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Foss: Share your ideas for downtown Schenectady

Foss: Share your ideas for downtown Schenectady

Foss: Share your ideas for downtown Schenectady
Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy is silhouetted against a PowerPoint presentation Tuesday evening at SUNY Schenectady.
Photographer: PETER R. BARBER

It didn't come from a consultant, developer or planner.

You won't find it on a wishlist of economic development projects or read about it in a strategic plan. 

One of the more intriguing ideas I've heard for making downtown Schenectady a more dynamic place came in the form of a tossed off remark at the end of a public meeting. 

Dean William Bennett, a professor at SUNY Schenectady County Community College, told the panel tasked with figuring out how best to spend a $10 million state grant that he'd like to see a "European-style square in front of City Hall" that is "clear of cars." 

Bennett's idea is at once bold and doable - the kind of creative re-imagining of downtown that becomes possible when the state gifts a municipality with one of its generous Downtown Revitalization Initiative awards.

Bennett's vision isn't part of the city's vision for energizing downtown, but that doesn't mean it couldn't be. 

The DRI's local planning committee is looking for robust public participation - and I'd encourage people to get involved. 

The city's DRI application lays out a vision for downtown that involves better linking Mohawk Harbor, "Proctors block" and lower State Street, and funding a handful of big-ticket projects aimed at boosting tourism and recreation. 

These include a $30 million aquatic center and a 100,000-square foot retail and entertainment complex, both located at Mohawk Harbor. 

It's a vision that's overly focused on the visitor experience, and skimps on the needs and wants of residents, offering little for families and youth. 

Cynics, such as myself, might question whether using such a large chunk of taxpayer money to enhance an upscale private development is really the best use of the DRI award. 

The good news is that Schenectady's DRI plan is not set in stone.

If there are things you'd like to see - or not see - in the plan, you should tell the committee, which meets again on January 9 and will host a public engagement session on January 16. You can also weigh in on schenectadydri.com

Toward the end of the DRI's inaugural meeting on Tuesday, members of the audience were invited to make comments and ask questions. Their remarks provided some insight into what members of the community might be looking for from the DRI. 

Several people spoke in favor of making sure the final plan includes a history component - something that promotes Schenectady's rich history. The need for a downtown grocery store and more public bathrooms were also highlighted. 

During the meeting Proctors CEO Phillip Morris, who sits on the 16-member DRI panel, spoke of his desire to make Schenectady "the best festival destination in upstate New York." 

In response, Mary Ann Ruscitto, a panel member who represents the East Front Street neighborhood association, wondered whether "concentrating on festivals" might detract from what makes the downtown neighborhoods special. 

"We should grow our interest in history," she said. "There's so much history in the Stockade." 

I hope the final DRI plan makes room for both festivals and history, among other things. 

When the DRI award was announced in November, Gazette reporter Pete DeMola spoke to neighborhood leaders, who told him that many residents feel left out of downtown's rebirth

They're not wrong to feel this way, but the DRI process offers a tremendous opportunity to help shape downtown Schenectady's future and ensure that it's a place where people from all walks of life feel welcome. 

I know people have ideas for how to make Schenectady's downtown the best it can be. 

Now is the time to share them with the powers that be. 

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's.  

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