The streetscape view from the second floor of Metropolitan Lofts offers a modern day vista of downtown Schenectady that was hardly conceivable a decade ago.
The newly converted State Street apartments look out over a bustling downtown, where pedestrians below stroll past Bow Tie Cinemas, nod to al fresco diners at Aperitivo Bistro and gaze at a blown-up promotion outside Proctors for Broadway musical “Wicked.” Some wait for lights to turn at brick crosswalks, and others stroll into Anthology Studio to browse hand-tied bouquets of soft pink roses.
This is a place where many people want to live.
Ghost town no more
It’s a far cry from the late 20th century proclamations that deemed the post-industrial city a ghost town, a place that no longer lighted or hauled the world after American Locomotive Company closed and General Electric relocated employees across the country and abroad.
There would be decades of decline for the Electric City, where abandoned buildings stood as time capsules of a lost era. Cries from residents for revitalization of the city would take years to be realized.
But then one day Jim Salengo felt it all change. It was 2006 and “Phantom of the Opera” was in town to open the new and expanded Proctors stage — one of several revitalization projects occurring on State Street at the time.
“People, banners, lights, cars, activity,” he said. “It was really something. From that point forward, it seemed like project after project just kept coming online at a rapid pace.”
Salengo moved to the city after graduating from college in the ’90s, when downtown was rundown with empty storefronts and State Street was eerily still. It wasn’t until the 2000s before longtime residents would say, “Schenectady’s coming back;” and it was just a few years ago that downtown was once again referred to as “thriving.”
There’s restaurants, shops, entertainment, bars, a bike path, and a planned new train station — all attractions that have contributed to increasing demand for downtown residential space.
“The nationwide trend of downtown redevelopment is making urban living cool and a viable option again,” said Salengo, executive director of the Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corporation.
Other cities follow lead
And other cities in the region are taking note, planning residential development for their downtowns and trying to attract people to live where they already work, dine, shop and hang out. Albany has five major downtown residential projects in the works, and since 2006 has seen demand for residential space downtown grow by 83 percent.
Salengo joined the DSIC in 2008, a few years after the renovation of State Street “opened the floodgate of downtown progress.”
Since 2005, DSIC has secured $888,250 in New York State Main Street grants for commercial and residential creation in downtown buildings, he said. These helped fund several residential projects that have young professionals and empty nesters living downtown again.
When Ray Gillen took the helm at Schenectady County Metroplex Development Authority in 2004, he had heard about the master plan for the city but saw a lot of emptiness and a lot of unfinished business.
“There was an empty hole where the Hampton Inn was,” he said. “Downtown we were walking across boards on the main streets. There was mud. It was bad. I mean, to us, other than getting MVP done, very little else had been accomplished from the time Metroplex was set up in ’99.”
As the county trended away from the disjointed economic development efforts of the past and toward a unified front, a new Schenectady began to emerge. The plan would tackle three corridors: Broadway to the Proctors block on State Street; Jay Street to Golub’s headquarters; and Erie Boulevard.
Vacant buildings were demolished or rehabilitated. High-tech companies, a cinema, office space, shops and more moved in. Hospitality businesses invested millions of dollars into restaurants, loft apartments and office space downtown. Attention was paid to beautifying streetscapes and cleaning up facades.
Residential picking up
Today, downtown is thriving commercially. Residentially? It’s getting there, Gillen said.
“It’s just been in the last few months really,” said Gillen of downtown residential development. “And we’re talking about more right now.”
In the last few months, three major upscale residential developments opened downtown. Schenectady County Community College opened its first student housing at Washington Square. Metropolitan Lofts at 409 State are already half full after opening last month. And eight townhouses just opened at the corner of Union and Barrett streets.
In addition, the ongoing makeover of Erie Boulevard is expected to make it easier for Stockade residents to enjoy downtown eateries, entertainment and amenities.
“We have a major downtown residential area with the Stockade,” said Gillen. “We’re very fortunate that it’s downtown and it’s thriving, and the Erie Boulevard project will let them cross safely to enjoy the amenities on the other side of downtown.”
Another residential project is in the works for the Proctors block. Rotterdam-based Hodorowski Homes is planning to construct a mixed-use building at the corner of Broadway and Hamilton Street that would house 16 upscale apartments on upper floors and retail space on the ground floor.
There are plenty of available commercial and mixed-use spaces downtown if you search a simple real estate listing for the area. Liberty, Jay and State streets are speckled with multiple-story brick buildings designed for commercial use, with some approved for apartments like the four-story building at 111 Liberty St. that could hold 34 units in addition to office and commercial space.
Overall, residential space downtown is harder to come by unless a developer comes in and tailors space for that use.
Spa City leads the pack
In the 40 years Tony Ianniello has observed the ebb and flow of Capital Region real estate, he’s never seen a city attain the downtown splendor of Saratoga Springs.
“Other downtowns are becoming attractive places to live, but certainly not at the pace that Saratoga has seen,” said the founder and senior partner at Ianniello, Anderson, Sciocchetti & Reilly. “But Schenectady has done an excellent job of making its downtown attractive. Troy is working hard at it. And Albany, I think, to a lesser extent.”
Saratoga, of course, has a unique advantage over other cities in the Capital Region. The tourist city is synonymous with its race course and performing arts center. It was already strong commercially when residential demand picked up downtown at the start of the new millennium.
“When condos became available in downtown Saratoga after 9/11, it became a very attractive place to live,” said Ianniello. “The job market in Saratoga was growing and Saratoga County was growing with various projects in and around the town of Wilton. In every direction, there was growth.”
There are no condominiums in downtown Schenectady, but there are upscale apartments with exposed brick walls, high ceilings, granite counters and cherry cabinets. And the city’s seeing more of them.
The brand new Metropolitan Loft space on State Street — one of several residential spaces downtown to offer these amenities — was the first residential project that Rotterdam-based developer Galesi Group pursued in Schenectady.
Dave Fallati, who manages the property for Galesi Group, said they left several original architectural elements of the building while designing the units, including the wooden ceilings and brick hallways.
“This space here had been empty for quite a while, and we were trying to figure out how to develop it,” he said. “And we were starting to hear, you know, ‘Downtown is coming back.’ So we thought, let’s get some residential in here.”