What do we do with an obscure, narrow, underutilized park sandwiched between two major thoroughfares, but which is one of the city’s most visible gateways?
That was the question posed by the LocalXDesign team and the Pine Hills Neighborhood Association’s Upper Madison chapter (Aimee Allaud and Marilyn Douglas) during an informal brainstorming session this past Wednesday.
The park in question is that small strip of land where Western and Madison Avenues join. There’s not a whole lot there, so you’re forgiven if you (like me) didn’t even realize it was actually a park. Even if you’ve lived in the neighborhood for years, there’s a good chance you’ve never purposefully gone into it — and that’s much of the reason why this meeting was called.
There’s a couple reasons the park doesn’t see much use. For one, it’s very exposed. It has two major thoroughfares on either side and suffers from the resulting noise. And that’s something the Upper Madison group has been working on. They’ve planted bushes and the trees within the park, and the Madison treelawn (that area between the sidewalk and curb) already has a half-dozen trees. The other issue is that the park does not have active purpose, aside from being a spot to locate the monument.
The big question is how the park can become more welcoming and integrated with the surrounding community, while continuing to function as a memorial. (More on that in a moment.) One local resident emphasized that, no matter what future form the park takes, it needs to have a more clear purpose, or purposes. But before we dive into the park’s future, let’s talk a bit about its present.
Monument as it appeared on the evening of February 20th, 2019. (Ian Benjamin)
About that monument: It is a tall, largely unadorned stone obelisk raised in honor of the then-Ward 13 residents who fought in WWII. It is lit by lawn lights. The sole formal access to the monument is a crushed stone path, which starts at the tip of the triangle and winds between recent plantings, before wrapping around the monument. A handful of benches face the monolith.
Just steps away from the park’s east border is the stately entrance to the Albany Police Department’s 1927 Center Station. The APD also uses the head-in parking spots along Western.
Northwest of the park are two bustops, one on either side of Western Ave. Importantly, those are set to become part of CDTA’s BusPlus-branded BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) Purple Line, which will result in increased pedestrian volume. CDTA will be expanding the shelter and installing a BusPlus pylon.
Lastly, across Madison is a commercial strip that has seen sustained investment in the past half-dozen or so years. This is due in part to the efforts of Brian Viglucci of BM&T Management Group, which owns Cafe Madison, Juniors, The Point, and Madison Pour House (opened 2014). All of those are located in the strip. Kismet Mediterranean opened in 2017 at the corner of West Lawrence and Madison, but is not owned by BM&T.
The fun placemaking exercise (There was tracing paper! Pens! Markers! The stuff that planner dreams are made of! Or at least made with.) at Madison Pour House attracted quite a few local planning professionals and planning-adjacent folks, as well as a couple longtime resident. Given those participants, it was a session chock-full of ideation.
The only directions given were from the two Upper Madison chapter reps, who said they’d like it if the park was more used by restaurant patrons waiting for tables at the nearby establishments, and that they’d like it to better interact better with the annual Upper Madison Street Fair. The ideas largely fell into two categories: those that kept the monument where it was and those that did not.
- Of those that did, one idea was to enhance the current design by improving pedestrian access. This could be accomplished by creating diagonal paths emanating from the monument’s corners, thereby encouraging people to cross diagonally passed the monument, increasing its visibility.
- Installing a faux railroad in homage to the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad, which was the first railroad in the State and the first (successful) passenger steam locomotive in the United States. It ran from the Point 10 miles to Schenectady. A blue and yellow State Ed marker commemorates the rail. The faux rail line would start at the tip of the triangle and terminate at the base of the monument.
- (If you’ve a penchant to history, I’d recommend stopping over to the Wikipedia entry for Pine Hills. It’s a good read.)
Moving the monument was quite popular. As the only substantial structure in the park, and located at the park’s center, it tends to dominate the park. Moving it has the benefit of opening the widest portion to some other use and, working with a park this small, this might make sense.
- At least three of the designs (including mine) moved the monument to the park’s tip, near the bustop. This would be reminiscent of Dana Park.
- Two designs placed the monument in a plinth to give it greater visibility to pedestrians and drivers. One of these incorporated seating around the plinth, which could serve as overflow for the bus stop in warmer months.
- One version placed the monument a little ways back from the park tip, incorporating it into a raised stone planter setup. (That struck me as rather clever.)
Given the limited space, most designs that moved the monument then left the wide center of the park as some sort of flexible space, such as a lawn (as did the above design). One ambitious design conceptualized a small, asymmetrical amphitheater facing Madison Avenue, which would serve as a space for concerts in the summer and during the street fair. (Keep in mind that the purpose of an early-stage “charrette” is to imagine ideal designs, regardless of bureaucratic or funding constraints.)
Speaking of the street fair, one idea was to raise the road between South Allen and West Lawrence streets to curb height, which would serve to slow traffic along that stretch, which also helping to connect the park and the shops when the street is shut down for the fair.
During this stretch of Madison, it also came up that Madison Avenue street diet was constructed with an inadequate number of stormwater drains. The result is that, when it pours, the surface runoff follows a slight slope, leading to pooling at grates east on Madison. Not great. What’s worse is that, due to a moratorium on road construction, additional grates cannot be installed.
This was an informal design session, so there’s no guarantee that any of the concepts will ever be implemented. However, the proposal to move the monument seemed to garner some traction with the Upper Madison chapter. They mentioned that the very same idea had been previously proposed internally.
And then there’s the question of what to call this park. For ages it’s been colloquially known as “the Point” so “Point Park” might make sense, but there’s room for possibilities. Pine Hills historian Akum Norder (of The History of Here) proposed DeWitt Park after DeWitt Clinton. Maybe you’ve got an idea for a better name? Or want to share a design idea? Drop it in the comments.
LocalXDesign is the planning duo Barbara Nazarewicz and Liz Podowski King. They’ve been channeling their enthusiasm for improving the local natural and built environment by hosting a series of local events. Their next event is an invite to attending a presentation by Dan Palmer called “From Textiles to Domiciles: The Factories of Troy” which, as you may have guessed, chronicles the evolution of Troy’s factories. It will be held at the downtown Troy Public Library (100 2nd St. Troy, NY) on March 13 from 6-7:30pm with drinks at The Ruck following. Got a suggestion for an event or project? Barbara and Liz can be contacted at their e-mail.