comments on the Stockade Streetscape Plan

deskdude The Stockade Association’s Infrastructure Committee has put in a lot of work on the Stockade Comprehensive Streetscape Plan – “Streetscape Vision Project“, and I thank all of the members and officers for their efforts. Their accumulation of information on appropriate materials and tree replacements seems quite thorough and gives helpful guidance as we move forward. I offer the thoughts below constructively, and with the knowledge that reasonable minds can differ on goals and strategies, and the hope that differences will be heard (on all sides) with an open mind and without rancor. As always, these are merely “my opinions”, based on my own aesthetic values and experiences, and offered to get others thinking.

No matter whether you agree with my opinions and comments or not, I hope you will let the Association Streetscape Committee know your views. You can share this posting using this short URL: https://tinyurl.com/StreetscapeComments

  • Click here for a copy of the 55-page Streetscape Plan, and here for the 80-page Appendices
  • The Stockade Association [“SA”] asks that comments be submitted by today May 4, 2019, on the Planning4Spaces Survey page. The form is not really a survey, but simply asks “Do you have any comments or questions about the Comprehensive Streetscape Plan?”
  • I apologize for putting up these comments on the last day, and hope that Streetscape Committee chair Suzy Unger will accept you comments even if they are slightly late.

The Literal VISION of the Stockade

When focusing on our Stockade streetscape, I believe is is especially important to reduce Visual Pollution in our lovely neighborhood. That might be especially important at a time when our society is trying to reduce distracted driving and walking, but it is surely a campaign for the ages.  Therefore, I believe that the Stockade Streetscape Plan [“the Plan”] should be explicitly trying to reduce or limit as much as possible, and not support, increased visual clutter, obstructions, and distractions.

DSCF4619 PUBLIC ART.

First, then, I disagree with the recommendation that “Functional features in the street environment, such as sound abatement, retaining walls, and utility boxes can provide opportunities for public art,” no matter who is providing the art or reviewing it.  [click here to see the page in the Plan on Public Art.] Despite the good intentions and talents of the Schenectady Art Society, and no matter how much street scenes in other parts of Schenectady may need to be perked up, our Stockade streetscape does not need and will not be enhanced by covering “empty” spaces with splashes of color and public artistry, such as the painted signal box to the right, which is at the SW corner of S. Church and State Streets, and the one below at the SE corner of Erie Boulevard and State Street.

DSCF4624

IMG_0491 Utility and signal boxes are bland for a reason – to be inconspicuous. Drivers and pedestrians (as opposed to casual strollers?) can do without additional distractions, especially at intersections. Click here for examples of SAS public art on utility boxes. It should not matter that the “art” is fun, cute, colorful, or “nice”. The question is whether the Stockade Historic District will be enhanced, and its appearance preserved, by the additional visual display. We might also wonder about needless controversy over a design that might be in place (and possibly deteriorating) for a very long time on your block.

BANNERS
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StockadeBannerBlue In 2011, I wrote and illustrated with photos that the Stockade had acquired “an embarrassment of banners,” when 31 nicely-designed brown banners were hung from telephone poles and lampposts on Union Street and South Church Streets in the Stockade. The first batch of banners were apparently deteriorated enough to require their replacement last year with similar blue banner, like the one on the left, which hangs on Union Street. The banners have increased in number, with additional blocks covered. As I said in 2011, they are too much of a good thing, even if someone else paid for them. The many arguments that I made in the 2011 posting seem just as valid today.  For example:
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It does indeed make sense to have a welcome banner at the various entryways to the Historic District, aimed at both intentional visitors to the district, and accidental or inadvertent visitors or through-farers.  But, it’s rather difficult for me to fathom why anyone would want these banners on virtually every lamppost of our high-traffic blocks once you’ve entered the Stockade. . .  .
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Unlike many other business and mixed-used sections of the City, Union Street in the Stockade is not a barren or blighted Schenectady streetscape that needs colorful or fluttering banners to improve its appearance, distract the eye, or provide faux festivity; nor is Church Street.

It comes down to aesthetics.   . . . putting up so many banners just seems like overkill — much too much of a good thing; and it sets an undesirable precedent for the creation and acceptance of visual clutter, and for the spending of money just because it’s available and offered to the Stockade.

To my eye, an overabundance of banners — a plethora of pennants — clearly distracts from the appearance of our community.

When looking east up Union Street from the corner of Ferry and Union, it is possible to
see a dozen of the blue Stockade District banners (when the leaves are down). Here are images of those banners taken May 2, 2019, with the banners numbered; click on a photo for a larger version:
Union St blue banners . . Union Street blue banners . . Union-Ferry-vieweastJPG
  • Also, to further diminish the image and brand of our Historic District, the blue banners are flying on two of the least attractive blocks in the neighborhood (S. College and S. Ferry from State St. to Liberty St.), which are NOT a part of the Stockade District:
S.Ferry banners  . . S. College banners
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The Streetscape Plan and SA should, therefore, ask that DSIC remove the Stockade banners that are not actually serving a useful informational purpose at an entryway corner of the actual Stockade. Even 8 years after their first appearance, and with increased memory problems, I for one do not need to be reminded a dozen (or even four) times on one block that I am in the Stockade Historic District.
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WIRES
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wires - Cucumber at Wash Av No Stockade Streetscape Plan should be complete without a protest, and a strategy, concerning the increased density and ugliness of the utility wires that plague our skyward vision. That is especially true, because the wires have been rapidly descending lower and lower, creating an excuse to further cut back (amputate and mutilate) our trees. I think a lot of my neighbors have stopped looking up when on foot and in vehicles here in the Stockade, and all around our City. 
When preparing photos of the recent crop of Stockade cherry blossoms for sharing online and with email, I found myself close-cropping virtually every image to minimize seeing the mess of wires. For example, here is the actual and the cropped version of a cherry blossom scene just north of Union Street on N. Ferry:
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IMG_0425-001 . . IMG_0425-002
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What can we do about the utility wires?  A brain-storming session among neighbors and our governmental leaders could surely come up with a longer or better list, but here are a few suggestions:
  • State that it is the Policy of the Stockade Association to actively work with local and state authorities and utility companies to improve the visual impact of utility wires, with better-planned and revamped arrangement, and perhaps use of technological advances that reduce the number of wires needed for any block or intersection.
    • Explore funding that might be used to raise wires rather than destroy the beauty of especially attractive street trees.
  • Meet with City and State elected representatives to seek action that curtails the visual pollution caused by utility wires.
  • Include in any weighing of whether or not to save a particular large street tree, or parts thereof, its role in helping to block the view of utility wires. The removal of street trees often leaves quite a shock due to the unveiling of Wire Terror.
  • As this is a citywide problem, other neighborhood associations and civic groups should be encouraged to join in efforts to remove or reduce utility wire blight.

. TREES

.The Stockade Streetscape Plan needs strong, definitive statements that it is the Policy of the Stockade Association that:
  1. Mature Shade Tress along our streets are valuable assets (aesthetically, environmentally, and financially), and all practical measures must be taken to save every mature shade tree that is not dangerous or dead, including the use of alternative sidewalk improvement measures, and consistent maintenance. [see the information compiled at our Save Our Trees portal]
  2. Walkability and desire to visit, shop, and walk in the Stockade are often reduced when long stretches of sidewalk have no shade and offer little protection from precipitation.
  3. IMG_0501Any trimming of trees for utility purposes must be done to the minimal extent possible, with attention paid to the attractiveness of any trimming.
  4. Neighbors and the association should have the meaningful opportunity to comment before any large street tree, or shade tree clearly visible from the street, is allowed to be removed by the City, or its agents, or a property owner, unless there is an immediate safety emergency.
  5. The City, especially since it points to its status as a TreeCity, must employ a certified arborist, who is allowed to make professional judgments about preserving particular trees without interference from the City Engineer or Mayor.
  6. An official request should be made to the City’s Historic Commission by the Stockade Association for a policy regulation or recommendation to City Council for protection of mature trees in our historic districts.
Obviously, even when a tree is removed for legitimate reasons, it still can have a major impact on a block or neighbors. That should mean not only a careful assessment and transparent process before removing a currently healthy, non-dangerous tree, but also the implementation of a plan to assure proper maintenance.
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  CampbellRowTrees . . IMG_9865
. . above: Campbell Row on Washington Ave. [L] a few years ago; [R] 2019 . . 
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It is worrisome that the draft Plan states (at 31; emphasis added):
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“The Stockade’s street tree population should have an abundance of newly planted and young trees, with established, maturing, and mature trees present in lower numbers
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A theoretical standard that calls in general for urban forests with particular percentages of young and mature trees, should not become an excuse for indifference over the loss of any particular, existing mature tree. Mature shade trees and their canopies are indeed particularly valuable in historic districts, and often in fact delineate sections of cities that deserve protection due to their special ambiance and appeal.
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Frankly, the following formulation, at 37 of the draft Plan, leaves too many potential excuses to take down otherwise healthy street trees:
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“Although tree removal is usually considered a last resort, there are circumstances in which removal is necessary. Trees fail from natural causes such as diseases, insects, weather conditions, and from physical injury due to vehicles, vandalism, and root disturbances. DRG recommends that trees be removed when corrective pruning will not adequately eliminate the hazard or when correcting problems would be cost prohibitive. Trees that cause obstructions or interfere with power lines or other infrastructure should be removed when their defects cannot be corrected through pruning or other maintenance practices.”
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Optimistic statements from neighbors that “we can trust the City” not to take down street trees without significant and legitimate reasons seem, in the light of actions and statements from City Hall and the City Engineer, unrealistic — and dangerous to our streetscape, given the permanence of a loss tree. Do not forget:
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  • NFerry03May2019No. Ferry Street. The City took down every mature street tree on N. Ferry Street, in 2008, when it put in new sidewalks. Half a dozen years later, a responsible employee of our Engineer’s Office assured me that, in only 6 or 8 years, replacement trees will create a scene just as attractive as the lost canopy of mature trees. The reality on N. Ferry Street as of this week, 11 years after replacements were planted, is quite different. See image to the right. And, see a N. Ferry Street Deforestation Collage put together a few years ago.
  • 2010 Washington Avenue Project. In 2010, the City Engineer said they would take down every mature street tree in order to replace the sidewalks of that quintessential Stockade block.
  • City Hall Cherry Trees. We recently saw that the City could not be bothered to find a way to save its gorgeous display of cherry blossoms while planning a project to replace City Hall windows. Frivolously claiming that they were too close to the building or blaming the failure of the City to correctly prune them over the years, simply do not add up to a viable excuse for the loss. See in mem. City Hall cherry blossoms (April 25, 2019, at suns along the Mohawk)

img_0452 [L] 2019; [R] 2018 . .CIty Hall May 3, 2018

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There is little reason to believe that the City Engineer, Corporation Counsel, and Mayor have changed their view about the need to remove a street tree when its roots are cut to replace or improve a sidewalk. For example, this quote and advice in the May 2018 Stockade Spy, was apparently based on discussion with the sidewalk maven in the City Engineer office:
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Once a tree root begins to interfere with sidewalks, little can be done. When roots are cut to level the sidewalk, the tree nearly always fails with a few years.
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Of course, I am not an arborist or engineer, but based on my reading on the subject, and practices in other municipalities, that statement seems extreme, if not basically incorrect. Last month, because he is familiar with the trees of the Stockade, I wrote to Fred Breglia, the arborist at Landis Arboretum, seeking his guidance on the issue of determining whether trimming or cutting roots in the process of replacing or repairing a sidewalk required removal of a tree for safety reasons. This is his response:
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From: Fred Breglia <fred@landisarboretum.org>
Subject: Re: street treees and cut roots
Date: March 28, 2019 at 9:46:57 AM EDT
To: David Giacalone

Hello David,

Based on my experience, it is a case by case situation. It varies greatly based on species, age, time of year, health, root conditions, type of care/finesse used by the company. These are just some of the factors that can contribute to the end result. Trees are living things and just like a human undergoing surgery, the way the person will bounce back from the process cannot be determined prior to the event when things may vary during the event.
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One suggestion is to have an arborist available or on call to watch over the process as it occurs.
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I hope this helps,

Fred

In light of Fred’s guidance, using its existing relationship with the City Engineer, the Stockade Association and its Streetscape Plan should advocate a far more nuanced approach to the fate of trees whose roots will be or have been cut in the process of sidewalk repair or replacement. [For example, the engineer’s manual in one city states that a tree must be considered for preservation by an arborist when less than one-third of its roots have been removed.]
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BICYCLES
The Stockade Association has never, to my knowledge, surveyed its members or the community as a whole, on their opinions regarding the City’s plans to convert Riverside Park’s only walkway into a bicycle-pedestrian path. Therefore, in using materials taken from the Bike Schenectady, I suggest:
  • Screen Shot 2019-04-25 at 10.13.06 AMAdding a disclaimer regarding the designation of Riverside Park as a bike path, especially since the Schenectady Zoning Ordinance to this day permits the use of a bicycle on any park path only by those under ten or disabled. [see image to right]
  • Stating that the designation in Bike Schenectady of the portion of Washington Avenue from the River to the Historic Society as a future bike path (as opposed to a shared auto-bike roadway) appears incorrect and not practical. [Motorized vehicles such as cars and SUVs, and trucks, may not be used on a bike path.]
  • Requesting that the Overlook at Riverside Park no longer be used as a Bike Share station, as it disrupts a space designed to be serene and damages its masonry, and sits alongside a walkway where bicycles are not permitted under the Zoning Code.
TRAFFIC CALMING, CROSSWALKSSTOP SIGNS, INTERSECTIONS & PARKING
  • For safety and peace of mind, a stop sign is needed on Washington Avenue (1) at Union Street for traffic coming north from State Street, and (2) at Front Street for traffic coming north and turning onto Front Street or Cucumber Alley. Currently, vehicles come at excessive speeds around blind or almost-blind corners. Also, more and more, bicyclists come the wrong way on Front Street between Church and Washington Ave. Vehicles turning from Washington Ave. cannot see them coming.
  • Delineating Parking Spaces with “tees” seems impractical and may actually lose spots when vehicles come in so many disparate lengths. If the tees are far enough apart to accommodate long vehicles, space will often be wasted. If the tees are too close to each other, longer vehicles will hang over onto the next space.
  • Tall, wide vehicles park are very prevalent and too often park far too close to intersections and crosswalks, making it difficult to see around them and know if vehicles, pedestrians, or bikes, are in the roadway. Although it may be impossible and undesirable to have vehicles park the full distance required under the Vehicle and Traffic Law from stop signs and cross walks, signs closer to each of them saying “No Parking Here to Corner” or “. . . to Crosswalk” are far more likely to be obeyed or to be policed.
  • Correction (in case you missed it): The list of one-way streets (at 10) incorrectly states: “Washington Avenue (except between State and Union)”.
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Thank you for considering these suggestion. Please feel free to leave your polite comments, and please let the Stockade Association know your opinions on these topics and any others that concern you.
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