Does a bedroom community have to be boring?

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I think when most people hear the term “bedroom community” they immediately think of a suburb. And when most people think of suburbs, they think of neatly arranged, meticulously kept up houses and streets, removed from the hassles, crime and pollution of the cities. For some people, a suburb is paradise, for others it’s the most boring place on earth.

Given these perceptions, it’s no wonder that when the City of Amsterdam’s Comprehensive Plan was released to the public in 2003, many people (including some members of the plan committee) misinterpreted its direction for the city to be a “bedroom community” as a vision to become a suburb. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth, which should be quite obvious to anyone who skims over the first few sections of the plan.

It’s true that if you look up the definition of “bedroom community” online, some sources immediately equate the term with a suburban community. But most sources agree the core definition of a bedroom community is simply an area where many people live who commute to another area to work. Bedroom communities thrive when the cost of living close to a more economically developed area (such as Albany or Saratoga) rises to a point such that commuting a longer distance is a less expensive option.

The authors of the plan explain their use of the term starting on page IV-12

A vibrant, attractive downtown district would significantly enhance Amsterdam’s potential role as a bedroom community to the Capital District. Despite its nice neighborhoods, relatively inexpensive yet well-constructed housing stock, respectable schools, and close proximity to the Albany-Schenectady-Troy region, Amsterdam is not the typical model of a bedroom community.

Most people think of a bedroom community as a suburban enclave. However, changing demographics and tastes are leading to an increasing desire for “in-town” living by at least some segments of the population.

Even though the plan was completed over ten years ago, the trend cited by the authors of an increasing demand for a more urban style of bedroom community has proven to be completely accurate. As I’ve mentioned in past articles, the US Census Bureau reported in 2012 that for the first time since the 1920′s, urban growth actually outpaced suburban growth.

The way I see it, Amsterdam has always served as a bedroom community for the Capital District and is still well poised to continue to serve in that role. I’ve shown in a previous Pars Nova post that despite people’s bellyaching about high taxes, the overall cost of living in Amsterdam is lower than many surrounding areas. That and the fact that Amsterdam is only a 20-40 minute drive from two of the biggest economic development projects in the state (the Tech Valley Initiative and Global Foundries) are some of the most important ingredients needed for a successful bedroom community.

However there is one ingredient that is lacking and that is the overall urban quality of life. The heart of any urban community is its downtown, and ours has been on life support for a number of years now.

The idea that we can compete as anything other than a city is doubtful to me. Quite frankly, the City of Amsterdam is never going to meet the expectations of someone who has their mind-set on a modern home on a half-acre of land with a white picket fence around it. We would literally have to demolish every other house in the city in order to begin to match the density of most successful suburbs.

The only viable way I see for Amsterdam to compete as a bedroom community is to compete as a city. Competing as a city means investing in a vibrant, dynamic, decidedly non-boring downtown area.

Tim Becker

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