Empire State Plaza, Albany, New York

By Mason Rowe, Urban Studies and Economics, Class of 2026. 

Side-by-side of Downtown Albany, Circa 1952 and 2013 (Source: IQC.edu)

The Empire State Plaza, the largest capital improvement in Albany’s history and one of the largest such projects in the history of the United States, forever changed the layout and atmosphere of the city and the capital region. Albany, New York’s capital, is perched on the west bank of the Hudson River, approximately 130 miles upstream from New York City. It has served as a population, political, and economic center for Upstate New York since its founding in the 1600s, and (as of 2023) has a metro population of over 1.1 million. As the political hub for one of the largest economies in the world, Albany has been no stranger to massive capital improvement projects. The Empire State Plaza project served as a model of the extent to which redevelopment projects could alter the landscape of U.S. cities.

By the 1960s, the City of Albany started to lose population for the first time in more than 50 years. Middle-class and wealthy White residents were leaving and the subsequent decrease in economic actors in the city led to businesses closing up shops and leaving the downtown. The tides were flowing toward urban renewal, and Nelson A. Rockefeller, then governor of New York, saw Albany as a prime candidate for a new facelift. Albany already had a long history of astonishingly expensive government buildings, as the New York State Capitol cost $25 million in 1899 dollars, so a new government complex would be in the right place. Rockefeller believed that a complex for the state government would keep businesses downtown and centralize the economy to one geographic area. A centralized hub would simplify department communication and make it easier for city planners to design traffic flows in and around Albany. To finance his vision, Rockefeller and then Albany Mayor Erastus Corning created a complicated county bond system that allowed the proposal to bypass the state legislature and avoid being put to a vote. Rockefeller’s most trusted architect, Wallace Harrison, was employed to design the new complex. Harrison was the architect behind famous urban renewal projects like the Lincoln Center in New York City. Together, they worked to create a vast marble and stone pseudo-city that rises above the rest of Albany, a monument to the government that dominates the area’s economics.

The state needed land to build on before they started construction. New York State used eminent domain to obtain this land by seizing 98.5 acres of downtown Albany in 1968. Within these 98.5 acres were over 40 city blocks, 400 businesses, 1,200 buildings, and 7,000 residents. While advocates for the project referred to these 40 city blocks as “blighted slums,” they were not considered that by the residents. It was a socially diverse area with a high number of businesses, but it was not overly dense and it did not suffer from the poverty and health consequences that are often associated with slums. The area was working-class and most residents rented their housing, which led to the area being called “The Gut”. Nonetheless, the designation of the area as a slum was factually inaccurate. Additionally, the seizure of this area disproportionately affected minority groups. The area’s percentage of Black residents was almost double the city’s average, estimated at 14% compared to approximately 8% city-wide. Besides the residential make-up of these 40 blocks, there were many important community centers, such as four different churches and 29 taverns that were seized. These institutions were often located in historical buildings from the Victorian era that added to the eclectic charm of the area. New York State displaced thousands of low-income and minority persons and removed the cultural heart of Albany by demolishing 98.5 acres of history-filled blocks.

Empire State Plaza. (Source: Project for Public Spaces)

The lives and communities in “The Gut” did not dissuade Rockefeller from his modernist vision. He believed that it would be “the greatest thing to happen to this country in a hundred years” and the low-income residents could not rally enough support to slow him down. And so the bulldozers came and went, and in June 1965, construction officially broke ground. The project took 13 years to complete and had a price tag of approximately $2 billion. Over 240,000,000 cubic feet of concrete and 600,000 cubic feet of imported stone were used in the plaza’s construction. After last-minute changes, construction setbacks, and unforeseen expenses, the resulting complex was one of the largest and most expensive buildings in the world. All told, over 16 years, 40 blocks of historic Albany were replaced with an enormous gubernatorial pet project that exhibits no evidence of what once was. 

The Empire State Plaza overwhelms the city of Albany. Almost all of the demolished land was replaced with an imposing six-story building with a large concourse and parking for the workers. On top of this building are offices, the Cultural Education Center, The Egg, the Corning Tower, and two large reflecting pools. Of note, the Corning Tower is the tallest building in New York outside of New York City; the Egg is a large performing arts center roughly designed in the shape of an egg; and the Cultural Education Center houses the New York State Museum, the state library, and state archives. These buildings are all connected through the concourse, which also connects to the New York State Capitol, the Alfred E. Smith Building, and the MVP Arena. All in all, about 11,000 state workers commute daily to the Empire State Plaza for employment, making the complex the largest employer in the city by a wide margin.

Although thousands of workers occupy the complex’s buildings and there are droves of visitors to attractions such as The Egg and the Cultural Education Center, the open-air plaza remains mainly empty during the day. The result of the non-human, brutalist architecture is a massive six-story gray pad that shuns congregation and lively interactions. The pad elevates the plaza above the rest of the city. Consequently, the streets adjacent to the complex are bordered by tall, windowless concrete walls. The physical barrier that separates the state bureaucracy from the residents of Albany is symbolic of the top-down approach that New York utilized. From the beginning, the state was disinterested in what the locals had to say, and now the plaza is closer to a castle on a hill than an integrated part of the city.

Map of the Concourse Level of the Empire State Plaza. (Source: eany.org)

Even with the harm it has caused, the plaza is not devoid of positives. The neighboring blocks have seen a revival in the past few decades, arguably achieving the plaza’s original purpose of boosting economic development in downtown Albany. It is uncertain if this can be credited to the plaza, but locating thousands of workers in downtown Albany has not been a negative for nearby businesses. Additionally, there are occasions when the plaza uses its vast space to its advantage, such as holding free concerts and hosting free ice skating in the winter. Although the plaza consistently underutilizes its resources, it has the potential to provide immense value to the city.

As the Empire State Plaza currently stands, it would be impossible to measure how it has impacted the city of Albany. It destroyed and subsequently revitalized the downtown. Ultimately though, the Empire State Plaza, like many urban renewal projects, has been a net negative. The construction of the plaza primarily disadvantaged low-income and minority residents, and now largely benefits suburban workers. The entire plaza looks patched into the downtown since its modern brutalist design is distinct from all other buildings in the city. Many new residents take pride in the complex, which has become a part of the city’s identity, as it is hard to imagine Albany without The Egg or the Corning Tower. However, the redevelopment of downtown Albany did not have to occur in such a damaging manner, and many other projects would have likely seen similar or greater success in revitalizing Albany’s core. Furthermore, as many state workers are switching to hybrid roles, the need for physical office space in Albany has decreased and the complex may be underutilized to an even greater extent. As it stands now, it is one of the grandest monuments to the power of state bureaucracy, which in its own way, might be the perfect ode to the City of Albany.

Getting there:

CDTA Stop: Empire State Plaza Concourse (10868)

To learn more:

Pfau, A., Hochfelder, D., Sewell, S., Rees, C., Wren, M., & Lang, A. (n.d.). 98 Acres in Albany – 40 Blocks, Thousands of Stories, accessed Dec. 1, 2023.

Grondahl, P. “Reassessing the legacy of the Empire State Plaza.” Times Union, accessed Dec. 1, 2023.

Pfau, A., & Hochfelder, D. “Who lived in the neighborhood knocked down for the Empire State Plaza?” All Over Albany, accessed Dec. 1, 2023.

Schulman, B. “In Albany, the Cost of a “Modern” Plaza.” Architect Magazine, posted October 02, 2019, accessed Dec. 1, 2023.

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