Recently, my girlfriend and I took a trip up to the Catskill area of New York to attend her brother’s graduation. We stayed in Phoenicia and took some time to explore other nearby towns.
Phoenicia (Pop 299) is a cute touristy town at the junction of the Stony Clove Creek with the Esopus Creek. This town suffered serious damage during Hurricane Irene in 2011. It has a nice main street, but doesn’t seem to maximize the benefit of its proximity to the creeks.
Saugerties (Pop 3,959) is located at the mouth of the Esopus Creek as it enters the Hudson River. This town has a much more developed downtown area. Shops are clustered on Partition Street and parts of Main Street. An overly wide and car-centric intersection at Market St. and Main St. cuts off a potential extension of this shopping district along Market Street. While it is not unsafe to walk to, the presence of parking lots at the intersection and the additional lane to accommodate higher speed turns creates the feeling that pedestrians are not welcome. Some traditional traffic calming measures in this intersection as well as a couple of pedestrian friendly buildings on the corners would improve the pedestrian atmosphere significantly and allow for this extension of the downtown area. A return to a pedestrian focus has already begun in Saugerties and can be seen in a great conversion of an old gas station/car service center into a restaurant.
Catskill (Pop 4,075), located on the mouth of the Catskill Creek, has not yet had the sort of revitalization that is going on in other towns, but it is starting. Many galleries have moved here, but have yet to generate a crowd (at least on the weekend I was there). The north side of Main Street has a sharp corner creating the appearance of a closed end to the street. The curve is watched over by a statue of fictional Catskills area resident Rip Van Winkle. There is a strong feeling of being in an outdoor room on Main St. Perhaps the most interesting urban design characteristic is a series of paths leading up the hill from Main St. to the next street to the East (North St., Adademy St., or Franklin St. depending on the location). Some of these paths have great landscaping and offer places to sit. Together, they create an interesting town with unexpected opportunities to explore; exactly what great towns should do. The part of this town that has the greatest potential is about a block away from Main St. Here remnants of Catskill’s industrial past remain along the Catskill Creek. There are also large parking lots and other underutilized spaces. When Catskill attracts the eyes of developers, this is a place where development can happen without displacing residents or destroying the historic character of the city. Mixed use developments along with a river walk could turn this location into a destination. Furthermore, if the city was to provide docks for visitors downtown, this could be a destination from water and not just land. Imagine going out for a day on the river and pulling in to Catskill for dinner before heading home. Not many cities have such a great location for docking and Catskill should take advantage of this asset.
Hudson (Pop 6,731), has the most thoroughly developed downtown strip of any of the towns we visited. Rainbow flags flew on this mile long downtown strip lined with art galleries, furniture stores and restaurants. At the end of Warren St (the commercial street) is the Hudson Upper Waterfront Park. This park perched above the Hudson River gave spectacular views of the Catskill Mountains across the river and the Hudson Athens Lighthouse. Unfortunately due to the geography of the area, connecting Hudson to the Hudson is a challenge. Even the Amtrak station has to be set a few blocks away from Warren St. Though the station is not the most conveniently located for the town, it does provide direct car-free access from New York City, something that probably helped Hudson become such a vibrant and artistic city.
Kingston (Pop 23,864) has multiple urban commercial centers, though on this trip I was only able to make it to the area around Front St. and Wall St. I find this area to be incredibly interesting. Here the stores are lined with arcades extending over the sidewalk. The arcades are open and airy preventing a claustrophobic feeling one can get with arcades (Roosevelt Island in New York City is particularly bad) There are numerous small stores in this area and the benches are even organized to promote conversation rather than standing alone. I have been here twice and both times the area was void of life. This really is a shame because from an urban design perspective, the area is very well done. The lack of activity makes me assume that the spaces above the stores are not adequately used as apartments and thus on weekends, there aren’t enough people in the area to make it vibrant. Nonetheless, there are some great lessons to be learned from this area. Many of the storefronts look like they were remodeled in the 1970’s or 1980’s, but this doesn’t matter because they fit in with the urban fabric. Small scale appearance is less important as the larger urban form. Creating high ceilings in arcades and including skylights makes the arcade feel open and airy. Correctly done arcades can be some of the greatest urban walkways and these two strategies can help create better arcades. Finally, placing benches facing each other allow groups to engage in conversation. The only two changes that I could see for this area are increasing the number of rented apartments above the stores and narrowing the street to calm traffic and create a larger sidewalk.