Off the Northway: Malta labors to plan for downtown

The chance to shape a new municipal downtown is nearly unprecedented in the Northeast. It’s more com

The chance to shape a new municipal downtown is nearly unprecedented in the Northeast. It’s more common to see downtowns struggling for footing.

But the town of Malta has that opportunity — or at least everyone thinks it does — with the coming of the GlobalFoundries computer chip plant, with its thousands of employees and their demands for housing and business services.

But deciding what a downtown should look like — high-density urban or lower-density suburban commercial — is turning out to be a epic public struggle.

Town Supervisor Paul Sausville now opposes the thrust of the zoning plan town officials approved in 2005, which set a “new urbanist” vision for the two-mile stretch of Route 9 nearest Northway Exit 12. A majority of the Town Board, perhaps, is with him.

Earlier this week, Sausville was using the term “town center” instead of “downtown” and talking about wanting to rewrite town zoning in terms of “the centrality of the car to the town center.”

Ballston Spa, Saratoga Springs and Mechanicville are all nearby, Sausville argues, and have downtowns that Malta residents should support.

On the other side is the argument that communities, if they get the chance, should mix residential and business uses in the same neighborhoods and even the same buildings — the traditional city model.

“I don’t think designing a suburban downtown is good planning,” said Town Board member Peter Klotz, defending the 2005 plan.

Saratoga County has benefited more that any other in the Capital Region from the post-World War II suburban migration, the same phenomenon that sent cities across the nation into a tailspin.

But by and large, the new suburbs have developed and flourished without creating traditional core areas.

Clifton Park, to pick on the biggest, now has far more people than many cities but no place to call downtown. The three large shopping centers around Exit 9 give it the services generally found in downtowns, but rivers of traffic and oceans of parking make them essentially inaccessible without transportation.

It’s the sort of thing many people now hate — and it won’t be sustainable in 100 years, unless an alternative to the internal combustion engine is in widespread use.

Such anti-suburban sentiment is what drove Malta to adopt its New Urbanist plan in 2005, in anticipation that its recent approval of the Luther Forest Technology Campus was going to drive a lot of new housing and business demand.

Since then, hundreds of apartments in multistory buildings have been approved on Route 9, though none of those projects is built yet — and if Sausville had his way, they wouldn’t be.

“I think it’s urgent that we take action right now to scale down the downtown,” Sausville said this week.

But he’s thought that for awhile, and the issue isn’t getting resolved by the Town Board despite many meetings.

The protracted debate has people in surrounding communities talking that Malta will lose a historic opportunity if it doesn’t “get its act together.”

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