SCHENECTADY — Little Italy is among the three neighborhoods Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corporation hopes to include in its proposed expansion.
But not all local business owners are sold on the idea, saying it’s too early to predict how DSIC membership would affect them.
And before they commit to a position, several want the city to clarify its plans for a barricaded street that has separated the neighborhood from Erie Boulevard, the area's most highly trafficked thoroughfare.
“It has hampered going in and out of here,” said Mike Zeglen, owner of Hunter’s on Jay.
North Jay Street previously connected to Erie Boulevard just south of Nott Street, but is now closed at South Avenue because the underpass beneath the train tracks was filled in with earth and walled off.
Two factors led to its closure in 2016: The rehabilitation of the nearby Canadian Pacific railway bridge over Nott Street and the construction of the traffic circle in front of Rivers Casino & Resort at Mohawk Harbor.
Residents questioned the interplay of DSIC membership with the potential impacts of reopening of the street and other possible improvements.
“The whole dynamic changes if you open up the street,” Zeglen said. “We need to know what’s happening as a business district.”
DSIC provides marketing support and aesthetic improvements, including flower baskets and banners, as well as cleaning, maintenance and snow removal at intersections and crosswalks.
Businesses are also included in promotions like the annual Soup Stroll and Wing Walk.
While the traffic circle was hailed as a keystone to downtown development, some Little Italy restaurateurs say their businesses have been negatively impacted by the changes.
“We are fighting for our lives,” said Maria Papa, owner of More Perreca's. “We are struggling. It’s a whole new world for us and it isn’t a good world.”
Earlier this year, another access point was choked off when Canadian Pacific removed its bridge over Pine Street and filled in the thoroughfare connecting Erie Boulevard to Warren Street, which leads to More Perreca's.
“To collectively block us off like this is a sin,” Papa said.
Others said they haven’t been impacted.
“We have a unique product,” said Roie Angerami, co-owner of Civitello’s Italian Pastry Shoppe. “People fight to get in.”
City Engineer Chris Wallin understands the neighborhood’s concerns.
"Little Italy right now kind of feels like a dead-end,” Wallin said. “We want them to be a part of downtown and not feel isolated.”
The city has drafted plans to link the neighborhood to downtown and Mohawk Harbor. But execution of the project requires an additional financial lift.
"It is one of the city's top priorities for securing funding,” Wallin said.
The city has applied for a lucrative $10 million grant as part of the state’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative, an effort designed to boost downtowns by bankrolling high-profile projects that will ideally spur broader private investment.
The city’s application combines riverfront and downtown projects, Wallin said.
"The focus of the project from an infrastructure standpoint is the Jay Street connector,” Wallin said. "It does all of the things the DRI is looking to do — connecting Mohawk Harbor to downtown, creating a path and bringing traffic into Little Italy.”
The city is also eyeing reopening a pedestrian tunnel and constructing bike paths connecting Jay Street to Erie Boulevard.
And as part of unrelated pedestrian safety efforts, the city is planning to modify several traffic signals and convert some downtown streets from one- to two-way improve connectivity, an effort that has received some state funding.
But after announcing four DRI winners in other regions in early August, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has fallen silent — six projects remain unannounced, including the Capital Region winner.
Wallin said a decision could be handed down at any time.
And failure to receive the funds doesn’t mean the end of the road will … remain the end of the road.
"If we don't hear about that, we're going to move onto the next application,” he said. “It’s not a matter of ‘if,’ but ‘when.’”
North Jay Street skirts along property owned by Union College.
“We've had productive conversations with city leaders about their plans for North Jay Street,” said Phillip Wajda, a college spokesman. “We will continue to engage with them on ways to achieve an outcome that is in the best interest of Schenectady and Union College."
CITY NEARING VOTE
Neighborhood stakeholders aired their concerns at a briefing by DSIC Executive Director Jim Salengo on the proposed expansion efforts.
DSIC previously held three community meetings, and just four people spoke at a public hearing earlier this month at City Hall.
Operations for the service area, which is formally known as the Downtown Special Assessment District, are funded in part by business owners, who pay an average of $295 annually.
Restaurateurs said in order for the expansion to be successful, everyone should ideally buy in.
“You really need nobody or everybody,” said Connie Hume, co-owner of Cornells in Little Italy.
Salengo said the nonprofit is not trying to impose on business owners, but rather hopes they can provide the services the city cannot.
That includes acting as advocates for finding solutions for smaller-scale neighborhood problems, including litter and dog waste.
“We want to do it because we love what’s happening here and Mohawk Harbor and we feel like we have the opportunity to provide additional services,” Salengo said.
Expansion requires a simple majority vote by City Council, which is scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 25 at 5 p.m.
Salengo said DSIC would hire a minimum of two staffers if the expansion is approved.
“There would absolutely be an increase in the staff,” Salengo said.
Businesses cannot opt out, but can file an objection to the expansion with the City Clerk's Office.
If 51 percent of eligible property owners in a proposed expansion area file an objection, the district will not be extended (residential properties are exempt), according to draft bill language.
That percentage is more of a “technicality,” Salengo said. But if the number were to be reached, it would send a strong signal to city lawmakers.
“At the end of the day, it’s just a City Council vote,” he said.
Meeting attendees grappled with their options for moving forward.
“We’ve been promised a lot,” said Doreen Ditoro, president of the Little Italy Business Association. “How do we say, ‘We’re not just ready at this time?’”
DSIC also aims to add Broadway from Clinton Street to the I-890 overpass and Erie Boulevard from Union Street to the Nott Street traffic circle.