The two men running for mayor this year have very different concepts of what is wrong with the city’s neighborhoods.
Gary McCarthy, the Democrat serving as acting mayor, sees a breakdown in society caused by a lack of community. Getting to the root of that loss by bringing in owner-occupants will, he believes, stabilize the neighborhoods.
Roger Hull, the founder of the Alliance Party who has also been endorsed by Republicans, sees hundreds of boarded-up, abandoned buildings that bring down property values, encourage crime and discourage neighbors from maintaining their own houses. Reducing the housing stock to fit Schenectady’s much smaller population will, he believes, give the neighborhoods new life.
Residents interviewed over the course of the past three months for the Gazette’s series on city neighborhoods agree with both. Many mourn a community they say no longer exists and complain about the blight that can now be found in every neighborhood.
But both situations have existed for decades; the real question is whether the candidates can solve either problem.
Hull, the former president of Union College, plans to tackle it from an academic perspective.
“This may be politically incorrect, but I don’t have all the answers,” he said.
He’s researching policies from other cities to find proven solutions. Nine months since he started running for office, he’s still searching for the best answers.
“Don’t reinvent the wheel,” he said. “You seek out best practices. While I don’t have all the answers, I’ll get the answers.”
So far, his answers rely heavily on the Metroplex Development Authority, which Hull indirectly helped to create. Hull and Price Chopper CEO Neil Golub created Schenectady 2000, an organization devoted to rebuilding the downtown, and that initiative led to Metroplex.
Hull says it is now time for Metroplex to do more for Schenectady. He wants the agency to spend $1.5 million to demolish about 75 buildings, as well as fund a graffiti-removal team, a police grant writer and a monitor for the city’s poorly-advertised crime tips line. Hull wants to advertise it heavily and offer rewards.
The graffiti-removal team is also critical to fighting crime, he said.
“When you allow graffiti, when you allow the broken window to stay … you affect attitudes and approaches,” he said, citing the “broken window theory” which suggests that criminals are more likely to target areas that appear unkempt.
Metroplex chairman Ray Gillen has said his economic development agency will stay out of police matters, and he’s questioned the wisdom of demolition.
Legally, Metroplex is allowed to demolish commercial buildings, and can take down residential buildings in commercial corridors for economic development purposes, including the creation of a parking lot.
But demolition would reduce the tax base. To avoid that, Metroplex only approves demolitions when a new developer has agreed to build there.
Hull said the buildings must come down now.
“Stop waiting,” he said. “You’ve got boarded-up buildings that are eyesores. The first thing I think you should do is take down buildings that are beyond repair.”
He’s frustrated that it hasn’t happened already, arguing that the Democrats made “dumb decisions” on spending when the money could have gone to demolition.
He’s particularly disgusted by the $20.4 million Bureau of General Services complex on Foster Avenue.
“There’s no question you needed a building,” he said, but argued that if the city had approved a far smaller project, there would have been enough money left over to demolish the 700 worst buildings in the city.
“By making that decision, you preclude other options. There needs to be a plan and there needs to be a listing of priorities,” he said.
Knocking down buildings won’t be enough to reduce the city’s housing. Hull also wants to find ways to turn many two-family houses into single-family houses.
Many of the two-families have been turned into rental property in recent decades. They were built as homes for two or more generations, with elderly parents living downstairs while their children started families upstairs. Now some renters don’t even know who lives on the other floor.
Other houses simply haven’t sold, and sit vacant and abandoned for years. On some streets, neighbors said vagrants, prostitutes and drug addicts are squatting in the vacant houses. Other buildings stay vacant — but neighbors say they’re tormented by pests that they believe are multiplying amid garbage, backed-up sewage and water leaks in the abandoned houses. It’s a big problem: according to the 2010 Census, there are 3,462 vacant units in the city.
“We’re still a city built for 90,000 [people] and we have 66,135,” Hull said. “You have to deal with the fact that we have excess housing. It leads to crime.”
In with the new
He also wants to draw more residents to the city, but unlike McCarthy, he’s focusing on people willing to move to “distressed” parts of the city. He has promised to privately raise money to offer his own incentive to those new home-owners: he wants to pay for their children to attend Schenectady County Community College.
McCarthy’s plan focuses on pragmatic decisions that would draw more middle-class residents to the city, arguing that their presence could have a wide-reaching impact.
“As you shift that, you begin to stabilize these commercial districts, who rely on people who live within a close distance. They’re supported by a customer base that lives close by,” he said, adding that the city’s neighborhoods will otherwise continue to turn into rental property.
“We have a good portion of senior citizens. Who’s going to buy their houses?” he said.
As the lead investigator for the Schenectady County District Attorney’s Office, McCarthy has seen the city’s neighborhoods at their worst and is familiar with the intense poverty found in certain parts of the city. On some streets, entire blocks of houses that were lovingly cared for by longtime residents have fallen into decay after those residents died. Now those streets are filled with deteriorating, mostly vacant rental housing.
He wants to create a targeted marketing campaign, saying that the effort to bring in Guyanese from New York City would have been more successful if it had been focused on the middle class. At the time, Republican city officials emphasized the city’s cheap housing. While thousands of Guyanese moved here and have renovated many city homes, many others bought up houses and turned them into rental property.
“People saw it as a get-rich-quick where you could get a higher value of rent by dividing a two-family into a four-family,” McCarthy said. “Some of that has been what we recruited. We need to shift that to the middle class, people who have a sense of community, who want the convenience of living in Schenectady.”
In his short tenure as acting mayor, beginning April 4, he has focused on providing better roads and better recreation.
Roads to the future
As a career politician who led the local Democratic committee and more recently was council chairman, he easily persuaded the City Council to temporarily stop rebuilding sidewalks, so that the money could instead be spent on repaving roads. He also adopted his city engineer’s plan for a new type of pavement that does not last as long, but costs much less. With that system, and the sidewalk funds, he was able to repave parts of the city’s 20 worst main roads this summer, paving roads in nearly every neighborhood.
With help from county grants, he also added supervised park programs at Hillhurst and Steinmetz parks, located in two middle-class neighborhoods that have seen a disturbing increase in minor crimes. Residents near Hillhurst said vandalism and fights in the park fell dramatically this summer.
He is also marshalling volunteers, who have so far been organized to clean up parks, bring emergency information to their elderly neighbors, and help flood victims clean up after the storms.
“The reality becomes, you’re going to pay for some of it but if you can supplement with volunteers — the PTOs do it all the time,” McCarthy said. “It allows the city to do things it can’t afford.”
And it gives residents a sense of “pride and ownership,” building their ties to the community, he said.
There’s one project he won’t continue — building luxury “green” houses for low-income homeowners. He supports more practical environmentally-friendly houses.
“I’m not going to build $200,000 houses we sell for $80,000. Things have to be sustainable by the market,” he said.
McCarthy and others also organized last year to get a new slate of school board candidates elected after the previous board was mired in scandal. McCarthy wanted a new board to improve graduation rates as a way of attracting middle-class residents. The candidates won the election and have made substantial changes, although the results are not yet clear.