Eat, drink, be merry. Now what?

Downtown Albany is an entertainment hub, but some want more.

STEVE BARNES Senior writer
Section: Main,  Page: A1

Date: Sunday, October 8, 2006

Albany


D owntown is throbbing. It's 12:30 a.m. on a recent Saturday and carousers line the sidewalks, making the rounds to buy rounds.


The hot corner is the intersection of North Pearl Street and Sheridan Avenue. Eleven restaurant-bars are clustered within a three-block radius - five of them just steps from each other, crowds of patrons gathered out front. Two more are under construction. Only two existed a decade ago. The new Dos Gringos Burritos, half a block from the corner and open midnight to 4 a.m. on weekends as well as weekdays for lunch, advertises that its fare helps combat hangovers. The eating-and-drinking efflorescence seems an undeniable success. It also raises questions: Has downtown reached its saturation point for bars? Is there more to downtown than entertainment?


With a $200 million convention center in the works and developers interested in building more than 200 upscale apartments, the answers seem to be no and maybe. Albany has some of the hallmarks of a downtown on the way back, but it is also missing essential elements. Whether it becomes a fully renewed, healthy urban center or an entertainment ghetto depends heavily on planning and investment decisions made in the next few years.





Beating the doldrums Twenty years ago, Albany'sthen-Mayor Thomas M. Whalen III officially designated the Theater Arts District, an area around the Palace and Capital Repertory theaters. He spoke boldly of creating a "24-hour downtown" and bemoaned how quickly the zone emptied each evening.


"After 5 p.m.," Whalen said in 1986, "you could shoot a cannon down State Street and you wouldn't hurt anybody."


Ten years later, with Whalen's successor Jerry Jennings in office, the same remained essentially true. On many late nights, a person could stroll a downtown sidewalk for blocks without seeing another soul.


Today, firing a cannon down North Pearl Street from the Palace toward the Pepsi Arena would likely result in mass casualties. On any given Friday or Saturday night, city police say an estimated 10,000 people visit downtown bars and restaurants between 6 p.m. and 4 a.m. - far more if the performance venues have shows. During the summer, the Alive at Five concert series makes Thursday nights equally busy.


"The difference from 10 years ago is almost unbelievable," says Pamela Tobin, executive director of the Downtown Albany Business Improvement District, created in 1996. "Downtown is absolutely a different place."


As in other cities nationwide, from Providence, R.I., to Boulder, Colo., and Chapel Hill, N.C., to Houston, entertainment has led the way in downtown Albany's redevelopment.


"That kind of district, with theaters and restaurants and clubs, is often one of the leading edges of revitalization," says Gene Bunnell, an associate professor of urban planning at the University at Albany. Bunnell's 2002 book, "Making Places Special: Stories of Real Places Made Better By Planning," is a case study of 10 cities, including Providence, San Diego and Charleston, S.C.


Another examination of well-planned cities, "Characteristics of Successful Downtowns," conducted by the Cornell University Civic Fellows Programs and released in September 2005, headlines one of its key findings this way: "Entertainment is a driving market segment."


The researchers looked at cities with populations from 25,000 to 250,000, including State College, Pa., Northampton, Mass., and Madison, Wis. Albany's downtown has many of the attributes found in those cities, among them walkability and a strong college presence. In comparison to the cities cited by UAlbany's Bunnell and the Cornell researchers, however, Albany's downtown resurgence has been spurred more by bars and restaurants opened by private entrepreneurs and comparatively less by public investment.


Besides two publicly owned performance venues, the Pepsi and the Palace, Albany can point to improvements such as the Hudson River Way pedestrian bridge, which connects Broadway to the Riverfront Park amphitheater and the Corning Preserve.


But vastly more public money has been spent on varied projects in other cities determined to bring back their downtowns. In Hartford, Conn., $1 billion in municipal funds and another $800 million in private investment have gone into downtown revitalization since 1998, according to Hartford's Capital City Economic Development Authority. Raleigh, N.C., is spending $1.3 billion in public and private money on a downtown redevelopment due to be completed in 2008. In Houston, the amount is $5 billion in the past decade. Providence, held up as a model of downtown renaissance, went so far as to move rail yards and uncover two rivers to reconnect the city with its waterfront.


Today, downtown Albany is lively a few nights a week. Yet residents, considered a key component of downtown renewal, remain few. Retail options after dark are scarcer still. The only stores open late are a gas station and a newsstand; the latter is seven blocks from the North Pearl-Sheridan intersection. The lack of services inhibits people from moving downtown; without residents to serve, however, businessmen are disinclined to risk opening a dry cleaner, book shop or wine store.


Bunnell, who recently bought a home in Albany's Center Square after leaving a village downstate, did not consider moving to the downtown entertainment district.


"Rather than an intricate network of streets and people - a neighborhood - it still has the feel of an entertainment corridor," he says.





Bars bring life After years of head-scratching about what would kick-start the revitalization of downtown Albany, the answer turned out to be this: Open a huge bar.


The Big House, which debuted in 1996 as a brew pub, was soon discovered by college students and 20-something nightlifers. That same year, Jennings, who took office in 1994, was in Boston and visited Jillian's, and by 1999 he had convinced the company to open one of its enormous sports bar/restaurant/video arcade/nightclubs on North Pearl Street.


"Jillian's was a major catalyst for more development," says Tobin, who has run the Downtown BID since its inception. The high-visibility chain with a recognizable name and broad appeal to suburbanites also helped the city and the BID further their goal of branding Pearl Street as the heart of downtown's entertainment district.


"By calling it an entertainment district, we linked (the three theaters) in people's minds as part of one destination, not islands unto themselves," Tobin says.


Bars and restaurants continued to open, making downtown, like the Lark Street and Quail Street areas, a place where young people go to travel a bar circuit. Late on Fridays and Saturdays, the crowds migrate from Pearl Restaurant & Lounge across the street to Jillian's, then down to the Bayou Cafe, across to the lounges Blue 82 and Pure, around the corner to the Skyline Lounge, then back to Pearl.


"Having so many places to go makes the area more popular and is good for everybody's business," says Mike Ripley, co-owner of Blue 82, which opened in May 2005. He says, "People like to hop around - go to one place, get a drink and go to another, see and be seen. That's the norm down here."


The latest stop on the circuit is Envy Lounge, set to open Friday at 55-57 North Pearl, across the street from Pearl Restaurant & Lounge. Tim Rankins, who with business partners owns both Pearl and Envy, had not planned to open another place. But the space across the street was available and drawing interest from potential competitors.


"I knew something was going to go in there, so I figured I might as well do it myself and control what happened rather than letting somebody else get in," he says.


Further, Rankins says, the busy bar scenes at Angelo's 677 Prime, Yono's restaurant, Noche Lounge and even Blue 82, with a clientele that skews older than its immediate neighbors', shows the downtown lounge scene is growing up as well as expanding.


All the news is not rosy.


The owners of both the Big House and Mad River Bar and Grill bailed out of the downtown scene, the spaces being reborn as, respectively, the Skyline and Pure. Visits to both over several months revealed them to be busy at peak times but often bereft of patrons on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.


"It's hard to know what's going to attract people and keep bringing them back," says Ripley, the Blue 82 owner, speaking generally about downtown, not directly about Pure, his next-door neighbor. "Every new place is a gamble."


Rankins thinks downtown can support more nightlife. "There's still a lot of people in the (region) who aren't coming down to Pearl Street yet," he says.


Bunnell, the UAlbany professor of urban planning, warns that lasting redevelopment requires more than a superabundance of bars and restaurants. Without long-range vision, private-public partnerships and a balance of offices, entertainment, retail and residential units occupying available space, downtowns cannot be fully revitalized, he says.


"I don't see an overall plan in Albany," says Bunnell. "There's a tendency here to do a project and then to think, `OK, what's next?' "


The Jennings administration has high hopes that the convention center, for which ground will be broken next year, will play a large part in furthering downtown's comeback. Bunnell isn't convinced.


"I get the sense they're just plopping down the convention center without thinking of it as a means to a larger end - to produce the city they would like to achieve," he says. Bunnell cites the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center, which he describes as "just about the worst building in Buffalo," more hulking obstacle than integral part of downtown life.


"A convention center has to be thought of as a piece, not a goal," he says.


Joe Rabito, Albany's commissioner of development and planning, retorts, "The mayor sees the convention center as an economic driver for downtown as a neighborhood and the city as a whole."


He also points to two major efforts of long-range planning: Re-Capitalize Albany, a 52-member committee of business, academic and neighborhood leaders that later this year will issue recommendations for education and economic development throughout the city, including downtown; and a comprehensive master plan, ordered this year by the mayor and currently awaiting enabling legislation from the Common Council, that will be developed from an 18- to 24-month study.


"The master plan will be a blueprint for the kind of city we want to be," Rabito says. "Bringing back downtown is a big part of that."








Steve Barnes can be reached at 454-5489 or by e-mail at sbarnes@timesunion.com.





Downtown Albany is an entertainment hub, but some want more.





****FACT BOX:****


Toting up the changes The latest entrant in the downtown Albany eating-and-drinking scene is Envy Lounge, opening later this week. With an opening budget that owner Tim Rankins puts well above $500,000, Envy is distinctive for its streetside kitchen visible through large windows. The food will be serious and adventurous but priced just below downtown's two elite dining rooms, Angelo's 677 Prime and Yono's, says Envy's executive chef, Jim Demers, who most recently ran country-club restaurants in Virginia. With large, dark-wood booths along one wall and a granite-topped bar at the back of the deep space, Envy will seat about 100 for dinner and accommodate more than twice that in its lounge mode. Rankins says Envy's transformation from restaurant to nightspot won't be as radical as the one at his other downtown establishment, Pearl Restaurant & Lounge. Pearl goes from eatery to full-on nightclub pouring Coors Lights and Red Bull-and-vodkas to 1,000-odd 20-somethings on a good night. ``We're looking for a more mature, sophisticated crowd (for Envy),'' says Rankins. Other downtown developments: Several large office buildings have gone up, including one at 677 Broadway that is the first privately owned downtown office building in a generation. A new Hampton Inn & Suites opened last year, one block from the entertainment nexus at North Pearl Street and Sheridan Avenue. There are restaurants in both buildings: 677 Prime on Broadway, Yono's/DP: An American Brasserie at the Hampton Inn. Another hotel, called 74 State, located at the eponymous street address and featuring a restaurant called Marche, is set to welcome guests next month. Farther across downtown, a New York City nightclub impresario is working to open a restaurant and wine bar at the former site of Ogden's at Howard and Lodge streets. Norstar Development USA plans a 65- to 75-unit condominium complex at 733 Broadway, a former office and warehouse building. Another developer, Albany Soma Project LLC, wants to build retail space, offices and a 130-unit apartment tower at Quackenbush Square, on Broadway at the foot of Clinton Avenue. -- Steve Barnes