A wise man once said that a city is only as good as its weakest elements. If its foundations are crumbling, it doesn’t make an awful lot of sense to build a mansion on it.
That wise man was Colin Read when he was running for mayor. A major part of his campaign focused on the absurdity of using public funding to construct a mixed-use building on the site of the Durkee Street parking lot when so many of our existing buildings are vacant, underutilized, and in disrepair.
Candidate Read took his supporters on a tour of downtown that pointed out over twenty-four vacant spaces in a short walk, he pointed out the dangers of top-down, “build it and they will come” approaches to development, and he decried the Durkee Street development’s lack of public support. He cautioned that the city’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative needed public buy-in to be successful. I happened to agree with him.
Flash forward to today and Mayor Read is forging ahead with the development even though the public still thinks it’s a bad idea. Nearly every downtown business—fifty-eight establishments and counting—have submitted Strong Town Plattsburgh’s petition to the City of Plattsburgh asking the city to abort the ill-conceived plan and the state to redirect the $4.3 million portion of the DRI into less controversial downtown projects.
The mayor claims that the state is making the city implement its Durkee Street plans. I still think it is worth having the city ask the state to reconsider, given how unpopular the plans are and given that the state’s own DRI handbook says the point of the program is to fund “key projects recommended by the community.” The truth is, the project was never supported by the community, and the one time that the public had a chance to rank possible DRI projects, Durkee Street came in twenty-sixth out of thirty possible choices. Besides, $4.3 million in the state’s eyes is a miniscule amount of money, approximately .1% of its annual economic development budget.
If that approach doesn’t work, then there are a few safeguards we can put in place to minimize risk and maximize the public’s benefit from a development on Durkee Street. For starters, the city should divide the three-acre Durkee lot into parcels that are more in line with the scale of the rest of downtown and develop the site in phases.
Developing the lot in sections would allow local developers to take part in reinventing our downtown. Further, smaller buildings are more amenable to being bought, sold and reconfigured by homegrown entrepreneurs. Large buildings like malls and big box stores are not and often have to be demolished when something happens to the original owners or their anchor tenants.
A phased approach would also ease concerns about parking. The city wouldn’t have to figure out how to come up with $2-3 million all at once to quickly create new surface parking lots in other parts of downtown to replace the spots that are lost on Durkee Street. The city could implement changes to its parking system gradually rather than hastily.
Haste seems to be the name of the game at present. The city is quietly spending half a million dollars out of its general fund to buy the Glens Falls National Bank on Margaret street, just to tear it down and turn into one of these replacement parking lots. Apparently, the city doesn’t remember the $1.4 million lesson of the parking lot to nowhere on our lakefront: It’s better to ensure a development is fully secured before risking the public’s money on a plan that can easily fall through.
We are reaching a pivotal moment in Plattsburgh’s redevelopment, a point beyond which damage will be done if the city and the public can’t find a way to compromise and move forward. It’s not enough to hold yet another public forum where both sides talk at each other and nothing changes. We need to engage in a dialogue where both sides come out the other side having made good faith concessions. That is the difference between the mere appearance of democracy and actual, grassroots democracy.
Strong Towns Plattsburgh
NOTE: This op ed was also sent to the Press-Republican but as of this date hasn't been published.