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September 22, 2006

A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.

September 22 , 2006

A Walk In The Rain

Inspecting the South End with the out of town consultants

About thirty of us gathered outside the Schuyler Mansion annex building on Catherine Street. The time was three fifteen in the afternoon on September 19. It was raining steadily.

“Since it’s pretty wet, I thought maybe we could all get in our cars and gather at some main spots,” Albany City Planner Monique Wahba offered. We had gathered here for the long planned walking tour of the South End with the hotshot hired planners and architects from New York City. “How do you all feel about that?”

Hell, I was ready to walk. I had my hat with the wide brim. Everybody else had umbrellas or such, and no one objected to getting wet. We were all ready to walk. So we followed an obviously pleased Monique out of the gates of Schuyler Mansion and into the rainy streets of the South End.

This was a mixed group, partly composed of several members of the general public, including myself. Plus there were a few concerned experts who wanted to tag along. But most of the walkers in the rain were members of the South End Action Committee (SEAC) the group that has been formed to create an ongoing building and revitalization plan for the South End. This field trip was as much for the SEAC members to meet reality for themselves as it was to inform the visitors from the Big City.

In the rain
At Third and Teunis

The most astonishing thing about SEAC is that they are actually getting something done. I sat in on an earlier incarnation of this committee back in the late 1990’s, and older folks can describe sitting on even earlier committees. I wouldn’t be shocked to hear that the original South End revitalization committee met in the 1600s and spoke Dutch.

Every one of these committees met and talked, met and talked, gathered data, made a report, and met and talked. The reports were presented to the City and immediately forgotten. In the final analysis, none of these committees did anything more than waste money.

But unlike the other committees, SEAC is not only creating a plan, they are charged with implementing it. Indeed, that is what they are doing. Of course, it’s too early to tell if their plans are going to do any good, but money has been found and the initial projects are about ready to start.

We made our way down to the gorgeous Howe Library at the corner of Schuyler Street and Clinton Street. This is where I loudly made a lame joke about how “we ought to have gotten a rubber tired trolley to ride in.”

Here is a stark illustration of the seriousness of SEAC, and I don’t mean the fact that no one appreciated my lousy sense of humor. Can anyone imagine the members of Mayor Jerry Jenning’s Re-Capitalize Albany Committee walking through City neighborhoods on their own two precious feet? In the rain?

For the benefit of short memories, I’m referring to the two hour trolley tour of Albany taken by His Majesty’s committee the other week. This was probably the closest this pathetic bunch of suburban interlopers and disinterested outsiders have ever been to our Albany neighborhoods. They visited such economically depressed parts of the City as the corner of Lark and Madison, where they got to rubberneck an honest to goodness police incident. Unless I’m mistaken, this bunch did not see fit to lower themselves enough to glance at any part of the South End.

I had the idea of following this silly trolley full of dingalings around the City so as to entertain the readers of this blog. But the actual place where the Re-Capitalize Committee members were to meet the trolley was kept a tight secret. Apparently, the secrecy was enforced by fear.

I asked a certain member of the Re-Capitalize Committee who I mistakenly considered friendly about this secret information. But not only did this person lie to me about it, he/she reported my inquiries to City officials! How sad that this person is so easily intimidated by authority.

I don’t believe that any of the folks who walked the South End in the rain are the kind of people who are easily intimidated by anyone.

Certainly not Monique Wahba, who relocated to Albany from Portland Oregon, the home of progressive planning. She’s about four feet tall and can’t weigh more than 95 pounds, but she has been able to keep a steady vision afloat in the cesspool of City politics. Her specialty and first love is mass transportation, one can only feel sorry for her here in Albany where mass transportation is an embarrassing joke.

Certainly not First Ward Common Council member Dominick Calsolaro, the only elected official to walk the rainy route. The Mayor absolutely hates his guts, having at one time or another called him, among other things, “ That a--hole.” That’s a sure indication of Dominick’s effectiveness and integrity. Live on the air the other week on a local AM radio show, His Majesty fell into a foaming rage and sputtered, “I don’t care what Calsolaro thinks.” He then falsely claimed that Dominick “never gets out and walks his ward.” Well, here was Dominick walking the streets in the pouring rain, and a good part of the tour wasn’t even in his ward.

Certainly not Duncan Barrett, the Chief Operating Officer of Omni Corporation, the developer who is going to provide the action part of SEAC. From what I’ve seen of Duncan, he is a modest gentleman who is genuinely interested in leaving behind development projects that are good for people. He is a contrast to countless City favored developers who hit town to make a fast buck off the taxpayers and then beat a retreat to some barren suburb to die rich. At one point in the walk, thinking that my wide-brimmed hat was not adequate protection from the rain, he offered me his spare umbrella. Corporate COO or not, how can you hate a guy like that?

Certainly not Todd Fabozzi of the Capital District Regional Planning Commission (CDRPC.) For many years Todd has openly defied his employers and presented to interested groups his own powerpoint presentation about transportation, suburban sprawl and urban decay. (Todd insists that he does not defy his employers, although he says that some commissioners on the CDRPC "may not agree with my perspective or want it promulgated.") As we crossed South Pearl near Fourth Avenue he told me, “I’ve been using photos of abandoned buildings in the South End for years, including these.” He waved his arm at the run down and abandoned storefronts in front of us. “I keep adding to it, and now I can’t show my presentation unless I’m given at least an hour and a half.”

Certainly not Officer Ben Sturges, the South End beat cop, a guy who is used to walking in the rain. I noticed that Officer Sturges is well known on his beat. He addressed us on the corner of Teunis Street and pointed down Third Avenue. “The kids all hang down there,” he said, “but for some reason the fights and the shootings and stabbings are all right here.” Behind Officer Sturges we could see an imposing row of decaying, abandoned buildings.

Officer Sturges
Officer Sturges

Certainly not Tom McPheeters, champion of the Mansion Neighborhood and all-round advocate. Tom sticks to principle, even when he’s wrong. Near the end of the tour, he stood on lower Park Avenue and told us, “Everything along here is up for grabs.” What Tom meant was that all the vacant warehouses and empty lots behind the towers of Lincoln Square are for sale. Indeed, thanks to the efforts of Mr. Calsolaro, any developer who converts these warehouses into housing is eligible for generous property tax breaks on a sliding scale.

Earlier in the walk we rounded the site of the former Jared-Holt wax factory, a mostly vacant piece of land bounded by Third and Fourth Avenues, and by Clinton and Broad Streets. This is where SEAC plans to begin work to create a mixture of mostly moderate to low income housing, owner occupied and rental. The buildings are to front on to the street, while parking and community green space is behind the buildings. SEAC has already secured enough State money to build the first 12 units.

Early last spring, Albany County Legislator Luci McKnight, a member of SEAC, contacted me about contamination of the soil at the Jared-Hoyt site. A study had been done which found lead and several other “hot spots” of contamination in the soil. Remediation of the site had been planned, but Luci was not satisfied. To the exasperation of the other members of the committee, Luci would not sign on to the application for State funding until the contamination issue was fully resolved.

“I think they’re trying to gloss this over,” she told me. “We’re going to have children and pregnant women living here. You know how kids are, they’re going to play in the dirt. If they get sick, who’s responsible?”

Fair enough, but what could I do about it? Luci kept bugging me, and finally The Wife offered up an excellent suggestion. “Why don’t you call Dave?”

Environmental analysis in hand, I sat at the kitchen table and consulted over the phone with Dave Camp, who spent sixteen years inspecting and evaluating contaminated sites for the State. Dave recently retired at the age of 41. He has a lot of reasons for having done this, but one big reason was that he was tired of the politics that were crawling down from the Governor’s office into the Department of Environmental Conservation. “It kept getting harder to do my job properly,” he told me.

Experienced and competent, Dave was the perfect consultant for this task. Plus, as a retiree, he could be completely honest without worrying about repercussions. We went over the numbers and the categories for two hours or so, and finally he told me that there was nothing to worry about. “Assuming the report is accurate,” he said, “which it probably is. If they are removing the top layers of soil and digging out the hot spots, I would call that overkill. That’s what you do when people are going to live there.”

He told me that the numbers were the sort that you would find from the exhaust of automobiles driving by for many years and depositing lead on the lot. If the numbers were a little bit lower, then the lead probably would have come from lead paint sloughing off the long-gone buildings. As for the hot spots, there was some oil and some residue from combustion, probably from burning trash. Since none of it appeared to have gone down into the water table, it was easy to deal with.

Think about that. Exhaust from automobiles burning “unleaded” gas routinely contaminates the ground we walk on.

I delivered my report to Luci, and she signed on to the loan application. As a result, the State awarded a grant that is enough to get the project started. But Luci did not let me off the hook. “If anyone gets sick,” she emailed me, “it’s on you, my friend.” Sheesh. Talk to Dave.

Thoroughly soaked, we made our way back to the South End Improvement Corporation, the money and program disbursers who maintain an office next door to the Schuyler Mansion. We crowded around a long table and talked to the hotshot planners from the Big City.

I didn’t pay much attention to John Shapiro during the walk. He didn’t talk much and he certainly didn’t stand out, but he is indeed one of the principal partners of Phillips Priess Shapiro Planning and Real Estate Consultants. Like I said, he doesn’t look like much, but he sure knows how to run an information gathering session.

Actually, I watched him run three of these meetings over the course of two days. Four if you count the walk in the rain, which was conducted at his request. Watching Mr. Shapiro connect with a variety of people and ferret out what they want for their community, it was easy to see why his firm commands the big bucks. Monique Wahba declared at one point that when they were searching for consultants, these guys "came with glowing recommendations.”

But will these guys come up with anything useful? The next day I crashed the regular SEAC meeting down in the basement cafeteria at the Albany Housing Authority (AHA) offices on South Pearl. Perhaps I shouldn’t be too critical of a brainstorming session (especially when I wasn’t invited) but it seemed to me that most of the ideas thrown around the lunchroom that afternoon were, well, harebrained.

One nutty idea I will mention. After Monique brought up the idea of finding ways to re-connect the South End to the Hudson River, the consultants and several members talked about building a bridge over Highway 787 and the railroad tracks... or even tunneling underneath.

I had to laugh during this discussion. When I sat on that earlier ineffective version of this committee back in 1999, I suggested the same exact idea, bridge or tunnel. At that time George LeVeille was the economic director for the City of Albany, he now chairs the commission that is planning the unwanted downtown convention center. George looked me full in the face and declared before the entire committee, “You might as well forget about that. This administration will never build a bridge over 787.”

He really said that. Several years and eight point five million dollars later, Mayor Jennings created a pedestrian bridge over 787... on the north side of town. Perhaps George should have said, “This administration will never build a bridge over 787 in the South End.”

I have one criticism of Mr. Shapiro, and unfortunately it is a big one. I noticed that each time the subject of mass transportation came up, he appeared to dismiss it as unworthy of discussion. Admittedly, the subject only came up sporadically over the course of three meetings, but it is an issue upon which the economic life and death of Albany depends.

Tom McPheeters recently did a study of census data, and discovered that more than fifty percent of the inhabitants of the South End do not own or have access to an automobile. If you couple this with a point that Mr. Shapiro made, that there will probably always be few or no high paying jobs within the South End neighborhoods, we see that decent and reliable mass transportation is vital for the success of any South End plan.

One easily implemented idea is to create a frequent bus that begins at Green Street and runs the entire length of Morton/Holland Avenue to where it ends at Albany Medical Center. Every day and night South End residents trudge from their homes up Morton and down Holland to their jobs, and back again. Children walk or are walked down Morton to Giffen School, and college students walk both ways. Everybody walks on literally crumbling sidewalks and through intersections that grow more dangerous every day. One can only wonder at the motives behind denying Morton/Holland a bus, is it deliberate neglect? Such an attitude by our public officials is certainly not unheard of.

But Mr. Shapiro was not the only attraction down in the basement of AHA that afternoon. Over the summer a group of graduate students from SUNY Albany walked the South End and surveyed every single property, some 1400 buildings and empty lots. With this information they created a data base which not only listed the real estate, but categorized the properties according to various characteristics, such as neighborhood or architectural types. They presented to SEAC the impressive results of their work.

I spoke briefly after the meeting with one of the students, David Falcon. They used a readily available database, Arc Info 9.1, which allows the user to connect the data with GIS systems and produce maps. Information about each South End property can be added to it indefinitely, including data about ownership and code inspections. The project was cheap and easy to do. And best of all, it can be put online so that anyone can see the information.

Now, I’ve been sitting on a CANA committee that has been meeting with City officials to try to get them to improve the way they do code enforcement. One of the things we keep asking for is a database of buildings that is accessible to all City residents online. Other cities have done this, why not Albany?

Over and over again the City officials come back with, “Well, ah, hmm, we can’t do that, we don’t have the money and the personnel and besides we have to coordinate codes with police and fire systems and anyway it might be illegal etc. etc...”

Baloney. The real reason for not doing this is that the City officials are in love with senseless secrecy. They don’t want information online because it threatens their information monopoly.

Several SEAC members asked the grad students if they were planning to put the database online. “We give it to the City,” said Mr. Falcon, apparently meaning The Mayor. “It’s up to them.” A lot of people in the room looked distressed at that.

Is The Mayor ready to cooperate with SEAC and implement improvements as they happen? Consider a point made by Mr. Shapiro, that crime has to be controlled in the South End if you want economic development to work. “You have to do that on a block by block basis,” he said. “And that means community policing and beat cops.”

The whole cafeteria fell into an embarrassed silence. You see, everyone knew that upstairs, at 6:30, Albany Chief of Police Tuffey was going to give a series of lame explanations why he was eliminating community policing in Albany. Officer Ben Sturges would be removed from the South End streets, and he would not be replaced.

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