The building of the Empire State Plaza, or the South Mall as the locals know it, was the product of a perfect storm. The storm ripped through almost 100 acres of the urban core of the city, closed at least 250 businesses (and ended up being the death knell for about another 200) , as well displacingin excess of 9,000 people. Many of those businesses and people moved out of Albany and never looked back.
The groundwork for the storm had its roots in the development of the national highway system in the 1950’s under President Eisenhower, and the national, state and local movements to provide adequate postwar housing, while eliminating urban decay and blight. The mantra was “urban renewal”.
Highway building took its toll. In 1960, the New York Central Rail Road informed the City that it would shut Union Station and move the station out of Albany to Rensselaer. It could no longer support the large building as passenger rail use declined;it was a fiscal drag. Mayor Corning fought that decision throughout 1960, but lost the battle. Additionally, there were unique local concerns about the housing stock and urban decay. A shanty town built from WW Ii army surplus pre-fab materials had existed in St. Mary’s Park on Washington Ave. until 1953. Initially supported by the State, Governor Harriman withdrew financial support and evicted the tenants. It fell to the City to resolve the problem.
1953 Albany Knick News
A large arterial highway system, supported mostly with federal funds, was already in the works. It would end up cutting off the City from the river. The city had been created and fed by the life blood of the Hudson for 350 years.
New “Projects” bad been completed in North Albany. more were planned and several large high rise buildings were under construction in the South End “Gut” on Green Street. But that would not solve the growing demand for middle class housing. In 1950, the City’s population had reached a high water mark of about 137,000. By 1960, it had dropped to about 128.000, due in large part to a lack of housing stock for the middle class.
January 1960 Albany Knickerbocker News
Downtown merchants were losing business to new shopping plazas springing up closer to the suburbs as people moved to the fringes of the city. Delaware Plaza in Delmar was established in 1955, Latham Circle in 1957, Westgate Shopping Plaza on Central Avenue in 1958 and Stuyvesant Plaza on Western Ave. in 1959.
Urban legend has it that Nelson Rockefeller was embarrassed by Albany. In September, 1959, Princess Beatrix, the then 21 year old heir to the Dutch throne, came to visit Albany and participate in the 350th Hudson-Champlain Celebration, a gala event celebrating the discovery of the New Netherlands (New York State) and most particularly Albany. I remember it well. I went to the the large parade with my grandmother. We stood in the same spot on State St, just above Broadway, where she had watched the 300th celebration 50 years before with her older brothers. I was 8, the same age she had been in 1909.
Legend goes on to say that as Rocky was sitting with an young attractive Princess in a convertible as it toured the City, he became increasingly upset by the condition of the downtown areas of Albany. (But many people forget that Erastus Corning was also in that convertible, sitting next to the Princess as it made the tour.) According to urban myth, Rocky has neber really look at the city before and he was seeing through her eyes. Not a modern city nor even a quaint old charming town, like those in Holland, but an old tired city, riddled with decay, built haphazardly in a crazy quilt.
As the legend continues, when he did look , he found the Governor’s Mansion smack dab in the middle of a heavily populated area, the oldest and most run down section of the city, dominated by Jewish and Italian first and second generation immigrant populations. Just a stone’s throw from the Mansion was the Lyon’s Block,- a large open air public market. In 1959, the Market was crammed, especially on Saturdays, with people selling everything and anything; new and used clothing, food, plants, second hand items, and live chickens and rabbits. Just below the Market were butcher and poultry shops. Today we would see a diverse, alive and thriving, albeit somewhat shabby community, maybe even with a certain European charm. But 50 years ago it was seen as no better than a slum.
The Lyons Market in the 1930’s- by the late 1950’s it was more crowded and shabbier.
If Rocky had managed to position himself for a presidential or vice presidential nomination at the 1960 Republication Convention, what followed over the next 14 years would never have happened. But he was not successful. So he returned to Albany and looked around again, and didn’t like what he saw. But it’s clear that Rocky wasn’t the only person who had plans for the City. Merchants were clamoring for changes. Mayor Corning had concerns about an over crowded city, losing population to the suburbs. Albany was crumbling on his watch.
Events were set in motion. almost taking on a life of their own, unfolding at some points with a mind numbing slowness and at others with a dizzying rapidity.
Early January 1961
The first mention of improvements to Albany appeared in the Jan. 4, 1961 Albany Knickerbocker News (KN). (All citations are from the KN unless identified otherwise.) Rockefeller gives a speech to to the Legislature in which he talked about a “new Albany” with a convention center , an arterial (highway) and multiple dwelling housing. He requests that the Legislature create a Temporary State Commission on the Capitol City (TSCC). For most Albanians, I’m guessing it was a non news event. The same paper has screaming headlines about tense foreign relations with Cuba and excitement about the impending inauguration of JFK. People had other things on their mind. On the previous day (January 3) the paper has lead with the story that the “State” was taking the Albany Country Club by eminent domain to build a new State University at Albany. That might have been a warning, a foreshadowing of things to come, but would have been quite difficult to connect the dots at point and for months to come. Hindsight is 20/20.
Rocky’s request to the State Legislature Jan 4, 1961
When Mayor Corning was asked for comment on the Governor’s proposal there was a surprise. He produced a report prepared by consultants two year prior that called for a series of improvements throughout Albany, concentrating on the downtown areas. The report had not previously been made public, nor had the cost of the consultant been separately identified in the city budget.
One of the planning documents was labeled “Urban Renewal Report”. It called for redevelopment of 10 areas, comprising 320 acres and about 6,300 families, as well as another 7 areas of 255 acres with 6,100 families where housing required substantial “rehabilitation action”
On the same day (Jan 4), the paper also reports that Albany has received a $161,000 federal loan for slum clearance in North Albany.
The next day, Jan. 5, when the Mayor was queried about his failure to release the planning report to the public, he answered that he didn’t consider it an official city document.
The details of the plan were released on the same day:
North Albany was targeted for demolition of a large number of structures, including residential housing , and that area was proposed for commercial and light industrial redevelopment.
- South Arbor Hill, with a 20 acre area of rugged terrain covered with “blighted residential structures, ” was targeted for commercial and industrial development, a “cooperative apartment site” and enlargement of the Dudley Park area. Clearing of 25 to 45 acres for a new elementary school, of street parking, shopping area and residential housing was proposed.
Central Avenue was slated for structure rehabiliation and clearance of a block near Lark for parking.
- Sheridan Hollow reflected the “blighting influence” of low topography; 85 % of housing units are substandard. A combination of rehab and redevelopment was required, with cleared areas for targeted for medium density residential units or commercial use. Clearing the blighted residential section would make way for general business development, off street parking and a proposed Eagle Street Viaduct for a connection with Clinton Avenue.
- Lincoln Park had 25% of substandard structures; “spot clearance” for off street parking and some re-use was recommended. The area around the Governor’s Mansion was recommended for have spot clearance for apartment development to return it to its once “fashionable position”.
- In the South End of 65 acre area, only 6% of units were substandard. The proposal was complete rebuilding of neighborhood, additional public housing, a shopping center, an elementary school and widening of South Pearl St.. Row type housing to counterbalance the high density high raise . under construction was suggested. A pedestrian bridge to connect the South End and Lincoln Park was recommended – over Schuyler High and around the Schuyler Mansion and Howe Library.
- Capitol Hill and the Central Business District are “badly blighted and severely overcrowded” Over 50^ of structures were substandard. The northern area was targeted for office buildings, with the addition of another elementary school (already being planned) and high income housing.
- Finally, the there would be an area carved from Capital Hill, the Business District and Arbor Hill for a new combined railway/bus station, office buildings , with enlargement of the business area and high rise apartments with a river view.
The accompanying article identifies the findings from the study commissioned by the Mayor. Albany was a “rental town” with 62% of units occupied by tenants and and 18% of units tabulated in study were found to be substandard. The results of the survey were a mixed bag, with a substantial increase in demolitions in previous 7 years (1950-57), as well as an increase of about 2.700 in dwelling units during that time period. Of those, about 500 resulted from conversions – addition of basement apartments, upper flower subdivisions, etc. The report said that these conversions resulted in overcrowded schools, insufficient parking, and other factors that lead to blight and ultimately “slums”.
January 5, 1961
The City had little or no enforced zoning laws, almost no housing code enforcement (since there was no code0 and you could get a building permit by scribbling a plan on a cocktail napkin. (My grandfather did it.) Consequently, the consultant report called for new zoning requirements. But the comprehensive zoning plan in Albany was not put in place until 1968. One could speculate that it took this long to get a zoning law passed by the Common Council. Or one could speculate that a zoning law was finally put into place after the demolition of huge swathes of commercial and residential structures for the South Mall, so they would not have to be “grandfathered” under a new zoning law.
January 5, 1961
The handwriting was on the wall, but as I said before, no one was connecting the dots. How could they? What was going to happen was unthinkable. The Albany Knickerbocker News Editorial staff was focused on the here and now. In its January 5 editorial, it reminded the Governor of his promise to the Mayor to provide for the development of shopping and restaurant areas and other commercial areas surrounding the new University. As we all know, that never happened. And so the stage is set.. for the next scenes.
January 5, 1961
And things were going to be moving fast. Rocky was a man of action.. tremendous energy.. and he was used to having things his own way.. NOW. On January 3rd, the State seized the land.. now it could move forward.. post haste. But first he requested more money for the State Campus. It may have been the Harriman State Office Building Campus, but Rocky would put his little stamp on it. Rockefeller was, not unlike many in government that time, obsessed with the prospect of nuclear attack, especially with the recent takeover of Cuba by Castro, with the help of his Communist friends. So Rocky decided to create an “alternate seat of government”, by providing office facilities at the campus for Civil Defense, the State Police and the State Office of Military and Naval Affairs at the State Campus site. He characterized this request as Capital District economic stimulus.
He also requested funding repay the Governmental Emergency Fund for the cost of the Albany Country Club land to be used to construct the new State University. My husband’s father worked for the NYS State Comptroller’s office at that time and throughout the 1960’s. He would say that was Rocky’s approach, ask for a relatively small amount of funds to start a project rapidly – to get the shovels in the ground. He understood that once the project was started, even if the Legislature balked, it would ultimately approve more money for a project already in the works.