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After $10M downtown grant award, Schenectady neighborhood leaders seek focus, too

After $10M downtown grant award, Schenectady neighborhood leaders seek focus, too

With $10M downtown boost recently announced, neighborhood leaders urge sustained investment
After $10M downtown grant award, Schenectady neighborhood leaders seek focus, too
Neighborhood leaders contend that future investment in the city's downtown shouldn't be at the expense of neighborhoods.
Photographer: PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER

SCHENECTADY — Downtown is booming, and the city received additional accelerant last week with the announcement of an anticipated $10 million in state funding designed to further connect the urban core to the riverfront. 

Big-ticket projects include a proposed new aquatic center with an Olympic-size swimming pool, a dock system and entertainment complex at Mohawk Harbor. 

But as champagne corks pop downtown following last week’s announcement of the state Downtown Revitalization Initiative (DRI) award by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, neighborhood leaders want to ensure they will not be forgotten.

Officials have acknowledged the chatter from the city's neighborhoods.

“We’ve already heard feedback that people feel left out,” said Councilwoman Marion Porterfield.

Marva Isaacs, president of the Hamilton Hill Neighborhood Association, said her community needs more programming to divert at-risk youth, and the neighborhood, which is among the city’s most impoverished, continues to struggle with drug-related illicit activity.

“I think they’ve already done enough for downtown,” Isaacs said. “Come into the neighborhoods and do something for the neighborhoods.”

Mont Pleasant Neighborhood Association Pat Smith welcomed the grant, but wished some of the funds could be reallocated.

“There are so many things we need to be done,” Smith said. “Several neighborhoods are needy, and ours is one of the neediest at this point.”

Smith acknowledged a spate of recent city investments in Mont Pleasant, including the new Boys & Girls Club, LED lights deployed as part of the city’s Smart Cities initiative, boosted police patrols, a facade improvement program and the city-led project to improve the streetscape along the Craig Street corridor

But she also called for sustained focus on ameliorating sub-standard housing and the need to crack down on absentee landlords.

While the city, county and state have poured resources into the city’s neighborhoods in recent years, they continue to suffer from disinvestment and grapple with deteriorated housing stock, quality-of-life issues and pothole-plagued streets. 

Porterfield hopes Metroplex will take some of the non-DRI funding originally earmarked for downtown and redirect those funds for neighborhood improvement projects.

“A lot of people have concerns about the aesthetics and cleanliness of the city,” Porterfield said. 

Another key priority, she said, is attracting new businesses, including a supermarket.

And like other cities nationwide, Schenectady continues to struggle with blight. 

While the city has foreclosed on tax-delinquent properties and has been aggressive in working with the Capital Region Land Bank and Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority on demolitions, the city doesn’t always have adequate staff to ensure city-distressed buildings are properly maintained, which is another sore point for city homeowners. 

The city’s recently-adopted budget contains a bump in maintenance spending. Porterfield also wants to looking into enlisting small MWBEs, or minority and women-owned business enterprises, to maintain those structures (but not replacing city staff while doing so). 

BROADER INVESTMENTS

For the past four years, the DRI has allocated $100 million annually statewide, awarding one locality in each of the state’s 10 economic development regions $10 million for improvements designed to spur broader investment. 

Albany, Glens Falls and Amsterdam have all been recent beneficiaries. 

Metroplex will act as the lead administrator for the DRI, and will commit $7 million in funding. 

Metroplex Chairman Ray Gillen said the award will not come at the expense of the city’s neighborhoods, and investments in both can unfold on parallel tracks.

“The DRI funding is a competition the state set up specifically for downtowns,” he said. “When state funding is available, we pursue it.”

The $10 million is just the tip of the spear to spur broader investment. 

Paired with the state funding, the project aims to generate an additional $128 million in private investment, according to the Metroplex-prepared grant application, and hopes to create hundreds of new jobs.

Following the loss of 40,000 industrial jobs, downtown Schenectady had become arguably the most distressed in the state by 2004, according to the application.

“The fiscal situation was perilous.”

Another key aspect of the plan is linking Mohawk Harbor to and with downtown, which officials believe will lead to increased visitation. 

Planners envision four major linkages, including the Jay Connector, a $2 million effort that aims to reopen a dead-end street connecting Little Italy to Nott Street, which will not only provide what officials say will be a “quieter, pedestrian friendly road connection,” but also open up an artery and drive people into the isolated neighborhood. 

“I’m happy,” said Roie Angerami, co-owner of Civitello’s Italian Pastry Shoppe. “I think it’ll bring more people through. Any opening is great.” 

The Electric City has benefitted from numerous major state investments over the past decade, which has allowed for Rivers Casino & Resort, Schenectady Train Station, as well as propelling projects like Mill Artisan District, the new brewery and apartment complex transforming lower State Street. 

But the city’s neighborhoods are also home to broad investments. Among the $90 million in active projects are new and upcoming affordable housing projects in Hamilton Hill and Eastern Avenue, as well as the ongoing renovation of Yates Village public housing in Goose Hill.

“There’s more work going on in the neighborhoods now than downtown,” Gillen said. “We’ve very proud of our track record in the neighborhoods.”

A strong downtown, he said, also benefits the city and county by expanding the tax base and creating jobs. 

And since the city is compact, Gillen expects development to spread to border neighborhoods.

“We continue our aggressive development work countywide, including in the neighborhoods and towns,” Gillen said.

Mayor Gary McCarthy has said with the recent transformation of downtown, the expectations in the community are changing and people are expecting more from City Hall — which is a good thing.

“We’re hoping to continue on a balanced approach,” McCarthy said.

UPCOMING PRIORITIES 

City lawmakers campaigned for re-election this year on prioritizing neighborhood improvements, and said those efforts will remain front-and-center heading into the new year. 

“I think there’s been a lot of focus on downtown, certainly, but we’ve switched gears and are now focusing on the corridors,” Councilwoman Leesa Perazzo said. 

The city will also continue to prioritize selling foreclosed-upon homes as part of the HOMES Program, which prioritizes owner-occupied dwellings, Perazzo said. 

Councilman John Polimeni cycled through the investments and acknowledged the city needed to a better job of promoting the “opportunity zone” program, which encourages funding to be steered into high-poverty communities.

The program, created as part of the federal tax reform bill in 2017, allows “opportunity funds” to invest clients’ money in projects in low-income U.S. Census tracts. 

Depending how long they hold the investment, investors pay a reduced capital gains tax — or none at all.

“We received several zones that are classified in that group,” Polimeni said. “That’s going to be a major assistance to neighborhoods.”

Like Perazzo, Polimeni also said the Thriving Neighborhoods Challenge, which uses funds allocated by the city and Schenectady Foundation to catalyze community-driven neighborhood improvements, is actively working on rolling out the next round of projects. 

City Councilwoman-elect Carmel Patrick said she looks forward to attending more neighborhood association meetings to get dialed into their issues, as well as learn more about the collaborative work between non-profits and other community stakeholders. 

"I think we really have to bring together folks in the neighborhoods and listen to their concerns," Patrick said.

Despite the downtown-centric focus of the DRI, state officials stress feedback is a critical part of the process from the entire community — not just downtown residents or businesses.

And while the report identifies numerous “shovel-ready” projects, it doesn’t mean they are pre-ordained: The city must now zero in on specific projects as part of a “strategic investment plan."

The state Department of State will take the lead on developing a local planning committee to guide the process, and final membership will be determined by the agency in consultation with local leadership.

“No one has been named to this group,” Gillen said on Friday. “It’s something we have to work with the mayor on.”

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