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The Albany Waterfront future, as envisioned by Albany residents. Blue markers indicate areas residents want converted to, or preserved as, open space. The area enclosed by the blue line represents the approximate space most residents would allow to be developed to generate tax revenues.
By Barbara Grady
A two year study aimed at figuring out what Albany residents wish for the city’s 190 acre waterfront concluded this week with a report to the City Council indicating most people want a major expansion of public park space.
The “Voices to Vision” community engagement found that 62 percent of residents who participated want to expand open space by at least 75 acres, according to Fern Tiger Associates, which did the study. That would mean a total of 163 acres of parkland, wetlands, trails and supporting structures at Albany’s waterfront, an area that now includes the Albany bulb, the Golden Gate Fields race track and parking lot and the Eastshore State Park plateau.
However, ‘Voices to Vision” also found that half of participants hope that enough development occurs on the waterfront to maintain current tax revenue generated from the site: approximately $1.7 million now received from Golden Gate Fields.
Of course, any community vision depends on a developer’s inclination to follow that idea or a local government’s willingness to implement it. Right now, 102 acres of the waterfront is privately owned by Golden Gage Fields racetrack owner Magna Entertainment Corp. The bulb is owned by the city and the plateau by the state. Magna, which has been in Chapter 11 Bankruptcy proceedings since last year, has entered an agreement to give Golden Gate Fields to its largest shareholder, MI Developments Inc., in exchange for repayment of debt. MI is a real estate operating company which manages commercial and industrial developments. However, any major new development on the Golden Gate Fields property would require a zoning change and therefore city approval. That is why the city sought to determine residents’ interests.
City Council members will get a chance to ask Fern Tiger detailed questions about the findings next Monday night, April 19, at the council’s regular meeting at 7:30 p.m. at City Hall.
In a nutshell, “The Albany community envisions a 190-acre waterfront that is a model of environmental and economic sustainability; that supports a multi-generational community, small-scale independently-owned businesses and local arts, culture, and cuisine,” Fern Tiger wrote.
Years of contentious debate at City Hall and elsewhere over whether to seek commercial development at the waterfront or create parkland there led the city in 2007 to commission a community engagement study. Albany City Council voted to spend $600,000 to hire Fern Tiger Associates. The firm, in turn, mailed each household in the city a detailed publication about the waterfront, its zoning and ecological functions and then invited the entire city to participate in 40 different neighborhood meetings.
At those meetings, Fern Tiger asked people to map out their own ideas for the waterfront. Later it asked them to take an online survey and attend followup meetings. In all 1,200 residents participated, drafting 199 maps of their ideas for the site.
Fern Tiger said the gist of what residents produced in those 199 maps showed “Albany’s strong commitment to create and enhance public open space at the waterfront; to acknowledge and support the broader regional plan to create a continuous shoreline park; to restore and improve the site’s wetlands, marshlands, and other natural features; and to enable an appropriate type, scale, and quality of private development that reflects Albany’s goals for economic and environmental sustainability, while simultaneously respecting the city’s and the waterfront’s uniqueness.”
What all the maps have in common is expansion of open space beyond the Albany Bulb and Eastshore State Park plateau area into the space that is now a parking lot. In addition, they all include some kind of hotel and retail stores development.
Eighty-five percent of respondents indicated that a hotel on the site was a good idea with many favoring a 3-story hotel and small conference center as well. A majority of residents participating also voted for some retail and restaurant development on the site. Most suggested development where Golden Gate Fields currently stands. Some people would go beyond a hotel and add a conference center or museum or arts center.