Downtown Binghamton facelift underway

Binghamton looks to many visitors like any other post-industrial city in the Northeast: The historic buildings are in disrepair, and the rundown strip malls hide years of slow progress towards a revitalized Binghamton.

Mayor Matt Ryan: “They say the imagination of change comes before real change and there’s been a lot of imagination that went into this project.”

Back in October, Binghamton mayor Matt Ryan cut the ribbon on a new open space in Downtown Binghamton. There’s a raised area where bands could play in the summer and a few tables and chairs scattered around the single lot wedged between two buildings.

It doesn’t look like much but a significant amount of work went into making it happen.

A reporter asks how long it took to make the park happen.

“It took many years to pull this whole thing off,” says Sean Massey. He was the councilman for this part of the city when the project was completed. He says the idea is that this part of Washington St, separated from downtown Binghamton by the river and busy Route 434, should be considered a vital part of the urban core.

He hopes the students that will move into new downtown housing scheduled to open later this year will cross the river and come to this part of downtown.

“So now what we have is a concentrated destination, a place with businesses, with public space, with maybe some entertainment and recreational activities that are going on that will now be available to this new market that is moving downtown,” Massy says.

That new market, hundreds of Binghamton University students, are the next step in the plan for this area.

Merry Harris, the city’s director of economic development, says a complete transformation of downtown is already under way.

“It won’t be just kind of the nine-to-five scene that is right now – you know, people come in, they go to lunch, they do that and then pretty much go home at night,” says Harris.

She says the transformation expected in downtown has been harder to bring to the city as a whole as it tries to overcome its industrial past.

Democracy is partly to blame. As politicians enter and leave office, redevelopment priorities change. That’s led to a scattershot approach to development, according to Mayor Matt Ryan.

“It is piecemeal so far,” says Ryan. “It’s kind of filling in so if you’re just living here you might see this place, that place.”

Ryan says that the bigger planning, the one that covers the next decade or two, is also in the works. In November, the city won a $500,000 federal grant, part of the Community Challenge Grant Program.

The money will go toward a rewrite of the city’s comprehensive plan, new zoning for the Main Street-Court Street corridor and a few local development projects.

Binghamton city planner Tarik Abdelazim says this grant gives officials the luxury to think beyond the short-term projects that politicians are forced to work on.

“We’re responsible for looking out 20 or 30 years, not on a political timeline but on a community development timeline,” says Abdelazim.

Developing the city’s new plan will take about two years and, once completed, it will guide all future projects in the city.

Read (and hear) more at InnovationTrail.org.

PHOTO: Matt Richmond / Innovation Trail