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Regional Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, January 25, 2007

Farewell to old fairgrounds"

By Saranac Hale Spencer

ALTAMONT — For one week every year, the empty fields and dusty roads of the fairgrounds come alive. For over a century, the Altamont Fair, run by its own board of directors, has drawn crowds from three counties to the heart of this Victorian village at the foot of the Helderbergs.

The grounds are slated to be rezoned for development, according to the comprehensive plan adopted by the village board this month.

Nobody has plans to build on the fairgrounds, say village and fair officials, but it’s the village’s responsibility to plan for the "what ifs," said Dean Whalen, a village trustee and chair of the comprehensive planning committee.

"What if the fair fails"" asked Whalen. "Then we end up with a bunch of McMansions."

Should the fairgrounds be developed, it will likely be a New Urbanist neighborhood. Following the suggestion for rezoning the grounds, the comprehensive plan lists specifications for the development, most of which echo the New Urbanist platform.
The recommendation itself reads: "Consider the zoning district designation for the Fairgrounds from "F" (Fairgrounds) to a mapped Planned Unit Development District (PUD) where the minimum parcel size must be 25 or more acres; include in Zoning Code a full set of procedures to administer development within this district and clearly establish standards and objectives for development in this area."

Then the list includes connected roads, buildings that are "village-like in character, scale, and density," walkable, mixed commercial and residential development, parks and green spaces, re-use of existing buildings, and it also specifies that there should be proof of adequate water and sewer capacity for the development.

Six of the 11 parcels of land that make up the Altamont fairgrounds are within the village, a total of 43.2 acres currently assessed at $1.7 million, according to the town of Guilderland’s assessor’s office. Carol Wysomski, the town’s assessor, said that the value of land changes according to its use. Commercial land fetches the highest prices, she said; land on Route 20 near the town hall is selling for about $100,000 per acre for commercial use.

Of rezoning the fairgrounds, Wysomski said, "The use would change, therefore the assessment changes."

Fair mission

There is no reason for the fair’s board of directors to sell the land, said Marie McMillen, the fair’s new manager. The money from the sale of the land would go to the state, she said. "There’s no financial benefit to anyone at the fair," she said.

Beyond that, though, the fair board prides itself in bringing the agricultural roots of three counties — Albany, Schenectady, and Greene — to the now largely suburban populace, McMillen said. "That’s our purpose in being here," she said. "There are people who come here who don’t know what a cow looks like."

The total attendance figure for the six-day fair in 2006 was approximately 92,300, McMillen said, a slight increase over 92,251 in 2005. She wasn’t sure how many were paid admissions, but in 2005 about a third of the attendees, roughly 35,000 people, paid to get into the fair. There has been a trend toward higher attendance over the last five years at the fair, though every year is a gamble on the weather.

The fair fell into financial difficulties in the 1990’s and faced an audit from the State Attorney General’s office in 1999. The report, which took almost three years to complete, showed that there was no criminal wrongdoing on the part of the fair board or manager, though the debt reached $450,000 at one point.

"We’re in the best shape we’ve ever been in," said Robert Santorelli, the president of the fair board, of the current state of the fair, which is due in large part to other events held at the fairgrounds. "I know it’s used heavy-duty sometimes, like Countryfest," he said of an event held last summer, which drew roughly 30,000 people in one day.

Two of the big money-makers from 2006 will be coming back, McMillen said; both Countryfest and Summerfest will be held at the fairgrounds this summer and the Zoppé circus will be making another appearance during fair week – this year with night-time performances.

"It’s busy for 30 days and the rest of the year it’s like a park," said Santorelli. "If it weren’t there, I think you’d see roads and houses and Altamont wouldn’t be a quaint little village anymore."

Planning for development

Although the village isn’t anticipating that the fair will go under, Whalen said that it would be irresponsible not to plan for that possibility. "It’s a very large, unique, entity within the village," said Whalen of the fairgrounds. "But what if it’s not that entity anymore""

For development in and around the village, New Urbanism is referenced in name and in essence in Altamont’s new comprehensive plan. Encouraging pedestrian routes and maintaining existing village architecture are two recurring themes throughout the plan; they are also two major components of the New Urbanist philosophy. Some New Urbanist buildings can be used as infill, but what the program is known for is the intricately planned developments that they’ve built across the country. (See related story.)

"We’re just going to use it as a reference," Whalen, an architect, said of New Urbanism. He said that the New Urbanist program has been successful in some places, but he was also careful to recognize its pitfalls. "It’s almost self-defeating," he said of some applications of New Urbanism. He cited Seaside, and Celebration, which are two New Urbanist Neighborhoods in Florida that amount to gated communities.

"Given the size of the parcel, there is a real sense that it should be planned," Whalen said of the way the Altamont fairgrounds should be developed, if, in fact, they are. He wants to make sure that further development around Altamont has a village feel, rather than the typical cul-de-sac and cookie-cutter house design that has become the suburban status quo.

Although both McMillen and Santorelli said that the fair will not be selling land, it has in the past. In 2004, the fair sold 14.6 acres of heavily-wooded property across Brandle Road from the fairgrounds to developer Jeff Thomas for $250,000. Thomas plans to build a large senior-housing complex there.

In 2003, the fair sold the historic Hayes House on Fairview Avenue to Jackie and Jeff Genovesi, after it had auctioned off the contents of the house, including a Tiffany chandelier.

Of the possibility for large pieces of land being sold from the grounds, Whalen asked, "If you have a potential clean slate, what do you want it to look like""

As for plans to sell land from the fairgrounds, Santorelli, referring to a village hang-out, said, no, "That’s Ketchum’s gas station talk."

Urbanism or enclaves"

By Saranac Hale Spencer

Planning shapes people’s lives.

New Urbanism replaces the labyrinthine cul-de-sacs and cookie-cutter houses of suburban sprawl with a throwback to traditional neighborhood designs.

But some of these New Urbanist communities have become enclaves for the wealthy instead of home to a cross-section of economic classes like the cities they are meant to replicate.

Living in a townhouse, marketed as being affordable, in the Kentlands, a large New Urbanist development in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, Carol Baxter found, "You had to be well off to afford to be there and then well off to keep paying the taxes."

Offering a variety of housing types in close proximity is one way to ensure a range of income levels in one neighborhood, say New Urbanism founders Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck in their 2000 book, Suburban Nation. Holding up the Kentlands as a good example of diverse housing, they write, "Mansions sit just around the corner from town houses, with garage apartments located on a shared rear lane" Any cachet that may be associated with the mansions rubs off on the apartments as well."

The problem with that, said Dorn McGrath, professor of urban and regional planning at The George Washington University, is that the market dictates the price.

Baxter lived in Kentlands for two-and-a-half years and nearly doubled what she paid for her condominium when she sold it. "A house across the highway from it would sell for $10,000 less than a house in Kentlands," she said. "If somebody wanted to live there, they had to fork over the money."

Duany sees the same phenomenon, saying, "At Kentlands, houses sell for a $30,000 to $40,000 premium over comparable units on larger lots in neighboring subdivisions." He attributes the increase in price to the design of the neighborhood, the fact that the houses are part of a community.

New Urbanist buildings can be used either as infill, to fit in with an existing village, or as an independent community, which is usually associated with New Urbanism. Its founders wanted to find an alternative to suburban sprawl, so they looked back at urban communities like Georgetown, in Washington, D.C., for inspiration.

From that, they came up with a program that would, ideally, foster a sense of community, with mixed commercial and residential buildings, in an attractive, pedestrian-accessible setting that would encourage walking over driving in an effort to reduce the emphasis on cars in American culture.

"We’re not expecting that we’re going to do away with the car," said Steve Filmanowicz, spokesman for the Congress For The New Urbanism. Noting how far work places have become from where people live, he said, "It’s a fact of life to drive cars. We realize that."

Victor Barrett is the owner and president of NewUrbaist.com, a website referenced in Altamont’s newly adopted comprehensive plan. He works with developers or municipalities interested in building New Urbanist communities. He works with Duany on many projects "His firm does basic planning and layout," said Barrett. "He’s sort of the big-picture guy."

Whole developments make up about half of his business, said Barrett, the other half is infill. His company has handled between 30 and 40 neighborhoods since it started in 1996, he said. At last count, there were more than 800 New Urbanist developments completed or under construction in the United States, Filmanowicz said. Many of the developments are built on brown fields, formerly contaminated areas, or old air strips, rather than on previously undeveloped land, he said.

Kentlands, near Washington, D.C., was built on what used to be a farm, said Baxter, and it was successful in attracting businesses to its commercial spaces. There were two grocery stores, Whole Foods and Giant, she recalled, a number of boutiques, hairdressers, and spas, a couple of stores with do-it-yourself ceramics, lots of restaurants, and some big box stores like Lowe’s and K-Mart. "It’s not a farm anymore," she said.

On a nice day, she could walk anywhere, Baxter said, but what ended up happening is that people from neighboring suburbs would drive over to Kentlands to do their shopping. "It would attract people from the suburbs like a mall," she said.

"Some of the principles are admirable," said McGrath of New Urbanism and its aim to create communities different from typical suburban sprawl. But, he said, "Most of them are suburbia."

New Urbanists are still struggling to come up with the right formula for re-creating America’s most appealing old towns. "The strongest examples of New Urbanism are examples of old urbanism," said Filmanowicz.

Of Kentlands, Baxter said, "It is attractive, but it isn’t really real."

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