Here we go again, with the shibboleth that the I-787 highway blocks people from access to the Hudson River waterfront, thus warranting its demolition and reconstruction, as Chris Churchill stated in his recent opinion piece, “connect the city with the Hudson River.”
He is not alone in espousing this notion, and it has become a virtual mantra for many when discussing matters related to the Albany waterfront.
Unfortunately, the concept simply does not hold up. Compelling reasons do exist to rebuild 787, but the idea that such a project will somehow enable people to reach the waterfront that they cannot reach now is a fallacy.
For more than 15 years I conducted programming on the Albany waterfront with the replica ship Half Moon. While I faced many difficulties, getting people to the waterfront was never a problem – 787 notwithstanding.
On typical weekends we would attract 1,500 to 2,000 people per day to visit – and this was before any of the walkways or other features to improve access were built. On weekdays we were always fully booked for dockside tours from area schools.
Special events we organized drove attendance even higher. One historic encampment and festival that we organized with the Mohican Tribe, descendants of the original people of this area, featured cultural dances and displays, reenactors portraying European settlers, demonstrations of historical military drills, and craftspeople displaying historical wares. More than eight thousand visitors came to see the displays and activities.
The reason people came to visit the ship and our events was simple: We were doing things that captured people’s attention and imagination.
This does not happen by chance; it requires a significant investment in program design and human capital. Rebuild all the roads and walkways, and it will still take creative program developers to put on the kind of activities and displays that draw significant numbers of visitors and visibility to the waterfront.
One of the most undervalued assets of the Albany waterfront is the Albany Rowing Center. Based within a chain link fence underneath the deck of 787, the Albany Rowing Center has persisted thanks to a core group of dedicated members who recruit participants, old and young, to rowing.
The center’s major annual event, the Head of the Hudson meet, draws competitors and their families from across the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic States. Out-of-town rowers and their families find the course and the center’s organizing top notch, but much more could be done to engage the spectators from other areas with features – such as an attractive club/boat house for the center – and promotions that could inspire the out-of-towners to make a return visit to Albany.
The new Skyway should provide more opportunity for those walking to the waterfront from downtown. Some attention to cleaning up the streets and providing signage to the waterfront could help people who live north and south of downtown walk into the Riverfront Preserve and the vest pocket park at the south end of Broadway – a little known but wonderful jewel of a park at the foot of Broadway.
But ultimately, if we as a community want to see increased usage of our waterfront, we must take seriously the investment in human capital needed to organize the types of active events and displays that draw significant numbers of people to the waterfront, and particularly draw people from out of town to visit and spend their tourism dollars here.
William Reynolds lives in Selkirk.