The NEW Schenectady (Part 7): New look, new residents make downtown vibrant

Decade brought little change in population, big change in personality

Monday, August 15, 2011
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An aerial look shows an overview of downtown Schenectady looking west.
Photographer: Marc Schultz
An aerial look shows an overview of downtown Schenectady looking west.

— Perhaps the greatest measure of how much Schenectady’s downtown has changed in the past decade is that it is no longer compared to the crumbling ghost towns of rust-belt cities.

Instead, residents who have lived in Milan, London and New York City compare it favorably to their last neighborhoods.

“It’s a mini Times Square, but it’s smaller, safer,” said Giulio Veglio, who moved in two years ago and opened the Paul Mitchell Beauty School downtown.

By the time he arrived, the decade of empty buildings downtown was over. Proctors had expanded from one venue to three, with a much larger main stage in its theater. Restaurants and bars had filled in a commercial stretch that had previously been served by two pizza parlors and a sub shop. Developers had not just remodeled, but knocked down swaths of deteriorated buildings and put up new offices, a movie theater and a new YMCA.

To the city’s newest residents, it’s as if the economic doldrums of the 1990s never happened.

View maps and earlier stories in the series

To view a map of the Downtown neighborhood, click here.

To view a map of the 11 Schenectady neighborhoods, click here.

Introduction: Census data show a city growing, changing in racial makeup. Click here.

Part 1: Woodlawn, a suburb in the city, takes care of itself. Click here.

Part 2: Eastern Avenue, two neighborhoods in one. Click here.

Part 3: Hamilton Hill: Despite new homeowners, crime is up. Click here.

Part 4: The Stockade, defying all expectations. Click here.

Part 5: Bellevue not what it was, but loved as it is. Click here.

Part 6: Neighborhood still ‘Pleasant’ for some, not others. Click here.

Joana Carvalho, lately from Brazil and Ann Arbor, Mich., said she found the small city “amazing.”

She is living downtown with her hus-

band while he works a three-month stint at General Electric. For them, it was the Greenmarket that elevated the downtown to that of a vibrant urban core. The Sunday farmers market offers organic, fresh food that Carvalho said she would expect to find available only in a big city.

“The Greenmarket is amazing for us,” she said, adding that she and her husband were also impressed by the many restaurants — so many that she doesn’t think she’ll have time to develop a favorite before they head home.

“We are having a lot of fun,” she said.

The haves and have-nots

Census figures show little change in population downtown — there are still roughly 4,400 residents, a handful of children and few residential units. But the people living there have changed significantly.

Ten years ago, there were no luxury apartments downtown, only the apartment complexes that still exist. But now some units above bustling businesses are being rented for up to $2,500 a month — quadruple the rent of an apartment in the surrounding neighborhoods. And people are paying. The lofts above Aperitivo Bistro have been occupied for two years, CFO Matthew Mazzone of Mazzone Management Group, said.

The residents in the downtown’s cheapest housing also have changed.

A decade ago, the homeless who stayed at the City Mission downtown were all unemployed men.

Now, more than half of them are women and children. High school students live there, too. And in the last three years, the mission has begun to get more and more residents who have jobs.

“Now it’s the working poor,” said Michael Saccocio, executive director of the City Mission. “Still have a job, still working, still going to school — just crossed over from barely able to make it, to I can’t put a roof over my head.”

There are about 113 homeless people living at the mission’s shelters or in its transitional apartments now, compared with an average of 44 men a night living at the shelter a decade ago.

There are also 21 women and children in the Salvation Army’s shelter downtown, 185 men renting single-occupancy rooms at the old YMCA, and many others who attend day programs downtown for addictions and mental illnesses.

Ten years ago, it was those residents who seemed to be most noticed downtown after the office workers went home for the night.

Although there are even more of them now, they are not seen in quite the same way today.

Through a collaboration between the City Mission and Metroplex Development Authority, homeless residents now work as ambassadors during downtown events. They hold umbrellas for Proctors patrons as they hurry to a show, open doors, give directions and even stop traffic to let crowds cross the street.

They have become so recognizable that some visitors were surprised recently to go downtown and find no one working the crosswalks.

There were no special events that day, so the ambassadors weren’t on duty.

A feeling of success

Many of Saccocio’s residents have also gotten jobs downtown, at local restaurants and new stores.

“They’re beginning to sense this success, that they can fuel it. If that restaurant is successful, it creates jobs. They’re beginning to sense there are pathways and ways for them to contribute in this economic development,” Saccocio said.

Although there are more homeless now, they are less visible because there are simply far more people downtown.

About 10,000 workers flood into the downtown during the day, nearly tripling the neighborhood’s population. At night, thousands of visitors fill the downtown bars and restaurants, as well as its four performance venues.

“Before, there were just not that many people,” said Proctors CEO Philip Morris. “If we were not doing something, there was nobody here.”

Now there are so many events, festivals, shows and other attractions that businesses have begun to stay open later and reopen on weekends.

But still there is little retail downtown — which every resident interviewed cited as the only problem left to solve.

Many said they want a grocery store.

They said that even though there are few residents downtown, a grocery would draw many from the surrounding neighborhoods that are also without stores. They recalled the crowds that used to come downtown to shop decades ago, and said that would happen again if a few stores would take a chance on Schenectady.

For now, the only retail stores opening downtown are niche specialties, some of which fail quickly.

A shop offering Irish goods has flourished, but a video game store closed down within months of opening. Two attempts to sell handmade pottery and beads have recently failed, while a store selling a wider variety of handmade crafts just celebrated its fifth anniversary.

Ready for retail

But more retail is coming, said Metroplex Development Authority Chairman Ray Gillen.

Gillen is largely credited with turning the rust-belt downtown into the bustling neighborhood it is today, with offices and luxury apartments filling the upper floors over stores, restaurants and other ground-level businesses.

Metroplex was created to persuade businesses to come downtown by offering grants and loans, financed by a slight increase in the county’s sales tax. The agency had few successes before Gillen took the helm, but he has been criticized for bringing in bars and restaurants rather than jumping directly to retail.

He has insisted that he had to build the downtown brick by brick — and now he says the area is ready to support larger retailers. Two large spaces, next to Bombers Burrito Bar and the new YMCA, are being shown to retailers now.

“Our strategy is the waves of development: coffee and clubs, arts and entertainment, office and tech, housing, retail,” he said. “We’re following that model.”

And it’s working, he argues.

“This is, in a small way, the same thing that has blossomed in Hudson [in Columbia County] where a clustering of shops has developed,” he said. “Gone are the days where four buildings in a row sat empty for 10 years.”

 

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