Eye from Albany
Pataki’s Legacy in the Capital City
by Paul M. Bray
At an August press conference in Albany (the “Capital City”) to announce the selection of a site for a proposed convention center and hotel, Albany’s Mayor Gerald Jennings declared, “Pataki has rewritten the book on how state government and its capital city can work together”. The chair of the state created Albany convention authority, George Leveille, called the governor “a true friend of the city of Albany who has shown it again and again over the years”.
The history of Pataki and Albany is an interesting and curious one. Pataki has been doing something of a legacy lap around Albany and it is timely to take a look at what the state’s chief executive has done and not done for the Capital City. What, if anything, is the meaning and/or are the lessons.
Like many states where the New York State capital is a backwater, New York’s Capital City is not the state’s urban centerpiece. Needless to say, New York City overwhelms the upstate cities. It is world-class (the world’s capital of capital) and NYC effects much of what happens in the state. The other population/voter centers are Long Island, Westchester County and the Western tier. This is where the money and the voters are and these are what drive state government.
Albany and its metro area is fragmented and the city of Albany despite its assets like its heritage, architecture and offices of state government hardly commands a leadership position within its own region let alone in the affairs of the state. Regrettably, it does not have an image throughout the state as a desirable Capital City.
Americans like to travel to their national capital of Washington, DC to see its great buildings and museums. Residents of New York State don’t have the similar desire to visit Albany to see the landmark State Capitol building and the grand Empire State Plaza or to visit the State Museum and the Albany Institute of History Art that is older than the Smithsonian in Washington. Sad but true.
When Pataki was elected, his decision to forgo living in Governor’s Mansion in Albany was greeted with a yawn. Former Governor Rockefeller rarely stayed at the Executive Mansion but at least gave the appearance of living in Albany. On the other hand, Pataki’s predecessor, Governor Cuomo, rarely left Albany during his 12 years as governor, but did little or nothing to benefit his home city.
Other signs of what the new governor was going to mean for Albany were not good. Almost immediately Pataki started to move state offices out of Albany and down the Hudson River to Kingston. We wondered if he was going to scatter state jobs around the state for his political advantage? Before 9/11 he blocked off and secured the Executive Chamber on the 2nd floor of the Capitol. It looked like the beginning of bunker style, absentee governance.
But then quietly and without fanfare the fiscally conservative Republican governor started state largess for Albany flowing. It began with significant payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTS) to Albany for the Empire State Plaza kept the city’s budget afloat.
While Cuomo could be poetic when talking about the Capitol building, Pataki put more than $40 million to work improving and restoring the landmark building. He began with restoration of the grand War Room with its many murals that the Cuomo administration had used as a dusty storage room. That led to the Capitol Restoration Program addressing issues like the leaky roof, faulty wiring, cleaning masonry, installing exterior facade lighting and historic street lights and restoring the elevators while maintaining their historic character. The grandest step was the restoration of the Great Western Staircase, (popularly known in Albany as the “million dollar staircase”). This is really a must see and worth a trip to Albany.
There was also the Albany Plan resulting in three new downtown buildings housing state offices, the Department of Environmental Conservation, the Dormitory Authority and the State Comptroller’s office. These buildings were privately developed and owned and leased by the state. Therefore, the buildings are on the city’s tax rolls. In addition, Pataki had the historic 34-story Alfred E. Smith State Office Building across from the Capitol restored and modernized to house various state agencies. That cost over $100 million.
On the western end of Albany, Pataki led the way in directing hundreds of millions of state dollars for state of the art computer chip laboratories at the University at Albany. This high stakes gamble that Albany along with other areas of the Hudson Valley can be the high tech, Silicon Valley of the future has so far moved forward with the state continuing to prime the pump, most recently by committing $1.5 billion for the development of a computer fabrication facility by AMD just north of Albany in Saratoga County. Still to be determined is whether this corporate welfare to benefit corporations like IBM for their research will lead to real economic growth beyond what the state is willing to pay for at an exorbitant cost per new job.
Pataki’s parting gift is having the state pony up $75 million dollars plus additional commitments to guarantee the funding of an at least $200 million, Mayor’s pet project of a downtown convention center and hotel. This project flies in the face of reports by organizations like the Brookings Institution calling convention centers chronic losers.
Little wonder that Pataki is called a “friend of Albany”. He has been generous.
A closer look raises some questions. While state money has flowed into Albany, the city continues to decline in population. Its population has fallen below that of the neighboring suburban town of Colonie. More than 800 properties in the city have been identified as vacant and deteriorating. Public safety in the streets and schools has become a growing problem. While the Mayor likes to talk about $2 billion in development during his terms in office and a revitalized downtown, middle class flight accelerates and a university student press editorial declared, “downtown has increasingly become the site of muggings and bars-and not much else”. Perhaps if Pataki and his family lived in Albany things would be different.
A closer look at Pataki’s impact on Albany reveals the opening of at least 8 charter schools. This pet Pataki program is crippling the city’s public school system. For a small city of 90,000 residents, this is an unusually high concentration of charter schools. The Mayor’s acquiescence looks like part of the city’s pay back to the governor.
The state supported development has other down sides. At a time when we are approaching the 400th anniversary of Hudson’s exploration in 1609 of the river the bears his name, archeological sites from the Dutch settlement in Albany were uncovered during the construction of two of the state office buildings. Despite public protest and litigation, the new office buildings unceremoniously entombed the archeological finds. This was a blow to revealing the city’s heritage for the benefit of the public and potential for attracting tourists especially at a time when world attention could be focused on Albany for the 400th.
We are now left to ask why a self declared fiscally conservative Republican governor was so generous to a Democratic mayor. (Mayor Jennings did endorse Pataki in his last race against Democratic candidate Carl McCall.) We also should ask how so much state money can be spent in a small city with so little positive effect to the quality of life of the residents of the Capital City. There is an interesting story here and I hope someone digs much deeper than I have to learn what really was happening behind the scenes.
Paul M. Bray is President of P.M.Bray LLC, a planning and environmental law firm in Albany, New York. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.