SCHENECTADY — Once known as the city that "lights and hauls the world," residents hope that Schenectady’s legacy will continue to shine downtown — literally.
Enhanced downtown lighting emerged as a top pick by the dozens of city residents who attended a public workshop on Thursday to provide input on how to spend the state’s $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative (DRI) investment.
“What I clearly heard was lighting from every single table,” said Steve Kearney, a consultant with Stantec, which is leading the Schenectady DRI process.
Numerous downtown buildings already boast LED lighting, including City Hall and the Schenectady Train Station, and displays are often synchronized during holidays and to promote special events, including last fall’s “Frozen” run at Proctors.
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As part of Schenectady DRI, planners have flagged a portfolio of proposed lightning concepts, including lighting the railway bridge over Erie Boulevard and stringing canopy lights over North Jay Street, the main thoroughfare that will link downtown with Mohawk Harbor, the central component of the initiative.
Stockade resident Rich Unger likened the concepts to a portal that invites interactive experiences.
“Make them attractive and celebrate the fact that they’re there,” he said.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo visited Schenectady last November to announce the award, a competition designed to boost downtowns across the state by spurring broader investments.
Officials expect the $10 million award — technically $9.7 million after planning — will leverage $128 million in outside investment.
City and county economic development officials have flagged scores of potential infrastructure projects that could receive funding, including a pedestrian tunnel, recreational trails, reopening the barricaded road between Little Italy and Mohawk Harbor, creating a public square around City Hall and upgrades to Stratton Plaza behind Proctors.
Kearney envisioned that between four and six projects ultimately will be selected as those that would have the transformative impact state officials are seeking.
Planners will present private development concepts, including a proposed aquatic center and 100,000-square-foot retail and entertainment complex at Mohawk Harbor, next month.
The 16-member local planning committee will eventually submit $15 million in proposed projects for state approval in April.
“We’re looking for initiatives that can be completed or substantially started in a 1-to 2-year time span,” Kearney said.
Residents participating in the public session at SUNY Schenectady County Community College warmed to the lighting concept as planners asked a dozen or so small groups to think up ideas and develop priorities for the project.
“The goal here is to hear what’s most important, incorporate it into the plan and help shape and identify which should be priority projects,” Kearney said.
Committee members were stationed at each table, answering questions as participants scrawled vision statements on large poster-sized paper.
Residents also embraced the concept of promoting the city’s history through increased attractions, bolstering public art and murals, better integrating the city’s three colleges into civic life and improving downtown walkability, particularly along Erie Boulevard and the traffic circle at Rivers Casino.
The local planning committee will continue to revise the vision statement governing the effort.
Stockade resident Omar McGill said Schenectady DRI should address affordable housing.
“We want to attract more residents, and how to make [the city] more affordable,” McGill said
City resident William Rivas said he hoped the growth and positive momentum would trickle into adjacent neighborhoods.
“I think growth downtown can be magnified,” he said.
Some attendees pitched standalone projects.
Lucy Halstead said the city should overhaul the bus station on State Street.
“It’s nasty,” she said.
Ongoing challenges include parking, several attendees said.
“Although parking is relatively plentiful compared to other cities, it’s a constant thing people are always asking about,” Heather Hutchison said.
Kearney said the feedback will be worked into project materials.
“We’ll pull it in,” he said. “It will change the vision a bit and the goal, and certainly it helped us develop a number of strategies to build into this.”
Consultants will continue to solicit feedback.
“We’re still trying to move through and identify these projects,” Kearney said.
Project vetting will run into February. The local planning committee will be required to develop a plan with priority projects in March, a document which will undergo an additional round of revisions after receiving state feedback.
The state Department of State requires a final plan by April 24.
That deadline is not flexible, said Kearney, who acknowledged the process will unfold at a breakneck pace.
“It’s one of the fastest planning time frames you’ll ever be involved in,” he said. “It’s a big role and it gets tense in the end.”
Once submitted to the state, the proposals will be reviewed internally by numerous state agencies to ensure the concepts are viable; can be implemented within the prescribed time frame and can attract outside investment, said Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, chairwoman of the statewide Regional Economic Development Council.
“What we’re trying to do is get the money into the communities as soon as possible,” Hochul said.
Local officials can typically expect an announcement on which projects will be funded by summer.
“But any time we can speed that up for projects that are really ready to go, we’re looking to do that to help the communities be transformed even sooner," Hochul said.
Schenectady DRI's local planning committee will next meet on Feb. 13 and the next public input session is scheduled for Feb. 20.