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Clean Up, Clear Out

Questions remain after an environmental nonprofit tasked with cleaning up Troy’s waterfront suddenly skipped town

by Erin Pihlaja on October 10, 2012


Photo by Erin Pihlaja

What would you do with six acres of prime, vacant real estate on the Hudson River? That’s what the city of Troy is trying to decide now that a long-term lease between the city and the Beacon Institute, Inc. has been terminated. The agreement had given the Beacon Institute sole rights to one acre of the former Rensselaer Iron Works site with nonexclusive rights to the adjacent land. The city will issue requests for proposals today (Thursday) for development of the property.

In 2008, plans were unveiled for a $15 million education and research facility called the Upper Hudson Research Center. The project represented a partnership between the Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries (now incorporated as the Beacon Institute, based in Beacon, N.Y.) and the city of Troy. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute was named as a research partner, although a collaboration had started between the two organizations in 2003 when RPI was chosen as the northern satellite anchor for the Beacon Institute, according to Erin Crotty, the director of state and community relations for RPI.

In an article from 2008, The Business Review quoted former CEO of the Beacon Institute Joe Cronin: “Within three to four years, at least 100 researchers, engineers and others will be working on this site.”

In the same article, former New York State Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno, who was largely responsible for obtaining the $10 million grant to fund the project, said, “It will really be a showplace. This will be a tourist attraction.”

The UHRC project was touted as a game-changer in the quest to develop Troy, specifically for the embattled South End. In addition to the research center, plans called for an amphitheater, a public park, a biking trail and a sculpture garden. A Troy branch of the Beacon Institute was established on River Street, and the UHRC was expected to open in October 2010.

Unfortunately, the utopian picture painted by politicians and the environmentally centered not-for-profit was not to be. The site rests atop a sea wall that towers above the Hudson River on one side, and the Poestenkill Creek on the other. One structure on the property, covered in graffiti and missing most of its windows, has definitely seen better days. The other burned to the ground in late May 2008.

“The city spent around $330,000 cleaning up after the fire,” said Bill Dunne, commissioner of planning and economic development for the city of Troy. Dunne took office in January of this year, and at that time began to review development projects that were in the works. He questioned the progress of the UHRC.

Things didn’t appear promising when the Troy offices of the Beacon Institute were suddenly closed. A former employee, who asked not to be identified, said, “We were notified on April 2, 2012. [The] office was formally closed on April 6.” This person said that no indication was given that the institute had planned to pull out of Troy.

The same former employee felt the repercussions of the sudden withdrawl: “I went out and raised all of this money, private people’s money, based on the future of this. I looked like a complete fraud.”

Kathleen Hickey, chief public affairs officer at the Beacon Institute, said that work was done on the site, but that outside circumstances had hindered the efforts. “Preliminary planning work was done, including a study of the feasibility of both renovating/re-using the existing building and demolition and new construction,” she said in an e-mail. “A great deal of work was completed, including archaeological, Phase 1 environmental, draft feasibility study, design study and significant clean up on the site removing some 4,000 tons of scrap and waste material.”

By late September 2012, almost two years after the expected completion date of the UHRC, and after he was approached by two entrepreneurs who expressed interest in the property, Dunne said that he contacted the institute, which had since become a subsidiary of Clarkson University, about their future intentions and the possibility of going separate ways.

They agreed to terminate the lease. Via e-mail, Timothy F. Sugrue, president and CEO of the Beacon Institute said, “While Beacon Institute had intended to develop the Troy site as a research and education center, we were not able to move as quickly as the City wished, due both to the environmental remediation challenges of the site and the economic realities of the recession. The City of Troy had a more immediate offer and made the decision to move in that direction. We wish them all the best.”

While the Beacon Institute has moved on to bigger and brighter things, including obtaining $35 million in state funds for capital projects, which include renovations to Clarkson University’s “Old Main” building in Potsdam and the institute’s facilities at Denning’s Point State Park, the city of Troy is looking for a way to recoup what Dunne said are big losses.

“We lost an excess of $2 million in grant funding that was pulled from the budget, plus the money we spent cleaning up the site and the $10 million grant to develop the project,” he said. “That’s around $13 million, which is around 20 percent of the city’s annual budget.”

Still, Dunne is looking forward to the potential of future projects at the site. “Any developer worth his weight in salt understands what is there,” he said.