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Public chimes in on Schenectady DRI projects

Public chimes in on Schenectady DRI projects

Process at a critical point
Public chimes in on Schenectady DRI projects
Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy is silhouetted against a power point presentation at a DRI meeting Dec. 17.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

SCHENECTADY — Residents got their first look on Thursday at the scores of projects competing for a pot of state economic development funds that will potentially reshape downtown and Mohawk Harbor.  

Following a presentation by the consultants leading Schenectady's Downtown Revitalization Initiative (DRI), dozens of attendees studied project profiles and renderings sketched out on poster boards at SUNY Schenectady County Community College.

Stockade resident Mira D’Agostino said she wanted to see the effort prioritize environmental restoration and promote educational initiatives about the Mohawk River and the city’s original Native American inhabitants. 

“We need more green and less pavement,” said D’Agostino, a yoga instructor who popped several sticky notes advocating for more trees on the posters advertising the three dozen-or-so projects being considered for $10 million in funding, which was announced in November. 

Proposals being weighed by consultants and a panel of local decision-makers range from community-sponsored public art projects, like murals and statues, to larger projects pitched by private developers and non-profits, including a food co-op, apartment complexes, mixed-use structures and a series of urban art studios.

A coalition of downtown power-players — including Proctors, Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corporation, Rivers Casino & Resort, Schenectady Country Metroplex Development Authority and Discover Schenectady — want $550,000 to facilitate more outdoor events. 

The city has also proposed roughly a dozen infrastructure projects.

They include re-opening a cordoned-off stretch of North Jay Street that would connect Little Italy to Nott Street, the Alco Tunnel Trail, several lighting concepts and reconfiguring space around City Hall into “City Square,” a $425,000 proposal the city hopes will be entirely funded by the DRI.

Driving pedestrian traffic between downtown and Mohawk Harbor is a key element of the effort, and several wayfinding projects are also under consideration.

D’Agostino said signage to natural attractions along the waterfront could be useful.

But, she added: “Nobody really needs directions to a bar, do they?”

Another spate of commercial projects, including the proposed Capital Region Aquatic Center and a 100,000-square-foot retail complex at Mohawk Harbor, each with $30 million price tags, have been flagged by local economic development officials as possible opportunities, but lack site location and specific funding requests. 

Dave Buicko, president and CEO of the Galesi Group, said concepts for the retail and entertainment center are still in the preliminary planning phase.

The Galesi Group would donate a parcel of land between Mohawk Harbor and Rivers Casino for the site, he said. 

Galesi has commissioned its own retail study, Buicko said, and Stantec, the Boston-based consultant guiding the DRI process, has already conducted its own analysis as part of the DRI effort. 

Both have admitted the retail market can be challenging. 

Stantec consultant Steve Kearney sailed through the bullet points of the DRI-commissioned analysis — developers should utilize existing space for new retailers and the downtown restaurant sector appears to be reaching a saturation point, the survey concluded — but the state has not yet authorized the release of the full study. 

A group of 16 local decision-makers known as the Local Planning Committee (LPC) will vote this spring on a package of projects totaling $15 million. 

Officials expect at least $128 million in outside funding will be leveraged through the state investment, which will be $9.7 million after consulting fees.

Input gleaned from Thursday’s session will be incorporated into which projects will ultimately be presented to the panel by Stantec for consideration. 

Attendees were asked to indicate their project preferences by using a combination of tickets and sticky notes containing informal comments.

Projects are broken into three categories: Formed, forming and emerging.

Most are in the “forming” stage, Kearney said, and the goal now is to push as many into the “formed” category as possible. 

Stantec is working with project sponsors, including local residents, city officials, non-profits and private developers, to zero in on the precise level of funding required to take their proposals across the finish line.

Partial funding may be available in some cases, Kearney said. But officials want to avoid allocating less than what is needed so the project doesn't become stuck in limbo. 

Several attendees used all of their tickets to aggressively push for their priorities.

Local artist Keisha Stovall was enthusiastic about the public art concepts. 

“We need to see beauty, and we need to see something nice,” Stovall said. “We don’t live in a black and white community. We need more color. Schenectady is very gray, but that’s changing.”

Kearney said the panel will soon enter a critical phase.

The LPC is required to produce final strategies by March 6, develop draft project profiles by March 10 and select final projects by March 20.

The state Department of State requires a final plan by April 24. 

The LPC will next meet on March 12, and the third public meeting is scheduled for March 19.

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