Gloversville Mayor Dayton King had an idea brewing for several years, one that had been discussed and even implemented elsewhere. Instead of kicking it around at City Hall — more in a moment — he kicked it out directly to residents via Facebook:
In some communities (Jay Street in Schenectady ) parts of their Downtowns do not allow traffic. Would you support that in Downtown Gloversville (perhaps from Peck’s Flowers to the Palace Diner)? Why or why not? Making this area more “walker and bicycle friendly” may improve the Downtown … ? Thanks for your feedback.
He added a winking emoticon after “feedback.” And feedback is what he got to the idea of turning a quarter-mile stretch of North/South Main Street into an outdoor mall. King was not surprised by the widespread aversion to the idea, or even change. (That said, there were some who supported the idea.) But change, King and others say, has to come to the barren downtown business district.
“If you think about it, what we’re doing now is not working,” he said. “And as with anything worth trying, you are going to get some pushback.” Some of that is coming from First Ward Councilwoman Robin Wentworth.
“It would probably destroy what is left of our downtown,” she said. “I don’t think business owners, even for a minute, would entertain that idea.” She is also not a fan of the mayor taking the idea directly to Facebook.
“At least put some thought into it,” Wentworth said. “I don’t think it’s a good idea just to throw it out there and see what sticks.”
Wentworth said she didn’t see the mayor’s post; the councilwoman maintains she, like most of the Common Council members, are blocked from the page. King said that is definitely not true of “most” council members, but couldn’t speak for Wentworth.
The local news radio station, WENT, carried a report Tuesday that bank NBT would be shutting its operations on North Main, opening 35,000 more square feet of space behind its pillared exterior near the city’s Four Corners. The KeyBank branch across the street is closing in May. Much of the blocks on each side of the crossing East/West Fulton Street consists of empty shops behind dusty windows. Secondhand and rental stores abound. Of the few people walking the streets, many are there for social-service assistance, local business leaders said.
On a pleasant Tuesday morning, there were as few as a half-dozen pedestrians as far as the eye could see. The flow of cars, though, remained steady.
“How many stop?” King asked. “I would guess out of 100, maybe two.”
It wasn’t always that way. Bob Peck, owner of Peck’s Flowers, can trace his family lineage on North Main Street back four generations to 1913. He remembers not being allowed to go down the main drag alone as a kid in the 1960s. “There were too many people, too many cars,” he said. “It was just too crazy.”
Peck applauds the mayor for floating the pedestrian mall idea, but he’s highly pessimistic: “I don’t think it will fly. People expect a parking place right in front of the business.” Peck may be right, even though abundant parking exists just a block west of the main drag.
Pedestrian malls, or car-free zones, are not a unique idea: They exist in the United States from Broadway in Manhattan to Santa Monica, Calif., and all around the world, including Jay Street in Schenectady.
“It is individual to each individual community,” said James Salengo, executive director of the Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corp. “A community would have to look hard at why it wanted to do it, what purpose it would serve, if it has other draws.”
That’s the problem: The business stock now in Gloversville is not much of a drawing card. But how can you draw new businesses without making the area more attractive to commerce and shoppers?
One business that is thriving is North Main’s one true anchor store, the Mohawk Harvest Cooperative Market, a grocery store/cafe/art gallery and more. Manager Christopher Curro is chairing a regional committee looking at downtown revitalization. He is a fan of the walkway idea — provided it’s done in stages.
“Pedestrian walkways are great, but it would take a lot of preparation to make it work in our downtown,” he said. “It’s down the road. It’s not the first step.”
He cites many transitional ideas, from diagonal parking to more trees and greenery to “soften the look” of downtown to widening the sidewalks and more bicycle friendliness. He said a key is “slowing down the traffic” and giving people a reason to stop.
“What you have to do,” Curro said, “is make it a destination.”
Jay Street, Schenectady’s eclectic side street pedestrian mall, has been brought up as an example. But business people here talk about another ideal: Broadway in Saratoga Springs.
“Why can’t we have even part of that here?” Peck said.
For starters, the counter-argument easily goes, Gloversville is not Saratoga Springs. But despite a lofty goal, incremental changes for the better can be made.
The mayor said he is open to incubating the idea on, say, a side street.
And there may be some common ground. The open-air farmer’s market on a side street off North Main could be a better gateway to the main drag. Downtown could be marketed more, to both shoppers along the nearby Route 30A arterial and prospective businesses.
“It’s hard to get people downtown,” Wentworth said, “if there is nothing there.”
King agrees. Maybe the idea floated on social media goes nowhere.
“Maybe,” he adds, “we start on a smaller scale.”