by Tom McPheeters
I was a member of the South End Action Committee and participated in the planning process that resulted in the Capital South Segway to the Future Plan in 2017. Aside from the title, I thought it was a good, inclusive process that resulted in an impressive document with real prospects. I was also on the South End Implementation Team, which was charged with overseeing the execution of the plan. That was discouraging, to see interest wane and gradually disappear.
So it was instructive to give this Plan a full reading last weekend, from the perspective of both yesterday’s ideas today’s realities. This is my subjective report:
The Plan had the optimistic goal of completing the first phase, “Stabilize,” in about two years. There was a heavy emphasis on the built environment, for obvious reasons, but, as it turns out, the strategies proposed for accomplishing the task of turning around the blighting influence of abandoned properties didn’t work.
Eleven years on, the situation with the buildings is worse, simply because the vacant buildings are older and even more deteriorated. But it is important to acknowledge these significant success:
· Public safety has improved markedly, with all crime statistics trending downward, thanks to the Albany Police Department’s embrace of community policing, innovative gang outreach by Trinity and others, and more community participation. However, public perception has not caught up.
· The Albany Housing Authority completed all the projects the Plan suggested, absent tearing down more of Lincoln Square. Habitat did one major new project on Alexander Street and is adding more homes to its Delaware Street project.
· The Capital South Campus Center is a major outcome from the Plan, and a source of pride in the community. The reevaluation of the CSCC’s mission that is under way does not detract from this accomplishment.
· Albany County created a Land Bank that has finally gotten control of the abandoned buildings and vacant lots, so that it is now possible to do rational planning and priority setting. In addition, the city has refocused its efforts to understand vacant property ownership, so that good data can drive decision making.
· Community engagement and participation has increased substantially, thanks to the South End Neighborhood Association, AVillage…,Inc., a variety of newer community organizations, a revitalized Trinity Alliance and a helpful Albany Housing Authority.
· The South End Improvement Corp. has increased its capacity and is now able to take a pivotal role in planning as well as in implementing rehab and redevelopment projects.
Stabilize: Still the goal
The abandoned property issue turned out to be much more difficult to solve than the plan anticipates, and nearly all of the suggested solutions turned out to be either unworkable or did not receive the government investment they needed to succeed.
Thus, we find ourselves with a new set of facts and a new set of tools — not necessarily better or worse, but not 2007.
Nevertheless, the Plan makes one valuable contribution, I think — the assertion that all of the various approaches to addressing abandoned property need to be evaluated not as individual enhancements but as one coordinated campaign to reach specific goals.
The Stabilize section addresses other important issues for the South End: Access to jobs, quality of life and community capacity. While none of these are completed, the question is whether we have learned enough and moved far enough in eleven years to warrant going on to “Energize.” The next step would be to form working groups to explore goals and strategies in each of these areas.
· Access to jobs. Building wealth in the South End is a major unmet goal. The Campus Center discussion currently under way ultimately revolves around the intense difficulty of raising income levels in poor neighborhoods. Again, the Plan envisioned a multi-faceted but coordinated approach that has so far not materialized. However, the city has stepped forward with its new CAPRI initiative, so a South End group might want to plug into that while refocusing on relationships with local employers, including the Port of Albany, Albany Med, the Convention Center, the WAGE Center, etc.
· Quality of Life can expand on the successes listed above, and move on to block level organizing and planning, etc. This is also where local “clean and green” efforts hold great promise, since both the city and the land bank now support the concept. We also need to recognize that qualify of life should include more than absence of crime and a more attractive neighborhood, but also touch on recreation, arts and culture.
· Community capacity is an ongoing issue, as it depends in large part on volunteer efforts the work of a few large not-for-profits and a collection of a dozen or so small not-for-profits. The Lincoln Fund, a fund of the Community Foundation, is interested in working with these smaller not-for-profits to increase their capacity and explore areas of partnership and collaboration, while maintaining their individual character.
Not Addressed in the Plan: Then there are several areas not addressed in the Plan that have been the focus of these smaller not-for-profits. This indicates a high level of community interest that should be nurtured by a new coordinating body:
a) Health and environmental justice
b) School success and youth development
c) Recreation, Arts and culture.
Grow the South End
This third section is admittedly futuristic, and most of the ideas presented are still beyond any immediate action at any level. However, events and individual decisions often drive planning in ways that nobody anticipated. With that in mind, several of the large concepts should be kept in front of a new community committee:
· The redevelopment of Lincoln Square. While demolition of any of the remaining tower buildings depends on federal funding unlikely to appear any time soon, the prospects for developing 15 Warren Street are much brighter.
· The South Pearl corridor, and especially the so-called “Capital South Square” (the DMV building, the county-owned parking lot and the other county buildings) could all be affected by real estate decisions. South Enders may want to preserve our options for a more community-oriented approach to that area.
· The development of Giffen Memorial as a “community school.” This holds great promise for the South End both in terms of enhancing the educational experience of our young people, but also as turning the school into a community asset.
In order to have an impact on current developments that might affect those long-range concepts, this new community committee would need to establish itself as a body that can speak for all of the South End.