Rockefeller's big dream realized Empire State Plaza: Locals who once scorned Albany's enormous government complex are grudgingly giving it some of the credit for the city's upscale renaissance.


ALBANY, N.Y. -- When it was dedicated in 1973, the Empire State Plaza -- an enormous government complex on a platform above a hill in New York's capital city -- was dismissed as one of the great urban boondoggles, a monument to the ego of Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller.

Architecture critics derided it as a monster. Government watchdogs lamented the $2 billion cost, most of which went to various forms of graft. Passionate locals denounced Rockefeller for destroying an old ethnic neighborhood to build a government center far out of proportion to the rest of Albany, an old Dutch city of 100,000.

But a generation later, Albany's downtown is enjoying a comeback, with new construction, a new theater, even the town's first brew pub, the Big House. And locals who once scorned the government complex are grudgingly giving it some of the credit.

"I never thought I would say this, but, no question about it, the mall preserved the city," says William Kennedy, whose novels about his hometown, including "Ironweed" and "Legs," won him the Pulitzer Prize. "And Albany is now in an upscale renaissance."

The plaza, renamed the Nelson Rockefeller Empire State Plaza in 1978, is set around two long, rectangular reflecting pools, which extend from the foot of the New York State Museum to the State Capitol, a Gothic-style edifice completed in 1899. The complex's main tenants are about 20,000 state employees.

In addition to the museum, the Empire State Plaza has four 20-story office buildings; a giant theater called "The Egg," because it's shaped like one; and a 42-story skyscraper named for Erastus Corning, the Albany mayor who bitterly opposed Rockefeller's plan when it was announced.

Underneath is a shopping mall, a sign of the liberal Republican Rockefeller's faith that Americans respect their government so much that they would want to spend free time within its bowels. The mall has restaurants, dry cleaners, even its own police station. The plaza's very own collection of abstract art is scattered throughout the buildings. Almost inevitably, the sameness of the marble (about 500,000 cubic feet) and black glass confuses visitors, and they get lost.

"It shocks people when they come to town. It's not human size," says Richard Nathan, director of the Rockefeller Institute of Government, a research group affiliated with the State University of New York at Albany. "Nelson Rockefeller was not just a dreamer, he was a big dreamer."

While the story of the plaza is a tale of political hubris, it involves not only Rockefeller, scion of wealth and failed candidate for president, but also the little-known Corning, the classic machine politician who was Albany's mayor for more than 40 years.

The idea came to Rockefeller in the early 1960s, as he drove Queen Juliana of the Netherlands through the rundown city neighborhood the plaza would eventually replace. "I could see the way the city was running down and what this lady might think," he later said. "Here was a great Dutch city built in the New World and then she comes to look at it, never having seen it before. My God!"

In 1962, Rockefeller announced that he was expropriating 98.5 acres, with the intention of destroying 1,150 buildings, many of them rooming houses, and displacing 3,600 households. Corning and the Democratic machine would have none of it.

The district was a Democratic stronghold; one rooming house had 78 registered voters. When a state investigator found only 22 cots, Kennedy recalls, "the proprietor explained that the voters slept in three eight-hour shifts. That still left 12 who had to sleep standing up."

But Rockefeller found a way to compromise: by paying off Corning. The state granted Albany County, which the machine controlled, the power to sell bonds to finance the mall's construction. Corning used his authority over construction to make sure Albany's residents were well-employed. Four men from different unions were assigned to monitor a single heating switch in one building. And Corning enriched himself by having his own company write policies to insure construction.

In 1983, when Corning died in his 43rd year as mayor, the obituaries noted that his term had encompassed seven governors, nine presidents and six popes; that he had ruled longer than Augustus Caesar; and that he had outfoxed "Governor Rocky" on the plaza deal.

But Rockefeller had gotten his plaza, which now draws more than 500,000 visitors a year.

After Corning's death, the city began to see growth in downtown business. "Erastus had insisted on the status quo, so there was great pent-up demand," says George E. Leveille, commissioner of the city Department of Economic Development. "And Rockefeller had given Albany this modern center."

Like other landlocked Northeastern cities, Albany was badly hurt by the consolidation of the banking industry and the recession of the early 1990s. But now the vacancy rate is falling, from a high of 14 percent. The state government is even planning a new building for the comptroller's office. The plaza suddenly doesn't seem big enough.

Neighbors to the west and south of the complex are slowly gentrifying. A new theater, the Capital Repertory, has opened, and the Pepsi Arena draws big crowds for the Albany River Rats, a minor-league hockey team. Downtown entrepreneurs started a Business Improvement District last year, and residents say the streets have never been cleaner.

"The problem in Albany is there is no place to park," says Michael J. Vanderoef, 51, a manager for a food services company. He sold his house in Albany during the recession, but is looking to move back. "Everyone in the world wants to be in downtown."

The plaza has not been a panacea. A few blocks southeast is Albany's South End, one of the city's most neglected neighborhoods, with dozens of boarded-up homes and a Roman Catholic church so neglected that vines cover beautiful stained glass on the second floor.

City officials complain that the plaza, while bringing tourists to downtown, has been less of a draw for residents of Albany and surrounding towns, such as Colonie, Troy and Rensselaer. The officials are proposing to replace one of the plaza's reflecting pools with a massive grass lawn, to encourage family picnics.

"We'd like to humanize the plaza so people feel like they can approach," says Leveille. "We need to do the same thing with the river."

Albany, in fact, is cut off from the Hudson River by Interstate 787, which is also part of Rockefeller's legacy. Corning helped, too; the mayor discouraged commercial and residential development along the river: He couldn't be sure new residents would vote Democratic. For his trouble, the narrow park between the interstate and the Hudson was named the Erastus Corning Preserve.

But city officials intend to spend nearly $20 million to connect the river with the rest of downtown. Pedestrian bridges will be built over the highway; docks and a river walk will be built.

During these heady days, there is even talk of making Albany a draw for artists and writers. Kennedy, the novelist, is director of the New York State Writers Institute, which brings authors from all over the country to Albany.

William Faulkner helped give Mississippi romance, "and Albany has much more to offer in artistic inspiration than that," he says, including Legs Diamond, the real-life gangster who was the subject of a Kennedy novel, and two classic political figures, Corning and Rockefeller.

"Rockefeller had a lesson for us: You can't predicate your whole life on being parsimonious with the budget," Kennedy says. "He changed Albany, because he was able to think beyond money."

Pub Date: 9/29/97

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