Schenectady County

Ups and downs of life downtown

Living downtown right now is an experience in contrasts.
Thomas M. Picozzi, President of TMP Construction Services, poses in the kitchen/livingroom area in one of the near completed apartments on the 4th floor of 426 State St. Many more apartments in the downtown district of Schenectady are becoming available.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Thomas M. Picozzi, President of TMP Construction Services, poses in the kitchen/livingroom area in one of the near completed apartments on the 4th floor of 426 State St. Many more apartments in the downtown district of Schenectady are becoming available.

Living downtown right now is an experience in contrasts.

When residents walk down State Street after work, many of the venues are open — Proctors, Movieland, Aperitivo’s. Turn onto any of the side streets and almost every store is closed for the night.

It’s almost like living in a ghost town, said Jay Street resident Johari Watts.

“I actually like living downtown because after certain hours it’s peaceful,” she said. “But it’s half and half. After hours there’s really nothing to do but window shop, so it’s kind of boring.”

Watts is one of the hundreds of residents downtown, most of whom live in apartments perched above the stores that close at 6 p.m. In fact, it appears that it’s easier to find tenants than business owners. The apartments are full above many long-vacant stores.

The residents carry a heavy burden: They are supposed to fuel the “24-hour downtown” by shopping and eating after the office workers go home.

But there aren’t many places for them to go. The cafes that feed the lunch crowd are closed by the time the downtown residents get home from work. Most of the retailers that would sell those residents clothes, gifts and specialty items have locked their doors, too.

Some businesses close even earlier than 6 p.m., and most are closed all weekend as well. They do stay open late on Thursdays, honoring a tradition that dates back to when General Electric employed more than 40,000 and issued its paychecks on Thursdays. But that doesn’t make the rest of the weeknights feel less eerie.

“People are always complaining that the stores are always closed,” Watts said. “If you want to run out and get something, you can’t.”

The downtown economic developers’ solution may seem counterintuitive. Metroplex Development Authority Chairman Ray Gillen says the answer is to put even more residents into the downtown.

“Look, it’s market conditions. We can’t tell anybody what to do. But some places are staying open [later], and that will happen as you start to see more people here for longer periods of time,” he said.

He noted the increase in lunch sites when thousands of office workers relocated downtown. Other stores will stay open at night if there are enough customers, he said.

Business owners said residents are helpful downtown — “They keep your business safe and they shop,” said Orion store owner Linda Scott — but that’s not enough to stay open late.

“It’s tough because most of us our running our stores ourselves. At some time you have to go home and sleep,” said JoAnne Sifo, who owns the Jay Street creperie Chez Daisie.

She opened her restaurant on Sundays during the Christmas shopping season, but the three-hour lunch shift was brutally busy.

“It killed me,” she said. “I won’t be open 7 days until I can make enough money to hire someone.”

Others said they’ve tried to stay open late, but they never see any customers.

Michelle Bynoe of Inspired tried staying open until 7 p.m. early this year.

“I went back to 6 and I’m fighting myself to stay open because it’s dead,” she said.

foster apartments?

Gillen said it’s a catch-22. Business won’t pick up until residents start shopping after work, but they won’t start shopping until they know the businesses are open.

So he’s urging companies to build more housing, particularly condos, upscale apartments and senior housing.

“We don’t have enough product, upscale product,” he said.

“That’s kind of the next step — retail and residential are hopefully the next stages.”

Two high-end apartments have already been built above the new Aperitivo Bistro restaurant, although the $1,500 and $3,000 a month units have not been rented yet. Plans are under way for upper-story, luxury apartments at the building that will replace Robinson’s Furniture Store on State Street.

Gillen also wants apartments at the Foster Building, a historic landmark near the courthouse that has been empty for more than a decade. It’s currently for sale.

But residents are worried those plans will lead to gentrification. Landlords are already asking for $1,000 a month for some upper-level lofts on Jay Street, and smaller apartments that rented in the $400 range two years ago are now marketed for $600.

“With that type of rent you’re not going to make it a community,” Watts said. “I like it down here, but rents are going up.”

For now, she’s willing to pay to stay. “It’s safer here,” she said, an observation police confirm. Downtown is one of the safest areas of the city, along with Woodlawn and the Stockade, according to police.

And Watts loves watching the downtown come back to life. “It seems like every day there’s something different — everything’s getting built up,” she said. “It’s great for my 2-year-old son, especially during the summer time, when the events come downtown.”

high hopes

She has high hopes for the future. Although she has no business plan, she wants to open an independent grocery store, which she knows would be popular with her neighbors. City officials have tried to recruit grocery stores to the area, but Gillen said they need a lot more residents downtown before big retailers will take a risk on the neighborhood. Even the smaller retailers there now need a bigger population base, he said.

“It’s going to have to build,” Gillen said. “The last piece of the puzzle is retail. The retailers are the toughest sale: They want to see proven foot traffic for a long period of time with specific demographics.”

But he’s confident now that the downtown will get there eventually.

“That’s stage four. We’re on stage two and half,” he said. “This has been done over and over. We’re following the tried and true format: eateries, arts and entertainment, residential, and then retail. These are the stages to rebirth.”/story>

Categories: Schenectady County

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