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Albany’s Common Council votes against what might be the final chance to save St. Joseph’s Church

by Erin Pihlaja on December 20, 2012 · 3 comments

St. Joes's church during a fundraiser in 2012. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

On Dec. 17, the Albany Common Council voted not to support a proposal by Raven’s Head Brewing Co. to convert the long-vacant St. Joseph’s church to a brewery and brew pub. While the final decision is ultimately up to the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals, the prospects of finding the long-embattled church a permanent tenant don’t look very promising.

“I really thought this time next year we’d be having a Christmas party in the church with a 20-foot tree,” said Brennon Cleary, the main brewer and chief representative for the brewery. “It’s a gut punch. We wanted it so much, I’m saddened and I don’t think that’s going to happen—I’m not very optimistic.”

Raven’s Head is the brainchild of Cleary, who found a group of partners and investors to help him realize his dream of brewing and bottling craft beer. According to Cleary, he has $90,000 of capital for the project and with his investors is able to procure millions more.

This is how much it would take to make a dent in securing a viable future for the 151-year-old Gothic revival structure that has been called “the crown jewel” of the 19th-century neighborhood once called Millionaire’s Row.

According to many involved, it was the “vocal” concerns of a group of neighbors from Albany’s Ten Broeck Triangle (of which St. Joseph’s sits at the center) that influenced the council in its decision. The group brought up issues such as noise and parking, and the desire to maintain the neighborhood’s status as a residential one. Approving the brewery, or any commercial endeavor, would change the area to mixed-use.

But there was a time when those who could see the crumbling church from the windows of their homes, implored someone to take responsibility for the structure.

St. Joseph’s closed in 1994. The property sat vacant, and when ownership changed from private hands back to the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese in 1996, some voiced their fears that the condition of the church would continue to deteriorate. A committee formed by the diocese began to brainstorm how to reuse the space. According to the Times Union, Rev. Thomas Phelan, the committee chairman, said: “Mixed usage is probably the way we’ll end up going. It’s got to be something that makes money to keep it going.”

In 1998, the diocese began to seek estimates for the costs of demolishing the historic building, and started to remove key architectural features including the stone altar. In a letter published in the Times Union in September 1998, Kay Halburian, a member of the Ten Broeck Triangle Preservation League, wrote on behalf of the league: “One of our principal and critical concerns involves the rapidly escalating destruction, from both inside and out, of St. Joseph’s Church, a landmark building that requires immediate attention by any citizen who values Albany’s past.”

She also penned, “We commend Historic Albany’s demonstration of interest in preserving St. Joseph’s but we believe they are acting too slowly. Every rainstorm allows more water to pour through the roof; immediate action to repair the roof and complete the stabilization of the building must be taken.”

When area restaurateur Elda Abate purchased the church in 2000 for $1, with the intent of converting the church to a banquet hall, many in the city rejoiced. At the time, estimates to repair the structure were just under $500,000. The Times Union reported that “neighbors were thrilled to hear the news.”

Virginia Poyer, who lived directly across the street, was quoted by the newspaper: “This is wonderful. I’ve lived in Arbor Hill all my life. It’s like a prayer.’’

But Poyer’s “prayer” went unanswered when after years of inaction, the city took back the church. The council transferred ownership to the Historic Albany Foundation in 2003.

Susan Holland, executive director of HAF, said, “I hear about issues on this building every day.” According to Holland, since HAF has owned the property it has overseen $1 million worth of funding addressing structural issues and other repairs. She also said that HAF spends around $150,000 a year in maintenance costs.

In November, she said, it was discovered that someone had stolen the copper pipes and wiring for the plumbing and electric systems. “We can’t use it,” she said. “The will be no chimes on Christmas Eve this year.” Holland also added that HAF is required to open the space to the public because the organization has used public funds and now she is uncertain how she will be able to continue to do so.

“The Common Council effectively closed a door for us,” she said. “This is basically a big ‘Nobody is welcome’ sign. It will be even harder to get someone in there now.”

“I was conflicted,” Leah Golby, a council member who represents the 10th Ward, said of voting on the proposal. “But . . . it was the council who put the church in the hands of the Historic Albany Foundation in the first place.”

Golby ultimately voted against the proposal presented by Raven’s Head. “I don’t think [the proposal] is appropriate. The neighbors have been organizing for months against it,” she said. “I hope [the HAF] will try to find something better, and I’m willing to help.” She said the foundation does “incredible, important” work and that hers wasn’t a vote “against” the organization.

She said that neighbors had some ideas of what they would like to see the church used for, such as a small grocery store or a nursery school. She also said that she was not aware that the HAF was looking to sell it. She added, “At a prior hearing one of the first comments was something like, ‘This was never even listed as an MLS listing—how do you even know who is interested?’”

“A real estate agent wouldn’t touch it,” said Holland. “There’s no commission involved. As for a MLS listing, try to write one for this space. We’ve been looking for reuse and have had lots of press about it—the word was out.”

Holland said there have been other proposals for the space, but most of them did not have the necessary components to be seriously considered. “Many were dependent on grants or subsidies,” she said. “In this fiscal climate there’s no public funding, or it’s hard to come by. St. Joe’s is a hard fit. It has special needs.”

“I’m disappointed by the council’s decision,” said Michael Guidice, a community activist who is also a board member with HAF.

Guidice owns property and lives in Albany’s South End. He said he was impacted by the collapse of Trinity Church last year and also understood that the Ten Broeck neighbors had concerns. “I have sympathy, but this is an amazing structure under threat of potential collapse,” he said. “We had viable investors who were excited about incorporating historical elements into their plan, who wanted to meet with the neighbors, and we turned them away.”

Guidice said he knew some opponents were not going to budge. “At one meeting,” he said, “one of the neighbors turned to me and said, ‘I’d rather see this church fall down than change the residential character of this neighborhood.’ ”

Raven’s Head’s Cleary maintained that he was willing to address specific concerns. “We were looking at a three-quarters-of-a-million-dollar lot on Broadway and shuttle service to and from that lot. We researched a closed, contained waste system where 75 percent of the restaurant waste would be eliminated without going to the outside trash system. There’s an obsolete smokestack on the church we could use to discharge or vent the exhaust smells of the restaurant or from brewing. We had a security plan to be able to provide patrons and people around building more security.”

As for preserving the historical aspects of the building, they were the reason Cleary said he wanted the space in the first place. “I come from a construction background,” he said. “The craftsmanship in those works is irreplaceable. The . . . manpower needed to reproduce these works doesn’t even exist in America anymore. St. Joe’s deserves every effort we can give, within reason, to preserve that building and give that building another life.”

Cleary also said that in three to five years Raven’s Head would have moved the main brewery to another location in an industrial neighborhood. He estimated that project would have meant another investment of $4 to $5 million in the city of Albany. “All said, I would have generated 65 to 100 employees,” he added.

The BZA hearing for the Raven’s Head project will happen sometime in January. Cleary said that he is planning on providing additional documents and hopes that it goes well. If it doesn’t, he has other options. “Now, people are coming to us with properties,” he said. “Hudson is very promising. Albany is not our only option.”

“I scratch my head,” said Guidice. “Our local government falls short of embracing creative entrepreneurs and a strategy for economic development time and time again. We keep on making the wrong choice over and over by sending the message that your business isn’t welcome here.”


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