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Rehabbing the Neighborhood

Capital City Rescue Mission has become a redevelopment force in Albany’s South End, working to save buildings as well as souls

by Darryl McGrath on January 26, 2012

Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen

The first thing you notice inside 95 Trinity Place is the light.

An abundance of natural light flooding into a late-18th-century factory building is a suprise, considering that the first people who worked here had been children during the Civil War. The softly illuminated woodwork belies he image of a dank Industrial Revolution interior. But four stories of nearly floor-to-ceiling windows help reveal the details that survived decades of neglect: the hardwood support colums, 14 inches square; the four-inch-thick hemlock floorboards so sturdy that they doubled as the ceiling boards for the floor below; the 2-foot-thick brick walls; and the simple but elegant iron banisters that zigzag up the walls of the stairwells.

This building on the corner of Morton Avenue  and Trinity Place—across the street from the Albany Police Department’s South Station on Morton—has dominated an entire block in the South End for more than a century. It started as a garment factory, and it nearly ended as an abandoned, trash-filled hulk.

Now, the Capital City Rescue Mission is rehabilitating 95 Trinity Place, with the goal of turning it into a “supportive housing” apartment building—a home for formerly homeless people who have gone through the mission’s graduated program of services and recovery. They started in emergency housing straight from the streets, and now they are almost ready to leave and get their own apartments. The supportive housing will give these people a year or two of case management from the mission as they work, pay rent and get ready to return to fully independent living. The first apartments are expected to open this summer.

Capital City Rescue Mission is the Albany branch of a national Christian organization known as the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions, which serves inner-city homeless and poor people. The Albany mission bought the decrepit 95 Trinity Placeeight years ago at the Albany County tax auction for $111,000. Four years ago, the mission undertook a multimillion-dollar renovation. The mission plans to have 44 units in what is believed to be the largest supportive housing effort inAlbany, and possibly the largest such undertaking in the Capital Region. In addition to housing, the building also will contain an adult learning center, an industrial-sized kitchen and a community meeting space dubbed the “celebration room,” that the mission will use for its own functions and also rent to outside groups that need conference space.

The man behind the reclamation of 95 Trinity Place is Pastor Perry Jones, executive director of Capital City Rescue Mission. He is an evangelical Christian with the business acumen of a Fortune 500 CEO. Jones quotes Scripture as he climbs the stairs of the soon-to-be apartment building, and has been known to pause for prayer almost in mid-sentence. This kind of work lends itself to a total commitment, and the pastor’s wife, Susan, is the director of development. Perry Jones and the mission’s board of directors have taken this building from purchase to near completion, an effort that occasionally finds Jones, 57, donning a hard hat himself to do some sandblasting. But on this day, he is simply caught up in the glory of the wood and the light and the soaring space.

“Look at the ceilings,” Jones says as he peers up a good 20 feet at the sherry-colored slats of the wooden ceiling on the fourth floor. “Aren’t they beautiful? Some of the most beautiful ceilings I’ve ever seen inAlbanyare right here.”

Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen

 

The Capital City Rescue Mission has been inAlbanyunder Jones’ leadership for 30 years, but the mission has been in the South End only since it moved there from Hudson Avenue in 2000. Now the mission owns eight buildings in a few square blocks of the South End. The purchase last September of127 Arch St., adjacent to95 Trinity Place, means there is one more renovation project on the horizon.

The rescue mission is a full-service organization that provides clients with emergency shelter, intermediate housing, meals, health care, church services, case management, mental-health counseling and job training. The mission’s philosophy holds that homeless people can cast out their demons of poverty, despair, alcoholism and drug abuse and become productive citizens again through the gospel of Jesus Christ. Those who walk into the mission for the nightly free dinner are strongly encouraged to attend chapel. But the mission provides food, clothing, health care and other services to anyone who needs them regardless of their religious beliefs, says Susan Jones, and no one is required to profess Christianity to receive help.

Rescue missions do not accept public funds or tax credits, so Perry Jones and the board of trustees launched a capital campaign to raise $3.5 million for the95 Trinity Placeproject. Capital Region corporations either donated many of the materials and services or provided them at cost. Most of the skilled tradesmen who worked on the building had once been homeless and had come through the mission’s recovery program.

“People struggle and they crash sometimes from very high positions,” Jones says. “I can’t tell you how many times God has brought some of the most gifted people to us in times of need.”

Among them is Lloyd Ratalsky, 49, who has been on a construction team in the building and who went through the recovery program of the Bridgeport, Conn.,  rescue mission in 2006. Afterward, he returned to the Capital Region, where he has since lived and worked.

“When we leave here, people will have a place to live,” Ratalsky says. “We took a building that was just sitting for 25 years, dead. We sandblasted it from the inside out. That’s a metaphor for changing someone’s life.”

On this day, Ratalsky was installing radiant heat systems in the floors of future apartment units. Most of the apartments will be studios for single residents, although a few will accommodate a parent with children. Several staff members also will live in the building, as part of the support system the mission will provide to the residents. The furnished apartments have birch veneer cabinetry, efficiency kitchens, roomy bathrooms and earth-toned paint colors and bedspreads. The combination of stylish appointments and all-new materials evokes a hip, modern hotel room. The rent for the studios is $750, and tenants will be expected to pay $75 to $100 a week of that. By the time they are ready for these apartments, they will be working.

Susan Holland, executive director of Historic Albany Foundation, has high praise for the mission’s preservation effort. She tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade the mission to explore some of the tax-credit programs available to individuals or organizations undertaking an historic renovation on this scale, and she has followed the project from its inception.

“I think it’s fantastic that someone is willing to take a chance on these buildings,” she says. “In cities where the renaissance has been happening for a while, people are fighting for these buildings.”

Many developers believe it is easier to demolish than to renovate, Holland says, out of a concern for costs, the possible remediation of industrial toxins or a reluctance to retrofit an old building so that it meets code or energy standards. Renovation can be costly and time-consuming, but in the end, Holland says, it can be a more environmentally favorable option. Old buildings often have rare and even irreplaceable building materials. They also incorporate energy-efficient design features that modern architects have copied, such as tall windows, transoms and skylights for natural illumination.

“There is this perception that we as a community and a culture need to overcome, which is that these buildings aren’t worth anything,”Holland says.  “Anyone who is in favor of the environment should not be on board with that. These buildings are very solid, and we just have this culture of ‘Tear down.’ ”

As the Capital City Rescue Mission’s presence in the South End has grown, the surrounding neighborhoods and agencies have taken note. Those who speak about the mission’s building boom pick their words very carefully, because it’s difficult to criticize the work of an organization that is inevitably spoken of as a “tight ship,” and which has never suffered even a hint of scandal.

Capital District Habitat for Humanity has also had a growing presence in the South End in recent years. Executive Director Mike Jacobson declined to comment on the Capital City Rescue Mission, and leaders in the Mansion and South End neighborhood associations also did not respond to requests for comment.

Steve Longo, executive director of the Albany Housing Authority, had considered purchasing the Arch Street building for the AHA, and also had spoken with a private developer who had expressed interest in the building. Then both learned last fall that the rescue mission had just bought the building from its private owner.

Longo has known Perry Jones for years and has the highest praise for him. Longo cites the quality of the mission’s renovations and the “incredible attention to detail.”  But he says he is also concerned that the “density” of the mission in a few square blocks in the South End “is endangering the South End and the Mansion Neighborhood and the mission of Capital City, which is to give clients a positive experience and a chance to live in a diverse neighborhood.”

Duncan Barrett, chief operating officer of Omni Housing Development—which builds affordable housing and has worked with the Albany Housing Authority—says he shares Longo’s “very legitimate concern” and that the phrase “tipping point” comes to mind with the Arch Street building.

Common Council President Carolyn McLaughlin, a lifelong South End resident, says it’s not surprising to hear such concerns. The city and a number of community agencies are starting to see the South End as a largely underappreciated but culturally rich neighborhood with a strong housing stock, McLaughlin says, and that leads to concerns about economic and demographic balance.

“I’ve always been a supporter of the work they’ve done,” McLaughlin says of Capital City.  “But I have to look at the other side, as well.” That other side, she says, represents longtime residents and potential homeowners who want the South End to serve all economic groups.

Jones responds to such concerns with equanimity. The Trinity Place and Arch Streetbuildings—which sit at right angles to each other—once had been connected by walkways, and had for years operated as a complex. At one time, both buildings were part of a salvage operation, he notes. Both had separately gone to county auction the year that Capital City bought 95 Trinity Place, and someone else bought the Arch Street building first. The mission took the approach, “Now or never,” when it learned that the owner was willing to sell 127 Arch St. last year.

Jones believes that any concerns about saturation by the mission will be allayed when the supportive housing opens and South End leaders and residents see tenants move from the subsidized apartments back into the community. Many of the prospective tenants for the supportive housing already have ties to the South End and attend church there, Jones says.

“My whole philosophy of doing this is to get them so they are full members of this community,” Jones says. “I understand people wonder, ‘Is this a good move or not?’ I think it is.”