The decay on lower State Street runs deep.
There’s the obvious: the empty Olender’s building near Erie Boulevard and the expanse of empty space next door where the Robinson’s building once stood.
But there’s much more than just empty storefronts in trouble on the block. Lower State Street hides its empty, echoing buildings.
Businesses that seemed to be active are now using only a fraction of the space in their buildings, leaving floors empty and unused.
First Niagara Bank is swimming in space. So was Mr. James Hairstylist, which closed last month because the owner could no longer bring in enough business to pay for a three-story building when he only needed room for three barber chairs.
It’s that underutilization, as well as the vacant buildings, that the Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority must resolve as it focuses its efforts on lower State Street.
The agency is trying to bring investors to the block bounded by Erie Boulevard and Washington Avenue. After years of delay, projects are suddenly booming, with seven completed last year and five more underway this spring.
There is much more to do, but Metroplex Chairman Ray Gillen said the problems on lower State Street are no worse than the problems that once beset the Proctors block.
“The conditions were very similar to what we now face on lower State,” he said. “People forget. We had two closed dollar stores on the Proctors block. We had two bigger vacant lots than Robinson’s on the Proctors block.”
He emphasizes the closed dollar stores in speeches on the redevelopment of the Proctors block as an indication of how far the business corridor had fallen — to the point where there wasn’t enough business to support even a dollar store.
As for the vacant lots, they are now home to the Hampton Inn and Movieland.
That’s not to say that revitalizing lower State Street will be easy. The empty Robinson’s site has some environmental contamination from buried fuel tanks, and there are other brownfields on the block as well.
“Development in these urban areas is not easy,” Gillen said. “These sites need work before they can be renovated.”
Metroplex is applying for state brownfield funds to clean up those sites. The agency used that fund successfully to clean the land where Golub Corp.’s headquarters now sits on Nott Street, and to prepare the mostly vacant Alco property on Erie Boulevard for redevelopment.
Citing that experience, Gillen said he is confident Metroplex can turn lower State Street into an integral part of the downtown business corridor.
“It’s nothing we haven’t seen before,” he said.
He plans to follow the same steps that led to success on the Proctors block. Metroplex will install new sidewalks, replace crumbling curbs and hang better lighting. At the same time, the agency will offer facade grants to property owners willing to invest in their buildings.
“That has been a piece of our success,” Gillen said.
So far, six facades have been completed — counting the long-ago facade project at Bangkok Bistro — and one more will be done this year.
Gillen has also been showing property to investors, touting the potential of the block. Finally, investors are listening: four projects are under way this year. They include a proposal for residential and retail space at 200 State St. and the demolition of 145 State St. to provide parking, which has proved somewhat controversial.
Also, Schenectady County Community College is expanding to 201 State St., where its workforce development programs will be headquartered. Most significantly, Transfinder plans to purchase and renovate the First Niagara Bank building, putting offices and some first-floor retail into the mostly unused building. The bank will continue to have a branch there.
The Transfinder project is the first to address underutilization of commercial property, but Gillen said much more is coming. Since work began last year to redevelop Erie Boulevard, he said investors have been far more interested in lower State Street.
That may help later this year, when the YMCA closes its residential program and empties its building on lower State Street. Gillen is already trying to market the property.
But he said the hardest part is done.
“The biggest hurdle to developing lower State Street was getting Erie done,” Gillen said.
Plans for Erie Boulevard include a narrower road with greenscaping and better crosswalks. Work began last year after many delays and should be done by fall.
Gillen said Erie Boulevard essentially cut lower State Street off from the rest of downtown.
“They put an eight-lane super-highway through the middle of our downtown,” he said, adding that the new Erie Boulevard will “unify” the State Street business corridor.
“Lower State Street is no longer an orphan parcel,” he said. “You needed a beautiful, crossable, well-lit Erie.”
Investors are responding.
“I had people buying buildings and holding off on options until Erie got off the ground,” he said. “We now see investors spending their money to get in and acquire properties and redevelop lower State Street.”
Of course, there’s one big economic engine that lower State Street lacks: a Proctors. But Gillen thinks the Schenectady County Community College dormitory could provide a similar “people-generator.” There are 264 beds in the dorm.
Gillen also has high hopes for the former Schenectady Armory, a large building under renovation near the dorm.
“They’re having discussions with Proctors on events that are too big for Proctors,” Gillen said. “So we believe that will be a strong people-generator. The floor space is bigger than the Times Union [Center].”
Gillen also hopes the nearby Stockade neighborhood will support retail on lower State Street. Their presence could give the block foot traffic that the Proctors block lacked until Metroplex brought in many offices.
“It is a major residential center,” Gillen said, adding, “We think the redevelopment is going to help the Stockade with their property values.”
If they come, they will need places to shop.
Sticking it out
There are a few hardy souls there now. S&S Barber Shop has stuck it out for nearly eight years, with some business.
“It can always be better, but I’m grateful,” said owner Chris Cowan.
He’s hoping that the Metroplex focus on his block will lead to a facade grant.
“I’d like to remodel this place. I’d like to make my place look better, especially if Metroplex is going to be improving this place,” he said.
At the Stockade Market & Deli, manager Isaac Hussein does a brisk business selling soda and snacks. But he has plenty of room to grow, if more businesses draw more customers to the block.
“I think more business creates more business,” he said. “We’ll all make more money.”
The company has been there for seven years. During that time, he’s watched buildings come down and a few get renovated.
“We’ve seen it [improve], but it’s too slow,” he said.
So slow that several stores have gone out of business, from Olender’s Mattress to Model Trains to Mr. James.
The deterioration has hurt business, owners said, because fewer and fewer customers come down the street.
Even Schenectady County Community College, which is seeing a boom in students, could benefit if its neighborhood looked a little better. SCCC Board of Trustees Chairwoman Denise Murphy McGraw said the declining neighborhood clearly didn’t hurt SCCC, since many students flocked to college during the economic downtown.
“I don’t want to be negative, but, how could it help?” she said. “Can you imagine, if you could really be driving past a revitalized State Street?”
Many more students would come, she said.
And now that the school has a dormitory, it’s even more important to spruce up the neighborhood.
“We want to see as much vibrancy as possible for the students who are there 24/7,” she said. “I would love more shops and restaurants, because we also have the housing project.”
Looking to the future
SCCC is expanding up the street, having run out of room on its campus. In addition to the workforce development headquarters at 201 State St., SCCC now operates a number of classes at Center City, across from Proctors. Students can use CDTA buses for free with their student ID to travel the two blocks between the main campus and Center City.
“But I would love for people to be able to walk,” McGraw said. “Wouldn’t you love to walk around Schenectady?”
Other developers say the deteriorated neighborhood didn’t bother them at all. Christopher Maddalone saw it as an opportunity to buy low in an up-and-coming market.
Madison Handbags owners saw it that way, too: cheap property in a safe location. Madison Handbags bought 131 State St. to manufacture its bags and moved 40 employees to the site last year.
“I felt like it was a safe area,” said Madison Handbags President Trish Rost. “Schenectady County Community College is right there.”
Company officials looked for property throughout the Capital Region.
“This is where we found the best value,” Rost said.
Maddalone saw it the same way. When he announced that he was purchasing two buildings to begin a residential-retail project on lower State Street, he said he wanted to get in early on the next big real estate opportunity.
“Lower State Street is the next wave of development,” he said.