Time for Albany to move on

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November 2006

Gateway vision being realized

By Paul M. Bray

In 2000 a team of 13 planning, design, economic development and preservationist professionals from Italy and our region examined the National Landmark Harmony Mills in Cohoes, once a center of wealth generation and productivity, for their potential reuse.

Mike Fancher from UAlbany spoke to them in an upbeat manner about Mills as part of the emerging high tech economy.

Recently, the Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway held its annual reception in the Harmony Mills with its newly completed and fully occupied 96 apartments.

It was announced in October that a manufacturing firm deeply entrenched in the growing nanotechnology industry will leave Britain and move to the old mill city of Watervliet. Vistec Lithography will invest $125 million and transfer its administrative offices and manufacturing line from Cambridge, England to the historic Watervliet Arsenal.

Regarding tourism development, New York State Canal Conference was held in September in the Hudson-Mohawk communities of Waterford, Cohoes and Troy. Participants were wowed by the historic canal structures, the beautiful views of the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers and Erie Canal and the Victorian architecture.

In Fancher’s audience I overheard two tech boosters grumble about wasting their time. The believed the old mill cities like Cohoes had no future. For them the future is carving up the countryside for offices, tech facilities and McMansions. Surprise, our historic river cities have a future. It is unfolding before our eyes.

We should not forget how Rev. Thomas Phelan (1925-2006) started the ball rolling in the early 70s by establishing the nonprofit Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway. Rev. Phelan, a Dean at RPI, wanted “the people of the Capital District to know about their architectural legacy from the 19th century era of growth”.

He highlighted images of blast furnaces, trains and incessant activity leading to cultural and social development like the Troy and Cohoes music halls, parks, trade unions, fine churches with tiffany windows, RPI and elegant mansions.

The name “Gateway” was chosen, according to Rev. Phelan’s friend Pat Quinn, because it “epitomized the significance of the junction of the Mohawk and Hudson rivers, the Erie Canal and the railroads, the auto roads and the interstates, that the Gateway which opened up the West, which opened up a whole world of commerce and settlement.”

I grew up in Albany with a low opinion of Troy that lasted until I took the eye opening Gateway tour of Troy, Cohoes, Waterford, Green Island and Watervliet in the 70s. I was impressed by the stories of the worker city of Troy and the company town of Cohoes and the natural and cultural setting in which these stories took  place.

The Gateway is not about making the Hudson-Mohawk communities a 19th century industrial Williamsburg. It is about conservation not only of historic buildings but  of the values and the energy they imply. This hooked me and led me to be one of the founders of RiverSpark in 1977, the state’s first heritage area, which the Gateway manages for a seven-community commission.

Current Gateway Director Tom Carroll has refined a message of transformation from a 19th century Silicon Valley to our emerging Silicon Valley of the 21st Century. His audiences range from the Board of the Center for Automation Technologies and Systems at RPI to the Niagara River Greenway Commission in Buffalo. Talk with Carroll and you will hear about calls and visitors he gets from Australia, Europe and California.

The Gateway has become an exporter of a unique heritage while at the same time working to preserve the Woodside Presbyterian Church, restore the Burden Iron Works Museum, operate the RiverSpark visitor center, carry out a full schedule of Gateway tours and work to make dreams like building a replica of the U.S.S. Monitor a reality.

When you hear about apartments in the Harmony Mills and Vistec at the Watervliet Arsenal, remember Rev. Phelan’s vision and the unending hard work the Gateway continues to do to celebrate our heritage and promote smart regrowth.

Paul M. Bray is founding President of the Albany Roundtable civic lunch forum. His e-mail is secsunday@aol.com.