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Growing Services

Albany’s Planned Parenthood, a longtime Lark Street neighbor, is set to move to its new location

by Ali Hibbs on August 18, 2010

Packing boxes and plans for a greatly expanded space are both filling up as Albany’s Upper Hudson Planned Parenthood—one of Lark Street’s most enduring and visible presences—prepares to move to a new location in September.

The organization has put its three buildings at 259 Lark St. on the market. The Lark Street complex consists of the main building, which houses patient services and administrative offices, a smaller office building and a storage building.

A capital campaign for the new headquarters at 855 Central Ave., near Everett Road, is under way with about $400,000 to go, said Blue Carreker, the organization’s vice president for public affairs and marketing. The Central Avenue site will have 18,000 custom-renovated square feet—a 50-percent increase in space from the current location—and is along a major CDTA bus route.

“There’s a lot of new lighting to make it brighter and different kinds of workspaces,” Carreker said. “We know we have a high quality of service; now, our patients will feel it.”

The staff will miss Lark Street, she added; the proximity of so many restaurants and shops made for a convenient location and a close connection with the neighborhood.

“We have a lot of affection for Lark Street,” she said. “We’ve been here for 45 years in two different areas.”

The new location will include an expanded space for a teen drop-in center, and the private parking lot at the site means that patients and other visitors will no longer have to enter the building from a public sidewalk. A small but steady group of anti-abortion protesters has gathered in front of the Lark Street location on Friday and Saturday mornings for years to pray, hold placards and sometimes train their video cameras on the people entering or leaving the clinic. The weekend protests unfolded under the watchful gaze of escorts from Planned Parenthood who stood ready to assist women entering and leaving the building.

The new location will make it more difficult for anti-abortion activists to get their message out to women, said Lori Kehoe, executive director of the New York State Right to Life Committee.

“You can pretty up the space, but you can’t pretty up child killing,” Kehoe said of the planned move. “It’s also sad that they would close off women from debate. This closed-off parking lot is consistent with their principles of keeping information from women.”

At a recent news conference announcing the move, however, Upper Hudson president and chief executive officer Patricia McGeown and other administrators said the expansion will allow the agency to provide critically needed services of all types, including overall gynecological care and education on the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. The Lark Street location handled more than 13,000 patient visits in 2009, a 14-percent increase from 2008, and the reception room has sometimes been so crowded that patients have had to wait in the hall for their appointment.

“Some people believe, mistakenly, that abortion is all Planned Parenthood does,” said Mary Kahl, former Upper Hudson board chair and author of the book Controversy and Courage: Upper Hudson Planned Parenthood from 1934 to 2004, in a written statement about the move. “In fact, prevention—of unintended pregnancy and of STDs—and education continue to be the central core of the services.”

As the move approaches, the availability of a site with parking on one of Albany’s main retail streets has generated considerable attention from prospective buyers, and also considerable speculation about how a new owner would use the space.

“As far as I know, everyone who has looked at the buildings has talked about tearing them down,” said Mary Spinelli, executive director of the Lark Street Business Improvement District. “There’s some structural issues with the smaller building. I think anyone going in there would either have some renovation to do, or would tear it down.”

Lark Street is a mix of commercial and residential zoning, but the Upper Hudson Planned Parenthood site is zoned for commercial use. That zoning allows nearly a dozen uses, including banks, offices and art galleries. A number of special uses also fall under the zoning, including health clubs, restaurants and taverns. Any special-use applications undergo additional review before the Albany Board of Zoning Appeals, which takes into consideration traffic, noise and residential concerns when considering an application for a special-use permit, said Doug Melnick, Albany’s director of planning.

Under the city’s new demolition ordinance, any proposal to raze the Planned Parenthood buildings would also have to go before the Albany Planning Board, and demolition plans must accompany finished proposals for use of the site—no one can simply seek to knock down a building without also outlining how the cleared space will be used, Melnick noted.

It’s far too early to predict what a new owner would want to do there, but Melnick said one thing is certain about the soon-to-be-former Upper Hudson Planned Parenthood property: “It’s a prime site.”