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Bearcroft battles planning skepticism with 'Amsterdam Jane'

Bearcroft battles planning skepticism with 'Amsterdam Jane'

Home grown planner hopes to revitalize city
Bearcroft battles planning skepticism with 'Amsterdam Jane'
Amanda Bearcroft is Amsterdam's community and economic development director.
Photographer: ERICA MILLER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER

Amanda Bearcroft still remembers going to the Amsterdam Mall with her father as a youngster. But she sees things differently now than she did then.

"I remember going to the mall when it was booming," Bearcroft said. "We would walk down to the mall, when we lived on Locust Avenue, and that was just a fun memory."

"But now — looking at it from an urban planning perspective — it really is amazing how something like that was approved, when it literally cut our downtown core in half," Bearcroft said. "It isolated neighborhoods. It was really creating pockets of poverty, messing up the transportation network."

More from this week: Our top stories Feb. 2-8, 2019

"You can kind of see that they were thinking that they were bringing this new economic driver to downtown, but someone should have had the forethought to see and say, 'You think cutting our Main Street in half is a good idea? And creating this traffic access nightmare of all of these one-way streets?' "

Bearcroft said she now envisions Amsterdam becoming a story of how municipalities can correct the revitalization wrongs of the past. She said she believes the thinking of urban planners, municipal leaders and other professionals have evolved.

A few years before Bearcroft was born, Amsterdam city leaders supported an urban renewal plan that tore down a large portion of their downtown and replace it with a suburban mall, which a few decades later has been converted into an office building called the Riverfront Center, after nearly of its retail stores closed.

Many of the city's residents have never trusted the concept of urban planning since. 

Enter Bearcroft, hired as the city's community and economic development director in October to be the point person for the administration of the state $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant the city obtained. Amsterdam was awarded the money last year.

Bearcroft, in her then role as Montgomery County senior planner, wrote most the city's application for the grant.

The grant hopes to spur the first major investment in new construction in the city's downtown since the mall was built in the 1970s. Bearcroft said helping to communicate with city residents skeptical of any planning projects is a part of her job, and part of the legacy of past planning failures.

"People are very quick to see any sort of any new plan or new development as being 'Well, it's going to be just like the mall,' and 'They're not going to listen to us' and 'It's going to be terrible' and 'It's going to segregate our city and our downtown,'" said Bearcroft, echoing themes of repeated street-corner and coffee-shop comment.

"So, as a planner it's very important to be 100 percent transparent," Bearcroft said.

Bearcroft is a 2003 graduate of Amsterdam High School. She said growing up she was always fascinated with building things.

"I was always the kid who was playing with Legos instead of Barbies," Bearcroft  said.

Even now, there are Legos throughout her home, Bearcroft said.

One experience from high school may have helped propel her into the field of municipal planning, Bearcroft said. And it involved a more recent downtown redevelopment that city leaders are hoping to build upon in future plans.

"I remember that the planners and the engineers who were proposing the Riverlink Park project came to Amsterdam High School," Bearcroft said. "And we were able to kind of have a public workshop and flush out ideas and that really stuck with me." 

She went to the University of Buffalo, originally to study architecture. But she changed her major to urban planning when she realized she loved that concept more than designing individual buildings. She graduated in 2008 and then earned her master's degree in city and regional planning at The Ohio State University in 2010.

After that she worked in the private sector at several engineering firms in the Capital Region, sometimes working on infrastructure projects, and sometimes doing work for municipalities. 

"Through that I realized I had the skills and I had the knowledge," Bearcroft said. "And I could really make a change in my community and where I'm from."

In 2015 she was hired as the Montgomery County senior planner. She said she loved working in the public sector, and that job eventually led her to working for the city. 

Bearcroft is passionate about what she believes are the many good things proper urban planning can do for a community. She is a disciple of Jane Jacobs, a journalist who wrote books critical of the urban renewal movement, which Jacobs believed often did not reflect city dwellers' needs. 

Bearcroft has created a social media character called "Amsterdam Jane", which can be found at the Instagram handle @Amsterdam_Jane. Amsterdam Jane is a Jane Jacobs doll, which Bearcroft uses in a series of photograph posts, where Amsterdam Jane can be seen in perspective shots that illustrate modern urban planning concepts.

"Back in the day it was a lot of just planners sitting inside, behind closed doors making decisions for whole communities without community input," said Bearcroft of early urban planning thinking.

But the field has evolved, matured, learned from its failings, Bearcroft said. Soliciting opinions from city residents -- stakeholders in any public project -- has become paramount.

Bearcroft recently took Amsterdam Jane to the Memphis Pyramid, which was originally built as a 20,000-seat arena used by the Memphis Grizzlies. The building, a striking pyramid-shaped design dominated by its glass shell, stopped being used a sports complex in 2004.

Now, it's Bass Pro Shops sporting goods megastore, hugely successful, attracting customers who travel from throughout the region to visit and shop. There they can marvel at an array of live fish, fowl and reptiles featured among the attractions.

"There's a hotel that is full all the time, with people actually staying in this store. There's a restaurant. There's an observation deck, and it's really turned into this draw," Bearcroft said.

Bearcroft said the location is an inspiration for how good planning can overcome poor planning.

"We have a mall, they have a pyramid," Bearcroft said.

Bearcroft said she is on a mission to help her community recover from the mistakes of the past. She said she hopes she can help residents envision what she sees when she looks at the possibilities of what good planning could provide them.

"I love being able to go home at the end of the day and know that I made a difference in the city of Amsterdam, where I'm from, where I live," Bearcroft said. "I want people to stay here after school. I want to people to find a house here, an apartment here and a job here."

More from this week: Our top stories Feb. 2-8, 2019

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