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Summit tour looks to the old as a model for new urbanism

Friday, May 10, 2013
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Philip Langdon of New Haven, CT., takes a photograph of Lawrence the Indian during a tour of Schenectady's Historic Stockade Section Friday.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber
Philip Langdon of New Haven, CT., takes a photograph of Lawrence the Indian during a tour of Schenectady's Historic Stockade Section Friday.

— The oldest part of Schenectady was touted Friday as the model for a new way of thinking about communities.

During an intimate walking tour of the Stockade Historic District, which kicked off a two-day conference on community development, Guilderland architect Dominick Ranieri highlighted the neighborhood’s safe crosswalks on narrow streets, green space in between houses and roads, reasonable speeds on cars and history of mixed residential and commercial structures.

“We used to do it right,” he said of the small community on the banks of the Mohawk River.

Ranieri, a Rotterdam resident, and people like him fall into a school of thought called new urbanism, which is a philosophy supporting communities that people can live, work, learn and play in. The movement draws guidance from the way cities were founded hundreds of years ago and is in opposition to suburban sprawl and its commuting lifestyle.

Supporters of new urbanism are in Schenectady on Friday and today for a summit being hosted by the Congress for the New Urbanism, a national group that has been advancing this effort for more than two decades. People from all corners of the state and from across the country are attending.

Ranieri said the Capital Region had good examples of new urbanism, citing Saratoga Springs, neighborhoods in Albany and downtown Troy.

Part of what prevents the development of more areas like these, he said, are rigid zoning regulations that keep residential and commercial spaces separate. When developers aren’t allowed to mix, he said, the result is a community like Clifton Park, where people have to drive everywhere. His vision of new urbanism offered a return to walkable downtowns, with a blend of commercial and residential, as opposed to a parking lot downtown.

“Existing codes make it illegal to do what is [in the Stockade],” he said.

But even a brief tour through the Stockade was able to find some flaws with the new urbanism vision, as a completely empty church parking lot made Rainier pause. The waste of space, except when a service is being held, was something that troubled him and his vision. He said the big parking lot was probably a product of people driving to the church, which ran contrary to new urbanism’s goal of “taming the car.”

However, Schenectady is embracing new urbanism in its ongoing development efforts, Rainier said, noting the progress of State Street around Proctors and planned projects for Erie Boulevard. “They’re doing tremendous work and they’re continuing to do it,” he said.

This sentiment was echoed by James Kunstler, a social critic and new urbanism advocate, who delivered the keynote address Friday.

He said the Stockade should serve as the template for developing the rest of the city. “The excellence of [the Stockade] is so obvious,” Kunstler said.

The rest of his remarks were a gloom and doom prediction for the American way of life, which he said is not sustainable based on present energy consumption, reliance on suburbs, consumption practices and architecture.

He said new urbanism represents a smart development model, but the rest of the country didn’t understand or like the principle.

Kunstler also questioned the future development of Saratoga Springs and whether it could continue at its current scope, with projects focusing on entire blocks. Despite amazing renovations in the last decade, he said, “I think we’ll also see a different scale of development there.”

Future development would be more incremental, in his vision. “Like when the Stockade was built,” he said.

The conference continues today at the Stockade Inn, with sessions on sprawl repair, complete streets, form-based codes and tactical urbanism. At 12:15 p.m. is keynote speaker John Norquist, president of the Congress for the New Urbanism.

 
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