By ALISSA SCOTT
Recorder News Staff
Fifteen percent of housing units in the city of Amsterdam are vacant.
This summer, Kevin Meindl, 28, a self-proclaimed vacant lots enthusiast, has been interning for the Office of Community and Economic Development in City Hall to help devise plans for those empty spaces. The program, in its first year of supplying interns, is the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences NYS Internship Program.
"People will say, 'Well, you could turn it into a park,'" Robert von Hasseln, director of community and economic development and Meindl's mentor, said. "'You could turn it into a garden. You could sell it to the guy who lives next door. You could assemble it with other parcels to make enough land to do something larger.' Those are the choices. But, how do you choose?"
A decision that now, von Hasseln said, is made "willy-nilly," will now have a specific methodology for each instance.
"One of the first things Kevin did when he first got here was he identified all the different steps, all the different actions you could take," von Hasseln said. "Like here's how you decide what the best purpose is for that piece of land. In context of ... that particular street, that particular neighborhood."
Meindl, a second-year grad student at Cornell University from Buffalo, has been examining maps as well as stepping onto the streets of the city with a notepad and a camera to get a grasp for how realistic some of the possibilities for a vacant area really are.
"I'm real big into allowing storm water infiltrate to reduce the stress on river systems and trying to prevent the dumpage of waste into the river," Meindl, who studies landscape architecture, said. "However, as much as I like that and I think it's great, they're not always the best solution. The storm water infiltration areas are great for the environment, but they do nothing for the neighbors. The guy living next door wants his property value to increase. He doesn't care about what the water's doing."
Meindl has also been working to get a feel for the community and what kinds of people make it up. That, he said, will also influence what structures can and should fill a vacant lot.
"There's a large population here that identifies themselves as Hispanic or Latino," Meindl said. "I think that's a real asset ... Younger people certainly prefer diversity, so I think that's something that Amsterdam has to offer and could be enhanced or strengthened."
He said hosting festivals or adding Spanish restaurants to the area could help grow that cultural asset.
"I've noticed that almost every restaurant up here is Italian," Meindl said. "Which is great, I mean I like Italian food, but there's no Spanish restaurants anywhere. Not that I've found anyway. It's something that you like to see and you like to experience."
If a restaurant like that, or any other business, wanted to open, by the end of the summer, it could access a list of all vacant lots in an online database Meindl is creating.
"We're coming up with a way to have an easily accessible list for the general public and also for developers of businesses and potential homeowners who want to buy a property in the city," Meindl said. "Having a one-stop shopping place where they can very easily go on a website and see here are the available properties, here are the ones that are going to be coming up for auction in the following months."
Mayor Ann Thane, who said she's been hoping for someone to fill Meindl's position since she got into office, said the database Meindl is creating will be highly beneficial to both city residents and tourists.
"When people come to the area, we can readily show them what's available," Thane said. "Whether it's city-owned or AIDA-owned or county-owned or privately-owned, we will know what our stock is."
Thane said this work aligns with initiatives the city has been working towards for Amsterdam's overall betterment.
"It couples with some of the work we've been doing for neighborhood revitalization, with the Brownsfield Opportunity Act," Thane said. "We've been wanting to go into each neighborhood and assess lots or abandoned properties to decide if A, the property can be saved or if it needs to be demo-ed or B, if it's a vacant property, do we want to assign that to a neighbor and have them extend their driveway or have a yard? Or do we want to have a public parking lot? A community garden? Do we want a playground?"
The two areas Meindl is focusing on during his summer-long internship are the east side and Main Street, though von Hasseln said Meindl has ambitiously said he wants to tackle the entire city.
"We're looking at the east end now, which has high unemployment, high poverty, low-to-medium household value," Meindl said. "It has a negative perception from the rest of Amsterdam that it's a problem area. I actually don't think it's that bad. I kind of like the east end, but there's still a negative perception of it, so we're focusing on it."
Meindl said he's enjoying his time in Amsterdam from his Locust Avenue apartment, though when he first got here he thought it was "kind of depressing."
"I was kind of like 'Oh my God,'" Meindl said. "But I like it. There's good people. There's a lot of potential here."
As this is Meindl's first time in Amsterdam, he's also been highly active in community events and visiting area attractions. A fan of Old Fort Johnson, he's watched a film there with locals. He is also helping to advise the community garden at the Creative Connections Art Center on East Main Street. He said he's hoping to work with Centro Civico and Fulton-Montgomery Community College before he leaves at the end of the summer.
Before he leaves, he will have a report of his suggestions and research available to the city. Thane said she's looking forward to see the result and the continued growth of the city.
"I think people would love to see the city revitalized much faster than it happens, but it is happening incrementally," Thane said. It's happening along the waterfront. It's happening on the south side along Bridge Street. It's happening on Main Street by the mall. We're having an impact. It's a long process and a slow process, but we are making steady progress."
Von Hasseln said Meindl is doing a great job and said Meindl has told him he has considered doing his mater's thesis work in Amsterdam.
Von Hasseln said maybe, one day, Meindl could take his job.