In a city where the phrase "urban renewal" is still used as a dirty word, a proposed $34 million downtown multimodal station is stirring both memories of the past and hopes for the future.
The Amsterdam Common Council has supported a series of steps toward the revitalization project that began under former Mayor Ann Thane and continues under Mayor Michael Villa.
The city hired international engineering firm Mott Macdonald in 2017 for $207,790 to conduct a feasibility study.
Mott MacDonald presented the council with a multi-option plan to spur economic activity in Amsterdam, by essentially ripping up some of the urban renewal scheme implemented in city in the 1960s, '70s and '80s.
The plan also aims to reconnect the city's traffic grid east to west and north to south. Lastly, the plan proposes opening up the city's waterfront by razing all or a portion of the former Amsterdam Mall, which Mott MacDonald calls a "cork" that blocks traffic. This would allow access to the river and the city's economic potential.
These are the main elements of Mott MacDonald's plan and the cost estimates:
• Relocation of the West Main Street Amtrak station to one of two locations near downtown and build railroad platforms and a mixed-use multimodal station, which would include retail space, coffee shop, a newsstand and a Taste of New York location; cost, $20 million.
• Design of the project and contingency planning; cost, $8 million.
• Removal of the Route 5 bypass and other road improvements; cost, $5 million.
• Property acquisition; cost, $1 million.
The first element of the plan would need to be the removal of the Route 5 bypass, which Villa said for him is the key to the whole project.
"Irregardless of the multimodal station, I think removing that Route 5 corridor is the thing that I'm certainly going to push for -- that we do, whether or not the multimodal happens," Villa said. "I think it's an integral part of reconnecting our downtown with the Mohawk Valley Gateway Overlook Pedestrian Bridge. So, we have that connectivity. I think that's important to link the southside with our downtown. I think that it's very important that we try to proceed. That is something that, let's be honest, takes quite some time to not only get off the ground but get funded."
The Common Council on May 15 voted to hire Chazen Companies for $7,500 to help assist the city with applying for a $450,000 grant from New York state. The grant would help pay for a $517,000 study to finalize plans for the multimodal center, a necessary step before applying for larger state and federal grants to fund the project. Amsterdam's local share of the study would be $67,500.
Vanished downtown, disconnected city
The history of what happened to Amsterdam's downtown is almost as complicated as the traffic system built to accommodate it.
Daily Gazette columnist Bob Cudmore listed the changes in chronological order in a 2007 column titled "Memories of a Vanished Downtown." In the column Cudmore cited author Hugh Donlon's 1980 "Annals of a Mill Town," which listed the many changes to Amsterdam's downtown in the name of urban renewal.
The major changes included:
• The first highway modernization of Route 5S on the South Side, which was relocated in 1956 from the former Bridge Street business district to its current location on higher ground near the Thruway, that opened in 1954.
• Construction in 1960, of the four-lane Route 30 stretch from the Thruway to the Mohawk River, with demolition of 30 buildings. Route 30 on the North Side from the river to the top of Market Hill was completed in 1968.
• Construction of the Mohawk River Bridge in 1973. During the 1970s other changes were completed, including relocation of the train tracks, moving the train station to its current location and creation of another four-lane highway section for Route 5.
• Construction of the Amsterdam Mall, now known as the Riverfront Center, begun in 1973. The mall opened in 1977, but construction continued on parts of it into the 1980s. A large portion of downtown was torn down to build the mall, which carved up the city's main street, leaving the eastern side somewhat blocked by the mall from the western side.
Jackie Murphy, former Montgomery County historian and a member of the Historic Amsterdam League, said the city has long suffered from poor planning decisions, like those inspired by the philosophies of Robert Moses, an influcial downstate public official in the mid-20th century who advocated urban renewal projects that often emphasized highway construction over public transit.
"Whatever he said was gospel and he thought these malls were the way to go, and the city just went along. That's how it's been our whole civilization," Murphy said.
Gerry Snyder a retired mechanical engineer, and co-founder of the Historic Amsterdam League, said altogether the urban renewal projects in Amsterdam razed 400 buildings and effectively, "tore out the heart of the city when they tore down the downtown." He said all of the changes made to Amsterdam's downtown made traffic flow a nightmare and cut off the city's southside on the other side of the Mohawk River.
"When they built the new bridge your Market Street and Main Street intersection was gone. Main Street was broken into two pieces, with a little bit of a section on the western side of the mall and the rest of it on the eastern part of the mall,"
"Just trying to get to the bridge to the South Side became such a convoluted matter that, trying to explain to somebody how you got to the bridge became a ten-minute discussion," Snyder continued. "You had to draw it on a piece of paper because you had to send them around and find the entrance ramps off what used to be Pearl Street. And you'd go up the arterial ramp and then over again. It wasn't a matter of just going to Market and Main and just getting on the bridge anymore."
Murphy's complaints against misguided planning go back to the mid-19th century when the railroad was built and large portions of the city's riverfront were acquired by the railroad companies.
"This is one thing that really gauls me, I've lived along the river my whole life and I've never put my toe in it, because of the railroad," Murphy said.
Snyder and Murphy both expressed skepticism about the multimodal project. Snyder said he isn't against progress, but the city has been "sold a bill of goods" by experts in the past on the basis of progress.
"It's probably not necessary to have [the Route 5 bypass] there, I find it convenient myself, but it does create a barrier to the waterfront and that's supposed to be the direction that everyone is trying to head these days, trying to develop the waterfront," Snyder said.
"But is it really going to be that much of a benefit to do that?." Snyder asked. "I like the concept of connecting the South Side back to the North Side, and I think that's an important part of the future of the city. But they're talking a $34 million project and tearing down an additional portion of the city to do it."
Murphy said she doesn't know whether residents of Amsterdam would support construction of a multimodal station downtown.
"I don't think there's that many people who have the feeling that something good can come out of Amsterdam and support whatever is there. I don't know," Murphy said."
Snyder said the goals of the proposed project are laudable. But he is skeptical of the details.
"We used to have the downtown, which was an east-west corridor here in the city, which was a key thing for the city to have," Snyder said. "That was were the life occurred here in the city, along the Main Street, and we lost that with the mall."
"If we can establish a north-south corridor, even if its connected by the pedestrian bridge between Bridge Street and the South Side, and Market Street and what's left of the downtown, I think that goes a long way toward bettering the quality of life and what we have in what's left of our downtown area," Snyder said. "But I'm not convinced we need to do that with a train station. Is it a $34 million project to do it and tear down more things? I don't know."
Reach Gazette Reporter Jason Subik at [email protected]