Schenectady County

Residents greet plan with gusto

The proposed city comprehensive plan looks so good that some residents are now anxious to know wheth
PHOTOGRAPHER:

The proposed city comprehensive plan looks so good that some residents are now anxious to know whether city officials can be trusted to actually implement it.

They raised that question at Wednesday’s public presentation of the thick document, which has been 21⁄2 years in the making.

The issue was nothing new to Margaret Irwin, a principal of River Street Planning & Development, which is writing the plan. At the very first public meeting on the plan, she said residents must “hold mayors’ feet to the fire” to ensure that the comprehensive plan becomes reality.

On Wednesday, she told a crowd of more 150 people that she wants the Schenectady Planning Commission to issue annual progress reports, including a checklist, to the Schenectady City Council. The reports would specify what progress the city makes each year toward achieving the goals in the 55-page citywide plan.

“There absolutely needs to be annual review of the process and modification as time goes by, so it’s not 37 years and we’re all sitting here again,” she said.

The city’s last comprehensive plan was written 37 years ago and has been obsolete for decades. Many of its objectives were never accomplished.

To keep that from happening again, Irwin said, the city also needs to assign a worker to focus on bringing the neighborhood comprehensive plans into reality.

The neighborhoods need “someone that wakes up each morning worrying about getting these neighborhood plans done,” she said. “That needs to happen.”

Technical assistance and financing should also be offered to all the neighborhoods, she said.

“The neighborhoods said sometimes there was a disconnect [with the city administration] and good things didn’t happen because of the disconnect,” she said.

There will likely be only one more public session before the Schenectady City Council votes on the plan. The council will conduct a public hearing, tentatively set for 7 p.m. on Feb. 25 at City Hall.

The citywide plan calls for a variety of changes in city policy, including a demolition program to remove properties that are “not contributing to the neighborhood,” as Irwin described it.

HOUSING CRITICAL

The plan also calls for a wider variety of housing and a dramatic reduction in new apartments. Senior housing, “green” houses, townhouses and condos are encouraged, while existing two-family and single-family houses would be mostly rezoned so that owners cannot turn them into apartment buildings.

Irwin said the city especially needs better housing downtown.

“Folks came [to planning sessions] from other communities in the Capital Region and said, ‘I would move to Schenectady if I could live downtown,’ ” she said.

The plan also proposes many improvements in the city’s waterfront, which is largely inaccessible from Schenectady but should be considered “one of your most incredible resources,” Irwin said. The city’s proposed new zoning plan includes a waterfront district, which encompasses much of the East Front Street neighborhood and the former Alco plant.

There are still several controversies brewing over the city plan.

The two biggest are how to handle development at Union College and whether to develop a piece of parkland on Oregon Avenue near the Municipal Golf Course. Both issues were raised Wednesday.

Resident James Livingston said he’s still not happy with the way the plan addresses institutions, including Union College.

“We’ve had a history of significant problems because of developments on the campus,” he said, noting that the surrounding neighborhood is affected when there is a parking crunch on campus, among other issues.

Under the new zoning, institutions might be able to avoid lengthy site plan reviews by submitting a five-year plan and getting a special use permit. Livingston said that was too generous.

“What we’ve really done is given institutions a free ride,” he said. “I think it’s essential we take ownership of the entire city.”

Zoning Officer Steve Strichman defended the proposal, saying, “Institutions still need a special use permit for development … I don’t think there’s any less control than before.”

He was also questioned about his decision to include wording in the plan to consider developing a small piece of parkland on Oregon Avenue.

“The only thing the plan talks about is that one little piece of Oregon Avenue,” Strichman said before telling residents to bring that debate to the Schenectady City Council. At least two council members oppose development of the parkland, but it’s not clear how the majority will vote on the issue.

In other complaints, some Hamilton Hill and Vale residents continue to protest the fact that their neighborhoods were combined in the neighborhood plans, although no one brought that up Wednesday.

The entire plan encompasses dozens of pages for each neighborhood, 55 pages of citywide proposals, and more than 100 pages on zoning. It can all be viewed online at http://www.cityofschenectady.com/Schenectady2020, as well as in hard-copy form at City Hall and the main branch of the Schenectady County library.

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