pleased with the idea.”

This information was in a Metroland story almost two decades ago (“A Tree Here, a Sidewalk There,” May 31, 1984). Accompanying photographs showed sidewalk reconstruction in progress in front of Center City, and young urban professionals relaxing by the waters under a sign for Carl’s department store. Looking forward to the project’s completion, Bruce G. Hallenbeck concluded his article: “By the end of July, everyone should be tasting the fruits of Schenectady’s labors.”

Fast-forward to today. The original incarnation of Canal Square is gone; the “canal” part leaked into the basements of adjacent buildings and had to be filled in. Carl’s is gone. There is hardly a trace behind Proctor’s of the public space where people enjoyed music and fun on those summer Friday nights. The area around Veteran’s Park was reconfigured and improved four years ago.

In downtown Schenectady, the backhoes, graders and dump trucks have returned. State Street is getting another major makeover. The remaining elements of Canal Square are primed for a major redevelopment. Center City is getting a new entrance. When the Streetscape project is complete, there will be all-new infrastructure and retro-style street lighting, brick walkways, a new outdoor performance space and 50 additional parking spots.

This time, however, the redevelopment will include more than new sidewalks and public amenities. Primarily, this is because of the Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority, an economic revitalization agency with the legal and economic wherewithal to make things happen.

Just up the block from Proctor’s Theatre, on the corner of State and Clinton streets, three forlorn buildings have been awaiting demolition. Fenced-off from the sidewalk, they look like any other abandoned wrecks grown more suited for pigeons than people. If you look closer, however, you’ll see, attached to the front of one of the buildings, a sign with a snazzy artist’s rendering of an Art Deco-styled structure nestled in the same space on the block. In the drawing, above an impressive entranceway, is a giant, CinemaScope-shaped screen showing Neo (Keanu Reeves) from The Matrix trilogy peering back at you through his trademark sleek shades. Coming soon (November 2004, if all goes well) to Schenectady: the 13-screen Diamond Cinema.

And that’s not all. As you may already know, Proctor’s is going to suspend live performances for six or seven months in 2005 for a major expansion of the backstage area. The new stage house will allow the theater to book large-scale Broadway productions that now pass them by. After that, the former Carl’s building will be transformed into a black box theater, and a home for an Iwerks! 70mm widescreen film projection system. (If you’ve never heard of Iwerks!, they’re an Imax competitor using a somewhat comparable format.) A connecting walkway will be constructed between Proctor’s and Diamond Cinema, to forge one super-complex.

And there’s more. The planners envision the construction of new office space in the neighborhood, too. As Neo would say, “whoa.”

All these projects are the product of Metroplex, a public authority created by Gov. George E. Pataki in 1998 to spearhead the economic revitalization of the Route 5 and 7 corridors in Schenectady (the area covered by Metroplex has since been expanded). The men behind the effort, however, were Price Chopper’s Neil Golub and Union College president Roger Hull, who had previously founded Schenectady 2000, a development-minded civic group, in 1992. At the time Metroplex was created, Golub told The New York Times that waiting for the county to save the city was pointless: “The county government sat there for 20 years while this city went downhill and they didn’t do a thing.”

Its budget is funded by a portion of county sales taxes, and Metroplex can borrow money and issue bonds to fund development projects. In its five-year existence, Metroplex has been behind a number of high-profile projects, like the new corporate headquarters of MVP Health Care and the Department of Transportation building (both on State Street), and the restoration of the “needle” building next to Proctor’s as the Parker Inn, an upscale hotel.

Coming soon: The future site of the Diamond Cinema entrance on State Street. Photo by: John Whipple

“One of the things that we are very pleased with,” says Jayme Lahut, Metroplex executive director, “[is that] the 40 projects Metroplex has funded over the last five years tend to be more upscale. The quality of the work has been excellent.” Lahut is particularly proud of the Parker Inn: “I think [the quality of] it set the bar in downtown Schenectady with that renovation project.”

While this has brought hundreds of office workers downtown—and provided a swanky place for Proctor’s performers and parents of Union College students to stay—office workers in and of themselves don’t have a transformative effect on a downtown. They go home at 5 o’clock, and don’t come back on the weekend. The Canal Square redevelopment—the movie theaters and Proctor’s expansion—is an ambitious attempt to reinvent Schenectady as an entertainment hub. Implicitly, it’s also an admission that focusing only on “amenities”—sidewalks, lighting, trees and parks—just isn’t enough.

Locating a cinema multiplex in a troubled downtown can be risky. Troy’s theaters died with the ill-fated Atrium. A ten-screen theater on Main Street in Buffalo has had a series of owners since its mid-1990s opening, including a splashy-but-failed attempt by the folks behind the Angelika theaters in New York City to turn it into an art house.

Lahut points to the local enthusiasm expressed at numerous public meetings as a measure of the cinema’s likely success, and explains: “We think that in order for it to be successful it will require a lot of community support. The people of Schenectady and Schenectady County will need to go to that movie theater.”

He also notes that the developers are successful theater owners in the Amsterdam area, and are putting their own money into the project—Metroplex is contributing $5.7 million, a little more than half of the total cost.

“We think that Mr. [Joseph] Tesiero and his partner, Bruce Wendell, are a good fit for Schenectady,” Lahut says. “We think that they would also be a lot more cognizant of community interest, the films that the community really is willing to support. . . . We think given the way the theater is being constructed, with some very large rooms and much smaller screening rooms, they’ll be able to balance it out” to serve a variety of community interests.

A native of Troy and graduate of Union College, Lahut has been in the urban redevelopment business for almost 20 years. His work as executive director of three economic development agencies in Hudson was notable (and effective) enough to earn praise from community leaders, complaints from some activists and, ultimately, the enmity of perpetually controversial Hudson Mayor Rick Scalera. He left Hudson to run Metroplex in 1999.

Lahut has a veteran’s understanding of Schenectady’s dilemma: “The real issue that we have, just from a development perspective, is that there really was disinvestment for a 30- or 40-year period. I’ve been in so many of the buildings in downtown, and they’re just sort of locked in time, back to the ’70s, and many of the property owners just didn’t make the investment.”

Part of the answer, Lahut suggests, may be turning some of these buildings into residential space, because they’re just not attractive for contemporary business use.

“The requirements of what businesses need, both retail and commercial, change, and a lot of the buildings are—and we own several of them—they’re 25 feet wide and 75 or 100 feet long. They’re walk-ups.”

The result is a problem common to many aging downtowns, including Albany and Troy: 19th- or early 20th-century buildings occupied on the first floor, and empty above.

Man with a plan: Metroplex executive director Jayme Lahut.

“When I worked in Rensselaer County almost 20 years ago, [and Troy] went through a big façade program down there—and did a great, great job—we used to joke, ‘nice house, nobody home.’ ” Lahut adds, “It looked great, but . . . it’s really not going to be a livable city until you get those second, third and fourth floors filled.”

For now, however, the focus of Metroplex will be on commercial development. (Though Lahut notes that the only kind of redevelopment Metroplex can’t undertake is single family housing.) Among the possible projects mentioned by Lahut are a new, “signature” office building at State and Broadway (the former site of the historically significant Hough building, which preservationists tried in vain to save), another hotel, more eating and drinking establishments on State Street, the renovation of Stratton Plaza and the creation of a farmers market.

On a recent brutally cold Jan-uary afternoon, work on State Street grinds on, oddly enough, in the exact same spot captured by the Metroland photographer in 1984. The north side of the street and sidewalk are ripped up, with pedestrian traffic blocked. It’s a bit disorienting, too: with the crossing light out of commission, you can quickly find yourself stranded midblock, skirting the edge of the work site or darting across unforgiving traffic. (Those in the know would have consulted, a Web site with weekly updates to the street work schedule.) A number of construction workers and Niagara Mohawk employees mill around a giant hole in the ground, while an array of heavy equipment idles nearby. It’s proof, however, that things are happening.

This particular lunchtime, Scooter’s Sports Café, a friendly, no-frills deli decorated with Yankees and Giants memorabilia, is uncharacteristically empty; the streetscape work is almost directly in front of the entrance. Until you come right up on the place, it’s hard to tell it’s open. When asked about this, owner Joe De Lorenzo sighs. This, it seems, is the short-term price of progress.

Scooter’s Sports Café is in the Center City complex on State Street, opposite Proctor’s. Center City, which also houses the Metroplex offices, is a bizarre artifact of a now-puzzling planning concept and evidence that, when it comes to downtown Schenectady, they’ve tried almost everything. Behind two elegant, side-by-side 19th-century façades, you will find first-floor retail (a CVS drugstore), upper-floor office space and—appearing strangely out of place, like an opera house in the Amazon jungle—an indoor athletic field, ringed with a confusing web of stairs and ramps. (Yes, ’70s fashions in urban renewal could be as off-the-wall as bellbottoms and polyester leisure suits.)

When asked, De Lorenzo says he is guardedly optimistic about the Diamond Cinema project: “As a business owner, I have to think positively about it.” Anything, De Lorenzo muses, would be an improvement.

De Lorenzo is concerned, however, that moviegoers won’t venture across the street to where his, and a number of other long-established businesses, are located. Especially if, as he has heard suggested, a new restaurant or deli is developed on the opposite side, near the theater and Proctor’s. If customers park “a half mile away, behind the theater . . . I don’t think it’s going to be enough. How does this help a guy who’s been here 20 years?” he asks.

Two blocks east, on the same side of State Street, is the Pizza King. Owner Jon Camaj is enthusiastic about the cinema project. Why not? His place is directly across the street from where it will be built.

To his customers, Camaj is the pizza king. Walk into his restaurant almost any day of the week, and you’ll find him sharing his opinions with everyone. A construction worker on lunch break gets quizzed on the progress of the street improvements; a regular is kidded about his politics. (Camaj even jokingly chides Metroland for not considering his pizza for an award in the annual Best Of issue.) The walls are lined with framed, autographed photos and posters from Proctor’s shows, a testament to his restaurant’s place in the neighborhood. He is eager to talk about the cinemas: the high-tech outdoor marquee glimpsed in the proposed design, the state-of-the-art stadium seating and the prospect of bringing more light, life and money downtown. (Especially, he hopes, in the form of students from Union College and Schenectady County Community College.) Camaj, who has operated his pizza parlor for a decade, is serious about wanting this project to work: “We’ve struggled here for years and years.”

One of his main concerns is crime, or more specifically, the fear of crime. To be sure, he’s not worried from personal experience. “It’s not bad over here—there’s nothing here,” he laughs. He knows, however, from talking with other neighborhood business owners who have lost longtime customers to this fear, that it is a too-common perception that Schenectady is unsafe.

He’s proactive about it, too: His idea to counteract suburban paranoia is to have the city put a police substation on State Street, somewhere near the cinemas. Or, at the very least, keep a police cruiser permanently parked nearby. To that end, Camaj has collected a petition with almost 300 signatures in support of a more visible police presence.

“The cops I’ve talked to think it’s a good idea,” he says. When asked to whom the petition will be submitted, he replies: “The Metroplex.”

Schenectady resident and activist Elmer Bertsch has been following the progress of Metroplex since before the beginning; he was a founding member of Citizens for Preservation and Revitalization, a group that fought to make Metroplex, in its formative stages, as accountable to the public as possible.

Asked to evaluate how Metroplex has turned out, he says, dryly: “It gives money away. It does it well.”

He ticks off the positive things about the way the authority works. They follow the open meetings law and respond to Freedom of Information Act requests. They hold the required public meetings and encourage people to voice their opinions and ideas; for instance, the idea for the farmers market, mentioned by Lahut as being on Metroplex’s project list, came from the community. But Bertsch is not sold on a public authority as the best vehicle to foster development, however well-run: “Still, it’s just corporate welfare when you get to the bottom line.”

He points to the Little Italy project as an example. Little Italy, as designated by Metroplex, is an area east of the Stockade and west of Union College; the idea is to create, with restaurants, bakeries and ethnic shops, a magnet that will draw citywide customers. Cornell’s restaurant, for example, received a Metroplex grant to relocate to Little Italy.

“Now, Metroplex is funded through your sales tax,” Bertsch says. “If you go two blocks over from where these guys are gonna locate, you have got Luigi’s, which is another Italian restaurant, which gets bupkis out of this thing.” Luigi’s, he points out, is collecting the sales tax that helps fund Metroplex—and support a competitor.

“I think they’d be better off having the County Legislature do this, in terms of accountability,” Bertsch suggests.

Bertsch also questions the lack of regional planning: “[Troy’s] developing a Little Italy, Schenectady is developing a Little Italy. Albany’s developing the Palace, and we’re going to develop Proctor’s. And Troy’s talking about doing the other Proctor’s. So that there’s not a lot of coordination with this stuff.”

Then, there is the matter of Metroplex expansion. Bertsch explains: “One of the other things that you have in the Metroplex law is . . . a provison that anybody in Schenectady county can say ‘I want my back yard to be Metroplex.’ If Niskayuna says ‘we want all of Niskayuna to be Metroplex dollar eligible,’ it is. There’s no debate, there’s no nothing. And, in fact, that’s what’s now happening.”

Indeed, Schenectady, Rotterdam and Glenville have all recently expanded their Metroplex areas. This raises a concern among many that, in an expanded competition for Metroplex dollars, the original vision of rebuilding Schenectady’s core will be lost.

With serious sarcasm, Bertsch muses on the prospect of every small town in Schenectady County wanting to get in on the action: “ ‘Hey, we want to get our snout in that trough, too.’ ”

Lahut, however, says that the commitment of Metroplex to downtown is self- evident, as “89 percent of Metroplex projects have been in the city of Schenectady, and 90 percent of these are in the downtown corridor.”

It remains to be seen, however, if countywide political pressures will allow that to continue.

With regard to those doomed buildings at the corner of State and Clinton, Lahut says that “Demolition is imminent.” Everything is on track for the construction of the cinemas; the last remnants of the old Canal Square “canal,” Lahut explains, will be removed as part of the construction: “That’ll happen in about a month or so, and whatever’s left will finally go away.”

Meanwhile, with the appropriate amount of showmanship—a costumed organist played showtunes on Goldie, the Proctor’s Mighty Wurlitzer Organ—Metroplex directors formally voted last week, on the stage of the theater, to contribute $9.5 million to the cost of the planned expansion. (The rest of the $22.5 million price tag will be covered by fundraising and state and federal government grants.)

By this time next year we’ll know, at least with respect to the Diamond Cinema, if the people of Schenectady and surrounding areas really want to taste the fruits of Metroplex’s labor.

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