Foss: Hamilton Hill doesn’t need a liquor store

A wine and liquor store has been approved for 844 Albany St. on Hamilton Hill.
A wine and liquor store has been approved for 844 Albany St. on Hamilton Hill.

Schenectady’s Hamilton Hill neighborhood has a lot of needs. 

It needs a full-service grocery store. A laundromat. Good job opportunities and high-quality affordable housing. 

A liquor store? 

That’s one thing the neighborhood, which struggles with crime, poverty and quality-of-life problems such as litter and loitering, doesn’t need.

But it might get one, regardless of whether it needs one or not. 

Last week the city Planning Commission approved a proposal to put a wine and liquor store at 844 Albany St., an empty storefront that, until recently, housed a barbershop. 

This particular stretch of Albany Street is a hub of activity, where non-profits dedicated to serving the poor and rundown convenience stores both see steady foot traffic. 

It’s a corridor where public intoxication and consumption of alcohol is already an ongoing problem, and men and women can often be observed drinking throughout the day in a rundown parking lot and hanging around outside the corner markets. 

The liquor store would be directly across from the busy food pantry run by Schenectady Community Ministries. 

“Having a liquor store there is a bad idea,” the Rev. Phil Grigsby, SCM’s executive director, told me. “A liquor store is worse than an empty building.” 

Difficult as it might be to believe that anything could be worse than a vacant building in a city with a surfeit of such properties, Grigsby’s right.  

A liquor store will make the street’s problems with loitering and noise worse, and detract from recent efforts to remake and revitalize Hamilton Hill by building affordable housing, tearing down blighted properties and establishing the Electric City Barn, an arts and community center on Craig Street. 

“We definitely want retail,” Schenectady City Councilwoman Marion Porterfield told me. “But that’s not the kind of retail we want.” 

Grigsby and Porterfield’s concerns are shared by Mary Moore Wallinger, the chairwoman of the city Planning Commission. 

Wallinger told me that the commission was in a bind — that because the liquor store is an “allowable use” at 844 Albany St., there was no legal ground for rejecting the proposal.

“I am concerned and sad to see a liquor store in that location,” Wallinger said. 

She believes that the City Council should consider modifying the zoning code to make it easier for neighborhoods struggling with crime to protect themselves from businesses that might have a harmful impact.  

It’s an idea Grigsby is taking seriously. He plans to attend Monday night’s City Council meeting to lobby for just such a zoning change. 

There are examples of cities changing the zoning code to prevent certain types of businesses from moving to an area. 

Wallinger shared an article about an effort in North Tulsa, Oklahoma, to limit the development of dollar stores, which research has shown contribute to the closure of full-service grocery stores in low-income urban areas. 

And the Schenectady City Council has taken steps to limit the growth of convenience stores in the city, passing a four-month moratorium on new stores in 2014 and voting in 2015 to restrict convenience store hours. 

More than one person has told me that Hamilton Hill is a difficult place to be if you’re in recovery from a substance abuse problem. Opening a liquor store there is unlikely to make it any easier. 

I’m not a prohibitionist, but it’s hard to see a liquor store on that particular stretch of Albany Street being anything but a nuisance. 

The City Council should listen to Grigsby — and see what it can do to help. 

Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.

Categories: Opinion

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