For years we’ve been hearing from Metroplex that the revitalization of lower State Street, and retail and residential development, are the final pieces in downtown Schenectady’s revitalization. Now they are finally starting to happen, with projects popping up all over the lower State area, including a new one announced Thursday that combines ground-floor retail with loft apartments above the old Spencer Business Institute building.
Mixed-use development is part of the formula for good urban planning, but so is respecting corners and using them properly. That’s what needs to be done across the street from the new development, at the site of the empty WGY Stamp Building, which the developers are also purchasing.
But that’s not what is going to happen now. The immediate plan is for the building to be demolished and the site landscaped and used as a parking lot for the new project.
Surface parking lots on main streets are bad news because they’re ugly and break up the street wall. They’re particularly bad on corners, where this one would be, because corners are so visible and important. Buildings belong on corners because they set the edge, serve as landmarks, and make the transition from one street to another.
Metroplex Chairman Ray Gillen says the parking lot is only intended as temporary, and the developers will make that clear to the Planning Commission, which must approve the site plan. He says the developers and Metroplex will try to find someone to buy the site, and in that case, the parking can be shifted (there are privately owned spaces behind the new apartments that it should be possible to buy or lease).
But if that’s the plan for later, why not now? If the developers already have a parking lot (even one that is, from the standpoint of attracting tenants, not ideal because a street must be crossed to get to it), they will have that much less incentive to sell the site or negotiate with parking lot owners. Metroplex and the developer may have the best of intentions, but if parking is created now at the WGY Stamp Building site, it will be tempting to keep it there.
It’s true that the single-story building is a derelict eyesore and something needs to be done about it. Ideally, that would be to demolish it and put up a new multi-story, multi-use building, which is the appropriate design for downtowns. Such a building could also be wider, which would solve another problem: the empty space between the WGY Stamp Building and the neighboring Stockade View Apartments is ugly and breaks up the street wall.
The streets off State Street are already full of surface parking lots, many of them on corners. With downtown’s revitalization firmly established, it’s time to start thinking about infill projects that will plug the holes and hide the parking lots from view. That’s what other successful downtowns, like Saratoga’s, have done.
And it should start with the corners. Creating a new parking lot on a corner is the wrong way to go.
If the Planning Commission is to approve this proposal, it should be with a stipulation that the parking is temporary and a deadline — no more than a year — for ending the use. That would allow the developers to save money while they try to find a buyer (things are now moving fast enough in the lower State area that it shouldn’t take long), and negotiate with ARC, which controls the lot directly behind the apartments, or look for other parking spaces.