Amsterdam’s future: city or suburb?


Welcome to the Mohawk Valley Compass! It’s been a privilege over the past couple of months to work with a talented and dedicated team of people to finally bring this new online publication to life. I’m also glad to be able to step up my service to the Amsterdam community by helping to fill what I believe is a real need for a new angle and perspective on local issues.

It was a very natural choice to move my Pars Nova blog to The Compass. I have been blogging on Amsterdam related issues on and off since April 2010. Now being part of a team, I have a renewed sense of motivation and accountability.

Pars Nova means “New Direction”. My very first article on Pars Nova was titled “The Frustratingly Enormous Yet Elusive Potential of Amsterdam, NY.” It’s been quite a journey since that first post, and I have learned a lot. But after 3 years, the potential of Amsterdam still seems just as elusive, and the need for new direction seems just as great.

Back then I surmised that Amsterdam City residents had the same goals but just couldn’t agree on the game plan to get there. I have now come to realize that the problem runs deeper than that. We have a team with two different goals. Some want a city, some don’t. It’s like we’re at the fourth down, and half the players want to punt, and the other half wants to go for the touchdown. Is it any wonder we often find ourselves in disarray?

Now I’m not sure how much this division is simply due to the “zero sum game” strategy of politics these days where if one party says green, the other says blue. But when I think of Amsterdam’s history, I can see the ideological seeds of this division starting many years ago.

Amsterdam started to lose its population in significant amounts starting in the 50’s and 60’s. Not only were the manufacturing jobs moving out, but America, as a whole was seeing a population shift away from cities to the suburbs. This shift was due to many factors including the increased mobility afforded by automobiles and increased prosperity which allowed people to afford larger homes on larger lots. And let’s face it – racism was also part of it. As city residents saw friends and neighbors leaving for the suburbs in droves, it’s no wonder that leaders came up with the idea of making the city more like a suburb. If people want suburbs, then let’s make the city a suburb, then they’ll come back, right?

I’m sure it seemed like sound logic at the time. Downtown stores were out – shopping malls were in. And the rest, as they say is history. Even though the shopping mall development and all the infrastructure changes failed to stem the tide of population loss, it seems that suburban ideals are still very prevalent in many of our residents’ definition of success for our city.

Ironically for us,  the US Census Bureau reported in 2012 that for the first time since the 1920’s, urban growth actually outpaced suburban growth. The changing economy, new technology and new ideals have brought about another seismic shift in our American culture. Downtown is desirable once again. Younger generations find the idea of suburban living boring and stifling. Many NY cities such as Troy, Schenectady, Hudson, Poughkeepsie and others have invested heavily in revitalizing their downtown and waterfront areas. Amsterdam finds itself once again struggling to adapt to changing times.

The City’s Comprehensive Plan, released way back in 2003 pointed in the right direction…

 page IV-12…

…before the City is considered as a true bedroom community option, it must improve its urbanism. It cannot compete as a bedroom community for those who desire to live in the suburbs or in a rural environment. It must present itself as a vibrant, urban community with all of the benefits that a small city can possess. This will require that the City’s downtown be reestablished as the heart of Amsterdam, with a variety of uses and activities mixed together at a fine grain.

The idea of turning Amsterdam into a suburb failed and failed miserably. I believe we now have to make it as a city or we won’t make it at all. But here’s the thing – no one has to lose here. Developing Main Street doesn’t have to disturb the areas of Amsterdam – (like “Henrietta Heights”) which are essentially suburbs already. Amsterdam is a small city, but it’s still big enough to have distinct neighborhoods with unique attributes. Those who desire a suburb don’t have anything to lose by supporting downtown redevelopment efforts. However, I think we all have something to lose if we don’t start coming together as a team and to truly compete as a city.

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About Tim Becker

Tim Becker is the owner of Anthem Websites Inc. which publishes The Compass. He serves as both editor and a writer.

7 Responses to Amsterdam’s future: city or suburb?

  1. First of all, congratulations on the launch of “Mohawk Valley Compass”. I’m glad to see that someone has the perspective and interest in Amsterdam as a city. It was, once upon a time, and still is, in my book. If I step over the big “owie” I feel, when I place myself in the current downtown vs. when I grew up (and lived in Amsterdam), in the 50’s-70’s, I still recognize Amsterdam as a self contained city. Amsterdam has always had it’s own “suburbs”, downtown, industrial and recreation areas. Granted, these were mostly on a smaller scale than larger metro areas. And, they have been greatly impacted by the failure of the “urban renewal” era, (other than to effectively route traffic through town via the new bridge and bypass roads). Yet, one can still get a feel of the neighborhood setting that we grew up with, when stepping outside of the downtown.
    At this point, there are enough businesses in place to supply residents with most of what they need (or want), without going “out of town”, as was the trend that the greater mobility of the 60’s and 70’s presented upon this city, becoming the main catalyst toward the need for “urban renewal”. If I were to stand anywhere in the City of Amsterdam, and just allow myself to feel the city, the one area that really hurts is downtown. In my opinion, revitalizing the downtown, even working toward reestablishing it (as much as possible) as a representation of what we grew up with, would not only boost the sense of pride in Amsterdam as a home town, but it might even help to make the difference in tilting the scales for some of us who have been considering returning to our home.

    • AvatarKevin McKearn says:

      Great comment Peter……It is great and heartening that someone who lives away still has so much love for his home city; I see it on your Facebook posts and hear it in your writing. If some people decide to make things happen, maybe the Amsterdam of old will become the New Amsterdam!

  2. AvatarKevin McKearn says:

    Congratulations on the new website and I wish you all the best as you move forward……I grew up in Amsterdam and when I tell people about the stories that made up my youth and teenage years, they are jealous. I used to get on my bike, pack some food and head out with my glove, a fishing pole and a bunch of ideas of what to do in a city that had so much to offer. I loved the downtown and even liked the mall because I could see many people walking about that I knew. Well, it closed and the downtown was all but destroyed by the promise of the future without great buildings but with really nice roads; and all they did was keep people out of the city. There was always something to do and the city had not yet reached the place that is now has become. As I think back, I guess no one could predict the outcome, but I think that secretly we all knew that the city was slowly becoming what many had feared……Urban Renewal, the closing of so many companies, politicians who either didn’t care or were clueless and residents who were helpless to do anything as our beloved city decayed at the roots. The problem as I see it is that the economic base is so diverse yet so apathetic. I don’t see radical changes being devised or suggested and it makes me sad that the politicians are still trying to stay with the current status rather than move forward and make things happen. It is as if they have given up; but it is a very hard thing to fix and maybe looking at it from my eyes, no one knows where to begin! You had mentioned the waterfront and I think that many people have done so many good things there. The Gavry’s have done a terrific job in joining with the city to have some great concerts and downtown events; good for them. Why did the city decide to tear down the old Chalmers building on the South Side rather than have it developed? I will always wonder why that did not happen. But, we must move on. I still think more has to be done and as the city has branched out to Route 30, the downtown has been ignored. If you look to places like Hudson, N.Y. they have managed to re-invent themselves because a few people started putting shops there and it began to grow. Maybe it is closer to NYC, but Amsterdam is centrally located, on the river and has a train stop. If some people, with the help of the local politicians decided to make Amsterdam a destination spot, it could happen. I foresee antique stores, flea markets (perhaps in the mall), book stores, thrift shops and any type of small mfg location that rewards it’s owners to set up shop in Amsterdam……Just maybe the city of Amsterdam can become a suburb and also a city of it’s own. It cannot exist under the current economic base and conditions without new blood. Like Hudson, NY, Saugerties, NY (which was all but written off) and others like it (see Northampton, MA) the city needs to decide a plan and stick with it. If a few good companies decide to plant it’s business seed there, others will follow. Then comes micro-breweries, restaurants and much more. The problem is apathy and the idea that it cannot really be done. I say that in can. The city needs to work with the mall owners and make it into a year round antique market or a location that offers unique and interesting products; perhaps some that are made on the premises. It is TOO BIG to ignore as there is not enough space to make it viable without using it. And, what about the old tall Bank Building (that is just the name I remember it by)? Perhaps it could be turned into a multi usage facility? There is so much potential but so many years of apathy and willingness to accept it’s fate that the city’s residents and powers to be have only managed to keep the city above water……and maybe that isn’t even true from what I read. It is not anyone’s fault, it is just that when you see a city caving in on itself, it is hard to watch but even harder to make it stop. So, as we head into the new year maybe we all should reflect on what needs to be done and remember that all it takes is a seed to be planted and although it may not be easy, perhaps it is a beginning of something new and exciting. I love Amsterdam, but currently, I think it would be a lie if I didn’t admit it would be hard for me to live there. I still have many friends there and value them……I would love to be the part of something new and perhaps it needs to start at the grassroots level. Jobs, economic help and development and fixing the broken promises of the past. Like similar industrial cities of the area and beyond, we lost so much when the major companies moved or closed……Now we need NEW companies to invest in the city. It’s long shot, but a new beginning. I give this website lots of credit to start planting that seed. What comes next is the awesome people of Amsterdam to say they have had enough and would like to see their children stay when they get older. Good luck in this most difficult of tasks.

    • Unlike the previous commenters, I grew up in Hudson, New York and as Kevin McKearn stated, it is now thriving, having found new purpose (antiques). Access to transportation was key to its revival as the train station is located in the downtown area. I abandoned Hudson in the 70’s as many people abandoned Amsterdam when urbanization hit, the factories closed down leaving the downtown with no purpose and little hope for the future. When I retired from my job with NYS Department of Corrections, I wanted a relatively safe place to live that was affordable. I discovered Amsterdam and it reminded me of Hudson before the revival, a beautiful river town full of potential. I moved here in 2003 , bought my house, located in downtown Amsterdam, in 2009. I became a part of the local community and now serve on the Amsterdam Riverfront Foundation along with Paul Gavry, Denise and Robert Terry to fund and organize Riverlink Park Concerts. I also served on Amsterdam’s Zoning Update Committee that rewrote the Zoning Code, bringing it up to date while easing restrictions for new business in the downtown core. Unfortunately this plan has been held hostage by Corporation Counsel for the past two years for “legal corrections” and has not been presented to the Common Council for adoption. It is the unnecessary stumbling blocks like this and the dysfunctional former Common Council that frustrate individuals like me, wanting to realize and participate in Amsterdam’s revival. I have high hopes in the 2014 Common Council that is not plagued by obstructionism or divided by party politics. We all have common goals on the city level and now have the ability to see them through.

  3. AvatarRobert Purtell says:

    Just for clarification the Mall is not closed, it is an economic engine for the area. The mall has been repurposed to supply office space and medical services. Millions of dollars of income from good paying jobs, bringing people in from other areas to also work there.

    • AvatarKevin McKearn says:

      I fully realize that it is not closed……But I guess I cannot help wondering what could be if it was fully used for other things. The last time I was in there, I saw a lot of empty space. If it is providing jobs, than that is great. I just have a different vision for Amsterdam and I guess offices offices in the Mall doesn’t quite do it for me. Thanks for the information though! Jobs are Jobs!!

  4. AvatarMike Cinquanti says:

    I first suggested the following scenario on the old Recorder Venners Vox forum. I tried also to bring it directly to the Mayor’s attention but for whatever reason, she never responded to my e-mail. I remain in this city because it is centrally located to the places my four children now live and because there are lots of folks in this town who I still enjoy being with and around. What we need to stop doing is taking sides on every issue based on who’s for or against it and admit that nobody is right or wrong all of the time. Relax, listen, contribute! In any event, here’s a development suggestion for the now vacant Chalmers’ property. Maybe there’s some obstacle in place that makes this idea impractical? If so, I’m sure there are other ideas to consider. That property can and should be developed but it is not going to develop itself, not in these times, not in this City. Come on Mayor, AIDA, the new Common Council, lets make it happen!

    How can the City of Amsterdam attract young entrepreneurs with solid, fully financed business plans to consider locating their start-up businesses AND their personal residences in our City? By providing them with attractive enough incentives to do so. What could the City offer as an incentive? How about one year’s worth of free rent for newly constructed combination living and business space on a rejuvenated waterfront and their choice of a free membership to a Robert Trent Jones designed Golf Course or a fully equipped health club.

    Where would this City find the new business applicants needed to drive this program? By having AIDA, with the assistance of Montgomery County EDC and the offices of Tonko, Tkacyzk and Santabarbara network with all of the local universities (RPI, Union, Albany State etc.) and all of the state, county and privately funded programs that promote incubator business development.

    How would AIDA decide who receives a grant? Applicants would need to submit a business plan that includes full financial disclosure. A committee of business and finance professionals would be formed to review these plans and select those most likely to succeed. Those selected would receive the above described incentive.

    Who would develop the combo units on the Chalmers property? One of the advantages of pursuing this strategy is the fact that the incentive offered the entrepreneurs will also serve as a strong incentive to potential developers of the post demolition Chalmers property. The fact that AIDA would be willing to promote the property and pay the first year’s rent of new tenants significantly reduces the burden and risks that the developer of such a property would normally face.

    What happens after the first year? Each new business selected for this grant would be required to sign at least a two year lease at an agreed upon rate for the second year. Perhaps the City could also agree to adjust the property tax rate for the property so that during the first five years of the development’s existence the owner is paying taxes only on those units occupied by tenants.

    Small businesses have been traditionally, the single largest provider of new jobs in the US economy. Thanks to the Internet and the efficiency of wireless and e-commerce technologies, location is no longer an essential component of success for so many types of business start ups. Put yourself in the shoes of a young electrical engineering student at RPI, or NanoTech graduate assistant at SUNY who has a documented great idea and a brilliant mind. Being able to start your business on the first floor, live on the second floor with a balcony that looks out over a beautiful river and order your pizzas from La Cucina, play golf at Muny, be in Albany or Saratoga in just half an hour. Why not Amsterdam?