When Albany's commissioner of planning and development talks about how to make downtown Schenectady a better place, no one should suggest he mind his own business.
A campus planner for the University at Albany before starting with the city of Albany in 2014, Chris Spencer is a huge Schenectady supporter, born and raised here, and a 1983 graduate of Linton High. On Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Schenectady County Historical Society, Spencer will help open a new exhibit on the history of downtown Schenectady with a presentation called "Changing Downtown: The Rise, the Raze and the Revitalization of Schenectady."
While working for the master's in city planning he earned at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2001, Spencer wrote a thesis about Schenectady's downtown section, and how it was struggling.
"I'm going to give a little background and talk about why I wrote the thesis," said Spencer, who started out at the University of Illinois and graduated from Roger Williams University in Rhode Island with a degree in historic preservation before moving on to MIT. "I'm going to talk about some of the assumptions I made at the time, and how some things turned out like I thought they would and others surprised me."
While home during a break from school in 2000, Spencer just happened across a public access channel that was showing a Metroplex board meeting.
"Being involved in historic preservation and looking at how to reuse older buildings that have an economic impact on the area, I was very interested in the meeting and them talking about how they might acquire this or that building," said Spencer. "They were also talking about tearing things down and making things shovel-ready. You can talk about clearing the land in hopes that they will attract a developer, but the best approach is to follow a plan."
The best approach, according to Spencer, is to see what you can use that's already standing.
"I would have liked to have seen a bit more emphasis on saving some of the buildings that we lost, but a lot of great things have happened to Schenectady since 2001," he said. "I think things might have worked a bit better for Metroplex if they had focused a little more on smaller, incremental projects as opposed to larger projects, but they did do a great job. It's important to me to have a sense of a city when you go into it, and hopefully you can see enough of the old fabric. And when you are building something, you want to make sure you do it so it has a lasting legacy. You want your building to be something that people years from now will care about."
But make no mistake about it, Spencer says: The turnaround Schenectady has made in the past 15 years is a great example for other upstate cities to learn from.
"Maybe there could have been more of an emphasis on residential buildings earlier, but there are some good things going on in that area now, and downtown itself has really had an impressive transformation since 2001," he said. "One thing we've learned is that when you own a restaurant, and someone else opens a restaurant next to you, that's not a bad thing. People would get worried about the competition, but downtown Schenectady has clearly shown that those are the things that attract people. At some point there is a tipping point, but we're not nearly there yet."
The exhibit is being put together by SCHS exhibitions and collections manager Susanna Fout, and will be an overview of the entire history of Schenectady's downtown area, including the Stockade neighborhood, the original site of the small village created by Arent Van Curler back in 1662.
"The Stockade is a wonderful place, and the only problem it had was being a bit disconnected from downtown," said Spencer. "But with the improvements having been made along Erie Boulevard and State Street, it's becoming much more walkable. All the work Metroplex is doing is making the downtown-Stockade area much more connected, and that's good to see."
'Changing Downtown: The Rise, the Raze and the Revitalization of Schenectady'
WHAT: An exhibit opening and presentation by Albany City Planner Chris Spencer
WHERE: Schenectady County Historical Society, 32 Washington Ave., Schenectady
WHEN: 2 p.m. Saturday
HOW MUCH: Free for members, $5 for nonmembers
MORE INFO: (518) 374-0263, www.schenectadyhistorical.org