Ahead of Monday’s City Council meeting, a survey of responses to development concerns

A group of uptown Albany residents called StopTheStories has called for a halt (or greater oversight) of the ongoing development in their neighborhoods, and a reduction in the height of new buildings. They state that the City — and the Planning Board in particular — is not following its own regulations, that these development will drastically change the character of their neighborhoods, and that they will put stress on the City’s infrastructure. To make themselves heard, StopTheStories will be rallying before the Monday City Council meeting. In response, Walkable Albany — led by founder Andrew Neidhardt — will be staging a counter-rally to champion appropriate development as a way to create walkable neighborhoods.

This brouhaha has spurred ongoing vigorous — and at times contentious — discussion of the city’s future. Ahead of Monday’s City Council rallies, I wanted to summarize (as briefly as possible) some of the better responses to concerns that have appeared in various forums. These are all complex issues and, as such, these are hardly comprehensive answers. I nonetheless hope that, whether you are deeply concerned or cautiously optimistic (as I am) about the building boom, I hope you find the below responses to be a starting point for discussion. I’ve included sources where readily available. Feel free to comment below or on the Albany Notes Facebook Page.

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How can all of these new units be filled? Where are these people coming from? Does Albany really have that strong a housing market?

There is a very strong demand for apartments in Albany, which is driving the current development engine. That engine is fueled by a variety of factors —

  1. A pent-up demand for multi-family (e.g. apartment) housing. Historically, multi-family housing has been a relatively small percentage of the region’s residential development. Since 1990, the percentage of building permits issued for multi-family housing has increased from 14% to more than 50% in 2016. This increase has became more rapid post-Great Recession as the housing market recovered.
  2. Traditionally, homeownership was a right of passage to adulthood. Now, significantly fewer younger people are choosing to own a home than in previous generations.
  3. The share of renters in the Capital District is increasing across the board.
  4. As fewer Millennials are buying homes, the region’s older population may be aging out of theirs and looking for new housing options. The region’s 65+ population will increase from 14% in 2010 to 22% by 2030, representing more than 80,000 more seniors living in our region. This aging population is increasingly looking to downsize and rent.
  5. There has been relatively slow regional population growth, but continued single-family home development in suburban and rural areas from 1995-2015. During that period, land was developed at a rate of five times the population growth. As the suburbs grew, local cities were shrinking or stagnant.
  6. Albany may be playing catch up to neighboring localities. Between 2007 and 2016, more multifamily building permits were issued in Halfmoon than Albany, and the suburban and more rural localities continue to account for a significant number of multi-family building permits issued.
  7. And lastly, the region’s residential development is booming along the I-87 corridor, centered just north of Albany in Saratoga County, which may be contributing to the demand.

The points listed above pertain to the Capital Region specifically, but the area is not unique in experiencing these trends — home buying has slowed, people are moving to cities, and more people are eschewing home ownership across the country.

Information based on CDRPC 2019 Density and Development Report.

What about affordability? What happens to those seeking affordable housing in Albany? Are these developments going to address that issue?

Provision of affordable housing is a major issue. The city has lost a major portion of its affordable — and often historic — housing stock over the past 50 years due to fires, absentee/apathetic landlords (and inadequate City intervention), and complex historical land-use trends such as redlining, white flight, urban renewal and the effects of the Great Recession. While the many ongoing or proposed apartments are or will be meeting the demand for additional middle- and upper-income multi-family housing, it is highly unlikely that most of these will meet the city’s need for lower-income housing. Without action, the city’s affordable housing problem is only going to get worse.

In the region, the share of homeowners who spend more than 30% of their income on housing is going down, yet the share of renters spending more than 30% of their income on rent is going up. Meanwhile, median household incomes are struggling to keep pace with inflation and, in the region’s minority communities, they are trending down. While single-family housing remains relatively affordable, rents continue to rise due to the growing demand. Even as supply of middle-income and upper-tier apartments grows (potentially stabilizing rents at those levels) rents for previously affordable units may creep upwards due to the city’s continuing lack of affordable housing. In combination with falling household incomes, this has the potential to exacerbate housing woes, especially in minority communities.

Won’t this development boom further strain the City’s already strained water and sewer infrastructure?

The city’s populace grows by about 70% during weekdays as commuters flood into work. New residents using that infrastructure during the evenings/night will not be straining that infrastructure beyond what it would already be experiencing during weekday work hours. Furthermore, the City is making major investments to improve its water and sewer infrastructure and limit runoff from new developments. According to a recent Times-Union article:

Each new development’s stormwater runoff can be no more than what would come from the site undeveloped during a 10-year storm, Albany Water Department Commissioner Joseph Coffey said. That means each project is doing “significant” stormwater detention, meanwhile the city continues to invest millions in stormwater management efforts from diversion and detention to new technology for monitoring and management, he said.

“We have requirements that we have to meet with best management projects as part of our Combined Sewer Overflow permit, and we’re meeting those,” Coffey said. “They are factored into our reviews of every one of those projects, and if they can’t be done, we can’t approve the project.”

More information on water quality, flow, and regional water infrastructure capacity is available at the Albany CSO Pool Communities Corporation.

Will these developments help alleviate or will they increase the already heavy tax burden on City residents?

When any private individual or corporation purchases a vacant lot in Albany, they are subject to a tax based upon the assessed value of the land. If the owner chooses to improve that land (by building a house or an apartment building), then they become subject to taxes based upon the value of those improvements. In order to incentivize large, multi-million dollar projects, municipalities can offer tax reductions based on only the improvements.  Many of Albany’s new developments are receiving such incentives from the City or Albany County, often in the form of PILOTs (payments-in-lieu-of-taxes). These tax breaks are substantial for the first couple years, but are gradually reduced (ofter over a decade) until the owner is paying the full assessed value of the land and improvements.

From the City’s perspective, if there’s no investment, then there’s no increase in value,  and no gradually increasing revenue from the property. It’s akin to delaying a reassessment for a homeowner that adds a new bathroom. No money is lost, but the City is making an investment with the certainty the property will generate more and more each year than the site it will replace.

Won’t these new residents exacerbate traffic woes?

Denser development in Capital Region cities should shift a greater share of the region’s population growth to urban cores. This will moderate the increase of vehicles on city arteries, since urban residents are more likely to take alternative transportation because they:

  • have easier access to the necessary infrastructure (i.e. buses, bike lanes, complete sidewalks),
  • are more likely to live in close proximity to their workplace than their counterparts in the suburbs,
  • find that using alternative transportation is less expensive than a personal vehicle, and
  • find that alternative transportation is often as efficient (or more efficient) at short distances in urban areas than a personal vehicle.

Shifting toward greater urban density and better alternative transportation infrastructure (i.e. better sidewalks, more and better bike lanes, quicker bus systems) will put the city’s limited available land to a more economical and environmentally sustainable use, but may come at the expense of car convenience.

With an eye towards affordable housing, Land Bank to elicit investment plans for distressed Albany areas

The Albany County Land Bank has been slowly acquiring clustered properties in distressed Albany areas over the past few years and now they’re looking to craft ideas on how best to use them. To help the Land Bank make that determination they’re looking to hire a consultant. Executive Director Adam Zaranko presented the plan at the most recent Land Bank directors’ meeting, so I’ll hand off to him to introduce.

“One of the reasons we were created in our founding legislation — at both the State and local level — is to do exactly what we are proposing to do today. We’ve acquired about 1,000 properties since 2015, when we became active. We have put a lot of thought into creating assemblages, creating strategic clusters, and doing land-banking as intended by the practice. We’ve been deliberate and thoughtful on this because, obviously, we can’t land bank everything.

In the past couple months, we’ve seen interest from a whole spectrum of developers and buyers for the properties we’ve amassed, including in the South End. Part of [this is because it’s] springtime, part of it is that the market is still strong in Albany relative to other upstate cities, and [part of it is due to] the advent of Opportunity Zones. [That] a lot of our properties are in census tracts designated by the feds is certainly pique-ing the interest of people who have raised quite a bit of money. We want to make sure that we are in the driver’s seat on this because we’ve done all this work, and we don’t want some investment to come in without a community lens and deliberate thought. We see an opportunity to leverage the properties that we’ve acquired, harness this activity, and meaningfully dispose of this real estate in a way that is beneficial to all parties involved — the residents, the community, the developers, and the Land Bank.”

The Land Bank is focusing on three clusters for this initial project. The first is in the South End around Teunis and South Pearl streets, the second is along Clinton near Henry Johnson Boulevard, and the third is the former Center for Family and Youth/Project STRIVE Program Center at Ontario and West streets.

Cluster 1: South End

Zaranko showing the first set of clustered properties in the South End. Blue-lined parcels are Land Bank holdings. (Photo/Ian Benjamin)

The South End set is clustered around Teunis Street with other properties scattered nearby. With this set in particular, Zaranko said the Land Bank is keeping an open mind about possible combinations with ACDA, other City-owned properties, vacant buildings, and severely tax-delinquent properties that are thus likely to end up in City/Land Bank’s hands.

Cluster 2: Clinton Ave and Henry Johnson Boulevard

Map slide of the cluster of properties around Clinton Avenue near the intersection with Henry Johnson Boulevard. This map was created last summer, so there are additional properties not shown. (Photo/Ian Benjamin)

The second — and larger — set is around Henry Johnson Boulevard, Clinton Avenue, and First Street. The Land Bank is going to be looking for any project in this area to be a continuation of the nearby ongoing Home Leasing project. That Rochester-based developer is in the midst of rehabilitating a large set of (mostly) historic 19th century rowhouses into more than 200 units of affordable housing, primarily along Clinton Avenue.

This cluster was initially envisioned during the Land Bank’s Center for Community Progress scholarship program. Due to the I-90 Arbor Hill entrance, the Henry Johnson Boulevard/Clinton Avenue intersection gets about an average of 25,000-30,000 vehicle trips per day, which will be a factor in crafting a plan.

Cluster 3: Center for Family and Youth/Project STRIVE Program Center

The third set, in the Beverwyck neighborhood, is the former Center for Family and Youth/Project STRIVE Program Center at West and Ontario streets. This recently-acquired set includes 130 and 135 Ontario, and a gravel lot at 154 West Street. The area is about a block and a half from the set of rowhouses on Bradford Street that caught fire recently.

“The buildings are in very, very rough shape on the inside,” said Zaranko. “There’s a significant amount of mold and, despite being vacant for not too long relative to our portfolio, I don’t know if they could be salvaged except for the steel.”

Albany County Land Bank Executive Director Adam Zaranko gestures to the former Center for Family and Youth properties. The two buildings fronting on Ontario are 130 and 135. (Photo/Ian Benjamin)

The process of pulling together enticing development packages is beyond the Land Bank’s expertise, so they’re looking to hire a real estate planning consultant — ideally a local firm — to fill that need. “We know what we want to do, but we need to get the resources in to do it and we’re not pretending that we have this expertise or capacity in our shop,” said Zaranko.

No matter the consultant selected, the Land Bank will be looking for ideas that take advantage of their real estate abilities, that incorporate affordable housing in some fashion, and that align with neighborhood goals, such as those identified in the South End and West Hill community plans. Zaranko said that they would consider incentivizing some of those priorities “within reason”. The affordable housing aspect was emphasized by David Traynham, ACLB vice-chair, who noted that the Land Bank should take some steps to define “affordable” during the process, so that there’s provision of housing for those who are making minimum wage.

“This is exactly what land banks were set up to do, we have the property to do it, and we have the momentum so I strongly recommend that we dive into this and see where it takes us,” said Zaranko.

Other notes:

  • A substantial property tax payment was made on the Governors Motor Inn in Guilderland, which was acquired last year. The property had accrued a tax debt of more than $200,000, according to the Times-Union. While acquisition by the Land Bank halted the accumulation of more taxes, the Land Bank became liable for those already imposed. “We’re going to try to recover every dollar plus in the property sale,” said Executive Director Adam Zaranko.
  • Social media engagement has driven a lot of interest in the many workshops held by the Land Bank. These workshops are quite informative, so if you’re thinking about buying a property in Albany County (especially if it’s from the Land Bank) I highly recommend attending.
  • A demolition contract to WPNT Construction for a few buildings (including two on Elm) was approved. Board approval is required when such contracts are above $15,000.

Building sales

It’s spring, so there’s a lot of movement in the real estate world – and the Land Bank is no exception. Sale of 16 properties spread across five municipalities (6 buildings and 10 parcels) were approved.

Sales recommendations are the culmination of a lengthy process that begins with application, vetting, review, and then recommendations from the acquisition/disposition sub-committee. The Board then typically approves the recommendations made by the sub-committee. This list is based upon a recording of the meeting and may not be accurate. Spellings of last names that appear in quotes are best guess. For questions about sales, contact the Land Bank directly.

In Albany:

  • 369 First Street — Recommended sale of a vacant 19th century Italianate two-story rowhouse in West Hill to Dileep Rathor, who owns a small market at 16 Judson Street. Dileep also owns an adjacent rowhouse and would like to rehab both buildings for rental.
  • 316 Sheridan Ave — A very tiny house in Sheridan Hollow, just south of the Empowerment Center at 320 Sheridan Ave (the former St. Casimir Catholic Church). Board recommended sale to a Ms. Wilson, who would like to rehab and occupy as her primary residence.
  • 472 Second Ave (building and rear lot) – Recommended sale to a “Mr. Doredekis” and a “Mr. Matides”. Rear lot is shared by nearby property owners.

Sales outside Albany (and a recent acquisition in Bethlehem):

  • Cohoes
    • 424R Columbia Street (lot) – Recommended sale of a landlocked vacant parcel to a Mr. and Mrs. Marra, whose parents own an adjacent property that provides access.
  • Bethlehem
  • Watervliet
    • 1219 7th Ave (building) – Residential building to be sold to a “Mr Irwin”, who has proposed rehab and resell. This is subject to the ACLB’s “flip” policy, which requires the subsequent buyer to also go through the Land Bank’s vetting process.
    • 500 13th St (building) – Small former convenience/drug store to a “Mr. LaGreche”, who would like to rehab the property and use it as his primary residence. He is employed at the nearby Watervliet Arsenal.
  • Colonie
    • 328 Consaul Road (lot) — a large open lot that the board recommended be sold to the Capital District Celtic Cultural Association, who would like to use it as recreation fields.
    • 77 Karner Road (lot) – Small strip of vacant land recommended for sale to “Momro Associates”, which owns the adjacent building used by the Capital District Center for Disability Services.
  • Rensselaerville
    • Edwards Hill Road (lot) – Recommended sale of a large lot to Mr. Mance, a Connecticut resident, who plans to build a “modular structure” on the property.

This meeting was held on May 21, 2019. The next ACLB directors’ meeting will be on Tuesday, June 18th at 5:30pm at 200 Henry Johnson Boulevard (2nd floor, go in the door on the right).

About: The Albany County Land Bank Corporation was one of the first ten land banks created in New York following the passage of the NYS Land Bank Act in 2011. As such, it is a rather unique entity granted special real estate powers to be used for the Good Cause of facilitating the acquisition, improvement, and redistribution of tax-foreclosed, vacant or abandoned properties. They were initially funded with payouts from NYS Attorney General initiated litigation against Big Banks that engaged in the unscrupulous lending practices that led to the sub-prime mortgage crises, which was a major trigger of the Great Recession.