City Strangles Downtown Growth
Yet Council Encourages Suburban Sprawl
By Daniel Van Riper
As far as Save the Pine Bush can determine, the City of Albany Common Council has not denied a single application by any large corporate entity that has wanted to erect buildings in the Pine Bush for more than 20 years.
At the same time, both the Council and the Board of Zoning Appeals routinely turn down applications by small businesses that want to establish themselves in downtown Albany. Those few small businesses that are approved are often stifled by arcane restrictions and selective enforcement of zoning regulations, which mega-corporations in the Pine Bush are never subjected to.
Private conversations with several members of the Common Council reveal that this anti-downtown attitude is an ingrained assumption among members. One supposedly "progressive" alderperson opined that suburbanization at the expense of the Pine Bush is "inevitable" and that the average voter in Albany "doesn't have the capacity to understand city-wide issues, and there's no point in trying to explain them. All people care about are getting potholes fixed in front of their houses".
Denying approval of small businesses downtown cuts into the tax base at a time when the city can least afford it. Here are some sample denials by the Albany Board of Zoning Appeals from December 1995, from the Albany City Record:
DENIED A 2 bedroom bed and breakfast on South Pine Ave because it would increase traffic congestion.
DENIED An antique shop in a basement at 318 Hudson Ave that was formerly a plumbing shop, because the space has been vacant too long.
DENIED A Dunkin Donuts franchise on the corner of Madison and West Lawrence, on the site of a former gas station surrounded by the Price Chopper parking lot, and across the street from a Mobil station. It is in the middle of a commercial area that includes various restaurants, a movie theater, a liquor store. In this celebrated case, several nearby residents complained that a Dunkin Donuts would "change the character of the neighborhood". The board got them on the number of parking spaces they planned to provide.
DENIED In the same commercial area at 1112 Madison Ave., a bakery/take out restaurant on the site of a former dry cleaners, because there were not enough details in the application.
DENIED A convenience store on Eliot Ave, which is off Madison Ave near the Madison Price Chopper, because there are too many other convenience stores in the neighborhood.
DENIED An existing grocery store at 78 Watervliet Ave. must shut down because they did not get the necessary approvals to operate.
Several approvals were made, such as an old warehouse on Industrial Park Road in north Albany to become a "sports facility", which is certainly encouraging. Also, after several denied applications, a restaurant at 462 Madison is being allowed to open. A former Alderperson got her coffee shop approved at 37 Clinton Ave. Finally, a clothing store can open on the site of a former hair salon at 275 Clinton Ave. This month, as usual, the denials outnumber the approvals.
The nitpicking concerns cited by the city in routine denials of small business applications have never come up in proposals for destroying the Pine Bush in the City of Albany. Applications for building projects by corporations sail as fast as possible through bureaucratic channels, and later alterations, such as decks, signs and fences are rubber stamped and are apparently not even carefully scrutinized. Historically, the only brake on uncontrolled suburban destruction of the Pine Bush is legal action by Save the Pine Bush. Over the years, the City has spent outrageous sums of money, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars at a shot trying to force through courts illegal zoning approvals that hurt the economic viability of the city.
Albany Commits Suicide
The job market is shrinking at an alarming rate, especially in the Capital District. Large corporations, such as the ones that are being encouraged to locate in the Pine Bush, are finding that downsizing and rightsizing employees out of their jobs is the way to make profits. Clearly, large corporations cannot be relied upon to provide jobs, any more than the currently mismanaged State of New York can be relied upon for employment.
Yet one sector of the job market is improving. Small businesses run by average middle class people are growing in number. Some are as small as a desk and a file box at home, while others are large franchises on busy street corners. Once they get established and begin expanding, they need to hire employees or engage the services of other businesses.
So why do the Alderpersons and zoning board members of the City of Albany continue to commit economic suicide by discouraging the growth of small businesses in downtown Albany in favor of corporate accommodation in the suburbs? Do they really hate Albany that much, or do they all come from a planet where everything is backwards?
The tax base in shrinking, not because of mysterious social forces or inevitable historical movements. When IDA money, tax breaks and quick approvals put Prudential Insurance into a slapped-up box in the Pine Bush, we all lost. Albany taxpayers have to maintain roads and services to this outpost, while the people who work in that building go home to Guilderland or Colonie to spend their paychecks and pay their taxes. Meanwhile, the building owners will go to court to get their taxes substantially lowered.
In contrast, small businesses located downtown are financial winners for the city. Services such as roads, water lines, police, etc. are already in place and routinely maintained. Owners and employees usually live nearby or on the premises, thus keeping capital in the Capital City. Easy to get to jobs are provided, especially for those who need them the most. This is no small issue, since almost everyone agrees that crime and general decay are linked to the availability of employment. Especially now, when regional bus service is being drastically cut back, jobs out in the suburbs are especially inaccessible to those without reliable transportation.
Politicians and political appointees are not going to wake up and look at economic reality unless the people who put them in power begin to badger and annoy them. It is up to us, the citizens and taxpayers, to directly explain to our public servants that their continued employment depends on learning a new way of doing business.
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Printed Jan/Feb 96
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