BY PETE BARDUNIAS
Hopefully 2024 is the year that we stop letting the urbanists define what a downtown is in Saratoga County. Many communities seem to look at their development options and needs through the lens of Saratoga Springs: a centralized mixed-use business district with housing, restaurants, mass transit options, sidewalks, and more, with decades of planning and development along the way. In Saratoga Springs this works very well, and all of us who live in this County are fortunate to have such a city to attract the masses for racing season (which this year will include two major meets), or for the arts, cultural festivals, and attractions such as the City Center, the sprawling Spa Park, SPAC, and Universal Preservation Hall. But should we aspire to do this everywhere?
Take Clifton Park. Decades of planning have been incorporated in developing the form-based code that guides planning for the town, especially in the vicinity of Exit 9. The same thing has been unfolding in Malta in recent years. Yet as readers of this publication know, those towns are very different in design and character from Saratoga.
Is that a bad thing? Some people would say so. In fact, many communities in our county are often derided as being examples of sprawl, or visionless, or even inconsequential, because they don’t match the description that is considered ideal.
Many communities struggle to find identity when identity is staring them in the face. Do we have to define our downtown in the traditional, textbook sense, or can we just accept these communities as they are? Clifton Park’s town center area, as it’s more frequently called, has some of the most wonderful places to shop, eat, work, walk around and recreate in the entire county. The new Town Center Park is adjacent to the business district. There’s more to do just west of Exit 9 than in many of the more traditional-looking downtowns in the Capital Region. Just to the east, Halfmoon is now developing a similar segment of town which will look very much like a town center or downtown area. What about the Town of Milton? Milton is a great community with a unique town center. Forget about definitions; stand by the Town Hall, and go for a walk. It’s interesting how much you can find within a short distance. There are shops, stores (including the largest NAPA auto parts store in the USA), some places to eat or get ice cream, and a very pleasant town park with trails, all accessible from nearby residential housing of different income levels. And there is an extensive network of sidewalks. No one would ever dare call this a Downtown, yet this section of the Town of Milton contains pretty much everything one would want in a downtown. It’s just packaged differently.
Of course, some communities have downtowns in the more traditional sense, such as Ballston Spa, Mechanicville, Schuylerville, and Waterford. Other communities, like Malta or Wilton, have more of the characteristic of Clifton Park to varying degrees. How about Charlton? Is there a downtown there? Well, no. Neither is there one in a town like Galway. And I am pretty sure their residents are quite happy with the way things are. The rustic nature of the Charlton Tavern or the community nature of Dockstader Field in Galway provide plenty of character for those localities, and as Charlton Supervisor Joe Grasso pointed out recently, Charlton’s business community is bigger than most people would think, enabled by the town’s particular zoning to operate mostly home-based, yet many of the businesses in the town have regional reach in terms of the customers they serve.
As someone who is known for being outspoken and active on social media, it never ceases to amaze me that of all the comments I’ve made over the past 13 years, the ones that created the biggest controversy were when I said how much I love living in Clifton Park, or expressed my delight that you can find a free parking space anywhere in the town at any time of year, even at Christmas. I’ve been accused of looking past the suburban “dystopianism” that supposedly exists in Clifton Park and Halfmoon. If that’s the case, then I am the biggest advocate for Dystopia that this world has ever seen. I absolutely love living in Clifton Park. With less than a decade standing between me and potential retirement, my wife and I have been investing in our home and we expect that we will have a Clifton Park address the rest of our days. It is my fervent belief that no matter where you live in Saratoga County you can feel proud of your community because you live in some of the best real estate in America, regardless of what your town center looks like.