WAMC Housing Series Part 6: A Quick History Of How The Northway Expanded Suburbia | WAMC

WAMC Housing Series Part 6: A Quick History Of How The Northway Expanded Suburbia

Dec 21, 2019

Perhaps there has been no greater impact on housing in the greater Capital Region than the development of the Adirondack Northway in the mid-20th Century.

The Adirondack Northway begins in Albany and extends all the way to Canada. Construction began in 1957 and the extension of I-87 was built in segments.

Before the major commuter highway crossed the Mohawk River, much of the area’s suburban development occurred in one sprawling Albany County town, says Mark Castiglione, executive director of the Capital District Regional Planning Commission.

“Historically, it was the town of Colonie that saw the lion’s share of development, being approximate to the three major cities in the Capital District – Schenectady, Albany, and Troy,” said Castiglione.

As American cities underwent so-called “white flight,” the national trends were reflected in the Capital Region. Between 1950 and 1960, the population of Colonie jumped 78 percent – from just under 30,000 residents to more than 52,000, fueled by the move of people out of cities and into the suburbs, and the automobile, making it easier for people to commute to work.

Before the Northway, just across the river from Colonie, the Southern Saratoga County town of Clifton Park was a small farming community, remembers town historian John Scherer.

“So basically, there was nothing in Clifton Park. I remember as a kid before the Northway you’d travel up Route 9 to get anyplace north. And you had no idea there was a Clifton Park. I mean, there was a stoplight at Route 9 and 146 and that was it,” said Scherer.

While the town had some small population centers like the hamlets of Rexford, Jonesville, and Vischer-Ferry, there wasn't much of a discernible town center. A town hall wouldn't even be erected until the mid-20th Century.

As the Albany County suburbs were booming and with the Northway crossing the Mohawk in 1959, one developer seized the opportunity in Clifton Park, a man named Robert Van Patten. He had recently built a shopping plaza in the Schenectady County suburban town of Glenville.

“Well, Van Patten saw that coming and he started buying up farmland to create Clifton Knolls, and he bought up four different farms,” said Scherer.

Van Patten bought farmland at $350 an acre. He was able to build homes cheap on the open space and created Clifton Park’s first suburb in 1961. That helped lead to a population boom, says Scherer.

“Up until about 1950, the population there was 2,000. When Van Patten started building his houses, when the Northway opened, the population of Clifton Park was 4,500. Ten years later in 1970, it was 14,500, mostly due to Van Patten’s development of Clifton Knolls,” said Scherer.

Van Patten would go on to build 3,500 homes and 1,000 apartments.

One of Van Patten’s advertising flyers from 1965 touted Clifton Knolls’ amenities like golf, ponds for recreation, swimming pools, and easy commute times.

Clifton Knolls was pitched as being a short half-hour drive to Albany, 20 minutes to Schenectady, and 25 minutes Troy. The “suburban spaciousness” was also noted for its closer distance to popular vacation destinations: the spas at Saratoga, Lake George, and the Adirondack mountains to the north.

Today, Clifton Park’s population is more than 40,000. And the growth hasn’t stopped there, notes Scherer.

“In the last 20 years, it’s spread into Halfmoon, and as Clifton Park is filled up and become more expensive, development has moved north. People were even commuting from Lake George once the Northway opened as far as Lake George,” said Scherer.

Saratoga County remains one of the fastest-growing counties in the state. Its population has jumped from just under 75,000 in 1950 to more than 230,000 today.

“And so, as we’ve seen the region evolve over time, this pattern of more spread-out development has persisted,” said Castiglione.

According to an analysis by the Capital District Regional Planning Commission, out of the four-county Capital Region that includes Albany, Schenectady, Rensselaer, and Saratoga Counties, between 1995 and 2015, more than 17,000 single-family homes were built in Saratoga County. That’s about half of all the homes built region-wide.

To illustrate the impact of that development, Castiglione refers to the increase in the number of vehicles coming into Albany each day.

“For example, between the early 2000s and about 2015 or so, there were 18,000 more people commuting into the city of Albany for work.”

Commutes from suburban areas in Saratoga and Schenectady counties into the Albany area can extend over an hour – many Capital Region residents get headaches each morning as traffic slows approaching the Twin Bridges, and the same goes from the trip home.

“Now, if those 18,000 people had housing options in the City of Albany that were attractive to them, maybe we could not only help to revitalize the City of Albany, increase the tax base for the City of Albany, but also ensure that those 18,000 commuters were not commuters, but people who were using transit, who were walking to work, who were taking part of the revitalization of the City of Albany,” said Castiglione.

Just building in cities is not as simple as it sounds. Development in urban areas is, as a rule, more costly than in rural and more suburban areas. Think historical codes, contaminated brownfield sites that need remediation, and strict zoning laws.

But younger people aren’t as interested in moving to the suburbs. And so cities are taking notice, says Castiglione.

“We have seen the rise – and this is across the board, not just central cities – the rise of multi-family development. In 2015, in 2016, it accounted for almost half of the building permits issued in the Capital District. It went for multi-family housing development. And that did not just occur in the cities. And so we have to look at external factors that might be contributing to that. And certainly, developers are responding to market demand,” said Castiglione.

The Capital Region economy is also attractive – buoyed by higher-paying state administrative jobs, its health care sector, and its burgeoning high-tech economy: GlobalFoundries’ Fab 8 campus in Malta, which started construction a decade ago, today employs more than 3,000 people. And 3,000 jobs has meant an increase in apartment-style development and single-family homes in the Saratoga County region.

The boost in multi-family development is noticeable in Capital Region cities. Smaller cities like Troy and Cohoes have seen new multi-story apartment buildings, old mills being converted into residential.

Saratoga Springs has boomed over the last couple decades, and with the growth in development, a hike in real estate prices, some of the costliest in the region.

Today, developers are looking beyond Saratoga Springs. Further north, the new apartment buildings are rising above Glens Falls’ single-family homes.

At a recent panel discussion focused on development in Glens Falls, prominent Saratoga Springs builder Sonny Bonacio explained that the Warren County city is becoming more attractive to developers, and price is a big part of that.

“Quite frankly, the pricing in Saratoga had gotten such – because of the land costs, the development costs – that this was really only 25 minutes away, it was a great viable option. It was a lot more cost-effective for people who cannot afford to live in downtown Saratoga,” said Bonacio.

And remember how homes in Clifton Park were being pitched in 1965? Closer to the Adirondacks, and Lake George? Well, that argument is still being used today.

“Glens Falls is just so charming, so at the end of the day, one could even argue Glens Falls is better than Saratoga because you’re that much closer to the Adirondacks. Lake George is right there. It’s not like you’re far from anything. And the price point was about 25 percent less. And 25 percent in a rental rate – that’s a lot of money,” said Bonacio.

“It’s an easy commute even into Albany. So we’re getting tenants from all over the Capital District,” said Philip Hoffman.

Clifton Park-based developer Phillip Hoffman is seeing the opportunity in Glens Falls, too. And he expects the trend of commuters moving northward to continue.

“That will continue to grow. We have 175 units and we’re 100 percent full,” said Hoffman.

In the City of Schenectady, much of the development over the last decade has focused on the downtown, on State Street, and new construction at Mohawk Harbor, including the Rivers Casino, commercial and residential development.

But that development is starting to radiate into city neighborhoods. Investors recently cut the ribbon on the Barrett Village townhomes, in one of the city’s oldest areas.

John Roth, of the group called Live In Schenectady, discussed the strategy of building new housing within the city as a way to market homes to younger people less interested in moving out to the suburbs.

“People want to live someplace where they have access to…be able to walk to restaurants, theaters, entertainment, bars, events on a regular basis. And I think by people by moving back into the city, it gives them the opportunity to be able to do that,” said Roth.

Meanwhile, state officials who represent Capital Region suburbs are looking for ways to relieve traffic on the Northway.

Republican State Senator James Tedisco, of the Schenectady County town of Glenville, commutes to Albany on the Northway.

“Morning traffic, afternoon traffic from the capitol across the Capital Region is a bear, very difficult. So it affects the ability to our job as public servants and those who work for the State of New York, but it also just affects commerce,” said Tedisco.

Tedisco has one idea.

“I think a commuter lane evaluation, another one added, would be something to realistically look at,” said Tedisco.

Any changes to the Northway face headwinds, though. Governor Andrew Cuomo pointed out that the new Exit 3 to Albany Airport, which opened late this year, was 50 years in the making.

As building has outpaced population growth in the region, for Mark Castiglione, the solution will involve taking a closer look at how we develop in the future.

“Something we need to think about carefully is not just what we’re building it, but where we’re building it,” said Castiglione.

And there will be challenges ahead that planners are starting to consider. If the Northway shaped where Capital Region residents live today, the looming advent of the self-driving vehicle may have a significant impact on where people choose to live in the future.

“There are some that say that without adequate planning, autonomous electric vehicles create a scenario can live even further apart, and further out,” said Castiglione.

But Castiglione remains positive about what’s to come. With its growing tech sector, high median income, affordable cost of living, education, and universities, he argues the Capital Region has a number of strengths.

“So we have many advantages that other regions of similar size do not have, so I remain optimistic of the future of our region,” said Castiglione.