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.

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.

Jump links:

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.

Albany Planning Board Notes: Quackenbush Square approved (again), an interesting CapRep housing collaboration, and an expansion at Armory Garage

Tuesday’s Planning Board meeting was busy, if lightly attended (excepting news-folk). Here’s what was on the agenda:

Quackenbush Square (Pioneer Cos.)

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Proposed Quackenbush Square hotel and apartment building as viewed from corner of Spencer and Montgomery streets. The Albany Pump Station is to the left. (Copyright QPK Design 1/21/19.)

That huge pit along Broadway, just north of Olde English Pub? It’s finally getting filled.

The Board approved (with conditions) the revised development plan for Quackenbush Square, a roughly $90 million apartment and hotel project at the intersection Broadway and Spencer Street, behind and alongside the Albany Pump Station.

“It is ready to go,” said Daniel Hershberg, of Hershberg & Hershberg, representing the project. As of two weeks ago, the pit had been filled to the sub-grade elevations of the building footings, said Herschberg.

The new proposal calls for an 8-story, ≅86,320 sqft hotel with ≅136 rooms at Spencer and Montgomery streets. An L-shaped, 6-story apartment building with 129 units would run along Spencer Street with first floor commercial spaces on Broadway (≅14,352 sqft), and a pedestrian tunnel from the Broadway sidewalk. Landscaping would be installed along Broadway and trees planted along Spencer.

A previous project iteration included a parking garage, but that item has been scrapped. Pioneer is now planning to have parking underneath and behind the mixed-use building, and will be leasing spaces from the Albany Parking Authority in the Quackenbush Garage.

The Board unanimously approved the project, on the conditions that:

  • Pioneer must obtain a lease for the parking spaces at the Quackenbush Garage.
  • Final traffic signal plans will need to be stamped by an engineer and must be installed and working prior to occupancy.
  • An Albany County sewer line runs by the corner of the hotel footprint, at Montgomery and Spencer streets. Pioneer is must relocate the line from under the building and toward/under the road. An infrastructure agreement has been finalized between Pioneer and the Albany County Water Purification District (formerly the Albany County Water Sewer District.) and is up for approval by the County Legislature.
  • Pioneer must secure approval from Capitalize Albany Corporation for improvements to their adjacent lands. (Note: I didn’t identify where these were, but I suspect this is a requirement that Pioneer improve the landscaping and pedestrian infrastructure around the Albany Visitors Center.)
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Current site plan rendering. (Copyright Hershberg & Hersbherg, 2/27/2019)

With approval in hand, Pioneer will now be seeking around $7 million in tax breaks from the City IDA. Construction is expected to start this season if all goes according to plan… although this project has hardly gone to plan.

Quackenbush Square had been stalled since this time last year, when early bids came in 30-40 percent over budget, forcing a redesign. Originally conceived with a 10-story, 136-unit Hyatt House hotel, 181 apartments, retail and and underground parking garage, the new proposal has been reduced to the 8-story Hyatt Place hotel, which has smaller rooms, no parking garage, and only 129 apartments (project documents).

The too-high bids came on the heels of delay — remediation of underground gas storage. Pioneer had suspected that there would be gas tanks and had planned for finding a few, but they had not expected to find a dozen.

(Note: Sara Cline from the Times-Union also made it to Tuesday’s meeting, and submitted a report on the Quackenbush project that appeared the morning after. It’s always good to see journalists from our stretched-thin regional paper.)

67 Livingston Ave. (Clinton Square Studios, LLC)

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View of the proposed 6-story structure from Livingston (north-facing) with Broadway to the right and the Albany Distilling Company to the left.

Also on the let’s-put-apartments-on-Broadway bandwagon is Clinton Square Studios, LLC, who were before the board with a 6-story, $24.7 million apartment/retail project planned for lower Arbor Hill.

The proposal is for 66 residences and commercial space (≅2,006 square feet) on Broadway, not far from the Palace. A 2-story 19th century rowhouse at 67 Livingston Ave will be demolished.

This project is being developed with an eye toward Capital Repertory (“CapRep”) Theater, which is renovating the former Nabisco factory just up the hill at 251-255 N. Pearl St for their new $9.5 million performing art space. Following questions from the Board, details about a unique arrangement with CapRep came to light.

The plan is to split the management structure three ways. Of the units, 56 will be “low-income tax-credit qualified artist’s lofts”, said David Sarraf of Fairbank Properties/Clinton Square Studios. CapRep will own and manage 10 of these “artist’s lofts” as staff and traveling actor housing, with the remaining 56 residences managed by the Albany Barn (they have a similar arrangement at 56 2nd St.). The third area will be the ground level commercial, which will be owned and managed separately.

Board chair Al De Salvo recused himself from the discussion because he sits on The Rep’s board.

39 Columbia St, (Redburn Development)

Redburn was up before the Board with slight change to their proposal for 39 Columbia Street. The gist of this project — one of a slate of Redburn projects in historic downtown buildings — is renovation of a ≅60,000 square foot building into ≅46 apartments. This change concerns the parking lot at the rear of the site. From Google Street View:

“Initially, we proposed an application in which we re-topped [the pavement] and kept what was there,” said Damien Pinto-Martin, Redburn’s vice-president of development. “We’ve had some really good discussions with the City of Albany Planning Department and a couple of good back-and-forths here at the Planning meetings and I think we’ve come up with a much better option.”

Part of this “better option” concerns an adjacent strip of greenery and street trees on Van Tromp street, visible to the right in the view above. It’s not actually part of 39 Columbia Street; it’s City property. Under the new proposal Redburn would maintain this small parcel in exchange for a longterm lease or option to purchase. Any agreement would, of course, be contingent upon Common Council approval.

Redburn will also be removing the ticket shed at the Broadway entrance, restricting that connection to entrance only, and installing an entrance bar. The exit would be onto Van Tromp street. They’ll be installing landscaping along Broadway and at least one street tree next to Marcus T. Reynold’s United Traction Building at 600 Broadway, as well as a “more traditionally historic privacy fence”. (My take: This landscaping will help alleviate that unbroken stretch of concrete and pavement, and the “historic privacy fence” will be major step up from their original proposal for a chain-link fence. However, one step better would be to plant a row of trees to mirror those across the street in front of the DEC building at 625 Broadway.)

Redburn already has a “gut” permit, so interior demolition has already or will soon begin, but they’ll need further Planning Board approvals to move onto interior buildout.

Armory Garage (950, 960, and 964 Central Ave.)


The Armory Garage dealership across from Westgate Plaza on Central is looking to expand their showroom and offices. They’ll be demolishing the single-story, ≅13,196 square foot office and showroom at 960 Central and removing a nearby concrete slab (site plan) to make way for a larger single-story, ≅53,267 square foot structure with parking for inventory and employees. The new showroom building will be set further from the road than zoning allows, so they sought a variance to push the maximum setback from 100 feet to 136 feet.

Armory presented during the March meeting, so they were up for approval this time round. And they got it. Board approved via the new consent agenda and neg-dec’d on SEQRA. Here are the elevations if you want to get close and personal with that rendering and proposed materials. It looks like they’ll be continuing the styling of their 66 Colvin building (glassy, white, with big arches — so rather run-of-the-mill for a car dealership).

Other Notes

The last item of the meeting was a detailed set of comments from Ward 9 Councilmember Judy Doesschate with recommendations on the USDO, but I’ll need to read up on those before I can summarize with any meaningful context. But if you’re vaguely interested in planning, city development, or simply live in the city, I’d recommend taking a peek at the document, even though it’s a beast. The City is in the midst of making changes and working out kinks in the new code, so now is the time to comment.

Albany Planning Board workshops are generally held the second Tuesday and meetings on the fourth Tuesday of each month (schedule). The next will be a workshop on May 14th.

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