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The visionaries who made Clifton Park possible

The visionaries who made Clifton Park possible

From milking parlors to traffic jams in a lifetime
The visionaries who made Clifton Park possible
Cars pass the Country Knolls development off Ushers and Longkill roads in Clifton Park on July 18, 2018.
Photographer: Erica Miller

 

CLIFTON PARK -- Saratoga County's largest town went from milking-parlor country to sprawling suburb in barely half a century, and for many people it is the Capital Region's quintessential suburban bedroom community.

What has happened is the product of many people's visions.

Reaching back to the decade after World War II, President Dwight D. Eisenhower -- concerned in the 1950s about moving the military quickly in a potential crisis with the Soviet Union -- envisioned a system of fast-flowing first-class multilane interstate highways. Without him, no Adirondack Northway from Albany to Montreal. Without the Northway, no Clifton Park.

There would have been no Northway without Henry Ford and his vision of a car for the masses, but Clifton Park is somehow different from other car-dependent suburbs that have spread from Hingham, Massachusetts, to San Mateo, California.

In large part, that's because of the vision of Robert Van Patten Sr., a former radio repairman and service station operator. He got into demolition, and then construction, in the 1950s, and he built the original Mayfair plaza on Route 50 in Glenville. So powerful was his vision and energy that even during his lifetime -- he died in 1990 -- some people called him "the father of Clifton Park."

It was Van Patten who began snapping up large tracts of farmland through the center of town, having realized that easy access to the Northway -- and the ease of building on the area's well-drained soils -- could lure families whose breadwinner worked in Albany or Schenectady or Troy to "live in the country."

Van Patten also had the will and skill to organize the assembly-line construction of the vast tracts of housing with neighborhoods given names like Clifton Knolls, Country Knolls, Country Knolls North, Country Knolls South, and Clifton Gardens. Creative nomenclature wasn't his strength.

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Over three decades, Van Patten built more than 3,500 houses in all. He offered up-and-coming young homebuyers a nice lot, and a lot of house for the money, in a school district whose leaders showed foresight in preparing for the historic influx of children and built it into one of the Capital Region's best school systems.

Van Patten was also early to the game when it came to planned communities, interspersing some of his developments with golf courses and neighborhood parks. Shrewdly, he built and owned the water and sewer systems serving his developments, which allowed him to control which other developers he provided with water and sewer service. Today, the town owns those systems.

The old real estate maxim is: location, location, location -- and Clifton Park has always had that going for it, too. The town is more or less equally situated between the cities of Albany, Schenectady, Troy and Saratoga Springs, as places to work or catch a concert or theater performance. The Northway gives easy access to the wild Adirondacks or to New York City after connecting to the Thruway.

When GlobalFoundries opened its computer chip plant in Malta in 2011, it added new heat to the housing market.

How much has Clifton Park grown? In 1940, it had 2,253 residents, according to the U.S. Census. It was a handful of hamlets interspersed with farms. By 1950, change had already started: There were 3,251 people -- nearly 50 percent more.

The kaboom decade was the 1960s, when, with the Northway finished, the population exploded from 4,513 people to nearly 15,000. The growth rate slowed by 2000, but it has never stopped. The shopping centers and strip malls have followed, as has the traffic that brings roads around the exits to a crawl during daily rush hours.

State Department of Transportation figures show that 103,000 vehicles per day cross the Twin Bridges on the Northway, and 30,000 of them either enter or exit the interstate at Clifton Park's four exits -- some drivers coming from Glenville, Ballston or Halfmoon, but most probably people living in Clifton Park.

When what was then called Clifton Country Mall -- the town's first mall -- opened in 1976, Clifton Park's population was around 20,000.

More than 40,000 people call Clifton Park home, and anyone who thinks they live in a country town is quickly disabused if they drive Route 146 from Route 146A to Northway Exit 9. There's a reason why the town's main mall is now called Clifton Park Center.

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Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, swilliams@dailygazette.net or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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