Planning Board Chronicles: Resurrection of the Gallery on Holland Ave., more apartments and a bit of rezoning for Center Square, and some demolitions

Last month’s meeting of the Albany Planning Board saw a resurrection of the Holland Ave apartment project, a new 5-story apartment building on Spring Street (aimed at the 55-and-older market), a zoning map change in Center Square, and approval of a few Land Bank demolitions. Jump links below:

It’s alive!

After years of delays and unexpected hurdles, an upscale developer has returned to Albany with a scaled-down proposal for an apartment bui on Holland Ave.

Saratoga Springs-based Richbell Capital (RBC) are hoping to construct a 4-story, 60-unit multi-family apartment building (+/-67,132sqft) with 59 parking spaces. It will be constructed on a vacant lot close to intersection of Holland and Delaware avenues, and near Lincoln Park.

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Elevation from Holland Ave. The complex will be nearly built out to the sidewalk. The lot is zoned mixed-use (MU-CU). (Credit: Humphreys and Partners Architects L.P.)

The current proposal isn’t the first vision RBC have had for the site. Way back in 2013 they proposed the first iteration of The Gallery at Holland, an ambitious plan for a 7-story, 125-unit apartment building with a pool, fitness center and movie theater. The bottom two levels would have been set aside for a 160-space parking garage. It hit snag after snag, starting with a delay due to the need for severe asbestos abatement during demolition, followed by the unexpected discovery of soil fill in 2016. Unlike clay or sand, the composition of the fill — which surrounded a 7-foot diameter sewer pipe cutting through a corner of the parcel — wasn’t able support the weight of the proposed building.

“They reviewed all the other potential methods of doing it and essentially there was no way they could have a project of that height or size,” said Dan Hershberg, consulting engineer at Hershberg & Hershberg, to the Albany Business Review early last month. The new proposal reduces the height to four stories, drops the parking garage, and plans to use lighter construction materials.

The Board questioned the need for a 59-space parking lot given the proximity to Albany Medical Center and bus stops, and the trend toward people not owning cars in favor of commuting by bus, bike, or walking. “I’m wondering if you might want to reduce the parking and add some green space,” said Board Chair Al DeSalvo. “Do you really need the 60 spaces?”

William Hoblock, with RBC, responded with a proposal to land bank some of the spaces, stating that the Board could approve the plan for 60-spaces, but RBC would only built out to 48 spaces, the minimum required by the USDO. If there is a need for additional parking in the future, then RBC would have the option to build out at that time. The Board seemed amenable.

Hoblock also noted that the landscape plan initially proposed plantings to obscure the structure from residences on Providence Street, but after meetings with the Delaware Avenue Neighborhood Association, they revised their plan to include an 8-foot tall white vinyl fence instead. After questioning by the Board, RBC agreed to forego the white vinyl in favor of a redesign that is more substantial, durable and less “stark”.

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Site plan for The Galley on Holland, at 25 Holland Ave. (Credit: Herschberg & Herschberg)

The lot is currently vacant except for a parking lot that served the Albany Holland Apartments, a 2-story 33-unit brick structure demolished by RBC in 2017. That building’s last use was as a dorm for the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.

This was a concept review so no actions were taken by the Board.

New apartments in Center Square

Flerida Santanas-Johnas, of Ikos Management and Development, proposed a new 5-story apartment building with 19 studio/one bedroom units for Spring Street. The project will replace a 10-space parking lot.

View as seen from Spring St. (Rendering copyright Harris Sanders Architects)

The units will be aimed at people looking to relocate to a more walkable neighborhood. “Our focus is going to be more 55 and older and those who are intellectually and developmentally disabled, who have a lesser need for a vehicle and parking,” said Santana-Johnas.

The lot currently includes the recently renovated rowhouse at 166 Washington Ave. (c1859-1861), so a sub-division will be necessary to split off the rear parking lot for the new construction. The proposal will also reduce the impervious lot coverage, as a small portion will be converted to greenspace, and will have a “blue roof”, which retains precipitation for a more gradual release. There is no requirement for off-street parking as the new subdivided lot will be less than 5,000sqft.

The proposal was not met with enthusiasm by some Spring Street residents, who decried adding more renters, stated that the removal of the lot would exacerbate parking woes, and that the height and style were not in keeping with other structures on the block.

“To make Spring Street a place that people want to live you need to encourage more owners,” said Cherie Duvall, a homeowner on Spring Street. “Renters have no responsibility to maintain their property. […] They don’t care about their buildings. These one room apartments will not bring longterm residents who will become permanently invested in the neighborhood and its growth.” She cited issues with garbage along the street related to rental properties, and noted several nearby properties that lack the appropriate occupancy permits. 

The developer was given an opportunity to respond.  “I can appreciate what my neighbors are saying in terms of blighted properties or properties that are not taken care of by absentee landlords,” said Santana-Johnas. “Unlike some landlords, I’m at that property at least 4-5 days a week.” She noted that one of her partners will be occupying 166 Washington Ave., the first floor of which was recently converted to an apartment. “We’re not absentee landlords. We’re there. We care about our neighbors; we care about our properties.”

Paige Allen, also a Spring Street resident, took issue with the height. “Just because the building next door is really tall — the Social Services building — I don’t think that warrants every new building being just as tall,” said Allen. She was referring to the 7-story office building at 162 Washington Ave., which houses the Albany County Dept of Social Services.

Daniel Sanders responded: “In terms of the design […], we did look at the character of the neighborhood, and incorporated details in terms of bay windows, siding,” said Sanders. “We created a buffer with a chimney effect to the [7-story] building adjacent to us which is out of scale — notably — on the block. [And] if we took a shot of the buildings on the block, there is a substantial number of three story buildings.”

This stretch of Spring Street has a bit of an unusual building mix — it contains parking lots, carriage houses, 2- and 3-story apartment buildings, and a few exceptionally tall office/apartment buildings. History is to blame, as usual. Throughout much of the 19th century it had mostly undeveloped rear lots, 1- and 2-story support buildings serving the mansions on State Street and Washington Ave., and the rare 3-story. Many of the smaller support structures have since been demolished, although some of the carriage houses — such as 31 Spring St — still exist.

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Snapshot of area from the Sanborn Fire Insurance Map for 1892 showing residences on Washington Ave (top) and tertiary structures — often carriage houses — on Spring St. (bottom)

As far as I know, the first structure to exceed four stories was The Stuyvesant, a 7-story apartment building raised by Frederick Proctor in the 1890s to house actors performing at Harmanus Bleecker Hall. In the 20th century, the Spring Street Tall Building Club was joined by the Albany County Social Services building and the 5-story office building at 192 Washington, current home of Capital CarShare and the Lark Street BID.

This was a concept review so no actions were taken by the Board. If you’re interested, feel free to dig deeper over at the Albany Planning&Dev site.

A rezoning Dove tale

If we take a walk around the corner we come to Dove & Deer, a gastropub at the heart of a proposed rezone on Dove St.

Back in 2017 the City adopted a new zoning code — “the USDO” — and have been gradually refining it since. Per that effort, Councilmember Richard Conti has proposed an amendment to the zoning map that would impact five buildings on Dove Street and one on State St.  The new zoning would carve out a limited mixed-use corridor (MU-NE), providing a transition between the Washington office buildings (MU-CU) and the predominantly residential district deeper in Center Square (R-T). This would permit more uses within the six lots, and ease upgrades or expansions of existing businesses.

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Zoning map boundaries after the change. The green areas are MU-NC, the purple-pink is R-T, and the light blue would be the new MU-NE area. It would include 22-28 and 23 Dove Street; and 293 State St.

Why the amendment? Well, the building at 293 State St houses Dove & Deer, which opened last October. Since then the team behind Dove & Deer has acquired 23 Dove., the former home of Bongiorno’s, an Italian restaurant that was just across the street. They have plans to renovate the spot into a new Italian eatery to be named Rosanna’s. This activity appears to have been (at least part of) the catalyst for the amendment. Under the present zoning map, they would need to seek additional variances to make changes beyond the current uses. This is not ideal as the USDO was originally adopted to try and reduce the need for such variances, which had had a stultifying effect on commercial ventures under the previous code. The Board’s concern, as brought up in an earlier workshop, is that designating such a limited area as mixed-use might constitute spot-zoning, a practice prevalent–and troublesome–under the former code. It was determined that this likely would not constitute such because the uses provided under MU-NE are consistent with the USDO, and the majority of the structures have (or have had) ground floor commercial use.

Boardmember Glinnesa Gailliard wondered why, if the Board was willing to apply this designation to a set of buildings on Dove, they wouldn’t also apply it to the entire block, (i.e. including 25-29 Dove St and 303 State St.)? Zach Powell, with Albany Planning & Dev, noted that there “might be merit” to expanding the designation to other nearby properties, but only if those properties had a history of commercial use, they were contiguous to the already proposed lots, and they were consistent with the USDO. Powell also noted that, while there have been relatively few zoning map amendments since the USDO was established, the Board last month approved changing 140-144 Hamilton to MU-NE, in a similar effort to reduce to the need for variances for a proposed meadery at that location.

Chair Al DeSalvo and Boardmember Martin Hull cautioned against expanding the scope of the new MU-NE designation. DeSalvo noted that it may not be appropriate for areas where the primary non-residential use is first-floor offices, and Hull echoed stating that the City should be careful about allowing mixed-use into primarily townhouse areas. Center Square residents Devall and Julie Raskin also spoke against. Amendment was tabled but should be back up at the October meeting.

Demolitions and Miscellany

  • U-Haul of Eastern New York is looking to install a large wall sign (90sqft) at 8 Erie Boulevard. Approved.
  • Board approved demolition of the rowhouse at 241 Orange St. by Habitat for Humanity.
  • Board approved demolition of 436 Third St., 319 Sherman St., and 350 Second St., all owned by the Albany County Land Bank. These properties are some of the older holdings in the Land Bank’s portfolio. A neighbor spoke in favor of the demolition at 436 Third St. There was a lengthy discussion of the history of 350 Second Street with Amanda Wykoff, from the Land Bank.