July 31, 2012

NanoCollege's plan has a place in history

By: Warren Roberts

Source: Times Union

The University at Albany College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering is moving downtown, to two separate sites. That's welcome news.

One site is the former Union Station on Broadway, the other is a property at Philip and Warren streets, where a new facility will be constructed for a Capital South Campus Center. The idea in both cases is to provide training and opportunities in Albany geared to today's high-tech world.

This is approximately 50 years after Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller undertook two massive construction projects that changed Albany forever: Empire State Plaza and the uptown campus of the University at Albany. When Rockefeller announced his plan to build the South Mall, he said it would revitalize downtown Albany. The center of 19th-century Albany was demolished to make way for the South Mall; 1,300 buildings were demolished and 9,000 people were displaced. Both the D&H building and Union Station were slated for demolition, but were saved.

The State University of New York restored the D&H building, one of Albany's architectural gems; it now serves as the central offices of SUNY. Union Station was restored by Norstar Bank, but was vacated two years ago. Its future now appears promising, thanks to initiatives of the University at Albany and interested parties in state government.

By the time Rockefeller announced his plan to revitalize downtown Albany, the area had undergone massive change, and massive decline. The Erie Canal had been filled in. The industrial base of Albany's economy had deteriorated, a decline Rockefeller did not reverse.

Subsequent administrations moved workers downtown, to buildings constructed for state agencies. Union Station lies between two such buildings. The idea now is for the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering to introduce programs developed in the uptown campus of UAlbany that will revitalize downtown Albany. The idea is as daring as the Fuller Road nanosciences project itself at the University at Albany, one of the most remarkable undertakings in Albany since Rockefeller.

The site chosen for the Capital South Campus Center is intriguing. Philip Street was named for two sons of Alexander Hamilton, George Washington's secretary of the treasury and the intellectual architect of expansive capitalist America. Hamilton was married in Schuyler Mansion to Elizabeth Schuyler, the daughter of Philip Schuyler.

The new college that will be built at Philip and Warren streets will develop training programs that will infuse new life into South Albany. Alexander Hamilton would surely be pleased. He might have said, "This is what I had in mind — growth through innovation."

Fifty years ago, Rockefeller proclaimed revitalization of Albany as a purpose of his vast downtown project in 1962. Little could he have imagined that the far end of the new uptown campus whose construction he ordered would become the center of a high-tech corridor and development center that would hold out new hope for economic growth in the Capital Region, and that its initiatives would include energizing downtown Albany.

Warren Roberts is a Distinguished Teaching Professor in the History Department at the University at Albany. His most recent book, "A Place in History: Albany in the Age of Revolution, 1775-1825," was published in 2010.