Dean Clough

May 17, 2024

Portico Darwin: Albany Doesn't Have to Suck



4 Minute Read

Happy Friday and we're back from camping.  Mt. Madonna County Park, in a luxuriant redwood forest in the Santa Cruz Mountains, is certainly worthy of a Micro Travel Guide, which is coming soon.  For now, let's just say B.J. Thomas will loom large.

Until then, and since you've had a break from this festival of narcissism, today I am going even deeper than normal.  How deep? 

Straight to the depths of my hometown of Albany, New York.  But wait:  You still might find this interesting.

As you'd guess, Albany is not exactly a hub of dynamism.  During my lifetime and even before, the city and its surrounding area have been in a kind of perpetual decline.  Worse, a literally monumental effort to address the downfall did nothing for a city hollowed out in little more than a single generation. 

This is the "monument," the sterile Empire State Plaza, built in the 1960s and finished by 1976, at a cost of over $1.7 billion ($9 billion today, and please remember that number).  It is both pretty cool and the worst of this kind of mid-20th-century thinking.

While I've written about Albany before, a podcast called The Eagle, produced by the city's local newspaper, The Times-Union, incited action this time.  And creativity, with more than a touch of the fantasy I often showcase here.

Tell us more!  Said absolutely no reader of this blog ever, but don't worry, I'm just getting started.

The podcast opened with a replay of former basketball star and now commentator Rebecca Lobo's dis of my hometown on national television, during the Elite 8 portion of the NCAA Women's Basketball tournament, held in Albany in April.  In response to a player saying she was going to take her family around town, Lobo said:

An off-the-cuff and minor crack for sure, and not completely inaccurate.  But it set the city into a defensive tizzy, and the podcast went on to discuss what can be done to "fix" Albany. 

They led with what I've said here before:  the hideous and ridiculously ginormous 787 freeway, which severs the city from its potentially beautiful Hudson River waterfront, must come down.  Here's what that could look like, courtesy of the Albany Riverfront Collaborative, via their very impressive before and after graphics. 


But a second topic covered in the podcast was the sprawl inflicted on Albany by two other architectural and urban planning mistakes (some would say "fiascos"):  the State University of New York at Albany campus, and the Harriman State Office Complex, both also built in the 1960s and both located out in the suburbs, vs. downtown.  Here they are.


Charming, wouldn't you say?  And believe me, the brutal magnitude of these giant facilities is not captured by either photo.  Both cover hundreds of acres (with much of it dedicated to surface parking lots), are situated right next to each other, and are 5 miles from downtown. 

But the fact is, there are thousands of faculty, students, and state workers at these mid-century mistakes, and all of them drive to buildings that aren't going anywhere.  Yet, it is the definition of sprawl, and Albany needs a complete reboot.

So what if we not only took down 787, but built a light rail line connecting downtown, Harriman, and the university?  And both the Amtrak station and Albany's airport?  I found a fun website called Metro Dreamin', turned my imagination to 11, and created Albany Central Transit.

To any former or current Albanians reading this, the idea is to revitalize Central Avenue by running light rail up it from downtown and largely making it a pedestrian- and biking-only thoroughfare.  At my imagined Westgate Junction, the Blue Line continues to the Harriman campus and the university, while the Yellow Line runs to Wolf Road in Colonie and on to the Albany Airport.  

Another mistake the city made years ago was allowing Amtrak to move its station across the Hudson from downtown Albany to Rensselaer; as most of the 787 replacement options call for a new bridge, the mistake could be fixed and this critical link accommodated.

I believe there's enough density within a quarter-mile walk of my transit corridor to make this work, but of course, the idea would be to build even more along and near it and get people out of their cars.  

Maybe there could even be some cool bars for Rebecca Lobo.

I posted this dream on Reddit, and while the feedback was impressive (179 upvotes!) and nearly all positive, there were of course the naysayers.  Their comments reminded me of why Albany never changes, as most of the negatives were along the lines of 

Why bother?  Albany will never amount to anything. 

Of course not.  Not with that thinking.  And even people in favor cite cost as something that makes all of this idle chatter blog posting.

Ridding the city of the awful 787 freeway and replacing it with something human-scaled is estimated to cost $3.4 billion (the same as repairing and maintaining this 60-year-old mistake, for the record).  And typical light rail systems in the USA cost approximately $150 million per mile, so the 10 miles covered by the Blue and Yellow lines would cost $1.5 billion. 

So for around $5 billion, we could do two projects that would transform Albany like nothing else would.   

But while our country's aversion to light rail is dumb, it isn't going away, so Albany Central Transit will almost certainly remain an urbanist's fever dream. 

However, taking down 787 and replacing it is not: 

NY State Department of Transportation:  Reimagining 787.

But imagine if we lived in a country where we could and did do it all:  

Like the first, that last one is real.

Yes, that's $8.9 billion yet still less than the $9 billion the destructive and pointless Empire State Plaza cost, and the money was somehow found for that.  What I am envisioning would be a metamorphosis for a place that needs one. 

Come to think of it, a lot of places in America could use transformative infrastructure work like this.  But that's not the country in which we live.

No, we live in a country where the above is crazy talk, while putting $3 trillion on the credit card for a useless war is fine. 

Fun Fact:  We could have done 337 $8.9 billion programs nationally for the cost of 1 Iraq War.

Or is that 10 Seconds of Seriousness?  

Have a great weekend.


Another motivation for a Mt. Madonna Country Park Micro Travel Guide is for documentation for the doubting Thomas, Randy Smee.

Two surprises from this missive.  Your about turn on The Mooch, and jeez, Portico Darwin is going camping 😳???

Camping?  Glamping, my friend, glamping.

Thank you for reading this newsletter.  


With no disrespect intended for Ms. Ono, here are the (Killer) John Lennon songs from Double Fantasy.  A perfect title for today, and heck, there's also the equally apropos "Just Like Starting Over" and "Watching the Wheels."

What a stupid guy to murder.

About Dean Clough