Pursuing Quality in the Capital Region

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Discussion Paper for Use in the

Capital District Transportation Committee and

Capital District Regional Planning Commission's

Quality Region Initiative

 

 

prepared by the Quality Region Task Force

to help guide regional policy and technical explorations

 

April 2003 final

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For further information contact CDTC at 458-2161 or CDRPC at 453-0850, visit cdrpc.org and cdtcmpo.org or email QualityRegion@cdtcmpo.org


Executive Summary

 

In many ways, residents of the Capital Region can "have their cake and eat it too" -- enjoying the community-based cohesiveness of small town life and simultaneously reaping the benefits of major metropolitan activities.The region has ample land, abundant water, clean air, strong schools, identifiable places, rich history, moderate climate, established public infrastructure and an educated and skilled work force to meet 21st century challenges.The region's hand also contains a powerful wild card, namely the region's quality of life.†† As quality of life becomes more critical to economic decisions, the area's residents and community leaders may need to be prepared to handle more growth than experienced in recent memory.†† This challenge and opportunity may be heightened by success of New York State, the region's universities and business leaders in attracting significant investment in "high tech" research and manufacturing to the Capital Region.

 

On the minus side there are many disparities between the conditions faced by one community and another in the region, between one population group and another.A fairly flat economy has led to few new well-paying, career-oriented jobs in the region and a successful high tech future is not a certainty.There is an excess of underused industrial, commercial and residential properties in urban areas.At the same time, recent suburban development has produced few good examples of community design to build upon and land consumption continues to grow at a much faster rate than population.

 

The region thus faces serious threats in coming years.These come from the potential for: further loss of key industries, increasing disparities and isolation, squandered opportunities for regional competitiveness, local decision-making that conflicts with the best interests of the region as a whole, unhealthy patterns of migration, diminished political efficacy, excessive land consumption and degradation of environmental resources, increased auto dependency and declining personal mobility, inadequate fiscal resources, and the threats and expenses related to security protection.

 

Fortunately, an increased attention to quality of life offers great opportunities for this region to address these challenges head on.Opportunities exist to: leverage the region's quality assets for regional gain, create new economic opportunities that benefit all communities and all residents, learn from others, revitalize and reinvest for a sustainable future, harness the quality community movement, create a regional identity, address government structure and processes and enhance the region's transportation system.The high level of attention currently being directed at these issues by a range of public and private groups and individuals creates a unique opportunity for success.

 



Introduction

 

For the past year, a small number of individuals has served as a task force aiding the Capital District Transportation Committee and the Capital District Regional Planning Commission in trying to identify the issues surrounding the notion of a "quality region".This is an integral part of a multi-year effort to produce a "New Visions for a Quality Region" plan as a successor to the successful "New Visions for Capital District Transportation" plan adopted by CDTC in 1997 and updated in 2000.It is hoped that the new plan will build upon many of the successful principles of the previous New Visions plans and go further, into subjects of regional settlement patterns, the future economy of the region, and issues of equity across geographic and demographic divides.

 

The task force is not a policy group.Its mission is not to set policy or reach conclusions.Rather, it is charged with digesting much of what has been raised in the past and is being discussed today in venues ranging from the State Commission's work in the early 1990's to the current work by ARISE, the Business - Higher Education Roundtable, the Center for Economic Growth and others..

 

CDTC's previous New Visions work succeeded largely because of a careful and deliberate effort to engage the knowledge and concerns of a wide range of individuals in building a broad consensus on new policies and priorities.In this vein, the task force prepared draft issues material to offer to a more diverse set of interested parties and stakeholders for review.After a review period of several months, the task force has revised the document to reflect the insights of commenters and of participants in other regional initiatives.The revised document is intended to help guide further work of CDTC and CDRPC in the context of the s.

 

The following material reflects the gist of the task force's perceptions of what a quality region may be, the position of the Capital Region relative to achieving such quality, and the challenges and opportunities that must be confronted by local and regional leaders.This paper also identifies those subjects on which the CDTC and CDRPC effort should focus. The purpose of this paper is to get people thinking about the issues and to provoke serious discussion about them; it is not a policy paper stating specific policy recommendations or actions.

 

Part One:The characteristics of quality in the Capital Region

 

The region has suffered from a poor self-image for some time, but it appears that residents of the Capital Region are increasingly appreciating its assets.While the region may lack some of the more apparent attributes of much larger areas (major league sports teams, for example), the missing big-city assets are relatively few.Outstanding and varied cultural opportunities, nationally-ranked institutions for health care and higher education, natural beauty and a clean environment, diverse recreational opportunities and a rich and cherished heritage combine with close proximity to the cosmopolitan centers of Boston, New York and Montreal to create a unique environment.In many ways, residents of the Capital Region are able to "have their cake and eat it, too" -- enjoying the community-based cohesiveness of small town life and simultaneously reaping the benefits of major metropolitan activities.

 

The qualities of this region are especially evident to those who compare life in the Capital Region with life in other areas -- those who have lived elsewhere or who travel extensively.For example, traffic congestion experienced by commuters or shoppers in the Capital Region is manageable in comparison to the daily experience of those in Long Island, Atlanta or Boston.[1]Similarly, housing affordability in the Capital Region is apparent to anyone who has glanced at real estate prices while visiting the New York or Boston metro areas or Washington DC.

 

The region is a region of identifiable neighborhoods spanning a wide range of housing styles and costs.†† For many residents, interaction with city, village or town hall is more likely on a first-name basis than not.And such features such as public school class size, student performance and teacher pay are the envy of many parts of the nation.

 

The modest population size and compact form of the region mean that there is considerable open space... for now.Public parks and open spaces range from substantial urban parks to large suburban recreational facilities, even to the new suburban passive park (the Crossings) in Colonie and are complemented by numerous state parks and facilities.†† Active agriculture can be found within a short distance of every resident and within sight of many.

 

Even the modest level of growth experienced by this region in the past thirty years can be seen as a blessing as much as a curse.That is, the region has witnessed less of problems associated with the late 20th century American suburban development phenomena than have rapid growth areas.

 

As regions across the nation seek ways of undoing the effects of rapid development -- trying to achieve traditional community qualities in large, spread-out metropolitan areas -- the Capital Region brings a relatively compact and largely-traditional development form into the 21st century.The region remains ranked in the top quarter of metropolitan areas with respect to such measures as share of commutation served by transit and walk modes.[2]The region thus has the ability to learn from the good and bad experiences of fast-growth areas and find ways to harness the energy from a possible development surge in coming years to enhance rather than to damage existing communities.

 

In reviewing the cards that have been dealt the Capital Region, the region appears to have a favorable hand to play.The region's traditionally strong assets of ample land, abundant water, clean air, strong schools, identifiable places, rich history, moderate climate, established public infrastructure and an educated and skilled work force remain in place to address the challenges of the 21st century economy.The region's hand also contains a powerful wild card, namely the region's quality of life. The generally high quality of life of this region can affect personal and corporate location decisions, meaning that the area's residents and community leaders will need to be prepared to handle the resulting growth.

 

Part Two:Weaknesses evident to the concerned observer

 

For all its positive attributes and current positive economic "buzz", the region is not without its flaws.The region's weaknesses and shortcomings are significant enough to threaten its future and cannot be ignored.

 

For starters, the economy of the region in recent decades has increasingly depended upon government, health care and educational institutions for employment and income.While this has provided stability to the region, the lack of a substantial presence in the new economy has meant that there have been few new career-oriented, well-paying jobs created in the region to replace the continuing loss of heavy industry.The result can be seen in sub-par growth in personal income in this region over the past decade and a perception that there are few career opportunities that allow young adults to stay in the region or entice young people from other parts of the country to settle here.Exploration of time series Census data confirms that the region has been losing young people to other parts of the nation (even after accounting for the temporary migration in and out of the region by college students).

 

Additionally, the region is faced with many disparities and paradoxes.While the quality of life experienced by most residents is quite good, that condition is not universal. Measures of income by race indicate significant disparity, and many urban schools struggle to meet the challenges of preparing young adults to enter the 21st century workplace.When construction activity booms, there are few skilled construction workers to meet the demand -- yet high levels of unemployment are common in inner-city areas.†† Neighborhood businesses suffer as a result of large-scale suburban retail activity and the physical condition of a number of urban neighborhoods and traditional business streets in the region has declined over time.†† New low-wage and modest-wage job opportunities are located primarily in areas unserved by public transportation, challenging employers and employees alike.

 

As a result, there are many residents who are unable to appreciate the good quality of life experienced by most others.

 

Newer development in the region has generally missed the opportunity to connect to the existing fabric of community life.With few exceptions, new retail, office, industrial and residential development are isolated from prior development by choice or municipal regulation.Thus, while the region has avoided the massive scale of the problems of late 20th century development in rapid growth areas, it has seen few good examples locally to build upon for the future.

 

The preponderance of older development in the region has its down side, as well.Extensive amounts of building stock in urban areas go underused or are abandoned -- not primarily because of condition or market location -- but because of functional obsolescence.It generally proves less expensive to build new on a clear site than to adapt and re-use an old building, even if the location of the old building is preferable and the building has architectural appeal.Urban sewer, water and street infrastructure in much of the region is old and suffers from the effects of considerable deferral of maintenance and replacement.

 

Additionally, the construction in the 1960's and 1970's of expressways through the region's cities has meant that the greatest concentrations of residential properties exposed to increasing noise levels from expressway traffic are found along the older, urban expressways (I-787, I-890, NY 85 and portions of I-90).[3]

 

Property tax burden varies widely across the region, with some urban municipalities flirting with insolvency and some suburban towns having no need for municipal property taxes at all.[4]The overall tax burden, notably related to school property taxes, results in most of the region having among the highest taxes in the nation.(However, the tax burden is less compared to many of the other metropolitan areas in the northeast.)†† When coupled with utility costs that remain relatively high (despite large increases in electric costs in other parts of the country), the cost of doing business in the region is well above the national average.

 

Further, where urban reinvestment policy has achieved success in the region, it has largely been associated with office development, typically government offices.Accommodating the travel preferences of workers accustomed to suburban work locations has led to simultaneous construction -- often at public expense -- of structured parking at a high unit cost.At the same time, extensive industrial brownfields well-served by highway and rail facilities go unused for industrial purposes because of site obsolescence and environmental liability.

 

The region has characteristically held its quality-of-life wild card pretty close to the vest.As a result, the image the region projects to the outside world has for some time belied its strong hand.The region has projected an image of fragmented, often-competing governments; high property taxes; harsh climate; expensive utilities; highly-partisan politics and resistance to change.College and university students in the area are likely to consider the region old and dull and a place to leave even as they engage in its many cultural and recreational opportunities.Whether the current national attention on Albany's Sematech and related subjects is changing that opinion is uncertain.

The region has a clear agenda of issues to address.

 

 

Part Three:What is a quality region?

 

There is a strong appeal to the term "quality community".It implies well-considered new development integrated with the preservation of traditional community centers.It connotes a strong sense of place, civic pride, and confidence for the future.The Lieutenant Governor's task force's efforts to identify principles and strategies to foster quality communities across New York have resonated with communities throughout the state.[5]There is much eagerness to explore ways of achieving the quality communities goal.

 

But what is a quality region?Is it simply a collection of communities that each achieves its own vision of quality?Or is it something more?What role does the regional transportation system play?Does the form of regional settlement -- the relationships among cities, suburbs and rural areas -- affect the ability to achieve quality in the individual communities?Is quality only important relative to physical form and appearance, or does it relate to economic and inter-personal attributes as well?

 

It is safe to assert that a region is more than a collection of communities; that the inter-relationships among the communities are as vital to the prospects of an individual community as what is going on within that community.A healthy economic situation in any particular municipality in the Capital Region could not exist without the jobs, employees, services or other needs satisfied outside that municipality's boundaries.

To try to help clarify this assertion, a draft definition of a quality region is stated below:

 

A quality region develops and sustains healthy urban, suburban, and rural communities that function interdependently and readily adapt to change.A quality region creates economic, educational, social, cultural and recreational opportunities and provides safe neighborhood environments and housing choices for all; protects sensitive environmental resources; and fosters community identity and "a sense of place" in all parts of the region.

 

As defined, a region that fully achieves a "quality" status incorporates all of the positive attributes of the Capital Region described earlier.At the same time, it addresses the identified weaknesses -- the disparities, the urban decline, the mixed success of suburban development.The definition emphasizes the need for quality throughout the region and the need for ensuring that benefits extend to all residents.

 

Within the context of this general definition, it is apparent that the strengths and weaknesses of the Capital Region must be acknowledged by its leaders in seeking to achieve quality.Specifically:

 

The Capital District of New York's efforts to more fully achieve these attributes must recognize the region's unique set of characteristics ---its settlement pattern comprising numerous small, older, traditionally-industrial urban centers and the suburban areas located primarily between these centers; its abundance of both underused land in older areas and undeveloped land in outlying areas; its strong home rule tradition; its high degree of auto-oriented mobility and its substantial numbers of households without vehicles; its stable but slow-growing economy (largely based on government, health care and educational institutions); its increasingly diversified population; and its growing concentrations of poverty in older urban areas

 

 

Part Four:Challenges and Opportunities

 

How can the Capital District more fully achieve the attributes of a quality region?Scanning the environment both locally and nationally for challenges and opportunities sheds light on priority concerns.The region will succeed or fail depending upon how it fares in the context of in an increasingly-mobile, highly-competitive global culture and economy.

 

Challenges and opportunities are presented below.While all subjects are important for the region to address, it will be necessary to focus the CDTC/CDRPC quality region effort on exploration of a few critical areas.

 

Challenges

 

Taking stock of its current strengths and weaknesses, a thorough scan of challenges identifies the following possibilities that are clear threats to the future of the region:

 

1.†††††††† Further loss of key industries.Mobility of industry is obvious and the dynamic nature of the economy is increasingly apparent.The Capital Region, integral to the birth of the American industrial revolution, is now only a minor player in heavy manufacturing and assembly due to plant relocations over the years. Pressures for cheap labor and corporate reorganization persist, and there is always the possibility that remaining heavy industry, such as GE's Turbine production or Silicone facility could be relocated overseas, that CSX could significantly reduce its rail operations at the Selkirk yards, or that the Watervliet Arsenal operation could cease.Any of these losses would leave a big hole in both the local and the regional economy.

 

A negative impact of a potentially-greater scale would be felt by the regional economy if two of the current key industries -- government and health care -- are significantly downsized by fiscal or demographic shifts.As stable as it has been in recent decades, state government employment in this region expanded dramatically in the 1960's and 1970's and the large-scale hirings at that time have produced a government worker age "bubble" with potentially significant consequences to the region.In as few as five years, upwards of one-half of state workers in agencies such as the New York State Department of Transportation will reach retirement age.Assuming that the majority of these workers elect to take retirement within a few years after reaching eligibility, the state government work force in the region will drop precipitously over the next decade if massive replacement hirings do not take place at the same time.(The likelihood of such as large scale recruitment must be considered small, given current pressures to reduce the size of government at all levels.)

 

Unwelcome state budget news in 2003 appears to be accelerating this likely outcome.The state's current and project deficit has prompted retirement incentives which will reduce the state's work force in the Capital District by as many as several thousand in the coming year.As promising as high tech investment appears, the region must acknowledge that the number of new jobs created with Sematech and other investments in the past year has not yet grown to numbers that even equal the early state retirements over the same time period.

 

Also, the health care industry in the region is negotiating precarious straits at present.This region is blessed with multiple nationally-ranked health care institutions, but the fiscal future for many of these institutions is far from secure.Should third party payment restrictions tighten further, a health care industry shake out in this region could lead to a consolidation into fewer facilities (with loss to quality of life in communities losing facilities) and fewer jobs.Given the large reliance on health care for the region's economy, this potential scenario is no small threat to the region's future.

 

2.†††††††† Increasing disparities and isolation.While the absolute scale of urban poverty and unemployment in the region is small (relative to regions such as Philadelphia), it is troubling that little progress has been made in addressing these issues.The percentage of the region's white residents with incomes below the poverty level remained approximately 7% between 1990 and 2000, but the poverty rate increased from 26% in 1990 to 31% in 2000 for black residents.[6]Minority poverty is increasingly concentrated in cities.Many urban residents thus feel effectively isolated from the economic opportunities and quality of life gains experienced by so many of their regional neighbors.The future threat is one of increasing gaps between the "haves" and the "have nots" if the region is not successful in fostering an environment of successful education, hope, community stability and connection to jobs and business startup resources in all corners of the region.Failure means increasing urban fiscal pressures, excessive costs for importing labor, social inequity and wasted human potential -- all detracting from any quality attributes the region might otherwise reflect.

 

The threat of isolation pertains not only to racial separation on a regional scale but neighborhood separation at the local level.Both have significant economic, social and future quality of life implications.Neighborhood separation may result from a continuation of building trends that reflect the intention of isolating one home from those surrounding; of separating one development from those adjacent; of treating each commercial site independently from those that abut.Such development style leads to a "station to station" lifestyle in which individuals travel by car from site to site in the absence of any meaningful modal alternative (such as walking) and without consideration of the fabric of the communities through which they pass.If future development in the Capital Region is preponderantly suburban and encouraged to be isolated by design, by municipal ordinance or by the demands of neighboring property owners, then the existing strengths of neighborhood orientation of this region will decline significantly.Without a strong neighborhood identity and commitment, community activity and civic pride is diminished to the detriment of overall quality of life.

 

3.†††††††† Squandered opportunities for regional competitiveness.By most measures, the Capital Region has experienced a prolonged decline in its role in the nation's economy.†† Much of this has been explained as a direct result of the cost of doing business in this region and the pre-occupation of traditional industry on minimizing the cost of production.Yet the region retains many enviable assets (discussed in preceding and following sections) that could be used to reverse those trends. The future may be brightening for the region as business leaders across the nation begin to value quality of life attributes more highly than ever before in locational decisions.

 

The threat to this region's future competitiveness is found squarely in the value the region's residents and community leaders place on these assets.That is, if the special quality-of-life assets of the region (such as historic places, neighborhood safety, community identity, environmental quality) are not recognized, preserved and enhanced, this region's quality of life advantages over other regions will be squandered just as the global economy begins to assign greater value to these assets.†† Once squandered, the region would be simply another northern-climate, former industrial center with increasing tax burdens and declining public services.Its ability to compete for talented and caring people, financial capital, economic opportunities or cultural amenities would be quite limited.

 

4.†††††††† Local decision-making that conflicts with the best interests of the region as a whole. New York is a home rule state. This means that public authority to approve or disapprove and direct the location, scale and form of most private development actions is vested at the local municipal level.When the region experiences a slow growth period, pressures to increase the tax base can lead local governments to accept development of a type, form or location that does not contribute to the community's long-term future.It can even lead to regionally-damaging inter-municipal competition -- luring activity from one community to another community in the region.At the other end of the development spectrum, if this region were to experience a rapid pace of development, the workload would overwhelm the capacity of review and approval processes of most, if not all, local governments in the Capital Region.In that situation, there is the troubling possibility that many opportunities to use new development efficiently and effectively would be lost and that development might serve neither the community's nor the region's long-term quality objectives.

 

Another aspect of the traditional form of local decision-making is the significant challenge it places on the lay planners appointed to local planning boards.Not only are these individuals challenged to understand and to properly interpret state and local laws, they are challenged to be highly creative and adaptive in seeking the greatest benefit for the community (with concern for the region) when working with property owners who have budgets, rights and plans of their own.These planning officials are also confronted (with only modest professional assistance and negligible outside support) by a public that variously demands a community they can cherish, a laissez-faire approach to development, less traffic, no change to their own "backyard" and lower taxes.

 

In short, the system is structured to be almost exclusively local in nature, driven primarily by development proposals, and inadequately staffed and supported.As a result, it presents a significant challenge in achieving quality on a regional scale.

 

5.†††††††† Unhealthy patterns of internal and external migration.Migration is a healthy and time-honored characteristic of American life.The free movement of people to new places and new opportunities is a backbone of our society and a strong component of the ability of the nation's economy to remain innovative and productive.

 

Patterns of migration can also have negative consequences.These lead not to greater efficiency and productivity, but instead to unsustainable situations.The significant loss of non-poor white residents from the Capital Region's cities over the past decade and lack of affordable housing in suburban areas contributes to instability.Not only does it lead to separation and isolation, it also leaves cities without the income base to support the necessary public and private services required for a healthy urban environment.Any significant continuation or acceleration of this trend into the future could create radical social and fiscal disparity between city and suburb.

 

The regional population composition also can become unsustainable if patterns of migration into and out of the region over the next decades are significantly imbalanced.Demographic projections indicate that migration patterns and the aging of the existing population could leave the region with fewer workers in twenty years than today.This would be a potentially unstable situation in which large numbers of elderly retirees require extensive services (transportation, home health care, etc.) which neither the region's income nor workforce would be able to successfully accommodate.

 

According to Internal Revenue Service migration data derived from federal income tax returns, between 1996 and 2000 the Capital District witnessed a net loss of over 12,000 persons and over $600 million in aggregate total money income.In addition to the loss of persons, those moving into the region during this period had a lower income, relatively speaking, than those who moved out.

 

Regional economic initiatives in coming years must pay attention to both internal and external migration patterns if quality of life is to be enhanced.

 

6.†††††††† Diminished political efficacy.A distinct but related phenomenon is loss of political efficacy.A continued decline in the region's role in the national economy would naturally lead to further erosion of the region's voice in statewide and national policy debates.Even without economic decline, this region must recognize the very real threat of a shift of national political power from the Northeast US to the South and West.For issues of concern to this region -- ranging from immigration policy to transportation programs, from welfare reform to clean air legislation -- diminished regional political clout could lead to a loss of many fundamental legislative and fiscal underpinnings that support regional priorities.(As one example, a shift in federal transportation policy to a "dollar in - dollar out" treatment of the highway trust fund, as advocated by states in the South and West, would cut this region's federal highway funding by nearly 1/4.Reversal of strong federal support for public transportation would leave New York scrambling to replace as much as a billion dollars annually.)

 

Efficacy of local government, if faced with diminished resources and increasing demands, would also be compromised.Government that is confronted continually with budget shortfalls cannot entertain strategies that enhance public services, encourage private investment or contribute to quality of life.

 

7.†††††††† Excessive land consumption and degradation of environmental characteristics.Examination by the Capital District Regional Planning Commission of suburban development in the region between 1986 and 1997 is quite revealing.It indicates that land consumption (the amount of land converted from greenspace to urban or suburban use) during that 11-year period was not alarming -- except when measured against the actual population growth of the region during that period.Viewed from that perspective, the region added over 10% to the amount of land used for intensive urban and suburban use (buildings, streets, parking areas) to accommodate a population growth of approximately 5%.[7]

 

The threat to the region is found in combining the land-hungry form of new development with a scenario in which the economy of the region enters a boom period.Without advanced preparation by the region and its communities to accommodate growth more efficiently, the landscapes, place identity, and perhaps even the environmental quality of the region may suffer noticeably. At present, the region is arguably unprepared to handle a growth boom involving tens of thousands of new households.The region may lose its recognizable characteristics and increasingly become a set of"anywhere USA" communities.

 

8.†††††††† Auto dependency and declining personal mobility.As noted earlier, a distinguishing characteristic of this region's quality of life is the relative ease of highway travel.Mobility by automobile is so convenient that many formerly-local services have become regionalized.(Compare the movie-going experience of thirty years ago with that of today.Megaplexes at a few locations such as Crossgates today draw easily from a regional market. [8])Peak hour congestion on the region's expressway system is growing due as much to current lifestyle choices as absolute growth in the regional economy.[9]

 

As with the consumption of land, the threat to personal mobility can be found in the combination of continuation of current travel patterns and a scenario of a boom in the regional economy with current development patterns.With such a combination, residents of the region can anticipate an accelerating decline in personal mobility; no reasonable expectation of new or expanded transportation facilities or services would be sufficient to offset that decline.Those who must rely on public transportation would suffer even greater mobility decline than others; these individuals would be faced not only with the same congestion as drivers, but also with a reduced ability to make necessary trips due to further diffusion of activity centers away from areas able to be served by public transportation.This may be a particularly troubling threat to this region; nearly 11% of all households have no vehicle available.[10]

 

9.†††††††† Inadequate fiscal resources.Beyond the effect of growing or declining political clout, the region must recognize the threat presented by the basic inadequacy of current levels of fiscal resources to achieve desired objectives.In the transportation arena alone, the funding shortfall is evidenced by CDTC's recent effort to update its five-year Transportation Improvement Program.Of the short, priority list of 25 street and highway rehabilitation candidates submitted by state and local governments, CDTC was able to fund only parts of five, totaling less than $25 M of the $220 M list.The increasing attention to community visioning witnessed across the region is raising expectations for marinas, living history museums, waterfront parks, new town centers, extensive pedestrian and bicycle facilities, expanded transit services and the like, but current public and private resources are inadequate to implement these ideas.

 

This threat is quite real under a scenario in which private investment in the region remains modest or under a scenario in which private investment is robust but tax treatment of new investment is so generous that it offers no net gain in public revenues sufficient to address existing infrastructure needs, let alone achieve new community goals.The fiscal challenge will be exacerbated if new, dispersed development requires extension or expansion of sewer, water or highway infrastructure.

 

10.†††††† Threats and expenses related to security protection.At this early stage in the post-9/11 environment, it is difficult to understand the threats posed by security issues.Clearly the economic impact on industries such as airlines is obvious, but unknown is the level of ongoing financial "overhead" that security protections will bring.Careful examination of this region reveals a surprisingly large number of security risks, including the presence of two nuclear facilities (Knolls and Kesselring), corporate research centers, the state capitol, power plants, reservoirs (including New York City's water supply nearby) and substantial river crossings on international trade routes.Disruption of any of these facilities would have obvious negative impacts on the region; the cost of protection itself also poses a real threat to the economic growth and quality of life in the region.

 

Opportunities

 

Fortunately, the opportunities facing the region are also quite substantial.The large array of quality attributes described earlier presents the possibility of a very enviable future for this region.The region must find ways of pursuing these opportunities thoughtfully, with careful regard for the broad and long-term impacts of each action. Specifically the region can capitalize on the following opportunities, among others:

 

1.†††††††† Leverage the Region's Quality Assets for Regional Gain. All indications are that the region's quality assets are becoming apparent to decision makers outside the region.Affordable and diverse housing locations, good schools, ease of mobility, modern air and rail transportation facilities, cultural and recreational opportunities and a clean environment appear to be significant criteria in location decisions of advanced technology firms.A concentration of respected colleges and universities, public-private initiatives such as Albany Nanotech and RPI's bio-tech research efforts, and the presence of advanced scientific personnel in the region (GE R&D Center; Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory; Plug Power; etc.) contribute further to the potential for heavy investment from technology firms into this region.[11]

 

The recent announcement of Albany as the location of the semiconductor industry's joint research center, Sematech North, is a significant milestone.Serious exploration by a major manufacturer of the Luther Forest Technology Park site in Malta for a potential chip manufacturing site is further evidence of the very real possibility -- perhaps even a probability -- that the broader region (including the Hudson Valley south of the Capital District) may become a major site for advanced technology research and deployment.

 

If further events lend additional credibility to this bright future, the region must adjust its perspective.Regional leaders can no longer lament the lack of growth and communities can no longer deliberate indefinitely over plans for the future.They must concentrate instead upon leveraging the attendant growth for the regional good.

 

For example, it is not necessary or even likely that the economic benefit from technology firms' investment be concentrated in a few communities.Rather, the region should be prepared to engage all its communities in assessing the potential ties of each community to the anticipated investment.One community may be the logical site of bio-tech research activities while not having the appropriate location for a chip making plant.Another community could see a concentration of power related research.Younger employees in this industry often have a greater affinity for an urban oriented lifestyle.Thus, increased numbers of well-paid workers and executives in the technology industry could both help stabilize and rehabilitate urban neighborhoods while simultaneously providing suburban communities the opportunity to achieve desired place-making, build bike and walking networks, and support necessary school investments.

 

2.Create New Economic Opportunities.The strategic location of this region relative to population centers of US and Canada[12] implies strong trade growth along corridors used for the rapidly-growing international trade in North America. [13] Opportunities exist for the region to capitalize on this trade by being more than a pass-through region.Economic value can be derived from locating transfer, distribution and final assembly plants in the region.Such valued-added activity could be an important industrially-based replacement for lost employment in paper mills and other traditional industries.

 

3.Learn from Others.Regardless of whether the region enters a strong growth phase -- but particularly if it does -- it is important to examine the experiences of other regions for clues to what should and should not be done.Austin, Texas is an appropriate case study, as is the Research Triangle in North Carolina; Irvine, California; and to a lesser degree, the Silicon Valley of California, Atlanta, and the 128 corridor around Boston.[14]In each case, there are lessons to be learned about the positive impacts of strong growth in research and technology industries and about negative consequences that might have been avoided if handled differently.

 

Up to this point, the Capital Region has experienced such modest amounts of development that this has not been a major issue.The stakes are raised if the pace of change quickens; there is little excuse for not benefiting from others' experiences.

 

4.†††††††† Revitalize and Reinvest for a Sustainable Future.One bumper sticker states, "Change is Inevitable.Struggle is an Option."If the region can embrace change and seek to foster positive change, there are many opportunities to improve quality of life throughout the region.

 

First, the region could explore encouraging international immigration as a tool for urban stabilization and workforce growth.Invariably, cities that gained large amounts of foreign immigrants during the 1990's retained population size and saw neighborhood stabilization.(The New York metropolitan area received one million new immigrants over the past decade.Chicago's urban resurgence has similarly been linked to large numbers of immigrants.)Cities that have not seen a comparable influx (Philadelphia is one cited) have struggled with housing abandonment and accelerated urban decay.Fostering such immigration into the Capital Region could become a powerful option at the region's disposal.[15]

Second, well-served brownfield sites also can become tremendous assets to the region.If success can be achieved in sorting out both environmental liability and remediation requirements for brownfield redevelopment, this region has an abundance of previously-developed land for industrial and commercial expansion.Greater use of this land would help balance development benefits and impacts between urban (brownfield sites) and suburban (greenfield sites) locations, addressing job access issues and reducing fiscal disparity between urban and suburban municipalities.Without adequate deployment of brownfield sites, a burst of growth in the region might threaten the community character of many suburban areas.

 

Third, the region's waterfronts are also underused assets.Whether deployed for commercial or recreational purposes, leveraged for tourism, or devoted to unique housing and corporate offices, carefully-planned use of the waterfront areas is among the most evident opportunities for the region to cultivate a sustainable quality of life and place identity.The same can be said for the region's extensive inventory of historic sites -- many of which are arguably under-appreciated locally and most of which are not positioned to maximize either educational purposes or tourism benefits. [16]

Sustainability applies to investment in housing and retail stock, as well.The substantial stock of older housing and business locations in the urban areas of the region is an underused asset.Finding techniques to foster re-investment in older neighborhoods along with construction of new housing will not only stabilize these communities but also maintain an important component of the region's character.(After all, who travels to New Orleans to see its new homes?)Re-investment in retail stock also applies to suburban locations.Communities need to be prepared for the next generation of retail form, when big box designs or franchise pharmacies are superceded by newer concepts.Sustainability implies being prepared for reuse of the sites of big boxes, and anticipation of eventual re-use of the yet unknown new retail forms.

 

Finally, reinvestment implies investment in human capital.Whether under a slow growth or fast growth scenario, strong opportunities exist to address economic and other disparities through improved education, job training, training in managing personal credit, and access to small business loans.The region requires full engagement of all its residents in the productivity and enjoyment of the region; concentrated efforts to bridge the divide between "haves" and "have nots" is critical to the region's future.

 

5.Harness the Quality Community Movement.A consensus is emerging across the region that the concepts of the quality community movement should be embraced.This may create a regional environment that affords communities permission to do things differently from the way they have been handled in the past.The strong interest in CDTC's Community and Transportation Linkage Planning Program is just one small example of the emerging interest in meaningful community planning, use of public investment to advance community goals, integration of new development with the old, place making, traffic calming, pedestrian accommodation and innovative open space planning.There is renewed interest in enhancing the quality of the "public realm" that benefits all -- streets, parks, vistas, public places -- in contrast to investment primarily in the quality of separated or off-limits private space that is designed to benefit only private owners and their guests.

 

New York State's public support of the quality community movement can be a significant factor, as well.State policy and local financial assistance programs can be nurtured to more fully complement local wishes and needs and preclude state actions that conflict with local plans.

 

The quality community movement and public support for it is important for both the regionís urban communities and its suburban towns that may be asked to absorb a large proportion of new residential, retail and commercial development triggered by regional growth.The opportunity exists for the new development to be handled in a manner that generates greater satisfaction than has been the experience in the past.

 

The biggest obstacle to harnessing the interest in quality communities may be the difficulty in translating ideas into reality.Paradoxically, the types of communities that the public most cherishes (a Saratoga Springs, for example) represent a mix of development, land uses, and parking that would be prohibited by most current zoning ordinances.†† Communities must address such paradoxes if real change is to occur.

 

6.†††††††† Create a Regional Identity.A regional identity is important for those marketing the region to the rest of the world.It is difficult to compete with the Research Triangle of North Carolina, for instance, if there is no local consensus on the name, size or focus of the region.It is particularly difficult if this multi-centered region's image is identified with only a single city (Albany), or only the tri-city area (Albany, Schenectady, Troy) or even just the four counties served by CDTC, CDTA and CDRPC (Albany, Rensselaer, Saratoga and Schenectady counties).The regional identity may be more effective if it embraces connections to the Hudson Valley, Mohawk Valley, Schoharie Valley, Catskills, Adirondacks, Berkshires and Green Mountains and acknowledges the presence of surrounding urban areas such as Glens Falls, Amsterdam and Pittsfield.After all, the broader region is the market which certain regional activity centers such as the Albany International Airport and Albany Medical Center serve; and it is within the broader region that Capital District residents experience cultural and recreational opportunities that contribute to a high quality of life.

 

Beyond its value in projecting a recognizable image to the world, a strong regional identity is important to fostering cooperative working relationships within the region.The necessary and healthy inter-dependence of the region's varied communities can be recognized through a strong regional identity.Recognition is the first step toward achieving an environment in which local actions are taken with a clear consideration of regional impact.

 

7.†††††††† Address Government Structure and Processes.Although it's a difficult subject to raise, addressing the structure of local government in the Capital District may improve the quality of life of residents. An environment of change, brought on either by fiscal crises or rapid growth, can present this opportunity.

 

Restructuring encompasses both the form and efficiency of government.One outstanding question is one of whether restructured government with fewer overlapping layers, smaller municipal councils and greater intergovernmental coordination and consolidation can respect residents' expectation of access and responsiveness while delivering improved service at a lower cost.For example, cost and quality may improve by consolidating road maintenance at a county office equipped with improved technology and equipment.

 

Addressing government structure also pertains to reviewing the fiscal resources and responsibilities of varied layers of government.For example, is it appropriate that town governments have no fiscal responsibility for the maintenance or rehabilitation of state owned roads through their communities (NY 5, for example) while cities typically bear the entire burden of their locally-owned state touring route counterparts (such as NY 5)?†† Similar questions can be explored relative to Medicaid burdens on county government, the contrast in public safety requirements in cities vs. suburbs and the difficulty of small rural towns and villages to generate matching funds for state or federal grants.The legacy of governmental structure and divisions of responsibility generated by nearly four centuries of western settlement of this region frequently hinders efforts to do what makes sense.The near future may be the time to revisit these obstacles.

 

Restructuring also pertains to making sense out of the tools in the hands of government.This means adapting such tools as zoning, comprehensive planning, official street mapping and the State Environmental Quality Review process to 21st century needs.Local regulatory tools and environmental processes can become more than bureaucratic devices to slow down or prevent projects; they can include incentives and support for advancing community goals, demonstrating quality design and managing the rate of land consumption.

 

8.Enhance the Region's Transportation System.Transportation is one of the links that connect the region's communities and support the interdependence that constitutes a region.Entering the 21st century, the region begins with a strong platform upon which to build.Significant recent investment means that modern infrastructure is in place at the Albany International Airport, the Rensselaer Amtrak station and the Port of Albany.Projects are underway to improve high-speed rail service in the area, reconstruct the Saratoga Springs Amtrak station, and initiate scenic rail service from Saratoga into the Adirondacks.Highway projects are increasingly incorporating community-related design components; CDTA is operating a nearly-new bus fleet and is witnessing ridership increases; the region operates perhaps the most advanced Transportation Management Center among areas its size, and exposure to expressway congestion remains low, relative to other metro areas.Levels of cooperation in transportation planning and project delivery are unusually high, permitting innovation and collaboration not deemed possible in most major areas.(The current computer signal and bus priority signal treatment project is one example.CDTA led project design and shared project execution with NYSDOT for a highway/transit project spanning 72 signals owned by three jurisdictions across five municipalities.)

 

Building upon the current strong set of facilities and services is a great opportunity for the region to distinguish itself from other areas, but will be particularly challenging in an era of strong growth.It will be necessary to accelerate investment in information infrastructure, address funding shortfalls for both highway and transit modes (especially regarding transit service outside traditional commuting times), address the inadequate supply of safe bicycling facilities and accommodation along major transportation corridors, improve the integration of various transportation modes and improve integration of land use decisions with transportation considerations.In short, it will be necessary to more fully implement the key strategies of the current New Visions plan.

 

A growth scenario for the region also would accelerate the timeframe for revisiting major regional transportation policies.Has it become more urgent to resolve the Northway's long-term future?†† Are notions of undertaking high-scale transit services more feasible?Would they be effective?More necessary in linking the various parts of the region together as a unit?

 

Next Steps

 

Clearly, the scope of the subject matter is quite broad and touches on issues that fall within the purview of a wide range of parties.As CDTC and CDRPC enter the next phase of their Quality Region work, the focus of the upcoming work will be on physical issues -- transportation system and settlement patterns; community planning and development; the challenges of confronting change at the local level in the context of the regional whole.†† This focus clearly matches CDTC's and CDRPC's historic roles.But achieving a quality region also requires constructive dialogue and exploration of the other critical issues ranging from regional economic development to improvement in inner-city school performance; from regional identity formation to brownfield remediation.

 

It is expected that CDRPC, CDTC and its member agencies and governments will engage with other stakeholders and the general public in other venues in addition to the New Visions process.Remarkably, the issues and broad regional visions articulated in other regional initiatives are quite consistent with those outlined in this report.Such a degree of "convergence" of view is unusual and provides a unique opportunity to the Capital Region to make headway in the subjects outlined above.

 

It is important that each of the various regional initiatives continue to explore issues best suited to its participants and expertise.This approach suggests that the CEG/Nanotech and Chamber coalition initiatives may have a lead role in creating a marketable image for the region and in identifying the magnitude of potential high tech growth in the region -- and the circumstances under which it is possible.The Business / Higher Education Roundtable may appropriately have a lead role in the connections between higher education and economic growth -- and the ability to use such growth to retain young people and help revitalize urban areas.ARISE can continue to serve a role as the region's "conscience", bringing various parties together periodically to assure coordination -- and to assure that the various initiatives are affording access and directing sufficient attention to inner-city issues.This would allow the CDTC/CDRPC effort to focus on transportation system, settlement pattern and local decision process subjects.

 

This report has concentrated on the "what" of a quality region -- what is at stake, what is good, what is bad, what may present itself in the near future.The coming work must turn to the "how" -- how does the region achieve success and avoid failure? The coming effort will be more challenging than the task of merely identifying the issues.It will be during this work that the idealized vision will be confronted by the hard realities of conflicting interests, entrenched processes and the urgency of the immediate.The region will need to leverage the good will and convergence of visions that has developed in recent months in order to overcome these difficulties.



 

Appendix

 

Quality Task Force Members

active in preparing this report

 

CDTC Staff

 

John Poorman

Deborah Stacey (lead contact for the task force)

 

CDPRC Staff

 

Chungchin Chen

Todd Fabozzi

Rocco Ferraro

 

Other Active Members

 

Megan Bast

Richard Carlson

Kenneth DeCerce

Stephen Feeney

Frank Gilmore

Richard Harris

Margaret Irwin

Jennifer Krausnick

Clarence Mosher

Donald Odell

Ralph Pascale

Robert Phillips

Thomas Werner

 



[1] The Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP)'s measure of "congestion exposure" combining highway traffic density with measures of transit, walk and bike use ranks the Capital District's congestion exposure third-lowest among 68 large metro areas in the nation. (See www.transact.org)

[2] The six-county metropolitan statistical area ranks 12th in walking to work and 25th in transit to work out of the 100 largest metropolitan areas of the nation, according to the 2000 Census.

[3] NYSDOT has identified about 1000 dwelling units in locations identified as benefiting from potential noise barriers over the 194 expressway miles studied in the eight-county region.About 40% are located along I-787, I-890, NY 85 and Albany portions of I-90 (less than 30 miles).Source: NYSDOT Region 1 Noise Barrier Planning Study, May 2001.

[4] Total annual property tax burden ranges from $10.70 to $38.57 per $1,000 full value assessment across the four-county region.See www.cdrpc.org for further information.

[5] See Quality Communities Task Force report at the Lt. Governor's website, www.state.ny.us/governor/ltgov

[6] Four-county averages.Source: US Bureau of the Census, American FactFinders website (www.factfinders.census.gov)

[7] CDRPC, "Suburban Growth in the Capital District, 1986-1997", background report presented to the Quality Region Task Force, April 2002.

[8] The regionalization of travel is reflected in an annual average growth in expressway travel in the Capital District of 4% between 1990 and 2000, while traffic on non-expressway facilities grew less than half as much.Source:NYSDOT traffic counts.

[9] Increased peak hour congestion in the region can be explained largely by the shift of workers to "drive alone" mode.While there was a four-county increase of only 60,000 workers between 1980 and 2000, there were 105,000 more drive alone commuters in 2000 than in 1980.

[10] The six-county region ranks 17th out of the 100 largest metro areas in the nation for percentage of households without a vehicle, according the 2000 Census.Thus, there is a high degree of reliance on the region's traditional, transit-served development corridors for work, shopping and other trip purposes.

[11] The region has an unusually-high percentage of residents with graduate or professional degrees -- fully 13.2% of all residents 25 years of age or older.The national average is less than 9%. (2000 Census.)

[12] The broader area served by the I-87 and I-90 corridors centering in the Capital District includes much of New York, New England, Eastern Canada and the Mid-Atlantic US, an area totaling over 80,000,000 residents and often called the "World's Richest Market."Source:CDTC "Champlain-Hudson S/E/T Plan", 1999.

[13]†† International truck crossings at the I-87 Canadian border rank the ninth busiest among all US-Canada and US-Mexico border crossings.Rail freight crossings between Eastern NY and Canada constitute 8% of all international crossings in the US.Source: Eastern States Border Coalition.

[14]†† Growth-related problems have begun to have major impacts on these growth areas.Atlanta has been sanctioned by EPA for air quality problems; newspaper articles cite corporate disillusionment with rush hour delays facing drivers at Research Triangle park.

[15] Only 1.8% of the Capital District's 2000 population had immigrated from other nations in the past decade, compared to 8.2% of the state's population and 4.7% of the nation's population.See www.cdrpc.org

[16]As one, the Mabee farm in Schenectady County is perhaps unique nationwide as an example of an intact 17th century farmstead but is a virtually unknown asset even within the region.