Albany Planning Board Chronicles: the Saga of 1211 Western concludes, more development in Park-South, and St. Catherine’s makes a move into the North End

As expected, last week’s Planning Board meeting brought out the neighborhood. Nearly every seat and the back wall were filled, with the bulk of the crowd there to oppose a large apartment building on Western Ave in the Eagle Hill neighborhood — so that’s where we’ll begin. (There’s a lot to cover, so feel free to jump to whichever project strikes your fancy.)

1211 Western Ave (GSX Ventures)

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Featured: Maryland-based GSX Ventures was back before the board with their 6-story, 136-unit apartment building on Western Ave. Initially, GSX had proposed a private dorm, similar to their other two dorms on Washington Ave. That effort faltered last year due to fierce neighborhood opposition, which elicited a rare letter to the Board from Mayor Kathy Sheehan. In response, GSX withdrew their dorm project.

This time round they have proposed an apartment building (though residents contend that it’s still aimed at students). The current concept has a mix of 1-, 2-, and 3-bedroom units, ≅151 parking spaces underneath, and a fitness center on the first floor. An existing 3-story steel and glass building (the former headquarters of the Rose & Kiernan insurance agency) would be demolished to make way.

This iteration has been before the board multiple times, most recently in January, when a vote was tabled. The attorney representing GSX, Andy Brick, opened with a presentation, addressed previous complaints, and noted that the design has been altered to allow pick up/drop off and ≅10 parking spots for the visitors and fitness facility staff.

And then it was onto public comments and the opposition was vocal. Most were Eagle Hill residents, part of an organized resistance coordinated via the neighborhood association. Many issues had been heard by the Board previously (and were covered by All Over Albany) so I’m not going to summarize all of those, but here’s a partial list to give ya the gist:

  • a belief that the apartment building (especially of this size) is not in keeping with the community’s character, which is mostly single-family homes;
  • concerns that GSX would mount the utilities on poles, which would prevent laddertruck access during a fire;
  • concerns about disturbances caused by police and fire department calls;
  • concern about placement of the transformer (Boardmember Glinessa Gaillard echoed this);
  • claims about issues with forms submitted by the developer;
  • concern that the physical fitness center would only benefit building residents;
  • that construction site pumps would push water into the combined sewer, leading to heavy loads on an already heavily laden system;
  • that construction would prohibit sidewalk access, pushing pedestrians into Western Ave, which would be dangerous for both pedestrians and drivers;
  • that construction would lead to noise and vibrations;
  • that a more in-depth historic review is needed. (This was requested by an Eagle Hill historian, who noted that a 1790 magazine was once located in the vicinity, and that its’ remnants may be beneath the parking lot. The existence of the magazine was news to me.)
  • and lastly, Tom Hoey, councilmember for the surrounding neighborhood (part of Ward 15) spoke strongly against the project.

When the commenters finished, the Board turned to GSX to respond to the question of whether utilities would be buried or pole-mounted. Brick stated the Fire Department “made it very clear to us that if the project doesn’t bury those utilities, then it will not be in compliance with the Fire Code.” Board chair Al DeSalvo then asked how GSX would accomplish placing high pressure gas lines in such a narrow area and how they might deal with a high water table.

“We need to make that work,” said Brick. “If it doesn’t work for any of those utilities or the City, then we don’t have a project.”

The opposition’s hopes were largely pinned on convincing the Board to initiate a more in-depth environmental review, known as an “Environmental Impact Study”. An EIS is a major undertaking that will delay a project — sometimes significantly — and can deter a developer from pursuing a project. In this case, however, an EIS will not be required, as the Board voted to permit GSX to move forward, much to the audible dismay of the opposition. (This project also came up at this past Tuesday’s Common Council meeting, when Councilmember Hoey claimed that the Board’s decision not to require an EIS is grounds for a court appeal, known as an Article 78 proceeding.)

The Board imposed four conditions on the project, at least two of which were in response to public input. The first was that utility lines must be buried and the second was that leases must be for a year or longer. GSX may now seek to acquire tax breaks from the City or County. DeSalvo encouraged residents to make their voices heard there as well.

The contention over this project gets at some intriguing questions about differing visions for the city’s future, and we might address some of those in a future post. But for now, suffice it to say that the city is changing more rapidly than it has in many years, and this will — and should — elicit public input.

74-86 Dana Ave. (Ron Stein and TRPS2)

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Ron Stein and TRPS2 were back with a plan for another apartment in Park-South. They were looking to duplicate the success of their recently-completed apartment building at 79-91 Dana Ave and the new complex is going to look an awful lot like the one there already.

“The Reserve at Park South 2”, as it has been branded, will be a 4-story apartment building (≅45,200sf) with 36 mixed studio and 1-bedroom apartments. It will require demo of three existing 2-story residences.

Both of the Ron Stein projects are part of a trend toward greater density in Park-South. Beginning in 2016, this neighborhood was drastically altered by a $110 million Albany Med/Tri-City Rentals development. This called for demolition of two entire city blocks. That now-complete project included the construction of multi-story, mixed-use apartment and office buildings, and a parking garage. About 268 units were built on lots that had been primarily 1- and 2-story homes.

Michael McGovern, with the Park-South Neighborhood Association, spoke in wholehearted favor of the proposal.

543 North Pearl St. (St. Catherine’s Center for Children)

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St. Catherine’s proposes to build a 3-story residence (≅21,925sf) in the North End. It will have office space, a community room, and 20 units (8 studios, and twelve 2- to 3-bedroom family apartments). It will front on North Pearl Street with a playground and a ≅10 vehicle parking lot will be behind. Vehicle access will be from Walter St.

“We have been in the City of Albany for a very long time providing services to families and children,” said a representative of St. Catherine’s. “This is another step for us to be able to provide more services and supports to young adults and to families in our neighborhoods.” (Note: By “very long time” he means 1886, when St. Catherine’s was begun — inside the Schuyler Mansion — by a group of Roman Catholic nuns.) The building will be staffed 24/7 and will have security cameras and lighting.

A handful of neighbors turned out. The first lives across North Pearl and came on behalf of neighbors that could not attend. She was concerned that the new residents would take up limited parking spots, said she had not been adequately informed, and was annoyed that her Ward 4 councilperson had not attended.

“I feel like we’ve been given minimal concern with this project, and I don’t think that’s fair,” she said. “Being African-American, a lot of times we are treated less than anyone else, but we do matter. Our block matters. We matter.” Her apprehension about parking was echoed by others. (Side note: She referenced a former Hope House project to develop the lot for a drug rehab center, which I was unaware of.)

Parking worries were addressed by the St. Catherine’s representative, who said most of the occupants would be children/young adults, and those that were not would use the new on-site lot. There was also a concern about light shining from upstairs windows into nearby homes, for which the rep said shades would be installed on the windows of the adjoining wall.

The lot is currently occupied by a vacant 2-story, flat-roofed that will be demo’d. It was once an elder-care/assisted living facility at least as far back as 1993, but has been empty for more than 20 years. It is quite dilapidated. The new building will provide roughly the same square footage as the existing one (≅21,825sf vs ≅21,925sf), but on a much smaller footprint.

“Our plan is to integrate ourselves into the neighborhood, not takeover,” said a spokesperson for St. Catherine’s. “The idea […] having the community have access to our building and to the facility is something that we would welcome wholeheartedly.”

The building’s design, presented by architect Dan Sanders, attempts to make good on the idea of ‘integrating’ with the neighborhood. It does so by mimicking elements of the nearby wood-framed, two-story homes such as: a hipped roof, horizontal siding, third story shingling, and double-hung windows.

251-255 N Pearl St (Capital Repertory Theater)

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“CapRep”, as the theater company is fondly known, has a theater at 111 North Pearl, but will be moving a few blocks north to this former Nabisco factory at North Pearl and Livingston. The new theater (≅28,200sf) will seat ≅410. They were before the board for, among other things, approval of their LED signage. There will be three LED displays, one on North Pearl, one on Livingston, and a blade sign projecting from the structure’s corner (see above). These LEDs will change every 15 seconds and will be dimmed at night. The Board (minus DeSalvo, a CapRep boardmember) approved their requests.

CapRep isn’t the only investor on this block. Albany Distilling Company occupies a building just down Livingston and Death Wish Coffee plans to move in nearby. Along Broadway, developer Patrick Chiou recently finished rehabbing several old rowhouses. All this investment has triggered visions of an upper Pearl theater/arts district.

1020 Madison Ave (The College of Saint Rose)

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This is one of the many old Pine Hills homes Saint Rose has acquired over the years for converted to offices/dorms. This particular former two-story single-family residence has been used as a dorm, but the College plans to expand it into a “mixed use living/learning space for a women’s leadership program with with housing for 7 students.”

The Board wondered whether the front door would be removed, which would alter how the building interacts with the sidewalk/street. It will stay an entrance, said the College rep. The driveway will be torn up and replaced by sidewalks and, with the driveway gone, the curb cut will also be removed creating space for a new parking spot on Western. The College would like that to be restricted to handicapped only. A former garage and a small shed will also be demo’d.

The Board gave their blessing, with the caveat that space for two bikes be installed, and that one of those be covered. (This makes sense, given how many students bike between campus, their apartment/dorm, and various other neighborhood haunts.)

423 and 427 Washington Ave. (Edward Maitino)

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Proposed construction of a 3.5 story, 16-unit apartment building between Washington Ave and West St., near the First Unitarian Universalist Society building and Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church. It will span the lot, fronting on both Washington Ave and West St. A 2.5 story residence and two garages will be demo’d. No action taken.

Other notes

  • No action taken on 60 Academy Road, as the developer needs to submit a fully completed Environmental Assessment Form. Dan Herschberg presented. They’ll be back before the Board.
  • Redburn Development’s 39 Columbia St was on the agenda, but got pulled before the meeting. We might see them next month.
  • The modification to 6 Cuyler Street was added to the new Consent Agenda, which seems to be where minor, non-controversial items are being stacked for processing ease. (You won’t see those here, but you can find them in the weekly agenda.)
  • And, lastly… this little synopsis took way longer to write than I was expecting, but I’ll try to be a bit more brief to get the next one up a bit quicker. But there is a silver lining to getting this up so late…I can link you to The Decisions.

Would you like to contribute to Albany Notes? Maybe you’d be up for taking notes at the occasional meeting? Perhaps you’ve been mulling an urban planning or social justice question and would like to share your thoughts? Or (my favorite) regale us with some  deep Albany history? Pitch me at the contact form. I’m all ears.

A Farewell to 159 and 161 Eagle St

Until last week, two fine Italianate rowhouses bookended an unbroken Eagle Street block, diagonal from the Governor’s Mansion. They are now gone. Only rubble lies where they once stood.

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The full-size image is over at the AlbanyGroup Archive on Flickr.

The Mansion District is old, and these buildings were a testament to that history. 161 Eagle was standing on that spot by at least 1870, but may pre-date the Civil War. It had a neighbor at 159 Eagle by 1876. As a building with a storefront, 161 Eagle was not only a cornerstone of the block, it was a cornerstone of the community. Over the years it housed a number of well-known community establishments, one such was the Mansion Food Market, shown at right in 1975 when it was operated by Dominick Oppedisano.

The more recent history of these two homes is long and complex, so I’ll spare you the sad, familiar story, and only mention the highlights (or lowlights, I should say).  If nothing else, this synopsis should give you a feel for our city’s continuing struggle against absentee and apathetic landlords.

The troubles at 161 Eagle began in 2012 when a small fire broke out in the second floor kitchen, leaving the upper floor uninhabitable. The upstairs tenant vacated, followed by the downstairs tenant a few months later. The building was never reoccupied. The owner refused to repair the damaged kitchen, or to repair the developing structural issues — yet they continued to pay their taxes. The owner had lost the building to the bank by 2017. It was quickly resold, sparking hope that 161 Eagle might be rehabilitated. That hope was snuffed out when representatives of the new owner — a wealthy Long Island investor — informed the City that they would not do repairs until work on 159 was complete. That decision doomed 161 Eagle and, ultimately, 159 as well.

The downward slide of 159 Eagle began around the same time. The owner-occupant overloaded the bearing capacity of the first floor, which caused a partial collapse. They were forced to vacate, leaving the building vacant. Following a familiar pattern, they refused to make repairs, but continued to pay their taxes, leaving the City — again — with limited recourse.

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Image at top is from Feb 25, middle image is from Friday, March 1, and the bottom image is from Sunday, March 3, 2019. /Ian Benjamin

In late 2018 the City inspected both buildings visually and with a drone flyover. Then the Division of Buildings and Regulatory Compliance hired an engineer to draft a stabilization plan, which was presented to potential contractors. The cost for stabilization came back at $70-80,000, verse a $40,000 cost to demo. Unable to justify the additional cost to stabilize — the County makes this call — the City gave the green light to demo. Without a fund or grant to cover the $30-40,000 gap, and with small likelihood that the City would be able to recoup the stabilization cost from either owner, the decision was made to demolish.

This past Thursday an excavator from DiTonno & Sons tore down 161 Eagle. When it came down it destabilized its neighbor, as evidenced by a crack that had formed along the then-exposed southern wall. On Friday 159 Eagle came down as well.

This loss is especially hard to bear since the Mansion District neighborhood association, local advocate Dannielle Hille, and the City had fought for so long to save these buildings. As the Historic Albany Foundation noted in a Friday post, “this loss will symbolize decline despite their efforts.” This was personal setback as well. I had only recently learned about these buildings’ plight, and was a few days from beginning a fundraising campaign to cover the cost of stabilization. Alas, I arrived only in time to see them disappear.

The Italianates at 161 and 159 Eagle Street may only be a memory now, but there are many others that are still in need of help, and some that are just as prominent. But we cannot rely on the city, county or state government to singlehandedly save our historic buildings. They need our help — and the help of our neighbors, former residents, and anyone else who cares — to save our city’s historic fabric.