The Greening of Lark Street

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In Albany lies the potential for a flowered, urban promenade

The Greening of Lark Street

Lark Street is a treasure many cities wish they had. So pronounced Richard Bradley, director of the Washington-based International Downtown Association, who was invited to Albany last spring by the Albany Roundtable and Albany’s Department of Economic Development.

Bradley was responding to the street’s diversity of shops and restaurants, historic character and comfortable human scale.

His reaction contrasts sharply with that of other, who point to vagrants, vacant store fronts and the shabby appearance of some buildings. They see Lark Street as seedy.

There is truth in both reactions. Lark Street is a place both of promise and pathology.

For people who don’t care for the largely synthetic dinning experience found in malls, Lark Street eateries such as Justin’s, Shades of Green and the Daily Grind are a real pleasure. Dining can be followed by a walk in the adjoining historic neighborhood or Washington Park.

The street could be the centerpiece of an urban setting that evokes the images one has of places like Georgetown and Boston’s Beacon Hill. It could rekindle the spirit of excitement in urban living in the Capital Region.

Lark Street’s shades of seediness cannot be ignored. The collective efforts to beautify it seem half-hearted and, in the age when fear is rampant, one cannot be sure that the highest standards of civility apply on Lark Street.

Can Lark Street’s promise be realized, and should people care? The answer to both is yes.

Neal R. Pierce, author of “Citistates,” points out that a “cultural streetscape is a more powerful signature than any skyline could ever be.” despite Albany’s many cultural institutions, there is no street with recognizable activity.

Lark Street is capable of giving residents the region’s only major urban promenade.
Unlike malls, it spawns a diversity of home-grown businesses and is a stage set for the urban pleasures of dining, shipping, strolling and people-watching. If it obtained the distinction of San Antonio’s River Walk, or Georgetowns’s M Street, it would be an emblem conveying the sense the the region had a beating heart. And it would greatly enhance the attractiveness as a tourist destination.
Achieving Lark Street’s promise will not be easy. Failures in urban commercial revitalization abound, In the days of urban renewal, the answer for curing urban pathology was simple – tear down and rebuild. Urban renewal threw the baby our with the bathwater.

Fortunately, current efforts focus more on preserving and enhancing the character of urban settings. The prevailing approach is known as the Main Street model. Designed to evoke the image of smalltown America in the era before sub urbanization, it emphasizes restoring the facades of historic buildings, improving sidewalks, street lighting and benches, and attracting businesses.

But it’s only half a solution. It seeks to restore a bygone era without fully responding to current needs and opportunities. Today, theme parks set the standard for entertainment.

To achieve the promise of Lark Street, the larger picture needs to be seen. This includes capitalizing on the street’s linkage to Washington Park, the regional importance of Lark Street, and the potential for relating a Lark Street project with other urban needs like youth training and employment.

A vision of making Lark Street more interesting, attractive and inviting (a theme park of sorts) is needed, involving as many public and private partners as possible.
The “Lark in Bloom” idea is one way to carry out this approach. Lark in Bloom is a vision and continuing program for unifying and showcasing Lark Street by the intensive and coordinated color-scheme planting form spring bulbs through fall foliage, including plants in raised_wall gardens, hanging baskets and containers.

“In bloom” neighborhoods are common in many European cities.

The idea furthers the grass-roots efforts by the Lark Street Revitalization Committee. It envisions Lark Street becoming known for the beauty and variety of its horticulture and as an urban promenade for neighboring residents.

A Lark Street garden keeper would oversee the public planting, coordinate private planting and lead tours and special events.

Lark in Bloom would link Lark Street with Washington Park and the park mall, a nearby promenade. By planting along Hudson Avenue and Lancaster Street to Washington Park, a direct passage would be established between Lark Street and the mall. Upgrading the mall with additional Albany benches, an on going project of the Washington Park Conservancy, and canopy trees would complement the improvements to lark Street.

Restoration of the formal gardens in Washington Park, which received national attention at the turn of the century, would strengthen the attractiveness of the urban horticultural theme. It could also serve as an excellent educational tool to train urban youth in horticultural skills.

Lark in Bloom would be carried out by a partnership of city government, regional organizations like the Center for Economic Growth, the University at Albany, merchants and property owners on Lark Street and adjoining neighborhoods and civic organizations like the Washington Park Conservancy.

State programs, such as the Hudson River Valley Greenway and the State Heritage Areas Program, also would be enlisted.

Some basic planting would be done by the city or appropriate entity, and competitions between building owners or blocks would be instituted.

Lark in Bloom would help unify the diverse aspects of Lark Street, thereby creating a positive, recognizable image for the street.

The resulting street would complement its historic residential neighborhoods by fostering a place attractive to families and senior citizens and by deemphasizing the honky tonk. It would also increase property values in the area. Residents would have an attractive urban promenade and the region and city of Albany would have its emblematic urban setting.

Lark in Bloom is about flowers and making an investment in a neighborhood, a city and a region.

Some will see only the flowers and consider the vision to be fluff. They fail to see that flowers are the key to successfully addressing urban pathology.

Others will shrink from the investment. They fail to see that there is a higher cost in failing to maintain our investment in the greatest of civic enterprises, our cities.

With a successful project, we would all be able to enjoy the treasure Richard Bradley saw.