Foss: Downtown Schenectady still lacking in pedestrian experience

City feels small, restricted and doesn't offer all that much in the way of shopping, people-watching or other street-level activities
Restaurant row on lower Union Street has seen a handful of closures in recent months.
Restaurant row on lower Union Street has seen a handful of closures in recent months.

Schenectady’s downtown is on the upswing. 

There are a lot more restaurants, businesses and shops than there were a decade ago. There are new apartments. There’s more activity. 

The growth has been great to witness, but Rome wasn’t built in a day. 

Downtown can still feel eerily quiet, especially in the evenings or on weekend afternoons when little is happening. 

There are a lot of nights when I glance in restaurant windows on my way home from work and see a lot of empty tables. A popular Broadway show at Proctors can fill downtown, but only for a limited time. 

One of the more interesting questions raised by Daily Gazette reporter Pete DeMola’s Sunday article on the state of Schenectady’s restaurant industry concerned how to drive more people downtown. 

Restaurateurs agreed that getting more people downtown is the key to boosting business, but they differed on how to do it. 

If there was a consensus, it was that downtown has a lot of potential, but needs something else — something it currently lacks — to become the vibrant and unique place everyone wants it to be. 

My observation is that Schenectady needs more of what it already has. 

More arts and entertainment, more gathering spaces, more retail, more places to live. This last one is crucial. Successful downtowns have a strong residential base, which helps sustain local businesses. Without that strong residential base, growth is likely to be limited. 

Not a lot of people live in downtown Schenectady, but that’s changing. 

Nine hundred new apartments have recently gone online downtown, which will bring more people downtown. This influx of people will make other projects, such as the long-gestating proposal for a downtown food co-op, more viable. 

More people and businesses will make Schenectady’s downtown a more dynamic and interesting place to be. But if the city really wants to make the leap to greatness, it needs to focus more on the pedestrian experience. 

Schenectady’s downtown is small, feels restricted and doesn’t offer all that much in the way of shopping, people-watching or other street-level activity. Nice downtowns are fun places to walk around, and Schenectady is not an especially enjoyable or comfortable place to walk around. 

According to a report from The Brookings Institution, the key to revitalizing downtowns is fostering a “walkable urbanism” — “a mix of sights and sounds that can make a pedestrian forget that he is unintentionally getting enjoyable exercise.” 

I’ve never had this experience while walking around downtown Schenectady, but I’ve had it in other small cities. 

Burlington, Vermont; Portland, Maine; Asheville, North Carolina; Lancaster, Pennsylvania — these are all places where you can spend hours wandering around, popping in and out of stores, drinking and dining and taking in a concert or a movie. 

It would be nice to see Schenectady develop along these lines and become a place where people go to wander, take in the sights and enjoy what downtown has to offer. 

Thanks to the development that’s already taken place, it’s easier to imagine Schenectady becoming more like a Burlington or a Portland. 

But we’re not there yet. 

That said, I’d like to hear from readers. 

What do you think downtown needs? What would get you to visit or spend time there? Email me at [email protected] and let me know.


Categories: News, Opinion

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