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Environmental Justice, Pollution, Sprawl and a New and Better Albany

Aaron Mair Talks About Albany

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At the March dinner, SPB welcomed Aaron Mair of the Arbor Hill Environmental Justice Corp., to speak about environmental justice.

We learn something every day. We learn how dynamically we are all linked, our species, all human beings are linked to each other.

We are also learning about unfortunate tradeoffs as well. Like sprawl. Sprawl is the unorganized growth, the unplanned growth of human settlements. Smart growth is organizing space. Accelerators of sprawl include new roads and widening old roads, building schools on the fringe, extending water lines and sewer lines into rural areas benefitting wealthy people and city residents pay. Look at the State Budget: economic development is a priority with tax breaks and incentives subsidizing sprawl to bring industry upstate.

Why do people move out of the City? It has less to do with taxes and mostly to do with schools and jobs and open space. The question is how much good planning has gone into the development of the City. The dump, the landfill was not well planned, not well designed, not well operated. It is a cash cow for the City; garbage as a source of income. Look at the Answers Incinerator. Low income people paid the price and continue to pay.

In Arbor Hill (a place where many low income people live) parkland and swimming pools are gone. Kids swim in Patroon Creek which is polluted. The dump leaks into the Creek, which flows into the Hudson. In the City the question is always how much money can we get. The City doesnÕt have a plan and a city without a plan means disaster. Without a plan, without a clear understanding of the relationship of residents to the City, to the urban environment, to the green space means that people donÕt have confidence in the present, in the future and donÕt want to live here. Middle class people wonÕt move here.

Arbor Hill, with its many historic buildings, is an impediment to the way the City wants to go. Families that have lived here for generations Ōare in the wayĶ. The plan for the redevelopment of North Swan Street in Arbor Hill includes tearing down historic buildings, many now owner-occupied, and building new buildings and increasing the density of low income people greatly, which means ghettoization, deteriorization, further destruction and alienation of the residents.

It is not surprising that the population is shrinking. The people who are left are economically tied to the City for the most part. Planning is done by people who do not live in the downtown, people who may not live in the City at all. Residents are not involved in the planning to any meaningful extent. Archeological treasures are seen by the City as major inconveniences. The people who make decisions have financial involvement in the outcome of the decisions. There is no looking at the larger questions. How does the building of parking garages fit into the use of city space, into the transportation planning for the entire region, into the relationship to the business community, into the relationship to the residential community, into smart growth and into sprawl, into the liveability of the City?

If you can cash in on garbage, if you could cash in on people, if you could cash in on sprawl, this city is for it. This city has educational institutions, colleges and the University, professional schools but this city does not have a plan and without a plan the City does not have a future and people donÕt want to settle here in a city without a future. The City has the neighborhood associations and the Council of Albany Neighborhood Associations. The people recognize the need for planning: neighborhood master plans, business district master plans, parking master plans, transportation master plans, school building master plans, recreation facilities master plans, green space master plans, master plans for the renovation and reuse of vacant buildings and brownfields and more. These folks are doing their civic duty but the old saying is true: you canÕt beat City Hall!

Somehow we have to persuade politicians, decision-makers, to listen to our pleas. People do know what is needed. Smart zoning decisions are part of it. Decision-makers have to live in the city and care about the city. They have to have a direct connection to the outcome of their decisions. But there is something wrong when decision-makers have a vested interest in the outcome of their decisions. Cities need planners; AlbanyÕs planner lives outside of the City. What can happen? Light rail would help. Make the downtown pedestrian-friendly. CanÕt trains stop on this side of the river? Clean up and reuse the brownfields along 787.

And there has got to be more to the Pearl St. BID redevelopment than creating a ŌBeer Improvement District Ō!

Congestion on our streets and highways is the result of lack of smart planning, smart growth. Two vital forces are colliding in the City: the quest for culture, for historic preservation, for sustainability and the suburbanitesÕ quest for easy access, the fastest way in and out of the City. So what do we need to do? Put the City first, put the people first, develop a master plan. Swan St. is not an accident. Arbor Hill is an inconvenience. It is an historic district. It canÕt be torn down and paved over. There are rules governing what can be done in an historic district, rules to preserve the past, the architectural heritage. Because of its history, this City is a blessing to the Nation and its architecture is second to none.

Somehow developing an entertainment district is supposed to fix everything. But this is a dream, not reality. Low income people are not integrated into the CityÕs economy. Poor people are pitted against home-owners. It is beneficial to depress land values because it makes it easier to take the land. Poverty is used for economic benefit. The biggest losers are the residents of the City and the biggest gainers are the privileged and the rich. The City has lost so much: green space, historic buildings, archeological sites, places of interest. Federal funds have been used not to help the neighborhoods but the likes of the Steuben Club. As Albany sinks, the whole region sinks and eventually the suburbs, too. Some residents have started microenterprises and made a go of them but the City hasnÕt helped. Why? Because people took power, control over their lives, their neighborhoods. So City Hall has taken over. Community based organizations have lost out, volunteer organizations, self-help organizations have lost out. The disconnect of people and their history, their culture means they donÕt know where they came from and they donÕt know where they are going. What we have lost we can never get again. These districts, the entertainment district, Central Avenue and so on, are not integrated into the whole, are piecemeal and useless in really changing the direction of the City.

We need a master plan, we need a vision, we need people to help shape our future, the future of the City, to stop the sprawl, to reinvent the City in the pattern of smart growth. We cannot fail.

Printed in the May/June 2001 Newsletter

This page last modified January 12, 2008
Contact Save the Pine Bush at pinebush@aol.com.