Placemaking as Policy: Gloversville, New York: A Laboratory for the community impact of public space revitalization

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Main Street with the Co-op Market

Gloversville, New York is about fifty miles northeast of Albany at the edge of the Adirondacks. For 150 years it was the center of American glove manufacturing and a thriving commercial hub. Being Gloversville was not unlike being, say, Buggy Whip-ville, and by the last quarter of the twentieth century its classic “Main Street” was hollowed out, with limited economic activity. Today, Gloversville has a population of about 15,000, with a median household income of about $35,000. The downtown has a dollar store and a large number of social service providers – and a lot of empty space. There are a few small industrial firms outside of the downtown, and several long time retailers on the main street. There are more than a half-dozen empty multi-story former glove factories in or immediately adjacent to the downtown.

Glove making must have been a highly lucrative endeavor for many, many years because the architecture and design of the commercial buildings are of very high quality; and most of that built legacy remains – waiting to be reused. The elegant, private Eccentric Club (http://www.eccentricclub.com/wordpress/) looks to be well maintained and is in the middle of the downtown – evidence of the wealth that was generated, and at least some of which, remains there.

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The view down Gloversville’s Main Street.

What brought Gloversville to my attention, and one of things that makes it distinctive, is that the local economic development authorities have made placemaking a central part of their strategy to revitalize the town. The Fulton County Center for Regional Growth (CRG) recently hired local resident Jennifer Jennings as Gloversville’s downtown development specialist. I met Jennifer while speaking at Project for Public Spaces’ “Making It Happen” training this past spring, and last week while on a visit upstate stopped by for a tour. Jennifer is energetic and imaginative about the possibilities for the downtown. She also knows her placemaking stuff and has brought a range of new programs to the town – including collaborating with the local BID on a micro-park on Main Street (https://www.facebook.com/gvillemicropark/). She has developed a series of events for the downtown – featuring a regular twilight market (https://www.facebook.com/gloversvilletwilightmarket/).

What the town has going for it is an unusually attractive, intact turn of the 20th century physical environment and lots of low-cost, potentially available space. It’s in a beautiful, even spectacular part of New York State –the Mohawk Valley, site of the historic Erie Canal – with great access to outdoor recreation and an active local agricultural economy. With so much attention being paid to urban housing costs, there is a lot to be said for a town with the character of Gloversville, four hours from New York City and less than an hour from the rail station and airport of Albany. What with the internet and the expansive reach of national delivery services, Gloversville is practically adjacent to Brooklyn — but with space renting for only around $7 per square foot.

 

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Inside the Co-op Market

At the center of Gloversville on Main Street is the seven-year old Mohawk Harvest Co-operative Market. The well-designed market sells local produce, groceries and crafts and has a coffee bar. Based on my conversation with Co-op staff, the Co-op has the capacity and need for substantial additional sales. It seemed to me an under-leveraged asset for downtown redevelopment. If I were creating a placemaking strategy for Gloversville it would be focused on drawing a critical mass of college educated/creative/entrepreneurial folks to live in the downtown near the Co-op. Starting, small to test the market, I would do whatever it took to gain control some of the upper floor over retail space on the block where the Co-op is, make it available to rent at very low-cost and market it to artists and recent college graduates as living space. With a few dozen of those folks living downtown, a critical mass will be established, improving sales at the Co-op, and attracting/creating the bars and restaurants that will inevitably follow in their wake. This is the Goldman Properties (http://www.goldmanproperties.com/About-Us/History.asp), place-based strategy for urban revitalization. Creating a geographic focus is key; as is attracting new, potentially higher income folks to the downtown (perhaps making art, doing commercial design, providing other professional services, selling on the internet, or coding). Once there are a few new people living downtown, the Co-op will draw them and it should be begin to colonize its adjacent sidewalks with movable tables and chairs – building on its already existing assets.

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The Main Street micro-park.

The creation of a critical mass is key. Spreading out projects around the downtown does not have the same kind of impact. It doesn’t create the interaction and buzz that makes living downtown fun and draws other people to want to be there. Creating retail continuity and further enlivening the Co-op block will lead to organic growth of economic activity – and spread around the downtown as people discover the town and its attractiveness. The micro-park needs to be moved from across the street to be in front of the Co-op in order to contribute to building on existing activity. It strikes me as odd that locals might complain about the loss of parking spaces even in a place with as little downtown activity and as much empty space as Gloversville.

Trying to attract bars and restaurants that will in turn attract visitors from outside of town is a low probability enterprise. Attracting a one star chef to create a destination restaurant in a disinvested downtown is unlikely, and even if it happens, the track record of such ventures isn’t very good. Relying on outside visitors is a high-risk strategy in a place that isn’t on the way to anywhere else. Attracting existing businesses to relocate to Gloversville is the conventional approach to economic development and creating jobs. This approach often requires the expenditure of public funds to attract such businesses, often those businesses bring employees with them and there isn’t necessarily a skills match with the local labor pool. An organic approach of fermenting local economic activity by making downtown a desirable place to live and work is a proven, effective long-term strategy. What Gloversville has to offer is inexpensive space in a walkable, attractive downtown environment.

A downtown revitalization scheme will benefit existing residents in a number of ways. Service jobs will be created for locals in the businesses created by the new residents. Of course, as the downtown improves, the quality of life improves for everyone – as retail options expand and public spaces become more usable and attractive. New residents and small businesses will raise downtown property values and expand the tax base to support municipal service delivery. In addition, having more college educated residents of child-bearing age in the downtown will bring a demand for higher standards and the energy and resources to improve local public schools.

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Some of the building behind the facade is in seriously deteriorated condition

A major problem that Jennifer and I discussed that is an obstacle to downtown redevelopment in Gloversville is the existence of environmental conditions in former commercial and industrial spaces. Former offices have issues with asbestos and former glove factories have the whole range of contamination issues that arise from leather tanning. It is likely that remediating those issues, particularly given the current low available rents, makes reusing those structures uneconomic. In addition, local private developers are unlikely to want to take on the potential environmental liability risk associated with those contaminated properties – even if their remediation is financeable. This is where local government and non-profits (particularly legacy foundations and private philanthropy) need to get creative with grants, low-cost loan funds and providing environmental indemnification. The State Brownfield Opportunity program is a good tool towards this end. A relatively small investment in one pilot project could prove to be the catalyst for demonstrating the economic potential for adaptive reuse of commercial spaces. One successful project is likely to attract other investors and developers. Millions of dollars of new development and investment could grow out of low hundreds of thousands of environmental remediation costs.

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Former glove factory

The events and placemaking activity that Jennifer has put in place are an excellent base on which to build. The goal should be enlivening the downtown with new retail uses growing out from the Co-op, preferably spilling out onto the sidewalks for as much of the year as is possible. New ground floor uses are likely to reflect David Milder’s “New Normal,” (http://www.ndavidmilder.com/2016/10/how-smaller-rural-downtowns-are-faring-under-the-new-normals-new-retailing) that is away from sales of merchandise that can be bought on-line or at superstore and towards services, social experiences and one-of-a-kind merchandise. That means, in addition to coffee bars, bars and restaurants, artists studios and galleries, hair, makeup and spa services, and merchandise like glove maker Daniel Storto who already has a Gloversville store (http://www.danielstorto.com/).

Gloversville has the potential to be a national model of how successful a downtown revitalization strategy based on placemaking practice can be. The town is fortunate to have Jennifer in place. Given the three to five years that it takes to turn a place around using public space animation, Gloversville is likely to find itself to be a lively downtown with new residents and expanded economic activity.

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