Liberty Park is slated for a makeover that could transform lower State Street from an unattractive gateway to the city to a pedestrian-friendly green space with a plaza, performance space and other attractions.
Several dozen members of the Schenectady community were privy to the unveiling Tuesday night of two conceptual redesigns for Liberty Park, the small and hilly park across from Schenectady County Community College that is home to a Statue of Liberty replica.
Public input on the project was mostly positive, but left Schenectady-based Synthesis Architects with plenty of suggestions to consider.
“This park should really say, 'Welcome to Schenectady,’” said Mary Moore Wallinger, a landscape architect with the firm.
Design considerations were largely based on two factors: The city’s longtime efforts to revitalize lower State Street, as well as accommodating the incoming 300 or so SCCC students who will be living in the college’s new dormitory housing just south of the park.
With these in mind, two similar concepts were floated to the public inside SCCC’s Stockade Hall Tuesday night. The biggest difference between the designs was adding curbed pathways inside the park.
Both designs are two-phased and wouldn’t be implemented for about two years. The first phase of each includes the expansion of Liberty Park to include Water Street. The kicker being, however, to transform the short street connecting Washington Avenue with Railroad Street into a pedestrian-only walkway lined with benches.
The first phase would also include a gateway plaza area with a sculptural focal point. City officials liked the idea of a focal point that plays off of Schenectady’s identity as “the city that lights and hauls the world.” Residents, on the other hand, expressed a strong desire to keep the park’s identity in line with its name: Liberty.
The Lady Liberty replica that has sat on its pedestal in the park for 62 years would still remain. But it would likely move closer to the State Street border.
Among the design concepts would be performance space. A small platform/amphitheater area would create opportunities for small-scale public events, said Wallinger. They could be impromptu or planned events put on by the city or college arts groups.
The idea especially appealed to Gloria Kishton, chairwoman of the Schenectady Heritage Foundation. She’s long wanted to see more of a campus-type feel to the area around SCCC, and sees it as crucial to the college experience.
“I really like the idea of this open lawn space being seen as the green for SCCC,” she said, “and I love the idea of college even expanding into that area. I would love to see their bookstore there. I think that would be really fantastic.”
Another key feature of both concepts is an open and inviting lawn space. Right now, the triangular park features landscaped berms, narrow and hidden paths and tall grass. By leveling the berms, expanding the paths, and reworking vegetation, said Synthesis Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning Director Ian Law, the park would be more visible, accessible and safe.
“This is a gateway and so it’s very exciting to me, this concept to make it a warm feeling as people are coming from Scotia and coming from the city,” said Chamber of Schenectady County President Chuck Steiner.
Phase I would also include pedestrian-friendly upgrades. The issue at Tuesday’s meeting, though, was on the urgent necessity for the safest upgrades possible, as well as their respective costs.
“We have to consider the safety of the SCCC students crossing into the park,” said Law.
High visibility crosswalks with push-button signaling is already being installed at South Church Street nearby. It’s one of the safer options both residents and city officials want to pursue at the mid-Washington Avenue crossing from SCCC into the park. The other option would be scaled down in terms of safety and cost: a median barrier to discourage crossing outside of an official intersection, and installing a sidewalk that borders the park and funnels pedestrians to the intersection.
The second phase of the project would essentially double the size of the park, and is consequently in need of more funding. It would include more green space, more performance space, and a brand new one-way street that would cut through the south side of the park and border potential mixed-use commercial and residential buildings.
The aptly titled “Park Street” would be pedestrian-friendly with a wide sidewalk area for outdoor cafe seating.
City Zoning Officer Steve Strichman has been leading efforts to secure grant money. The Capital District Transportation Committee, which is funding the redesign study, is putting up $50,000 for the redesign, with a $20,000 match from the Schenectady County Metroplex Development Authority.
“No study is ever going to be implemented exactly the way you want it to be,” said Strichman at the Tuesday meeting, emphasizing the need for funds to make it all happen.
Synthesis Architects will pass on public recommendations to the state Department of Transportation for further consideration.