You can go home again
The resurgence of downtown Cohoes
By Mary Beth Galarneau
Seventy-five years ago, with the City of Cohoes riding the crest of Hudson River industrial development, textile mills abounded, and the city’s growth followed suit.
Nowadays, the roles have reversed. With the emphasis having shifted to residential planning, the city now tailors its commerce to its growth, and a new-found diversification. In fact, five years from now, Cohoes is expected to be one of the better-known bedroom communities in the area, and Remsen Street will be a destination for specialty shopping, fine dining and a burgeoning arts scene.
At least that’s how Ed Tremblay, director of Community & Economic Development for the City of Cohoes, envisions it.
Of course, Tremblay is realistic. “It [the city] didn’t just fall apart overnight. It was a twenty to twenty-five year decline of traditional downtown,” he said. And he knows it will take time to rebuild the city into a version of its former self.
Cohoes Historian Steve Lackmann agrees. A life-long resident, Lackmann remembers Remsen Street as the hub of the city. On most Saturdays, sidewalks bustled with shoppers, frequenting stores such as Cramer’s Armory, Cohoes Men and Boys, Cohoes Manufacturing, the Cohoes Army and Navy store and Carroll’s Shoe Store. There were discount ‘five and dime’ such as Kresge’s and Fishmans, and hardware stores such Stile’s. You could get auto parts at the Western Auto store or fresh vegetables at Nassar’s. Christmas time was especially festive, with decorations billowing along Remsen Street like wind-raveled ribbons. Shoppers would be three deep.
And while downtown Cohoes eventually fell victim to the suburban shopping mall, it has now come full circle. “Main Street USA”, and the convenience of urban living, is in vogue again. Today, along with a few of the older attractions such as Tables & Chairs, Rizzo’s Florist, Marra’s Pharmacy, Miron’s For Floors, Smith’s Restaurant, and the Cohoes Music Hall, there are several new businesses popping up, including Harmony House, a wine shop and bakery, Marvelous Things Boutique and Hometown Pizza. It’s a virtual hometown renaissance.
A new beginning
Tremblay credits Mayor John McDonald with launching the revitalization effort and acquiring $20 million in grants.
First up was repairing the sidewalks and overgrown areas near Harmony Mills and installing street lights with an IDA (Industrial Development Agency) grant. These changes attracted an investor from New York City, who re-imagined the industrial age mill complex renown for its production of garments into a series of Manhattan-style loft apartments for working professionals. All 96 units are currently occupied and construction on another 140 units is expected in the spring.
Other grants followed. In 2004, a façade grant was used to spruce up the exterior of several Remsen Street buildings, while additional grants were used to refurbish storefronts and rehabilitate upper floor apartments. In the last two years, there have been 25 new upper-story housing units created on Remsen Street, ranging from $700-$1,000 in monthly rent, while several new commercial buildings have also been upgraded, resulting in over 150 back office jobs that weren’t there just a few years ago.
“The goal,” Tremblay said, “is to bring more people to live and walk the streets.”
But the revitalization effort is more than about renewing older structures. It’s also about new construction, including condominiums and apartments, which are going up at a rapid pace throughout the city. Approved for construction next year are “Water’s View” on the Mohawk River overlooking Peeble’s Island, and “Captain’s Lookout” on the Hudson River, while additional river-view apartments such as “Admiral’s Walk” and “Water Side Apartments” are nearing completion, as is “The Seasons” off of Manor Avenue.
Then there is the Cohoes Falls. Hushed like a secret behind the Harmony Mills, the conjoining of the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers produces an ancient splendor second only to Niagara Falls in its power and grandeur. Seeking to exploit this wonder, the city recently opened a four-acre park next to the falls, attracting people from all over the Capital Region. And come spring, there will be a trail that winds to the base of the falls, complete with a platform so fisherman can wade into the base of the river. A family festival is also scheduled for spring, as an official “kick off” for the park.
“It’s all part of our smart-growth agenda,” said Mayor McDonald. “This new urbanism is about restoring and rehabbing facilities that have been here for a long time.”
New kids on the block
Whatever the agenda, it appears to be working. Just ask Sal Prizio, one of the recent new business owners to open shop on Remsen Street. Initially attracted to the relatively lower rents, Prizio soon found himself impressed with the city’s resurgence. It’s becoming a hot spot again and he understands why.
It’s all about quality of life.
Formerly in the music industry, Prizio is a “downstater” who grew tired of the four-hour daily commute from his Connecticut home to Manhattan. With a wife and baby at home, things had to change, and the prospect of owning his own coffee shop is something that always appealed to him. The idea was simple: to open a coffee shop for music lovers, but do it in a quieter, though still urban, environment. And although he originally considered locating his shop in a college town like Saratoga or Schenectady, he found himself irresistibly attracted to Cohoes. Of course, it didn’t hurt that his wife is from the area.
Though Prizzio’s “Bread and Jam” has a Manhattan-like vibe, it also retains a small town feel, offering something for everyone. There are home baked goods, signature sandwiches, coffee (French press is available), cappuccino, espresso and teas. And the music hits every age group, from the Fiddlers Tour every Tuesday in November, to Ernie Williams on November 26, Matt Durfee on November 22, and the Jazz brunch every Sunday of the year.
Just as many other water-front cities across the country are experiencing a resurgence, Cohoes proves that slow and steady works.
“It’s like building a house with a small crew,” said Tremblay. “The first four years you build the foundation, now we’re getting the framing done and in the next few years we’ll be putting the finishing touches and trim on.”
Mayor McDonald concurs. “We’re small enough that we can keep a personal touch, but still be able to attract investors to allow the community to grow,” he said.
And he’s right. One day at a time, the city of Cohoes is proving that you can go home again, you just have to take your time.