For more than 30 years now, various politicians, civil engineers, businessmen and all kinds of entrepreneurial spirits have debated how best to use the Corning Preserve.
Since that area, a small strip of land between downtown Albany and the Hudson River, was first dedicated as the Corning Preserve in 1978, work has been done to enhance its parklike presence and to improve its accessibility from downtown. And, while many grandiose plans to enhance the area have been scrapped or put on the shelf, the Corning Preserve has nonetheless evolved into a nice escape from the urban landscape of downtown Albany.
“We had to do something, and, while I think some of the space could have been used better, anything that gets the people out and gets them exercising is good,” said Richard Patrick, a city planner for Albany Mayor Erastus Corning II during the 1970s. “When we have friends or relatives come into town, we take them there and show them how beautiful the city actually is in places. The walkway, the amphitheater. It’s great to see people down there jogging, riding their bikes and enjoying the place.”
The Hudson River Way (a pedestrian footbridge) and the 800-seat amphitheater were 2002 additions to the Corning Preserve. The walkway gave pedestrians access to the preserve from downtown, and the amphitheater gave them another reason to go there, serving as the main site for musical events like Alive at Five and various festivals.
“We’ve been in the planning mode for the Corning Preserve for a while, and that was phase one,” said Michael Yevoli, commissioner of Albany’s Department of Development and Planning. “We put in the pedestrian bridge, the amphitheater, the floating docks during the navigable season, and we made some improvements along the bike trail. We’re working on phase two, which we hope will include more improvements, but we have to work with the funding resources we have.”
That specific area surrounding the amphitheater has been known as Riverfront Park since 2002, but the first major alteration to the land specifically designed for recreational use came 20 years earlier in 1982 with the creation of a paved path that connected downtown Albany to the Mohawk-Hudson Bike/Hike Trail. Before that, the area was for all intents and purposes off-limits to humans unless you were working on a canal boat or a railroad.
Impact of canal
It was way back in 1823, thanks to the creation of the Erie Canal, that Albany’s role as a major hub of transportation became even more significant in the development of 19th century America.
In his book, “O Albany!” Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Albany native William Kennedy wrote of how officials built a large harbor called the Albany Basin and constructed a pier “that paralleled the shoreline for four-fifths of a mile, with bridges from the pier to Columbia and State streets. The pier, 85 feet wide, covered eight acres, and The Basin covered 32 acres, with harbor space for 1,000 canalboats.”
According to Albany city historian Anthony Opalka, “when the Erie Canal was built, the shoreline was almost two blocks east of where it had originally been, and the area of the preserve was The Basin. A breakwater was built and boats were docked behind it.”
Within two decades, another mode of transportation, rail, would begin dominating Albany’s riverfront and have the effect of distancing the shoreline from city residents. By the end of the 19th century, reaching the river from downtown was a dangerous proposition.
“There was a four-track main line running from Albany to Buffalo and that was unheard of in those days,” said Richard Barrett, a railroad historian and former commissioner of Parks and Recreation in Albany from 1983 to 1997. “There were two tracks dedicated for east and west passenger trains, and there were two freight lines also heading east and west. There was a lot of railroad track and a lot of freight buildings in that area. There were probably 20 to 30 large coal buildings, and then this immense granary right at the east end of the canal. There was a lot there, but Albany needed it to address the needs of its downtown business community.”
It all created such an unpleasant landscape that in the first decade of the 20th century Albany began building the mammoth D&H Building, now SUNY-Plaza, designed by architect Marcus Reynolds to shield the city from its riverfront property. When the New York State Barge Canal replaced the Erie Canal in the second decade of the 20th century, more of the Albany Basin was filled in and in its place were laid more railroad tracks. Although Albany’s Union Station eventually closed down and rail passenger traffic switched to the other side of the Hudson in Rensselaer in 1968, it did nothing to alleviate the congestion along the river’s western banks. Then, also in 1968, construction began on Interstate 787 and was completed in 1974, making Albany’s shoreline even more inaccessible.
Erastus Corning, however, who served as mayor of Albany from 1941 to 1983, knew something had to be done. In 1969, he asked the civil engineering firm of Candeub, Fleissing and Associates to come up with a plan to better utilize the riverfront and what they proposed was a major relocation of downtown to the area now designated as the preserve.
After that idea fizzled, nothing was seriously proposed for a while, although the landscape where the preserve is now did begin to change. Patrick, who started a long career with the city in 1966 and was Corning’s city planner throughout much of the 1970s and early 1980s, said that by the mid-1970s the mayor was determined to change the scenery.
“People were ticked off about being cut off from the river, so we had to do something,” said Patrick, a 1958 Syracuse University grad. “So, we built two lagoons divided by a walkway, which I didn’t like, but whatever the mayor wanted was fine. I felt like we needed more space for the people to use, but I don’t think there was anything like political opposition in those days. If the mayor wanted something done, he’d say, ‘Dick, do this,’ and we’d do it.”
One of Corning’s first ideas for the land was to let farmers grow crops on it.
“Mayor Corning was very interested in how best to use it,” said Patrick. “Shortly after we built the preserve, this one guy, a farmer from the South, went to the mayor to see if he could grow rice on it. The mayor said, ‘Yes,’ and I’m guessing the guy did that for about five years and stopped.”
In 1983, people were slowly starting to use the preserve when Corning died and was succeeded as mayor by City Council President Thomas Whalen, another Democrat. Whalen loved water sports, and his enthusiasm for the preserve helped create the Albany Rowing Center in 1984 and revive the Albany Regatta in 1985, all of which brought some life to the shoreline. But much more needed to be done. In 1986, a restroom and maintenance building was erected at the preserve, “spawned because of the increased activity,” said Whalen.
“We built the very first facility in the preserve,” said Daniel Hershberg of Hershberg and Hershberg, a civil engineering firm in Albany since 1943. “They wanted a preserve where people could congregate, so we helped design the first plans to do that. It was still quite an inaccessible area until we put in the parking lot off the [I-787] ramp around 1984. It was still hard to get to from downtown, but people were starting to use it and that’s why we built the restrooms and maintenance building in 1986.”
There were also those big plans that never materialized.
In 1993, Mayor Jerry Jennings was interested in the prospect of “burying” I-787 and extending downtown to the riverfront. In 1996, Albany area artist Len Tantillo proposed the idea of creating a number of canals to allow people to navigate downtown by water.
“I sketched out some ideas to a friend, and a few months later I was surprised to see my idea in the newspaper with enough support from the city to do a preliminary study,” said Tantillo. “But I think the problem was the city couldn’t do it on its own, and when you do something that includes water navigation you have to involve the city, the state and the federal government. You had to coordinate all three and that was a little too much.”
‘Place really gets used’
The land that makes up the Corning Preserve has been owned jointly by the city, county and the state Department of Transportation, but it is the city that maintains the area. Initially just 11 acres back in 1978, the preserve now stretches nearly five miles along the river up to the village of Menands.
“We estimate that we can get up to 7,000 people down there for an Alive at Five concert, and there are a lot of other reasons to head down that way,” said Nicholas J. D’Antonio, commissioner of the Department of General Services for the city. “During the summer months on the weekend, you’ll find a lot of family gatherings and picnics down on the riverfront. We’ve set up picnic tables, a playground, the boat launch is down there. The place really gets used.”