Sara Foss

Can Albany’s riverfront once again become a thriving hub of city life? These advocates say yes

ALBANY – Albany was once a bustling riverfront city, where sloops, schooners and steamboats plied the mighty Husdon, laden with goods from around the world. A mile-long strip of shoreline was enclosed by a wharf of warehouses, coal yards and dockage facilities. This lively scene is but a distant memory, kept alive by a small historical marker honoring what was then known as the Albany Basin. The Albany Basin was eventually filled in, with the construction of Interstate 787 perhaps the final nail in the coffin of a once-thriving waterfront. For decades, the city’s downtown languished, with retail, restaurants and other businesses finding it tough to survive in an area mostly sustained by state employees and other daytime workers. 

Now a growing chorus of voices is asking whether Albany’s riverfront can once again become a thriving hub of city life. They’re pitching big, transformative ideas, aimed at re-connecting the city to the water and spurring a renaissance that will turn Albany into a first-class destination, on par with Providence, Rhode Island’s River Walk or Buffalo’s Canalside. One group, the newly formed Albany Waterway Inc., envisions a 2-mile canal flowing through downtown Albany, replacing the section of Broadway that runs from the SUNY administration building at the foot of State Street to Central Warehouse. This inner harbor would attract boaters, who could dock, walk and take in the sights. The original Lock 1 would be fully restored, creating a new attraction for history buffs and other tourists. Retail, dining and new housing would spring up around the water, lending the area a vibrancy that would give people a reason to visit and explore. 

“I’ve lived here quite a long time,” the artist Len Tantillo, who is well known for his historical paintings of Albany and came up with the idea for a canal in downtown Albany in the mid-1990s, said. “Over the years, a number of plans have been presented for Albany. A few have made a herculean effort to get the city back to the Hudson. That always struck me as the wrong approach.” “A better approach,” Tantillo said, “would be to bring the river back to the city.” 

Another group, the Albany Riverfront Collaborative, is focused on dismantling the sprawling arterial highway that separates downtown from one of its most valuable assets – the river – and walls off some of its poorer neighborhoods, such as the South End, exacerbating racial disparities. “Highways are detrimental to the places where they exist,” said Derek Baranski, the Albany resident who chairs ARC’s communications committee. “They divide communities.” “Nobody ever asked the communities of Albany what would serve them well,” said Jodi Smits Anderson, an architect and Albany resident who co-founded ARC. One of her main goals is to engage residents and find out what they want the riverfront to become. “What does the community want to achieve?” she said. “This is about including people in the work.” She added, “The days of the state and federal government coming in and saying, ‘This is what you need’ are over.” 

ARC’s vision calls for demolishing much of I-787 and turning it into a boulevard, with lower speed limits and stop lights. The elevated South Mall Arterial would be brought down to surface level; drivers would go through the city to get to Empire State Plaza. The train tracks along the riverfront would remain, and the existing underpasses would be redeveloped for access to green space along the river. The city would regain 92 acres on the Hudson, freeing up 6.1 million square feet for residential and commercial development. One of ARC’s renderings of Albany’s riverfront takes I-787 out of the picture, showing a pleasant expanse of green space and new housing. Another image depicts a thriving downtown filled with pedestrians, cyclists and children at play. 

The canal proposal and reimagining of I-787 were given a significant boost earlier this year, when the New York State Legislature included $5 million for a feasibility study in the 2022-2023 state budget. The study will also look at a third big idea: the possibility of building a multi-acre land bridge, known as a “cap park,” over parts of I-787 to connect downtown to the waterfront. New York state Assemblywoman Pat Fahy, the Albany Democrat who secured the funding for the feasibility study and pushed for the inclusion of the cap park concept, said that reclaiming green space and waterfront access for city residents is a priority.  “Water matters,” Fahy said. “There is something about the magnetic power of water.” 

Those involved with both ARC and Albany Waterway believe the feasibility study will clarify some of the unanswered questions about both projects, such as costs and benefits. They also believe downtown Albany has stagnated while other Capital Region cities have reinvigorated themselves through transformative riverfront projects.  “We’ve seen what happened in Schenectady,” said Bartley J. “BJ” Costello, chair of Albany Waterway and an attorney at Hinman Straub on State Street. “We’ve seen what happened in Troy. People in Albany drive to Troy to go to dinner. Why? Because they can sit and look at the river.” Tantillo first presented his vision for a canal in downtown Albany in 1995. It is one of his paintings, of an active and well-lit harbor at dusk, that graces Albany Waterway’s promotional materials. “What’s different now is the city hasn’t moved forward,” Tantillo said. “It’s actually in decline. Broadway is less viable and active than it was 25 years ago. People are more open to ideas that are innovative. We have a public consensus that doing nothing is not the answer.” 

As chair of the USS Slater, the destroyer escort historical museum on the Hudson River in Albany, Costello has seen first-hand the impact of the lack of amenities in downtown Albany. “People tour the USS Slater, and they ask, ‘Where can I walk to lunch?’ and the answer is, ‘Well, you can’t.’ ‘Where can I get a cup of coffee?’ ‘Well, you can’t.’” The pandemic worsened the situation, exposing “downtown Albany as a ghost town when people aren’t coming to work,” he said. A canal “will cause businesses to come back downtown,” Costello said. “It will cause restaurants to come back downtown. It will cause a safe, intimate space for people to gather. A city should be a place that is welcoming to people.” 

Albany Canalway has several different concepts for reviving the riverfront. Supporters emphasize that they’re interested to see what the feasibility says about what’s possible and which of the three concepts is the best place to start. The first concept is the inner harbor in front of the SUNY headquarters, which occupies the castle-like former D&H Railroad building. The harbor would spark retail development, with the first floor of the State University of New York administration building becoming “prime commercial real estate,” according to Albany Waterway’s description of the project. The second concept focuses on developing the northern section of the canal system, where Central Warehouse is located. This hulking, 400,000-square-foot eyesore has slowly deteriorated over the past several decades; when chunks of its concrete facade began falling in August, it brought Amtrak service to a halt for several days. Now there’s talk of redeveloping the long-vacant facility – a potential boon to the canal project, which calls for harbor facilities, public space for recreation and community events and commercial development near Central Warehouse. The third concept would restore Erie Canal lock 1. The lock was discovered in 2002 by two Union College professors, Denis Foley and Andrew Wolfe. It is likely buried under a small plot of land roughly 200 yards from Central Warehouse.

Some have wondered whether a canal would make the flooding that sometimes occurs in downtown Albany even worse. But Costello said a study of the canal plan conducted by an outside firm suggests the opposite — that the canal would actually mitigate flooding by providing a route for water to flow freely. Once viewed as a fanciful, pie-in-the-sky idea, the push to tear down all or part of I-787 has gained traction in recent years. The discussion was fueled, in part, by a widely-read 2019 op-ed, penned by Fahy, titled “Demolish I-787 and the Capital Region Will Flourish.” “Removing I-787 would allow communities from Albany to Rensselaer to Troy to better fulfill their economic potential and foster a new sense of regional cooperation and optimism for the future,” Fahy wrote, in the Albany Times Union. “To this day, it’s one of the few opinion pieces where people stop me in the street to talk about it,” Fahy said. 

Other upstate New York cities — Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse — are moving forward with projects that would reimagine major highways, reconnecting neighborhoods cut off from the rest of the city when the roads were constructed. There’s also funding for these kinds of projects: The federal infrastructure bill passed late last year contains money for freeway removal and capping. These days, Fahy is just as interested as everyone else to see the results of the feasibility study. She sees merit in all of the projects and says that it’s not an either/or situation — building a canal doesn’t preclude turning I-787 into a boulevard, or vice versa.  In his paintings, Tantillo uses old maps and written descriptions to bring 17th and 18th Century Albany — and its dynamic waterfront — to life. “I always felt that if I could imagine this area, if I could fill in the gaps, I could give the public an idea of what we once had and how that history could affect our future,” Tantillo said. “I don’t think it’s that much of a stretch to make Albany a Hudson River town again.” 

Albany Waterway Inc. will host a public forum on its canal concept at 2 p.m. on Nov. 19 at the New York State Museum.

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