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Malta trying to draw shoppers 'downtown'

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Malta trying to draw shoppers 'downtown'

Malta sees a lot more traffic since the arrival of the $12 billion GlobalFoundries computer chip pla
Malta trying to draw shoppers 'downtown'
The Lofts at Saratoga Boulevard in Malta are under construction on Thursday, May 12, 2016.
Photographer: Erica Miller

Malta sees a lot more traffic since the arrival of the $12 billion GlobalFoundries computer chip plant a few years ago.

But for most people, the downtown area along Route 9 is still a drive-through rather than drive-to destination.

State figures show motorists are typically traveling above the speed limit, even when approaching roundabouts designed to slow them down.

Leaders in this central Saratoga County town would like to slow them down.

But not for the usual reasons — like residents complaining people drive too fast, or the risks to neighborhood children.

Town officials think lower speeds will get more passersby to stop at local businesses — and, eventually, they’d like drivers to be able to park on the street in front of those establishments, the way they can in historic downtowns. That, the theory goes, would boost struggling businesses.

“Even before I ran for office, I noticed a lot of those little retail stores just can’t make it,” said town Supervisor Vincent DeLucia, who took office in January. “I noticed for the last couple of years there were a lot of empty spaces in Ellsworth Commons.”

So yes, Malta officials want on-street parking on Route 9, a major state highway that spreads five lanes wide in the middle of town.

How Malta will deal with traffic issues as downtown transforms has the attention of regional land-use and traffic planners.

“Over time, if there’s enough development and traffic-calming measures, on-street parking might become viable,” said Todd Fabozzi, director of sustainability at the Capital District Regional Planning Commission.

The town’s efforts puts the fast-changing community at the forefront of national trends to change transportation planning priorities, employing a “complete streets” philosophy in which emphasis isn’t totally on accommodating the automobile.

It also shows the changing face of Malta, which was once known for its farming country south of Saratoga Springs. After the Northway was built it was transformed into a classic bedroom suburb, and in the last decade it has transformed again, into one of upstate New York’s high-technology centers.

“It’s developing a village or town center, and how do you do that?” said Michael Franchini, executive director of the Capital District Transportation Committee in Colonie. “It’s definitely a transition that’s occurring.”

Apartment construction that will bring new residents and new traffic is taking place through the downtown area.

About 15,500 vehicles daily use Route 9, according to state DOT data from 2013, the most recent available. More than 14,000 vehicles drive Route 67 between Northway Exit 12 and downtown.

Business troubles

But despite the large traffic volumes, town officials said some businesses are struggling. Drivers may be in too much of a hurry to stop. Or maybe they don’t know how to find parking, since it is often hidden behind the street-front buildings.

That’s the case with parking at Ellsworth Commons, the five-story retail and apartment complex that has loomed over Route 9 since it opened in 2012.

The first-floor retailers have struggled to find footing there, though the apartments above the storefronts have proven popular with GlobalFoundries workers.

“People aren’t going to go back and search for parking spaces where they’re out at a premium because of the second and third floor tenants,” DeLucia said.

The struggles with business development and traffic speeds illustrate the difficulty of creating a high-density urban downtown from scratch — something Malta has the nearly unique opportunity to do because of GlobalFoundries, with its 3,000 employees. The chip plant has had a commercial ripple effect: high-tech support businesses, new restaurants, and huge new demand for housing.

The town’s plan, put in place more than a decade ago, is that the area around Routes 9 and 67 near Northway Exit 12 will become the focus of commercial development, so outlying areas could keep a rural feeling.

On-street parking was supposed to be part of those plans.

“It was all part of the plan to turn this into an urbanized high-density area, lowering the speed limit for pedestrian safety,” DeLucia said. “You look at Saratoga Springs or Ballston Spa or Glens Falls, to have a downtown, they all have on-street parking.”

The main street in all those communities is a state highway, but they also had established downtowns long before the state highway system was created in the early 20th century.

‘Complete’ plan

A $40,000 study underway under the auspices of the Capital District Transportation Committee is looking at a “complete streets” plan for Route 9 that would make it more pedestrian-friendly. Part of that goal is slowing people down.

“You want to accommodate people to not have to get in a car, or to be able to safely cross the street, and when you have a fast-moving highway you have a conflict,” said the CDRPC’s Fabozzi, who is a member of the study advisory committee.

The idea, he said, is that as a downtown becomes more high-density, more people will be walking in the area, so traffic will need to be slowed down.

Among the ideas under discussion is establishing a median so Route 9 doesn’t look so wide, Franchini said.

“There are a lot of issues, including whether on-street parking is possible or not,” Franchini said.

The original plan for Ellsworth Commons was that there would be on-street parking, but that ran up against DOT’s standard policy against allowing parking on the side of state highways.

Since January, town officials have been meeting with DOT Region One officials. The town recently outlined a plan that starts with increase speeding enforcement — a first step, DeLucia hopes, toward changing DOT’s mind.

As a first step, DeLucia is working with Saratoga County sheriff’s deputies and state police to increase speeding enforcement. If people are actually driving more slowly, he hopes DOT might consider reducing the current speed limits.

Just slow down

DOT statistics show that all drivers approaching the main roundabout from the south are traveling well above the 30 mph speed limit, while 80 percent of those approaching from the north are.

The speeding crackdown hasn’t begun yet, but DeLucia said letters have been sent to the local residential neighborhood associations, it has been announced on the town website, and an electronic speed monitoring sign has been ordered, and will be placed downtown.

“The real purpose isn’t to nail people, but to get [DOT] to lower the speed limit,” DeLucia said.

DOT officials said they’re willing to talk about it.

“We’re supportive of the efforts the community and our partners in law enforcement are taking to achieve greater compliance with the existing speed limit, including a stretch in Malta that was reduced to 30 mph nine years ago,” DOT spokesman Bryan Viggiani said. “That’s an important first step. We’ll continue our conversations with the community to determine whether further changes are warranted.”

Viggiani said parking off the side of state highway is currently allowed if there is enough room for a vehicle to park completely off the highway. He said DOT would consider allowing permanent marked off-street parking in front of Ellsworth Commons if Malta wanted to install marked spaces.

Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 395-3086, swilliams@dailygazette.net or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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