Maybe you passed through Schenectady ten years ago and saw there wasn’t much there. Maybe you heard someone say that it sucks. Maybe you haven’t yet caught on to the fact that our Upstate New York cities are experiencing an ambitious revitalization.
Well allow me to remove your head from the sand and show you why Schenectady, New York has been one of my favorite places since I toured it for the first time three years ago. A pleasing mix of grit and modern amenities, a welcoming tapestry of shops, food and drink, and a theater that is the heartbeat of a downtown that feels bigger than it actually is, yet small enough to be intimate… that’s the small Capital Region city I know and love.
These features and amenities, combined with a historic context and a local pride that is beginning to surge, are all driven by a force that is consciously created, seldomly appreciated, but always impactful. This force is the undeniable, almost gratuitous dedication to creating a “people first” experience around a walkable infrastucture that wraps downtown Schenectady in a bow of incredible connectivity. In many places, the sidewalks rival the width of the streets. The attention to detail with regard to bump-outs, crosswalks, pedestrian protection, and of course beautification is astounding. Every turn of the sidewalks, every few feet of concrete and brick is nuanced with multiple tears, plantings, creative fencing, benches, open areas for conversation, circles, squares… the entire experience feels less like a walk and more like stroll through an urban park with the unique architecture as the backdrop. Even on a cloudy day commanded by rain and cold, the appeal of this pedestrian paradise shines through.
So why do this? Why create a downtown with such a persistent dedication to people-first infrastructure? Because Schenectady planners understand that walkability, not automobile infrastructure, is what makes our downtowns thrive. It is the careful design that makes the on-foot experience pleasant, welcoming, safe, practical and most importantly, connective. Schenectady has become a downtown that welcomes the resident or visitor to ditch their cars for a lightly urban and wholly human way of reaching downtown establishments and jobs.
Jay Street, the city’s pedestrian-only commons, is lined with shops, light-fare eateries and coffee houses. It is a small city’s ambitious yet organic attempt to give small businesses a unique forum for incremental growth, while giving residents and visitors a place to find local food, gifts, music and more.
Pedestrian signage is everywhere, another detail that welcomes travel on foot. There is even a path that cuts through a dense block of downtown, connecting Liberty Street and Franklin Street.
Proctor’s Theater is at the center of growth in Schenectady. During my rain-filled visit a few days ago, I sat in a restaurant and watched the people pour in by the dozens, grabbing meals and drinks before the evening’s show. The walkability of the downtown invites this patronage, giving people the opportunity to park and traverse the city on foot before and after shows in the historic theater.
While not many people were out and about in the early part of the day (it literally rained all day) I have seen these sidewalks full, and I can honestly say that I don’t believe they would be this way if the pedestrian experience wasn’t so incredible. The walkability factor feeds the local business growth and encourages people to get out of their car and experience Schenectady in a more personal way.
Even better, new development is beginning to get serious about downtown housing and mixed use development, increasing density and adding depth and purpose to the incredible expanse of Schenectady’s walkable city center. While Schenectady has positioned itself to encourage tourism, it has set itself up to be one of the most livable small cities in Upstate New York. With new residential projects on on the horizon, blended with the historic Stockade neighborhood just a stone’s throw away, Schenectady has the rare opportunity to balance the wants and needs of residents and visitors alike. This is made possible by the incredibly walkable downtown, giving every city-goer an the choice to commute, explore and enjoy Schenectady on foot.
Furthermore, one of Schenectady’s potential strengths is the incredibly close proximity to Amtrak service. Just a few hour trip from New York City as well as cities across Upstate, the city’s new train station will give passengers a tremendous experience, taking advantage of Schenectady’s excellent placement as a growing hub of livability, commerce and attractions.
I wish very much that the rain had stayed away. But the dedication to a walkable downtown shown in the photos above is unmistakable in any condition. When we build cities that welcome residents and visitors to explore and traverse their streets on foot, we build cities for long-term socioeconomic growth and continued success. Balancing these is never easy, but when we get it right, it’s a beautiful and powerful experience. Cheers Schenectady, you’re well on your way!