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


Editorial July 2014



For struggling cities,
lessons from Saratoga


The construction cranes that have been moving around the downtown skyline for the past 15 years have made Saratoga Springs the envy of other small cities across the Northeast.
As our cover story this month details, downtown Saratoga is booming, with new multi-story buildings springing up regularly on what had been empty or underused lots. These new buildings, generally with retail space on the ground floor and upscale condominium apartments above, are filling the gaps left in the city’s urban fabric from long-ago fires and from the disastrous Urban Renewal movement of the 1960s and ‘70s.

The result is a downtown that already was a destination and now is even more of one.
What the story doesn’t say is just how easily the successes of Saratoga Springs can be exported to other smaller cities around the region, many of which are struggling to reinvent their downtowns after years of disinvestment and decline.

Clearly Saratoga has some assets – thoroughbred racing, mineral springs, Skidmore College, the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Yaddo – that make it special, and that can’t be easily replicated.

Saratoga Springs also benefits from a diverse mix of mid-sized employers that provide year-round jobs and act as kind of stable counterweight to the racing season frenzy. Scale and diversity are the key, though: Losing Ball Corp. or Quad Graphics would be a tough hit to the Saratoga economy, but it wouldn’t cause the kind of economic devastation that resulted when General Electric abandoned Pittsfield or when Sprague Electric left North Adams.

In a strange way, Saratoga Springs has been the beneficiary of suburbanization. Ever since the interstate came through in the 1960s and opened up an easy car commute to metropolitan Albany, Saratoga County has been one of the fastest growing in New York, with housing subdivisions and strip malls spreading across the landscape from Clifton Park to Malta to Wilton. Downtown Saratoga Springs now functions partly as a local cultural, dining and entertainment destination for all those Northway bedroom communities – and for the hundreds of new workers taking jobs at the big new GlobalFoundries chip manufacturing plant in Malta.

But what’s impressive about all the new structures in downtown Saratoga is that they’re being built in traditional urban style, with multiple floors of housing above the lower-level commercial spaces. This is the antithesis of suburbanization, and the addition of all that living space within the downtown area is creating a dynamic all its own, making it possible for more people to live within a pedestrian-oriented city center without having to drive for every act of commerce.
As Mayor Joanne Yepsen points out, this didn’t happen by accident. Before the building boom got started, city leaders crafted land-use regulations to encourage traditional urban-style development within the downtown area. And the city’s land area is large enough that it could limit development and preserve open space in its outer district, thereby creating an even stronger incentive for would-be developers to look downtown.

If there’s a lesson for other small cities in Saratoga Springs, it’s that developers will still create good urban-style buildings if the rules and incentives are right – and that cities need to insist on mixed-use structures, with housing on the upper floors, to leverage the most value from their existing urban fabric.