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Amsterdam must make revitalizing downtown top priority

Sunday, November 17, 2013
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Sometimes, waiting for Amsterdam’s downtown to revive feels like what Estragon and Vladimir must have felt in Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.”

The only difference is that Godot never showed up, while there is still hope that Amsterdam’s downtown can come back, if its revitalization is made the city’s top priority as it should be.

Retired Gloversville Judge Vincent Desantis writes in his book, “Toward Civic Integrity, Re-establishing the Micropolis,” that “An attractive, viable central business district is the initial outward indication of the restoration of the whole community. In terms of the city government’s own investment in physical improvement, this would be the first step because it is so public.”

Amsterdam’s mayor, Ann Thane, understands this and has brought a much-needed focus on downtown by initiating events like the Spring Fling and Winter Mixer. The city’s director of community and economic development, Robert von Hasseln, also understands this and played a vital role in brokering the sale of downtown Amsterdam’s Best Value Inn, which resulted in an immediate $500,000 payment to the city for back taxes. He meets with current and prospective downtown business owners on a regular basis. The Amsterdam Industrial Development Agency also has taken an interest in downtown and is currently rehabbing two buildings on Main Street.

Setting priorities

But I am not sure the public at large or the current Common Council recognizes how vital the restoration of Amsterdam’s downtown is to the health of the city. And I am even more concerned about the incoming Common Council. Obviously, the new council’s first priority will be to correct the financial deficiencies highlighted in a recent state audit.

In dealing with the city’s financial situation, however, the council must not forget economic development, particularly of the downtown. Many council members have shown little interest in it.

During the more than four years my business has been downtown, the only municipal leaders who have visited my shop and shown an interest in downtown have been Mayor Thane and Robert von Hasseln.

When Amsterdamians do talk about downtown, I feel like singing “The Way We Were” because they wax nostalgic about the way it used to be. That downtown, however, moved up on Route 30 in the Town of Amsterdam long ago, thanks to the water and sewer lines provided by the city at rates that have enabled Walmart, Home Depot and other corporations to earn millions of dollars while not adequately compensating the city.

Different model

Vibrant downtowns now operate on a different model than 50 years ago. On Nov. 3, The Sunday Gazette ran a piece, “Finding their niche, Right retail mix seen as key to successful downtowns,” which described the new model.

In successful downtowns, niche businesses have been key — art galleries, coffee shops, restaurants, music stores, hobby shops, craft shops, book stores, bakeries and boutiques. Large chain stores rarely locate in downtowns anymore. Shops that sell what the big boxes don’t and that attract both locals and visitors have revived the core of many cities.

A downtown must also be attractive and walkable. Parts of Amsterdam’s downtown are quite beautiful. Many facades have been restored and painted recently. Mayor Thane’s emphasis on beautification has helped, in spite of critics who somehow believe that if we emphasize beauty, we must of necessity neglect finances, when there is no reason we can’t do both.

Unique problems

The difficulties pedestrians have in navigating downtown highlight some of its unique problems. The east-west arterial running through the heart of downtown was built for high speed, is wide and dangerous to cross.

What excites traffic engineers is not always best for a downtown. This arterial needs to be narrowed to two lanes — one in each direction; all downtown intersections should be changed to “no turn on red”; and orange cones should be placed in the crosswalks during the warm months warning drivers to stop for pedestrians.

Many buildings were torn down to make arterials through Amsterdam. These new roads created long narrow strips and odd-shaped parcels of land too small to develop and which are not maintained adequately. It is possible to remove part or some of these roads or re-route them in a way that will calm traffic, reduce accidents, make the city’s core more walkable and create large enough parcels of land for development.

Official obligations

Because of the unique damage done to Amsterdam’s core by urban renewal, both the state and federal governments have a special obligation to aid Amsterdam in removing some of the impediments to downtown improvement. The Common Council must also do something to correct the current situation where many buildings are empty but not available for rent. I’m confident that our new county legislator, former Mayor John Duchessi, will be an asset to the downtown on the county level.

Meanwhile, we must stop wishing for the downtown that was and invest in the downtown that is. Several people have, and they are making a difference. Just a handful of new niche businesses would create the tipping point toward a vibrant downtown, and instead of singing “The Way We Were” we could begin singing “Happy Days are Here Again.”

Dan Weaver is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section. He lives in Amsterdam and owns a bookstore downtown.

 
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November 17, 2013
10:02 a.m.
jerryrock says...

To help aid economic development, a Zoning Update Committee was formed by Mayor Thane in 2010. One of the goals of that committee was to increase the area of the downtown core and ease zoning restrictions to attract new business. The downtown core was increased to include a large part of Amsterdam's south side along the Mohawk River and and on the north side it spread the downtown core to the north, east and west. As a member of that committee, I can attest that the year long process of refining the updates with Montgomery County Planning was tedious but well thought out. A series of public meetings were held but the update was never presented to the Common Council for approval. Some say it is because of the political influence of St Mary's Hospital, a corporate conglomerate in Amsterdam, located in a historic district, that does not want to be held to any restrictions when increasing its presence in the area. The Mayor tells me that Corporation Counsel Gerard DeCusatis has been holding the document for three years in order to do legal refinements, which is strange seeing that he was also part of the update committee. Is he holding the document hostage to negotiate another increase in his salary? Amsterdam's executive government gives much lip service to economic development but in theory they are as obstructionist as the outgoing Common Council.

Gerald J. Skrocki

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