WEIGHING IN – During last week’s Democratic mayoral primary debate, City Council President Marion Porterfield consistently criticized Mayor Gary McCarthy for not focusing enough on Schenectady’s neighborhoods.
It’s a familiar attack leveled against McCarthy, so common that Republican mayoral candidate Matt Nelligan has adopted it as a campaign tenet, too.
The criticism goes like this: By focusing so heavily on downtown and waterfront development, the mayor has left the neighborhoods behind during his three terms in office.
It’s certainly easy for this to feel true, especially if you compare many of Schenectady’s blighted neighborhoods to the sparkling gem that is Mohawk Harbor.
But on Tuesday afternoon, the criticism felt unfair. McCarthy — and several others, including Porterfield — was in the Eastern Avenue neighborhood to tout the new $1.4 million Windsor Terrace Apartments that are now the city’s newest affordable housing units.
Those two buildings, while small in scale, are part of $250 million worth of citywide investments to build affordable housing during McCarthy’s tenure.
“This in and of itself would be an impressive accomplishment when you look at the partners, the amount of money that has been invested here,” the mayor said at Tuesday’s ribbon cutting ceremony, “but this is not a standalone project.”
It would have been easy to dismiss Tuesday’s event, big scissors and all, as a campaign photo op designed to cut directly against political criticism. But that would ignore the fact that other newly built and renovated affordable housing units dotted the streets near the Windsor Terrace Apartments, including a home with a new front porch and pale yellow siding just across the street.
“We have done an enormous amount of work here,” said RuthAnne Visnauskas, commissioner of New York state’s Homes and Community Renewal agency. “Every time I come up to Schenectady, it’s very noticeable how much investment there is going on.”
She was specifically referring to development in the city’s neighborhoods.
Is this development enough?
There hasn’t been nearly the progress needed to change the overall character of the city’s neighborhoods. For instance, in between the fixed-up properties near the Windsor Terrace site, there are crumbled stone foundations, windows covered in plywood and broken front railings.
So we should all share Porterfield’s frustration when she says that new units like those unveiled Tuesday only scratch the surface of the work needed.
“There’s still neighborhoods that are lacking,” Porterfield told me Tuesday. “We want to expand this so that all neighborhoods are benefiting.”
We also want to make sure that perspective from neighborhood residents is consistently sought and included.
During a troubling moment in Thursday’s debate, McCarthy dismissed abysmal voter turnout as a sign that things are humming along.
“You find that if things are generally going good, people are less involved, they are more passive. If there are problems within the community you get bigger turnout at meetings, you get greater activity in neighborhood associations,” the mayor said during the debate.
The mayor should be troubled by apathy. He should want to include as many voices in the civic process as possible. He’s a fan, after all, of the slogan “working together works.”
As Porterfield put it during the debate: “If we want to extend the progress into the neighborhoods and make sure everyone benefits from all the development that’s going on — from all the economic uplift that’s going on — we have to have a plan that we can take a look at that has the input from the residents in our neighborhoods.”
Still, even as we push for more progress, we shouldn’t ignore or diminish what’s already taken place. During Thursday’s debate, Porterfield even acknowledged the city is generally on the right track.
David Hogenkamp, who is apolitical in his role as the executive director of the Capital Region Land Bank, said Tuesday that smaller redevelopment projects can be as — if not more — complicated than larger downtown developments, with issues such as property titles and rights often bogging the process down. That means development downtown can be more efficient than in the neighborhoods — and can certainly be done on a broader scale more easily.
But Hogenkamp said the people he’s spoken with in Eastern Avenue in particular have told him they are encouraged by what they’ve seen.
“There are always going to be challenges, and I think that this is just the next step,” said Hogenkamp, whose agency has been instrumental in the Eastern Avenue revitalization. But, he added Tuesday, “anecdotally, I’ve asked people how they feel things are going, and people can point to the fact that the neighborhood has improved.”
Eschelle Robinson, a resident at the newly built Windsor Terrace Apartments, said she finally feels like she’s home.
All in all, Tuesday was a good day for McCarthy, allowing him to point to some very tangible results that are part of broader investments “transforming our neighborhoods.”
Are Schenectady’s neighborhoods truly transformed? Far, far from it.
But it’s also far from the truth to say they’ve been neglected in the way McCarthy’s political opponents want voters to believe.
Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.