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, 2009


A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.

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May 14, 2009

Stimulating Delaware Avenue

A tale full of irony as federal money revives a
dormant infrastructure project next to my neighborhood

The things that go on in my neighborhood! One morning last week we had a whole herd of politicians inside the gazebo at the top of Morton Avenue. We had three common council members, a state senator, an assemblyman, a county executive and two (count ‘em) two brand spanking new congressmen. And more! As if that weren’t enough, the Governor of the State of New York showed up in his big black car.

Oh, and the master of ceremonies was the Current Mayor of Albany, Jerry Jennings. The occasion was the official “groundbreaking” ceremony for the long-delayed Delaware Avenue project, brought back to sudden life by the sudden arrival of federal stimulus money. The work had started a week earlier, but the politicians have to have their show and tell for the corporate media, which showed up in full brute force.

Now, if this is all about Delaware, what the hey were all these hot cheeses doing in my neighborhood? Well, you see, the gazebo at the top of Morton Avenue is considered the gateway to the Delaware Avenue neighborhood. It also happens to be considered the gateway to the South End, depending on which direction you face. It’s a busy intersection, the main connection between several neighborhoods.

The Gazebo Ready For Action
The Gazebo Ready For Action

This is the very same intersection that Current Mayor Jennings wanted to turn into a roundabout a couple of years ago. The number one irony is that if He had been allowed to carry out His scheme, His roundabout would have obliterated this very same gazebo that all these politicians were using for publicity.

Where else nearby would the politicians have been able to pose outside for the cameras? They might have stood in the brand new paved empty lot outside the Delaware project office near Nicole's Restaurant, paved several weeks before the “groundbreaking.” Take it from me, politicians look a lot more appealing inside a gazebo than standing in a parking lot.

Irony number two is that Jennings halted the Delaware Avenue project partly because we the neighbors wouldn’t let Him impose His roundabout on our intersection. (I described that battle when it was happening in 2007.) If Jennings had had His way and wrecked this part of my neighborhood, then today the Delaware project would have completely missed out on the stimulus money.

That’s because of the way the money is being distributed. Stimulus cash is to be used only for “shovel ready projects” that are sitting on a shelf waiting for funding. It is not to be spent on projected plans, boondoggles or bright ideas. The official thinking from the White House is that stimulus funded projects be immediately visible and put people to work immediately.

I should also add that the faster the stimulus money is spent the less likely any of it will end up in some elected official’s pocket. This, as we all know, is a particular problem in the City of Albany. The president of the USA clearly knows his way around the political honeypots, coming from Chicago no doubt he understands guys like Jerry Jennings all too well.

Jerry Jennings, Paul Tonko, Jack McEneny, Mike Breslin Ready To Speak
Jerry Jennings, Paul Tonko, Jack McEneny,
Mike Breslin Ready To Speak

The federal money is handed to the State governments, which in turn distribute the cash to local municipalities. Thus the loot flows through Governor David Paterson’s hands on the way down the pyramid, this is what brought him out of doors and across Lincoln Park for this little event.

Mr. Paterson explained that the stimulus money arrived in New York from Washington DC with the caveat that if any of it is not spent, or not spent properly, then the state has to give it back. Thus the governor is determined to meet all preconditions and do his best to follow the rules, such as they are. “I’m not giving back any of that money if I can help it,” he said at one point, and he clearly wasn’t kidding.

Jerry Jennings, facing collapsing City finances, is in no position to turn down a pile of cash raining from on high because of a few rules. If the governor wants “shovel ready” before he hands out the money, then he’ll get shovel ready. Like I said, that would be necessary infrastructure projects all planned and ready to go, everything in place except the funding.

Cops Across The Intersection
Cops Across The Intersection

As it turned out at the beginning of this year there were only a few dormant projects in the City of Albany that met these conditions, but fortunately they were enough. If this stimulus money had arrived four or five years ago there would have been no pending infrastructure projects gathering dust in the City. And we wouldn’t have received a dime from Governor Paterson, which would have made Jennings look very, very bad.

Here’s what happened. In the beginning, several years ago, Jennings had a vision for Delaware Avenue. He wanted a quick and easy express speedway for suburban automobiles to enter and exit the City from Delmar. He wanted wide lanes and as few obstructions as possible, you know, obstructions such as pedestrians. And bicycles.

And he wanted His Delaware Morton/Holland roundabout to help facilitate automobile traffic flow. As I discovered a couple of years ago, roundabouts do indeed keep those cars moving. They are also proven death traps for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Roundabouts are fine in a suburban hell hole like Clifton Park, where no one is allowed to walk and people can starve to death if their cars break down. But to plant one of these things at an urban intersection is an assault on the very idea of a City. What kind of mind would try to put something that kills pedestrians and bicyclists in a place where there are a lot of pedestrians and bicyclists.

Smaller Politicians Had To Sit:  Common Council Members Cathy Fahey, Dominick Calsolaro, Joe Igoe, Cohoes Mayor Roy McDonald In Orange Tie
Smaller Politicians Had To Sit: Common Council
Members Cathy Fahey, Dominick Calsolaro, Joe Igoe,
Cohoes Mayor Roy McDonald In Orange Tie

When local municipalities receive money from on high, there are always conditions. One of the most common is the requirement that the citizens most affected by a public project be provided with an opportunity to add input. Usually the municipalities are also required to take the citizens seriously and try to incorporate their demands into the project if possible.

The required public meetings for Delaware Avenue yielded three public demands. First everybody, and I mean everybody, wanted the traffic on Delaware Avenue to slow down. Second, no one wanted the roundabout. That was two strikes in Jerry’s ball game.

Strike three came from the bicycle activists, who kept showing up at meetings and demanding bicycle lanes. It’s hard to fathom this today, but a few years ago the idea of building bicycle lanes in Albany was considered way far out and radical. Today most City neighborhoods are looking to create “walkable, bikable neighborhoods” as a matter of course.

At the very first meeting the traffic planners and the City officials smirked at the activists and told them that bike lanes were “off the table” because... well, no reason, really. Bike lanes were outside their experience so they wouldn’t so much as discuss the topic. Besides, safe bicycle access is an urban idea that does not facilitate creeping suburbanization.

This bicycle activism was too much for our current mayor, especially since the activists were getting their point across to the neighborhood. In a fit of pique He pulled the eight million dollars set aside for Delaware Avenue and gave it to another project. And the Delaware project, without bike lanes but ready to go, was totally shut down. That’s what we get for defying authority, I guess.

The last thing Jerry Jennings wanted to see at His media event with the governor was three articulate bicycle activists on bicycles ready to meet the media.

Laura Welles
Laura Welles

The first to arrive was Laura Welles, all decked out for her very first protest. Laura and her husband Perry Woodin actually live right on Delaware Avenue in a really cool former Baptist church that they own. That morning Laura was truly the authentic voice of The People, written all over her shirt.

She was joined by The Wife, who lives two blocks from Delaware Avenue, close enough. According to The Wife, Jennings “didn’t look pleased to see me.” You can’t buy that kind of intense disdain from an elected official, you have to earn it.

Third came hard core radical bicyclist Mary Lou Nolan who lives uptown, but you don’t mess with her. Together with their two wheeled vehicles the three troublemakers achieved critical mass, which the media assembled at the gazebo did not ignore.

The politicians all spoke in turn, all of them except the two Breslin brothers made a special point of praising Jerry Jennings for His leadership and vision or something like that. Then they put on hard hats, grabbed shovels and agitated the pile of sand on the pavement almost like people who work for a living. The cameras whirred and clicked, whirred and clicked, always an eerie sound.

Then it was time to take questions from the media. The second question came from the content provider for TV station channel 13. There are three protesters present, he said, why weren’t bicycle lanes incorporated into the project?

Ooh, that was unexpected. The politicians were rattled. Here’s a photo i snapped quickly immediately after the guy asked the question:

DOT Commissioner Stanley Gee Speaking
DOT Commissioner Stanley Gee Speaking

Jennings looks like He wants to spit up a hairball. The guy talking first, the head of the state Department of Transportation (DOT,) stumbled around verbally for a bit and finally came up with a line. There are no bicycle lanes, you see, because the planners would have had to cut into some front lawns. This, of course, was the first and probably the last time any of them would float this bizarre explanation.

Each in turn the other politicians built upon the theme, tangling up their tongues. There was no budget for cutting into front lawns, they said. people didn’t want to lose any parts of their front lawns, they added. Worst of all, they shuddered, was the prospect of applying eminent domain merely to create a bicycle lane.

Thank goodness these elected officials are working so hard to protect and preserve the front lawns on Delaware Avenue. I mean, the typical front lawn along the avenue is about the size of a large SUV. If we whittle away at these miniature front lawns, why, that’s a slippery slope that will end with, um, slightly smaller front lawns and working bicycle lanes.

Actually, they’ve been grabbing pieces of front lawns up and down the street. Other than Jennings, none of these officials would be specifically aware of that. But these guys are professional bull crappers, all they wanted was to find some way, any way, to move on to the next question.

TV 10 Interviews Mary Lou Nolan, The Wife, Laura Welles
TV 10 Interviews Mary Lou Nolan, The Wife, Laura Welles

Then it was time to stand around and yack. I wanted to ask my congressional representative Paul Tonko a few questions that Laura had brought up the other day. Why hasn’t stimulus money been directed toward public transit, and isn’t there some sort of provision that a certain amount was supposed to go to establishing public transit?

I politely waited my turn, and stepped forward to speak to the man when there was an opportunity. But Mr. Tonko glanced at me with alarm and suddenly started a very important conversation with the nearest person other than me, which happened to be a guy from Fox “News.”

TV 10 Interviews Mary Lou Nolan, The Wife, Laura Welles
New Congressman Scott Murphy

Then, to my surprise, I found myself posing these questions to brand new congressman Scott Murphy, who seemed delighted to talk to me even though I’m not in his district. He didn’t have many answers to my questions but he’s a real personable guy, I can see how he won election a few weeks ago in the nearby 20th District against incredible odds. Next time I looked around Mr. Tonko was nowhere to be seen.

The guy who could best answer these questions was Mr. Paterson, but I couldn’t get close to him. He was surrounded at all times by several goons in suits who constantly kept him apprised of where he was and what was going on, usually with a few discreet words. Laura got close enough to be blocked by one of the goons, who took her proffered piece of literature and no doubt disposed of it.

The Governor can’t see well enough to recognize faces, and he has that expressionless lost-looking visage common to the sight impaired. Despite this handicap, whenever the man opened his mouth it was clear that he was in charge, and all the other politicians displayed deference when he spoke.

Governor Paterson And His Goons
Governor Paterson And His Goons

And I understand that Jennings was so angry at the three protesting bicyclists that He took it out on the City planner who is in charge of putting together a bicycle master plan, bawling out the poor woman for no reason. And there is now a fear among City employees involved with the project that Jennings is going to halt the bike plan, typical bahavior for Him. Oh well, maybe the next mayor will be more reasonable.

As for the bicyclists, one or all of them were interviewed by every single media content provider present, except of course for Fox “News.” Rupert Murdoch’s TV network is rabidly opposed to stimulus money for anyone except international finance corporations. I suppose there’s no way to work a story about citizens who want bicycle lanes in Albany into another slanderous attack on the President.

All in all a successful citizen protest at a bogus media event. I mean, the stimulus money was already being spent on preliminaries such as the project office and parking lot. And the work along Delaware Avenue had already begun in earnest for more than a week, starting with removal of the trees.

Aw, man. Watching the workers cut down those trees the week before broke my heart. Some of those trees were so big I couldn’t wrap my arms around the trunks. I’m not sure but some of these old monsters may have been elm trees, if so then someone should be shot for authorizing their murder.

Delaware Avenue

At least the bigger of the two trees in front of Laura and Perry’s church was spared from execution. Until last week this beauty had a limb that stretched clear across Delaware Avenue, like an arch, a gateway. How many suburbanite vehicles roared under that living arch, their operators utterly oblivious to the living thing above their machines?

The planners insisted on removing the arching limb. It’s gone. However... I need to tell you that Perry and Laura call this magnificent living thing “The Butt Tree.” Why? Well, you see, um, at street level the tree has a burl, a growth, that viewed at the right angle looks much like, um, human butt cheeks.

The tree

Laura and Perry have told me that sometimes entire families stand on the sidewalk laughing hysterically at their tree. Maybe that’s why the planners spared the tree. If that’s so, then too bad the arching limb didn’t have a butt like growth dangling up in the sky.

Imagine what that would have looked like! It would have.. I mean... oh never mind.

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If you are having difficulties posting a comment, please email Daniel Van Riper. We are experimenting with our spam filters, and we do not want to exclude any legitimate commenters, just spammers!

Posted by: luke
Posted on: 05/15/2009
Hear Hear! Roundabouts are a plague upon the planning world (and subsequently the built environment). Your assessment is spot on about the impact on pedestrians and bike traffic.

What I can't understand is the simple dismissal of the entire concept of bike lanes. Is it really that foreign? Why does it seem like simple common sense to some, but completely alien to others? DOT defines traffic as including bicycles, so isn't there some requirement to accommodate them and not put people's lives at risk?

Posted by: Gabe
Posted on: 05/16/2009
I'm a little confused--is it going to be a roundabout or not?

For a fleeting instant I thought maybe they might do something about the Lark St/Madison Ave/Delaware Ave Intersection Of Death. Is that too much to hope for?

Posted by: L'Archivista
Posted on: 05/17/2009
Great explanation of the background of this project and the sheer stupidity of the roundabout idea--and our mayor's obtuseness when it comes to dealing with residents/neighborhoods.

I can see both ways (no pun intended) on the bike lane issue. I think that having a dedicated bike line on Delaware Ave. makes a lot of sense, and I have co-workers in Delmar who would start commuting via bicycle the instant one opened up. However, I also have a good friend who owns a house right on Delaware Ave. Her front lawn is pretty small, but she cherishes it. If the city took part of it to create a bike lane, she wouldn't have much yard left--and the tree in front of her home would definitely have to go.

As far as the "living arch" is concerned, I certainly noticed it, and it always unnerved me. In fact, I always avoided driving down that stretch of Delaware on stormy/windy days. I'm really happy that the "butt tree" was spared, but I'm also kind of glad that the arching limb is gone.

Posted by: Dan Van Riper
Posted on: 05/18/2009

I agree, LArchivista, the arching limb was a potential hazard and it had to go. But I'm gonna miss it. By the way, the last two photos were snapped by Laura Welles before the limb came doswn, I forgot to give credit and thank her for letting me use them.

L'Archivista has a frequently updated blog that is often fascinating reading about... archiving. I had no idea that cataloguing materials could be that interesting. The link to her site is on the sidebar, and it's here at:

Posted by: somewhere near lincoln park
Posted on: 05/18/2009
I see the need for bicycles on Del. Ave, how many other lanes will take you easily south to the town of Bethlehem?
They Have Bike lanes in Montreal, and they work there. Side streets would be better for these apparatus, but bikes can be helped with shoulder help.

Posted by: CommonSense
Posted on: 05/19/2009
The bike lane plan as presented previously was just a dumb idea that would have ended up being torn out a few years down the road anyway.

A better idea would be to condemn some crumbling rental properties and build a dedicated bike lane within the Delaware Avenue corridor. That would serve both hard-core road biker types and recreational bikers and could easily be connected to the Hackett Blvd corridor.

Mixing bikes and vehicle traffic in large numbers is just asking for trouble -- I personally know 3 people who have been seriously injured in bike/car or bike/pedestrian accidents.

Posted by: Albany Resident
Posted on: 05/20/2009
As a general rule, bikers are safer riding in traffic.

Bikers are safer in traffic where they can be seen, especially on a street like Delaware Avenue which has many side streets. Driver's look in traffic for traffic. They don't look in "bike lanes" for traffic. (Its the same reason that bicycles should not be ridden on sidewalks.. drivers don't expect something as fast as a bike coming off a side walk curve).

The biggest danger to bicyclists are reptilian drivers.

Bicycle lanes on Delaware Avenue were discussed ad nauseum. It was brought up so often that people actually became antagonistic towards the bicycling advocates. Handled differently these advocates may have created good will for bicyclists in the community, as it is, I believe their methods have hardened people's views about bicyclists.

I'd much rather see signs that say "Delaware Avenue - Please Make It Safe For Bicyclists" than a bike lane. (Again, the reptilian mind must be trained!)

Bicycling advocates actually hurt their cause by enraging drivers by unnecessarily taking up the road (critical mass riders). . I personally won't ride my bike when critical mass riders are out... I don't want to be associated with them.

No doubt, the future is micro cars, public transport, and bicycles. The future is not today, and the future can't be shoved down peoples' throats. For now, acceptance of bicycles by the reptilian driver will make bicyclists more safe.

As unsustainable suburbia dries up, the crumbling rental properties on Delaware Avenue will be a lot more valuable. Commonsense might even want to live in one!

Albany is not Guilderland. I happen to own rental property on Delaware Avenue. Its not crumbling, but I am unwilling to tear it down for something like a bike path. Widening the street by tearing down rental properties will not make bikers safer.

When riding a bike in the city,)(or anywhere for that matter) your safety is dependent on curteous drivers. Its just the way it is.

When bicycling, I have been run off the road by inane drivers more often in suburbia than Albany. (Reptiles tend to reside there)

Posted by: CommonSense
Posted on: 05/21/2009
@Albany Resident: Delmar is not an unsustainable suburb. It was a streetcar suburb that in many ways is more amenable to someone reliant on public transportation than most places in Albany. I live in an owner-occupied two-family in Albany. Getting to a supermarket or other shopping location would require at a minimum a 45 minute bus ride, including a transfer.

Someone living near Delaware Avenue or Cherry Avenue in Delmar (60% of the population) is within a 10 minute bus ride of a nice, well-stocked supermarket and shopping center.

As someone who enjoys living and doesn't want to get seriously injured, I avoid main thoroughfares on my bike. Even with courteous drivers, a tiny mistake or lapse of judgement in traffic by a rider or motorist could result in a debilitating injury or death.

Posted by: Roger Green
Posted on: 05/22/2009
As someone who literally broke a rib avoiding a car last year - - I'm thrilled wth anything that will make bicycling in Albany easier. TG the Delaware Ave roundabouts failed; I hate them even on that part of NY 85 that links to New Scotland Avenue.

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