SCHENECTADY — Downtown will see major changes as part of a $10 million state grant.
But whether it’s the construction of a pedestrian tunnel, expansion of recreational trails, reopening the road between Little Italy and Mohawk Harbor, demolition of a former industrial laundry building, upgrades to Stratton Plaza behind Proctors — or even the transformation of City Hall into a European-style public square — will be decided by a group of local panelists.
“There may be 6 or 4 of these public infrastructure ones that really need to happen,” said Steve Kearney, lead consultant for Schenectady DRI.
The panel tasked with steering the state’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative (DRI) investment is now reviewing a series of infrastructure projects poised to transform downtown and the corridor to Mohawk Harbor.
Review of private projects — including a proposed aquatic center and retail complex at Mohawk Harbor — will follow next month.
The state-tapped consultants driving the process briefed the local planning committee on Thursday about their options, offering somewhat of an a la carte approach of least a dozen concepts presented for consideration.
Consultants advised members to select projects based on how well they mesh with the series of goals — including promoting connectivity — and which will be the most impactful and transformative.
Selecting projects isn’t the only part of the effort, which has now seeded 40 localities statewide with $400 million funds since 2016, including Albany, Amsterdam and Utica.
Panelists must also engage in internal soul-searching and come to terms with downtown’s flaws as they cobble together a comprehensive downtown profile required as part of the effort.
Any approved projects must address those challenges and issues.
Those include the lack of connectivity — a key element of Schenectady DRI is linking downtown to Mohawk Harbor — and addressing the lack of sustained downtown foot traffic that drives visitors into businesses.
Other challenges include the need for further workforce diversification.
As the group continued to refine those challenges, panelist Mitch Ramsey, owner of Ramsey Media and Jay Street Pub, said the city should work on a marketing strategy.
The city, he said, needs more locations designed exclusively for people to capture moments, tag them and share them on social media.
“If you paint wings on the side of a building, every single girl who comes to Schenectady is going to take a picture of it,” Ramsey said.
Doing so would generate buzz for the city as a desirable attraction.
Panelist Mary Ann Ruscitto, president of the East Front Street Neighborhood Association, said outside buyers snapping up properties also presents a challenge.
“Properties are selling like crazy and there are not good people buying these properties up,” Ruscitto said.
Union College president David Harris, also a panelist, said officials should address downtown parking, describing a recent attempt to find a spot during lunchtime a “disaster.”
Galesi Group CEO David Buicko, who is co-chairing the committee with Mayor Gary McCarthy, acknowledged parking has been historically vexing, particularly when downtown swells with special events at Proctors.
“We’re getting more creative in shuttling and trying to mitigate some of those things,” he said.
Consultants will probe the retail issue further by conducting an extensive market review designed to determine the demand to support each of the proposed concepts.
Lighting also plays an major role in the infrastructure projects.
Projects to light the railway bridge over Erie Boulevard, erect canopy lights over North Jay Street (the main thoroughfare that would link downtown with Mohawk Harbor) and install new lights along Clinton Street and North Broadway are also among proposed concepts.
If the committee opts to bypass them, it doesn’t mean the end of the road because part of the Schenectady DRI process is exploring other sources of funding for them and making them part of the city’s ongoing priorities.
Planning dovetails with the state's announcement last week of a $300 million effort designed to revitalize communities located along the Erie Canal.
“There’s also going to be a fund we can tap into with economic development projects along the Erie Canal,” Buicko said. “I think we’ve got the coolest project along the Erie Canal and it’s only going to get better.”
Kearney and his team will now begin to weigh the viability of each concept, as well as zero in on project sponsors and decide if there is adequate funding available.
Consultants will compile that data on a spreadsheet and disseminate it to the panelists, who will be required to select viable projects totaling roughly $15 million before formally voting on which ones to accept.
While a date has not yet been determined for the vote, officials have said public input will be prioritized.
The first public workshop is scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 16 at 6 p.m. at SUNY Schenectady’s Van Curler Room, where attendees will get a firsthand look at the concepts.
The community is also encouraged to submit proposals for consideration via the official Schenectady DRI website.
The deadline has been extended to Jan. 24.
A draft downtown profile is due Jan. 15, and the local planning committee will meet again on Feb. 13 to discuss the proposed private development concepts.
In a departure from the first meeting last month which packed in a standing room-only crowd, Thursday's at SUNY Schenectady drew just a handful of attendees.
Johan Matthews, who was among the handful of the meeting's attendees, said it was important to ensure income-challenged residents aren’t left out of the process, and efforts should made to include SUNY Schenectady students.
City resident Laura Lee said she wanted to see more attractions like sculptures and monuments along Erie Boulevard.
“What intrigues them besides the GE sign that changes during the holiday?” she said.