Saturday, October 24, 2009

McKownville Reservoir

As I sit waiting for the Yanks to begin tonight, despite the rain (hopefully,) I'm thinking about our old favorite flooding spot around here: Western Avenue @ Stuyvesant Plaza. A branch of the Krum Kill flows under Western at this point, the water table is high, and the stormwater and drainage system is very old and not efficient enough to reduce flooding up to modern standards. If you've been by the area in the last few weeks you probably have noticed the construction work going on at the entrance to Stuyvesant Plaza, behind Fridays, at the old McKownville Reservoir location.

The reservoir is being reconstructed to enhance its ability to control water flow out to the Krum Kill via the branch running under Western. This first phase of the project at that location will reduce flooding of Western Ave. west of Fuller Rd. and east of Schoolhouse Rd. The second phase of the project is of particular interest to me and I can't wait for the results. The natural area around the old McKownville Reservoir will be turned into a pocket park with a trail around the reservoir, complete with benches, designed to be similar to the popular Buckingham Lake Park in Albany.

The living history of the area will hopefully be enhanced by this project. William McKown built a tavern at the site of the Burger King opposite Fuller Road in 1790 anticipating the completion of the Great Western Turnpike and reaped the benefits of the future Route 20 corridor. McKown, whose family's plot of land became most of "McKownville," became Guilderland Town Supervisor from 1813 to 1824 and he built the reservoir which has sat behind Stuyvesant Plaza as an under-utilized relic of the area's former water supply system, particularly since the plaza was built in 1959 and Crossgates was originally completed in 1984. The branch flows westward under the Northway terminus and Thruway behind the McKownville Methodist Church to Crossgates where it eventually disappears under parking lots.

How many people fly by on Western during good traffic flow and never know the pond is there? Perphaps if you turn your head to the right when leaving Stuyvesant to Western you've seen it. Maybe when you're stuck in rush hour traffic backed up from the Schoolhouse Rd. light on your way to the Northway entrance or further into Guilderland you've noticed it on your right. Regardless, it's a unique reminder that the area between Crossgates and Stuyvesant, including the current Thruway and Northway terminus rights-of-way, used to be wetlands. The McKownville residents will certainly benefit from this pocket park and so will the summertime shoppers at Stuyvesant who've grabbed a latte from Starbucks and need a place to sit by some water and trees before heading back onto the web of concrete and asphalt to go home. Give kudos to Ken Runion, Guilderland Town Supervisor, for overseeing the implementation of this project.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Union Station

The Times Union website is reporting that Bank of America will consolidate its Albany offices to the State Street building and move out of Kiernan Plaza (formerly, Union Station) early next year. Every time I think of the building I wish the inside were accessible to the general public in some context consistent with downtown Albany's recent attempts at drawing people in instead of forcing them out. Mayor Jennings was quoted in the article: "My feeling is that it should be a part of our downtown rebirth...It's a beautiful building, inside and out." Also, "It's an opportunity for us to make it part of the city...It was kind of closed up." It is a good sign to hear the mayor apparently has such a sentiment and it would be wonderful if a plan could actually be developed and financed within the next century to ensure the building's life continues and becomes even more relevant.

The few photos I've seen of the interior of the building show that it is architecturally stunning, refined, and continues to reap the benefits of its renovation in 1986. Times change and so does the methodology that goes along with dealing with cities' aging infrastructures. In 1968, when Union Station closed as a transportation hub in favor of Amtrak's new rail station across the Hudson in Rensselaer, the building lay vacant and subject to the demise so much of Albany suffered during the same period: eviction, vacancy, demolition, and, in many cases, vacant lots for years before rehabilitation. Thankfully, this building never reached demolition as people began to wise up to the values of reusing such architectural gems. Norstar bought the property after years of vacancy, vandalism, and general lack of maintenance which made Union Station an eyesore. The building was renovated and rechristened as Peter Kiernan Plaza as Norstar bank moved in for its headquarters. Norstar became Fleet Bank and Bank of America has been there for a few years. As bank headquarters go, I guess security is a reasonably important thing. A couple years ago, on a weekend excursion downtown with my camera, my fiance and I wondered if one could simply walk in and possibly see the lobby or some part of the interior of the building from the entrance in back, by the parking garage, in the old area where passengers boarded the trains to New York, Boston, Chicago, etc. Two guards rather rudely made us leave and looked at us as if we were from outer space for wanting to go inside the building.

This would be a tremendous opportunity for Union Station, a wonderful relic of Broadway's past in Albany, to show off all of what it was built to show off. Reuse as "mixed use" (retail, convention, residential, etc.,) as Mayor Jennings suggested is a great idea, but any idea which would boast the building being a public asset and not another sign of holed-up elite (government or corporate) would further the tradition this building and Norstar began in the early eighties when they went against the grain by simply saving the building. Some quarter of a century later, it is time to show our maturation as a city by giving this building back to its rightful owners, the citizens of Albany, and show it off to those coming through Albany to visit, as they did for so many years when their trains arrived and departed from Union Station.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Chester Arthur, President

Chester A. Arthur, our twenty-first United States President, is buried at the Albany Rural Cemetery and is being honored today by the military in a ceremony reserved for deceased presidents on their birthdays. The Albany Rural Cemetery is in Menands, just north of the city line. Make your way to his grave site and the cemetery in general sometime and note the names of local history-makers.