hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Editorial November 2014



Two cities, two tales of managing growth


By coincidence we have two stories in this issue about small cities in the region that are grappling with how best to preserve their character and shape their future development.
Pittsfield and Saratoga Springs are separated by a state line and have quite different economic and political traditions, so it may not be entirely fair to compare and contrast. But the two cities also have a quite a bit in common.

Both suffered grievously from the destruction of the Urban Renewal movement in the middle of the last century. And in both communities there is now a core of people who realize that great buildings from the past are pretty much irreplaceable – and that the key to any city’s future success lies in preserving and restoring its traditional urban pattern of development.

In Pittsfield, which has lost its share of architectural gems over the years, those old enough to remember are still haunted by the demolition of the city’s Union Station back in 1968. That Beaux Arts marvel, with its tall arched windows and green-veined marble, stood for 54 years and now has been mourned for nearly as long. Adding insult to injury, it was replaced by a standard-issue, low-slung supermarket with a big parking lot.

So when a developer proposed this fall to tear down a landmark former Catholic church in Pittsfield’s Morningside neighborhood and replace it with a Dunkin’ Donuts, the very idea touched a nerve. The public outcry was all the stronger because, just last year, the same developer had demolished a century-old school building downtown to clear the way for another Dunkin’ Donuts.
To its credit, the development firm, Cafua Management, now has backed off from its plan to raze the former St. Mary the Morning Star Church on Tyler Street -- though only if a plan can be worked out to reuse the building without disrupting the company’s designs for the rest of the property.

But the battle to save St. Mary’s could have longer-term consequences for other historic buildings in Pittsfield. As our story this month details, there appears to be a serious effort under way to organize a local or regional preservation society that would identify at-risk or neglected buildings and work more proactively to rescue them before they wind up being sold for demolition.

As a model for this new organization, people in Pittsfield would do well to look at the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation, a private group that has pursued a similar mission in that city since the late 1970s.

Both Pittsfield and Saratoga Springs have local laws and municipal boards set up to protect historic structures. But local governments have conflicting responsibilities and, with good reason, can only go so far in regulating private property owners.

There’s a need for a private organization to work as a watchdog and advocate because, as Pittsfield has been learning, it can be very hard to stop the momentum of a developer bent on demolition. It takes time to come up with workable plans to repurpose and save old buildings, and that kind of work can’t be done very effectively in a crisis.

It’s better to work cooperatively in advance with the owners of landmark buildings to help preserve these structures rather than trying to tell them no at a point when they’ve already given up and agreed to sell to a strip-mall developer or a fast-food chain.

It takes more than well-preserved old buildings, of course, to set the stage for a thriving urban community. The recent episodes in Pittsfield suggest that the city’s zoning and planning rules still make it too easy for developers to introduce car-centered, suburban-style buildings and parking patterns into what ought to be the city’s urban core.

If a fast-food outlet wants to have a shop on First Street, where the William Plunkett School stood until last year, fine. But the city’s ground rules should require that a new building on one its main downtown streets has its front along the sidewalk and is designed primarily for pedestrians, with parking relegated to the backside of the building. The appropriate place for a downtown fast-food outlet really is on the ground floor of a multi-story structure, with apartments or offices above. A Dunkin’ Donuts on First Street shouldn’t look at all like one from the suburbs.

Saratoga Springs is farther along on this score, having worked some basic New Urbanist principles into the comprehensive plans that have guided its development over the past two decades. The result has been a tremendous revitalization of its urban fabric, with a series of new multi-story, mixed-use buildings springing up on what had been empty or underused lots in its downtown core.

Downtown Saratoga has become so bustling that city leaders are struggling to keep up with the demand for off-street parking. Hence the controversy, detailed in another story in this issue, over plans for a new five-story parking garage connected to the City Center, the downtown convention and trade-show hall.

The problem, as critics have pointed out, is that the City Center’s proposal would take a 2-acre surface parking lot, one of the largest remaining undeveloped properties downtown, and replace it with a $10 million garage, making parking the sole and permanent function for a parcel that could be put to much more productive use.

Yes, most visitors to downtown Saratoga Springs arrive by car, and these visitors need a place to put their vehicles. But one of the biggest lessons of urban design in the past half century is this: If you let traffic planners design your community, you won’t have much of a community. The focus of downtown development needs to be on human activity; cars are incidental to this experience.
In the development boom of the past decade, Saratoga Springs generally has held to the principle that garages are a back-alley function. The new 450-space Woodlawn Avenue parking facility, tucked behind the buildings on the west side of Broadway, illustrates this concept fairly well.

So some portion of the Maple Avenue lot where the City Center wants its garage probably should be dedicated to parking. But the portion that fronts on Maple Avenue ought to feature retail or commercial space, not the blank wall of a parking garage.