Ask any older Amsterdamian about urban renewal, and you are apt to hear a disparaging opinion, which would be echoed by current Amsterdam Urban Renewal Agency Consultant and part-time Director, Nick Zabawsky.
“There are some successes but what urban renewal agencies did in the 1960s was a failure. Urban renewal agencies were formed back in the sixties, and the theory back then was some of these older industrial cities like Gloversville, Amsterdam, Utica, had a lot of older buildings downtown, had all these vacancies in poor condition, and the solution was to tear down the old buildings to make parking lots and new buildings, and that would somehow fix the problem.”
Past urban renewal practices misguided
“It was very naive and misguided and a lot of downtowns suffered a lot of damage due to the urban renewal agencies.”
He added that by taking this tack a lot of good historic buildings were torn down.
”Downtown Amsterdam is no better today than in 1960 you might argue, because the big problem, and everybody seems to forget this, the reason that downtown Amsterdam declined was that the carpet mills moved out…Gloversville declined because the leather industry moved out. It’s all about economic base. If you don’t have an economic base, you don’t have a downtown.”
Agency’s role now rehabilitation not demolition
Over the past three decades, the function of the agency has changed. It’s roles now include securing funding for infrastructure, water and sewer, neighborhood revitalization, housing and assisting in commercial ventures and downtown revitalization, but not from an urban renewal approach.
“We don’t tear old buildings down and replace them with new buildings anymore. That has proven to be a waste of money. Right now we have about 24 projects going through the agency, about 27 million dollars in projects. Big ones include–or recent ones–Bridge Street Reconstruction.”
The money for the various programs comes from state and federal grants, funding proposals written entirely by Zabawsky. In the case of Community Development Block Grants for Neighborhood Revitalization such as the Reid Street grants, homeowners who can produce evidence of the deed to their property, proper insurance coverage and that they are current on their taxes can apply by either stopping in the Urban Renewal office in City Hall for an application or can download one from the city’s website. The vetting process can be extensive. It includes conducting a lead test, making a determination of needed repairs and setting up a competitive bid process. Contractors must have proper insurance coverage and be both HUD and EPA certified, and the Urban Renewal Agency determines the suitability of each bidder.
Richard Dodson is one such contractor. He was the contractor on Barbara Motyl’s revitalization project on Jay St., in which wall panel remediation and painting as well as floor reconstruction and linoleum tiling, electrical and plumbing and roofing were done. The job took about two weeks, according to Dodson and came in under budget at $25,000 dollars. Dodson said he is fully certified, including for lead abatement, and recently completed another job for Urban Renewal on Reid Street.
When asked what goals the agency wants to achieve with the grants, Zabawsky said, “First, it’s a safety issue–the health and safety of the occupants. That’s priority number one, [so that] the house doesn’t burn down from faulty wiring or their kids don’t get lead poisoning. Second thing, we’re trying to stabilize the neighborhood, to hold off blight, trying to turn the neighborhood around, and make it a better place to live.”
When asked what he thought was the most pressing problem in Amsterdam’s housing today, he replied that there were two main problems and they are interrelated: High vacancy rates lead to blight, because if you are a landlord and you can’t rent out your apartment, you give up, or if you are a property owner and every house in your neighborhood is falling apart, you wouldn’t invest in your house because it wouldn’t be a wise investment. “Blight is a symptom. The biggest cause is that lack of economic base, industry not bringing enough good paying jobs to the City.”
Agency still very active but work often not visible to public
The city was recently awarded a $600,000 grant for work on sewer improvements, and Zabawsky said he was busy writing a grant proposal for $400,000 targeting Reid Hill, from Hibbard Street south to Bell Hill. He hopes to have that grant funded by April.
Two homeowners applying for help from that grant are June and Rick Warzonek of Amsterdam, who own two properties on Cornell Street. They said they are past the initial examination and that Urban Renewal is busy determining the jobs that are most important to focus on, in their application. They applied for the program in mid-November. “Right after the announcement,” said Rick. They said that they applied to replace a space heating system in the unit they occupy with a forced air heating system, and a new roof for their next door rental property, among other things. Both are Amsterdam natives and have been property owners since 2008.
At the December 30th meeting of the board of directors when asked what the future of urban renewal in Amsterdam will look like, Zabawsky said, “We would likely continue the current course of focusing on rebuilding the city’s infrastructure.”
Chairman of the Board, Robert Martin, also responded to the question, “Things that you don’t see. People don’t realize what’s going on under the streets because it doesn’t show.”
“In the last six years we’ve done four sewer projects and three water projects,” said Zabawsky. “Fire hydrants and water line upgrades, upgrades to the water transmission line to the water treatment plant.”
“Improvements to the water treatment plant,” Martin added.
Zabawsky said the other important aspects of the city’s current urban renewal plans are in housing and revitalization. He said that in the last 20 years the agency has rehabbed about 400 housing units, and that the best way to stabilize a neighborhood is by having owner-occupied housing units.
“If it’s a rental and there is a good landlord who can improve the property, that’s who we’d like to work with,” said Martin. “Landlords that are responsible, who take care of their property.”
“Better neighborhood, better quality of life, better infrastructure. That’s where I see us going in the next 20 years,” Zabawsky said, summarizing the agency’s goals.
The Amsterdam Urban Renewal Agency Board of Directors meets between 6 to 8 times a year, on an as needed basis. All meetings are announced in advance and open to the public.
Download a list of grants awarded to the City of Amsterdam over the past six years.