If it seems people are abuzz about downtown Schenectady, it’s not just lip service.
At least not according to a new survey by the Siena Research Institute, which found Schenectady County residents are visiting downtown more than they were seven years ago and saying downtown has come back to life in the past few years.
The Schenectady County Metroplex Development Authority commissioned the survey for $12,500, hoping to identify how county residents use and perceive downtown. It comes seven years after the last survey of its kind and a full decade after a new regime took over at Metroplex and invested millions in revitalizing downtown.
A total of 623 county residents were polled between Jan. 28 and Feb. 4.
“On every metric, this survey shows Schenectady County residents are coming downtown at increasing rates and support continuing development,” said Siena Research Institute Director Don Levy in a news release. “Downtown not only matters to Schenectady County residents but they are proud of and excited by the progress.”
The number of residents who visited downtown in the past year for any reason rose from 79 percent in 2008 to 89 percent in 2015. The number of trips downtown increased among those with higher income and education. And the No. 1 reason people visited downtown in the last year was entertainment (80 percent), followed by arts events (75 percent), business (54 percent), shopping (46 percent) and primary work location (14 percent).
More than half of all residents surveyed said most downtown amenities — ranging from restaurants, lighting and signage to police presence, restrooms and access to information — meet or exceed their expectations.
The only amenity in need of improvement, according to more than half those surveyed, was parking. In fact, residents had a better view of downtown parking in 2008 than in 2015.
That finding was a real head-scratcher for local officials, who point out the downtown parking garage, surface lots and street parking have all received improvements over the last seven years.
Metroplex lots were cleared of contamination and repaved. Lighting, landscaping and security cameras were installed around lots. The garage received needed repairs. The city is currently phasing in new, more convenient pay stations to replace old parking meters. Metroplex even launched a website — www.parkschenectady.com — that posts maps, information and news updates about parking around the city.
“We’ve improved a lot,” said Metroplex Chairman Ray Gillen. “One of the things we’re seeing, though, is that we have more and more people working downtown because our efforts have created jobs downtown. So we’re trying to balance the needs of employees downtown with visitors. We’re constantly tweaking the system and looking for ways to add more space. One thing we’re looking at is encouraging more of the monthly parkers to use the garage, which frees up the surface lots for visitors and shoppers.”
Metroplex is working on several ideas to add more downtown parking, but Gillen declined to detail them.
Mayor Gary McCarthy wondered if the timing of the survey (residents were surveyed a month ago) could have affected residents’ view of downtown parking.
“Some of it is this time of year, when we lose parking spaces just because of the snow,” he said. “We’ve looked at how to increase parking. We made spots behind City Hall diagonal, and there are other spots where we can put diagonal parking. But I look at it as one of those good problems to have, because we’re seeing more people come here. The old image of Schenectady is if you want to go somewhere downtown, you could park practically right in front of the building, where the reality now is you’ve got to walk a little bit.”
Most of the 11 percent of residents who said they don’t go downtown said they could find everything downtown offers more conveniently elsewhere. More than half cited trouble finding parking and forgetting to even think about going downtown. Fewer than half said there’s nothing there they like to do, they don’t know what there is to do, safety or expense.
A total of 19 people surveyed said they don’t go downtown because it’s unsafe, down from 59 in 2008. Small-business owners told The Gazette last year an unsafe downtown is a misperception they continue to fight.
“Security cameras have been added downtown, and we have a great partnership with police,” Gillen said. “But our view on safety has always been that once there’s a certain level of activity down there — more lighting, more people, more cameras, more buzz, people working downtown — that those perceptions and concerns about safety would go away because people feel that it’s an inviting and safe environment.”
• 86 percent say their overall opinion of downtown is considerably better (53 percent) or a little better (33 percent) than it was seven years ago, and 81 percent say their opinion of downtown is better than it was 10 years ago.
• 83 percent of residents agree that in order for Schenectady County to be a first-class place to live, the community needs an active and appealing downtown.
• 81 percent agree or strongly agree with the statement that downtown Schenectady has really come back to life in the past few years.
• 79 percent think a revitalized downtown will help everyone in the county.
• 75 percent support creating jobs in downtown Schenectady.
• 74 percent agree they are excited about new development in the downtown area.
• Looking forward, 70 percent believe downtown will continue to be revitalized, while 20 percent expect it to stay the same as today and 8 percent anticipate a less-appealing area.
• 70 percent support the development of additional housing in downtown; 26 percent of all residents and 40 percent of those ages 18 to 34 say they would consider living downtown.
• 66 percent support downtown development projects.
• 58 percent support redevelopment of business parks in the county.
• 48 percent support private-public partnerships to finance downtown redevelopment, while 33 percent support private parties developing downtown projects with their own funds and 11 percent support public entities redeveloping downtown without private involvement.
• 20 percent agree or strongly agree too much money is being spent in redeveloping downtown.
• 22 percent agree or strongly agree downtown isn’t on their radar and they don’t know what’s going on there.
• 15 percent agree or strongly agree there are too many different types of business in the downtown area.
The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.9 percent. View the full results at http://parkschenectady.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Downtown-Schenectady-Use-Perception-Report-2-25-15.pdf.