Clifton Park residents want the busy town center to look attractive, have a lot of stores and be safer for pedestrians.
But when they hear planners talk about creating downtown-like spaces and making commercial corridors more walkable, they fear two things: Wolf Road in Colonie and Route 9 in Malta.
“There’s nothing attractive about that,” Bill Casey said of the new town center in Malta, where tall buildings jut up next to the sidewalk on a state highway where cars whiz by.
“I think that was an example of a good idea poorly executed,” added Joel Koval, a Clifton Park Planning Board member. “It’s kind of this monolithic block that rises up from Route 9.”
Residents readily shared their opinions and concerns at a public forum on changing the zoning code for the town center of Clifton Park, which includes the Route 146 and Route 9 commercial corridors, extends east to the Halfmoon border, west to Moe Road, north to Plank Road and south to Sitterly Road.
Several studies done over the past several years have pointed to the need for more land-use planning in the town center. Now town officials are starting to look at putting some of those changes into law, incorporating them into the town zoning code so that new development or redevelopment in that area will follow the new vision.
“Currently you can’t do the types of development” that are in the 2012 town center plan, said Michael Welti, director of planning services for Behan Planning in Saratoga Springs.
Changes might allow the town center to remain vibrant and avoid empty stores, drawing customers — and sales tax, the town government’s main revenue source — to the suburban town.
“We love people to spend money in Clifton Park,” said town Supervisor Phil Barrett.
He cited the decline in commercial space in the 1990s, before the redevelopment of the Clifton Park Center mall and the surrounding area.
“We tend to forget what the mall looked like, how empty it was, how ugly it was,” Barrett said. “It starts with private sector development, and the rest will follow.”
Town officials assured residents that they’re not looking to recreate Malta’s town center in Clifton Park.
“What you’re talking about here today is different than what they did up there,” Koval said.
The town needs to instead follow its own identity, Barrett said.
“We’re not Malta,” he said. “We know who we are.”
The town center study included such concepts as creating usable open space, putting commercial buildings closer to the street and parking behind, allowing or even requiring taller buildings, some of which would have commercial space on the first floor and apartments above, planting more trees along busy streets and including more pedestrian crossings.
Although residents who spoke at the forum said there’s a need for safer pedestrian routes, some were concerned that adding more sidewalks and crossings that attract pedestrians would actually make them less safe if motorists keep driving as they do now.
“People around here are not used to pedestrians,” said resident Victoria Hanson. “If we want pedestrians in there, we can’t just put them in there with what Clifton Park is now.”
Things will change if the areas are designed correctly, Welti said.
“People walk [now], but it’s not designed really with them in mind.”
James Dougherty, director of design at Florida-based Dover, Kohl & Partners, cited “visual friction” components that encourage motorists to voluntarily slow down — on-street parking and trees and taller buildings closer to the road, for example.
Regardless of town leaders’ vision, changes to Route 146 are not likely to happen in the near future, because it is a state road requiring state funds and approval. It’s more likely that the town would make changes to Clifton Country Road as an example of what the design can look like, Dougherty said.
Town officials also aren’t currently discussing adding any roundabouts, a topic that usually elicits strong opinions.
“I don’t want to spend a lot of time talking about the pros and cons of roundabouts,” Barrett said.
Discussions about zoning changes continue for the rest of the week. Today, town officials will meet with large landowners all day at the Clifton Park-Halfmoon Public Library, and members of the public may also stop by and ask questions or make suggestions.
On Friday, officials plan to unveil what they hope will be a fairly complete rough draft of the zoning plan for the town center. People may drop in between 4 and 6 p.m. at the library during an open house to look at the plans.
“We’re really at the beginning of a process that’s still intended to move pretty quickly,” Welti said. The town plans to have a final zoning plan completed by the end of the summer.