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We can save the Madison

Paul Bray


First published: Sunday, January 9, 2005


A few years ago, architect Michael Sorkin edited a collection of articles for his book, "Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space." They dealt with what Sorkin saw as a "new world order bent on a single citizenship of consumption" and its effect of "sacrificing the idea of the city as a site of community and human connection."

Sadly, a new chapter in this trend may take place in Pine Hills, Albany's residential heart. The landmark art deco Madison Theatre is threatened by the CVS juggernaut, which wants to build a 13,000-square-foot drugstore with a drive-through and ample parking, paving over paradise. Visit the new CVS on Congress Street in Saratoga Springs to see what can be in store for Albany -- what writer Jim Kunstler calls "another amazing architectural botch."

FACTS:A strong feature of Albany as a quality place to live is its commercial strips -- like Madison Avenue between South Main Avenue and South Allen Street -- surrounded by attractive residential neighborhoods. They foster a distinct sense of place and walkability with closeness between home and shops. CVS wants to build a suburban-like stand-alone pharmacy to join an existing stand-alone food court and a supermarket in a parking lot.

The plan brings to mind the talk Mayor Joseph Riley of Charleston, S.C., gave at a June 2000 Albany Roundtable luncheon. Riley declared that "beautiful, livable, invigorating cities are essential to the quality of life of our country."

Riley is not willing to see cities sacrificed to commercial forces. "It is we, our cities, our communities, our neighborhoods, which can be whatever we want them to be," he said. "There's no one to tell us that we can't do it if we will."

Saving the Madison, where I went to matinees in the 1950s, would be a priority for Riley, given these words: "We need the texture. Every building we have that we can possibly save gives the community memories. It gives it scale. It gives them the rhythm. It gives them heart and, you know, almost never can you replace with equal quality what you have destroyed."

Albany has seen too much demolition by decay of vacant residential and important commercial structures like the crumbling Hotel Wellington. Now it may fall victim to demolition by design if City Hall lets CVS get away with it.

FACTS:Fortunately, neighborhood groups are organizing to save the Madison and the "walking style of neighborhood" threatened by a drive-through and expanded parking. Their vigorous opposition is driven in part by active professionals who have recently moved into Albany and don't accept top-down governance from City Hall.

In the best of worlds, cities and towns would be led by elected officials like Riley, who have a vision of beautiful, livable places and who partner with citizens and neighborhood organizations to preserve and build such cities and towns. Since there is only one Joseph Riley, it falls to citizens to rally in their cities, towns and villages to show they want to live in a real community with civic design fostering optimum human connections.

They can make a difference as they recently did in Bennington, Vt., acting to save its Main Street by banning big box retail stores, and are doing in some Westchester County communities to create community art houses and revitalize historic town centers.

What is happening in Pine Hills is much more than a neighborhood or even an Albany issue. As residents of suburban towns seek to make them more pedestrian friendly, real communities, what happens in Pine Hills may affect whether there is the will in the Capital Region to have true communities or whether we will succumb to the commercialized world Michael Sorkin described. Paul M. Bray is president of the Albany Roundtable civic lunch forum. His e-mail is