Friday, January 16, 2015

The overlooked truth of the mixed-use neighborhood

The electronic age has helped me manage the paper overload on my desk, but only a little. Yesterday, at the bottom of a long neglected stack of newspaper and magazine clippings, I came across an article in the Albany Times Union from a few years ago. Entitled "Long walk home," it cited a poll that found that 58 percent of Americans would like to live in neighborhoods with stores within walking distance. "So why haven't they been built?" asks the article by the always dependable Chris Churchill.

The question has become a well-worn one in urban planning circles. Ditto for the answers commonly proffered: zoning laws need to be more accommodating, planners and developers need to be more sensitive to the needs of citizens, and a number of others. The first answer is true enough: we're never going to attain walkability as long as zoning codes require segregated uses, large lots, and other pedestrian-hostile features.
Credit: Philip Kamrass, Times Union
But the second answer is mostly untrue, as unintentionally demonstrated by the photographs accompanying the article. They show an older mixed-use neighborhood in Schenectady that clearly didn't come about through a formal planning and development process. Rather, the mixed uses were birthed organically, through an ad hoc process initiated and controlled by neighborhood residents themselves. Note that the businesses pictured were created after the fact in buildings originally intended to be homes. The commercial uses were created as citizens actively made their neighborhood into what they thought it needed to be. They didn't wait for developers; they did it themselves.

A formalized planning and development process can give us mixed uses, but it can't give us the kind of neighborhoods we most need. It can give us contrived architecture, chain stores, and predictability, but it can't give us authenticity. Nor is it likely to impart local economic benefit. Formal development rarely generates wealth for the people already living in a neighborhood; instead, it tends to replace them with a different group of people who gained  their wealth elsewhere. The residents remaining from the old days of the neighborhood may appreciate the convenience of having a new chain store nearby, but that store sends wealth out of the community every day.

What will it take for more mixed-use, economically and culturally viable neighborhoods to be built? Less zoning, fewer developers, and more mom and pop.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Upside-down landscape

Kaaterskill Creek, Catskill, New York
 (The image above is upside-down. Below, the photograph as taken.)

Thursday, January 8, 2015

At the top of the Alps

This is from last year. Today, I can't even see out the window.

Christ Episcopal Church, Union Street, Hudson
(Background right: St Mary's Catholic Church)

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Sips, suds, sweets, swash

A very nice article today from Columbia Economic Development Corporation details the entrepreneurial endeavors of Hudson business owner Selha Graham Cora. Her Sip n' Suds on State Street exemplifies everything an urban business should be: human-scaled, locally responsive, multi-faceted, and infinitely flexible.

In addition to a self-serve laundry, Cora provides wash-dry-fold service, baked goods, U-Haul pick-up and drop-off, and even rooms for rent. She recently added a "Swash" machine, which deodorizes and steams clothes in an hour. Perhaps we can convince her to add a formal drycleaning dropoff; given her admirably fluid business model I will not be surprised if and when that happens.

Sip 'n' Suds Laundro-net Cafe
453 State Street, Hudson | 518.828.3452
M, W-F 9AM to 7PM; Sa-Su 8:30AM to 8PM

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Things you didn't think you needed to know about cities

New York City residents spend six times the national average on wristwatch purchases, but 63% less on bicycles. Bostonians spend 330% more than the average on alimony, 17% less on men's underwear, and 79% less on dating services. San Diegans spends 3.6 times the national average on infants' equipment; Dallas-Fort Worth residents spend 44% less than average on charity, and San Francisco-San Jose residents spend 1.7 times the average on women's costumes. Nifty feature in the New York Times.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Neighborhood That Disappeared

If you missed Mary Paley and John Romeo's documentary, The Neighborhood That Disappeared, which aired last week on WMHT, you have a couple more opportunities to watch it, including tonight—I hope.* The film traces the history of an Italian neighborhood in Albany from its settlement through its demise when the Empire State Plaza was built in the 1960s. According to the filmmakers, the project displaced 9,000 people, 3,600 households, and more than 1,500 buildings, including 350 businesses, four churches and 29 taverns. You can watch a 30 second trailer here, or a longer, more informative pre-release trailer above.

*The notices I've come across the web haven't inspired my confidence in their accuracy, but below are the places and times I have found.

The Neighborhood That Disappeared
   Monday Dec 15, 7:30PM on WMHT World (channel 115 on Mid-Hudson cable)
   Monday, Dec 29, 8:00PM on WMHT-TV (channel 2 on MHC)
   Thursday, Jan 1, 2015, 10:00AM, 3:30PM, and 9:30PM on WMHT-TV (channel 2 on MHC)
   December 13-18 7:30PM, Madison Theater, Albany

If your television provider is other than Mid-Hudson Cable, this link will tell you where to find WMHT: Find WMHT

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Business climate survey

The good folks at the Hudson Development Corporation need business owners and creative economy participants in the City of Hudson to complete their online Business Climate Survey. The survey results will be used by HDC in its ongoing efforts to improve economic opportunities and enhance the quality of life in Hudson. Your participation may help the HDC identify and act on such needs as funding, training, insurance, networking, advertising, housing, and much more.

The survey takes less than five minutes to complete, and will be available until at least January 9, 2015. Access it here.