The capital of the Empire State hopes to do what many cities have done: rip up urban highways inflicted upon them in the 1960s and ’70s. Albany expects soon to remove its elevated eyesore, Interstate 787, which squats between the city and the Hudson River. The aim, according to the Albany Riverfront Collaborative, is to replace the eleven-lane highway, built in the early ’70s, with a ground-level boulevard lined with 93 acres of parks, housing and commercial development.
Begun early this year as a volunteer effort, the cooperative’s mission statement is as follows:
The Albany Riverfront Collaborative will engage our complete community in the creation of an equitable, sustainable, beautiful, forever-vision, and the initial, iterative steps toward this vision. The ARC will forge the robust civic partnerships necessary to nurture a river-connected and sustaining community with a vibrant and interdependent economy, culture, and landscape.
Albany’s plan, if undertaken, would open the door to the sort of revitalization its tired downtown needs, much as a similarly conceived plan sparked a return of life, civility and beauty to downtown Providence two decades ago.
Between 1990 and 1996, Providence uncovered its downtown rivers, which were then covered by roads and parking lots known in the Guinness Book of World Records, ed. 1988, as the “widest bridge in the world.” It spanned the daylighted rivers with a dozen lovely new bridges, and lined the embankments with river walks and public parks. The city then doubled down on its “renaissance” by restoring the beauty of its downtown, eliminating its sterile faux-modernist facades, restoring its historic architecture, and installing period lampposts, brick sidewalks and new apartments atop new shops along Westminster Street, its historic main street. As almost an afterthought, Providence removed I-195 from between downtown and its Jewelry district, and rebuilt it 500 yards downriver.
The key to success in Providence was the explicitly traditional style of the plan’s architecture and infrastructure. Rhode Island’s capital city replaced an urban gulch of quasi-modernist style – that is, no style at all – with a set of dependably classicist features that felt friendly to a population used to the traditional tenor of the historical architecture on both the west (downtown) and east (College Hill; Brown, RISD) sides of the intimate Providence and Woonasquatucket rivers.
Albany would be wise to replace Route 787 with a similarly traditional set of embellishments to the boulevard, parks and buildings it erects on the Hudson. If citizens of Albany feel alienated by the gash separating them from the Hudson, the villain is not so much the highway itself but the manner in which urban planners of the era chose – yes, it was a choice – to design its insertion between downtown and the river. In fact, a boulevard was one choice that was rejected early on by the planners of Route 787.
Providence’s River Relocation Project, as the new waterfront plan was known, did not spring forth without controversy and compromise. The idea was to open space for traffic from the new Capital Center development to squeeze between the financial district and the Providence and Woonaskquatucket rivers. Their confluence was moved 150 feet to the east. All project elements that were not vehicular, such as the parks and river walks, got a 100-percent match from the U.S. Department of Transportation. However, planners had to add the River Relocation Project to the Capital Center Project, which had already begun in a more typical, sterile design style, by reshuffling private land parcels and grafting a federal transportation project onto a commercial development project – with both elements publicized jointly as a string of public parks. It was not easy.
Leveraging funds for Albany’s project will not be as difficult as it was for Rhode Island in the 1980s and ’90s. Recent federal legislation will open a gusher of money for Albany. Still, planners are always on the edge of taking the wrong step in making big choices for a city’s future – as I-787 demonstrates. The purpose of the Albany Riverfront Collaborative is not just to offer alluring plans for what could replace the elevated highway – detailed plans that were released weeks ago – but to assemble a coalition of interested citizens and groups to make sure that the city’s waterfront receives the share it deserves of the upcoming federal windfall.
As pointed out last month by Albany Times-Union columnist Chris Churchill (“A beginning to 787’s end“), other cities, including Syracuse and Rochester in New York and St. Louis and San Francisco elsewhere in this country have done much the same thing. He writes:
While those efforts are widely regarded as successes, I’m not sure any city could benefit from a highway remake more than Albany. That’s because 787 is uncommonly monstrous in how it completely dominates the riverfront, with its 11 lanes of traffic (including arterials) and all those ridiculous ramps sucking up land and obliterating a resource.
“Interstate 787 is dramatically overbuilt for demand,” adds Churchill, “which is why [the Albany Riverfront Collaborative] believes a boulevard would have only a minimal impact on commute times.”
The proposed boulevard would be much slenderer than the maximalist footprint of the highway system now in place. The boulevard would replace the highway and dozens of dank parking lots beneath it that add to the difficulty pedestrians must face to reach the waterfront. The ARC has estimated that 73,000 tons of concrete would be replaced by 6,500 trees.
Green trees taking the place of gray concrete all sounds very nice, but I cannot sufficiently emphasize the importance of design choices that will face Albany if and when the decision to replace the highway is made. When I was writing about Providence’s waterfront project in the late 1980s and ’90s, I examined the design of waterfronts that had been built in the United States and around the world. A helpful resource was The Waterfront Center, in Washington, D.C., nonprofit and its two volumes (there have been more editions since) that described and photographed scores of new waterfront projects around the world. Almost all of them were characterized by sterile, streamlined, modernist design styles, often replacing industrial environments such as wharfs and railroad yards with styles designed, in a perverse paradox, to reflect the current industrial chic. Those styles were prominent then and are still today. The popularity of Providence’s new waterfront arises in part from its refusal to truckle to such design concepts
Its success includes the now-famous WaterFire art installation, which since 1994 has attracted over 40,000 visitors a dozen times yearly for the last 26 years (the 2020 season was cancelled for the usual reason).
Rhode Island was one of America’s original thirteen colonies, and its new waterfront is traditional in style, which means that most citizens here feel a kinship with a civic project designed to fit in with the city’s historic character.
I dare say most waterfront projects being built today embrace the very same design cues avoided by Providence and highlighted by The Waterfront Center. Planners in Albany will find themselves under great pressure to follow the city’s planning establishment if the project moves forward. Thus it is vital to ensure that the city’s citizens play a role in choosing its design template. The Albany Riverfront Collaborative seems to have made an excellent start in this and other aspects of its commendable effort to end the civic tragedy of Interstate 787.