The Amsterdam Common Council on Tuesday unanimously approved a contract with Bergmann Associates to create new design guidelines for the city's Downtown Revitalization Zone area.
Creating the design guidelines, and getting them adopted into the city's codes, is the key first step toward dispersing money from the $600,000 Downtown Improvement Fund, one of the grants awarded to Amsterdam from New York state as part of the $10 million DRI.
Fourth Ward Alderman Stephen Gomula said he's glad the council was able to take action to help move the city forward on its DRI projects, which were announced in July.
"We kind of need this to just get the ball rolling," he said. "It's a good thing, and I'm all for it. You want everything above board and you don't want to have to go back because we missed something. We'd rather get everything taken care of in terms of the codes and the charter and anything we need to do to make things official."
Anthony Casale, Amsterdam's legal counsel, said it is his understanding now that the council has authorized the contract with Bergman, Mayor Michael Cinquanti will soon sign it.
Cinquanti could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Amanda Bearcroft, Amsterdam's director of community and economic development, said Bergmann was chosen after a competitive bidding process and will be paid $50,000 from a different state grant awarded to the city.
"The design guidelines are going to give us a more cohesive approach for the businesses and the mixed-use areas that apply or reside within our downtown, and really that's all it covers, just the DRI boundaries," Bearcroft said. "Obviously our hope is that we can initiate these [guidelines] in other areas of the code, as we see fit, once we have it in place."
Bearcroft said the $600,000 Downtown Improvement Fund will be for building improvements, including facade projects and deferred maintenance that can't be funded through other state programs. The fund will operate on a 50/50 matching grant system, and will be spent on a first-come, first-serve basis until the money's gone. Bearcroft said she's also pursuing additional state grants that, if obtained, might reduce the amount required from businesses to access the grants to only 25 percent.
She said establishing the city's design guidelines first is important for making certain the facade and signage improvements follow a coherent strategy.
Bearcroft explained that creating the guidelines will likely take about four months, and then approximately another two months to get the changes incorporated into the city's building codes, which will include getting approval from the city Planning Board, council and approval on the county level.
"It's going to be based on the current architecture and things that are in the city, looking at the bones of the buildings on Main Street, and what they used to look like before all of these different layers of facade were put up, and bringing it back to its original character, which brings back walkability and a sense of place that we want in a downtown," Bearcroft said.
The new guidelines will not affect any existing building, but will govern how improvements and sign changes are made going forward after they are adopted into the city's codes.
Bearcroft said business signs will receive particular attention as part of the design guideline process. She said one of the things the city should attempt to avoid is the affect she perceives on the Route 30 commercial corridor in the town of Amsterdam, which features many different types of business signs.
"You'll have one store [on Route 30] that has a really beautiful sign, and the place next door has a flashing light for what their business is and then the next door after that will have a plastic banner. So having guidelines in place will not be restrictive such that every place will have the same sign, but having a guideline will let us focus," she said. "You don't want to have so many different types of signs that people end up putting blinders on, because too many [variations] makes people numb and the attempt to attract attention stops working."
Part of Bearcroft's mission in helping the city use the $10 million DRI grant has been implementing an urban planning strategy that is based on community input, in contrast to the urban renewal movement which decades ago promoted the creation of the Amsterdam Mall.
Bearcroft is a disciple of Jane Jacobs, a journalist who wrote books critical of the urban renewal movement, which Jacobs believed often did not reflect city dwellers' needs.
Towards that end, Bearcroft has created a social media character called "Amsterdam Jane", which can be found at the Instagram handle @Amsterdam_Jane. Amsterdam Jane is a Jane Jacobs doll, which Bearcroft uses in a series of photograph posts, where Amsterdam Jane can be seen in perspective shots that illustrate modern urban planning concepts.
On Wednesday, Bearcroft brought Jane to Amsterdam's downtown where she took a look at the area that will likely see much of the investment from the $600,000 Downtown Improvement Fund. She said she is hopeful city businesses will be able to start submitting applications for the funding in about four months after the design guidelines are created, allowing for applications to be processed during the two month period during when the guidelines are getting the necessary approval to be made a part of the city building code.
"That way we're not constantly waiting, they'll be ready to go as soon as the regulatory approvals are achieved," she said.