is no highway: Councilwoman Shawn Morris at the vacant
lot on Holland Avenue, with the VA Hospital in the background.
Little Highway in the City
residents oppose plan to rezone a lot on Holland Avenue as
proposal to rezone a vacant lot on Albany’s Holland Avenue,
which runs through the city’s University Heights institutional
area that includes Albany Medical Center and Albany Law School,
drew nearly 30 irate speakers to the Albany Common Council
meeting on Monday (Dec. 5).
The lot is owned by the Picotte Companies, who are working
with developer Tom Burke. Picotte representatives have said
that they have tried to develop it as a 50,000 sq. ft. medical
office complex (the site is zoned “commercial office”) for
several years, but that they got no interest. “There is no
office-space market for that site,” said Picotte leasing agent
Brian Lasch. “What this area needs is some services.”
do have interest from Walgreens, a national drugstore chain,
and Panera Bread. Walgreens, however, requires at least a
14,000-square-foot stand-alone retail store, bigger than the
current zoning allows. In February, Picotte requested a zoning
change to C2, or “highway commercial,” which has far fewer
restrictions on size, hours of operation, or design.
At the time, then-Planning Commissioner Lori Harris wrote
a strongly worded letter to the developer’s lawyer, Peter
Lynch, saying that highway commercial would be inappropriate
and detrimental, and suggesting that the application be withdrawn.
About a month ago the Zoning Committee sent the proposal to
the whole council, recommending that it be voted down.
Most of the speakers at Monday night’s meeting came from the
surrounding Delaware Area, Helderberg, and Lincoln Park neighborhood
associations. They argued against both the zoning change in
theory, calling it spot zoning that would give an unfair advantage
to a single business owner, and against the project, saying
that a drive-through chain pharmacy would change the character
of the area, hurt pedestrian accessibility, and possibly harm
local businesses in the three bordering neighborhood commercial
districts (Delaware Avenue and portions of New Scotland Avenue
on either side of University Heights).
patently unfair to rezone for one business,” said Louise McNeilly,
president of the Delaware Area Neighborhood Association. Speakers
echoing this theme included several local business owners
who detailed the hoops they’d had to jump through, and Susan
Holland, director of the Historic Albany Foundation, who called
it a “dangerous precedent.”
Craig Walz, speaking on behalf of the Helderberg Neighborhood
Association, said that neighborhood opponents were considering
litigation if the rezoning went forward. “Spot zoning,” which
the state defines as the “rezoning of a small parcel of land
to a use category different from the surrounding land,” has
been found by the state courts to be illegal if the change
is “other than part of a well-considered and comprehensive
plan.” The city has no comprehensive plan, and Holland Avenue
falls outside any neighborhood plan.
When asked why he advised his client to seek a rezone rather
than the usual use variance (which would go with the business,
not the land), Lynch said it wouldn’t have been approved because,
while they did attempt to develop the land as offices, they
did not try every type of use acceptable under the current
zoning, which would have included restaurants, retail that
met neighborhood-commercial zoning standards, housing, institutional
buildings, or a combination thereof.
Concerns from speakers about the project itself included increased
traffic; its suburban, auto-oriented style; and the short
life span of chain drugstores and the epidemic of empty big-box
stores that the country is facing [“Wide Open Spaces,” Oct.
27]. In a few years the city would face “yet another set of
abandoned, derelict hulks,” predicted one speaker.
Kathleen McDonough, who works as a scientist in the Wadsworth
Center laboratory on New Scotland Avenue, said she raises
half a million dollars a year in grants to bring students
and scientists to the area to work with her. She said the
walkable, urban character of the area helped with recruiting.
“If we become a suburban thoroughfare, they will choose to
live, and eventually to work, elsewhere,” she predicted.
Several speakers also wondered about the fate of the two independently
owned pharmacies within blocks of the site. “People who stick
it out in our city, operating their businesses, not being
able to expand because of our zoning laws, are now going to
have their success threatened by singling out one particular
owner and one particular operator to benefit from a zoning
change,” said Ward 7 Councilwoman Shawn Morris, whose ward
includes the site in question.
Developer Tom Burke, who insisted on getting to speak last
in the comment period, said it was “inconceivable” that this
project would be out of place on Holland and urged the council
not be “shanghaied” by people who voice “knee-jerk opposition”
but will “end up coming and using the facility.”
Councilman James Scalzo (Ward 10) wandered in and out of the
long comment period, but it didn’t change his support for
the rezoning. “I’m a firm believer that success breeds success,”
he said, saying that he thought any new business at this site
would help the struggling Park South neighborhood. (Park South
is near the site, but cut off from it by the grounds of the
VA Hospital and Hackett Middle School.) At a break in the
comment period, Scalzo told an audience member, “I spent 23
years of my life in there [Park South]. When that neighborhood
went down the shitter, none of these people came out to help.”
Scalzo owned Quintessence restaurant on New Scotland Avenue
since the early 1980s. It recently went bankrupt.
Responding to the question of whether the neighborhood should
worry about abandoned drive-throughs in a few years, Scalzo
said, “I just lost my business to bankruptcy. Can anyone predict
the future? . . . When people invest in business they want
it to succeed.”
Scalzo invoked a rarely, if ever, used rule to make a motion
that the rezoning ordinance be brought to a vote at the next
council meeting, even if the sponsor, Morris, who opposes
the rezoning, does not bring it up for a vote. He also plans
to ask that the order of business at that meeting be changed
so that a resolution saying that a State Environmental Quality
Review Act assessment is not required can be passed before
the ordinance comes up for a vote, so both can be voted on
in one meeting. The resolution must pass before the ordinance
can be considered. The next meeting, Dec. 19, will be the
last meeting of the council before newly elected council members
take their seats.
Dan Herring, chairman of the zoning committee, confirmed that
the committee had considered the proposal several times, but
had delayed its vote until this fall at the request of the
developer, who was making some design changes in response
to neighborhood concerns. (Neighborhood leaders have basically
said only changes that would bring it within current zoning
would be acceptable.) Now, however, the developer and his
lawyer are saying the bill has “languished.” The new council
that starts in January will include new Working Families Party-
supported candidates from Wards 3 and 4. Morris says she expects
the developers fear that the new council will look less kindly
on the rezoning proposal and therefore want to “railroad”
it through the lame-duck session.
Didn’t Go Away
While they’re not dominating the nightly news
any more, the people displaced by Hurricane Katrina
are not twiddling their thumbs. Over the past
month, grassroots organizing networks have forced
FEMA to extend its timeline for paying for hotel
rooms, won a court case keeping landlords from
evicting displaced renters with no notice other
than a note on the old residence, and organized
a protest march across the bridge where people
trying to flee New Orleans were turned back by
gunfire from Gretna, La., sheriffs. This coming
weekend, Katrina survivors will gather in Jackson,
Miss., for a conference on long-term goals, including
a “right to return.”
One Boycott Ends . . .
Ford Motor Co. announced this week that it will
cease advertising its luxury Range Rover and Jaguar
automobiles in gay publications. The American
Family Association had threatened a boycott of
Ford in May, but gave the company until Dec. 1
to think about it. The AFA said its boycott was
in response to Ford’s charity to gay-rights organizations
and its domestic-partner benefits. Ford spokesman
Mike Moran claimed that the advertising decision
had nothing to do with the AFA and said the company
stands by its nondiscrimination policies.
How Does This Help Exactly?
One week after Congress extended six-year-old
restrictions on military aid to Indonesia that
had been imposed due to human-rights abuses, the
U.S. State Department announced that it would
normalize military relations with Indonesia in
the name of “national security.” International
human-rights advocacy groups say this means the
United States will lose all leverage to make sure
Indonesian military officials are held accountable
for atrocities committed in 1999. The Bush administration
claims the embargo was a strategic roadblock in
the fight against terrorism.
No Means No
Maine has joined California and Pennsylvania in
refusing federal money to subsidize sex education,
because it requires “abstinence-only” programs
that have been shown to be frequently medically
inaccurate as well as ineffective in reducing
rates of teen pregnancy and STDs. Maine pulled
out of the federal grant because new requirements
pressured them to say sex outside of marriage,
or in marriage before economic self-sufficiency,
state legislators aren’t actually talking about giving themselves
a pay raise, they are talking about how best to do so
the season for giving, but questions remain about who, if
anyone, will receive taxpayer-funded goodies from New York’s
you look at the basic costs that some of us incur, then you
get a sense why it’s certainly appropriate to talk about a
pay raise,” said Sen. Ruth Hassell-Thompson (D-Mount Vernon)
in a recent interview with Gannett News Service.
It’s no secret that state legislators have often used the
time between an election and the holiday season to initiate
quiet discussion of pay raises, hoping that voters are too
preoccupied with their own holiday plans and too tired from
a long campaign season to complain. Nevertheless, legislators
and government watchdogs agree that if such talks were going
to happen during the current term, they probably would have
begun last year in order to put as much time as possible between
the pay-raise decision and the next election.
But that doesn’t mean that people aren’t talking about pay
raises. There’s been quite a bit of talk lately about how
the pay-raise system operates.
you’re going to do something, do it openly and honestly and
without any games,” said Senate Minority Leader David Paterson
(D-Manhattan) while discussing his recent proposal to create
an independent commission responsible for legislators’ salaries.
Currently, the state constitution allows the Legislature to
approve a salary increase only for the following term. However,
the state’s high rate of reelection tends to ensure that the
people who voted for the raise also receive it. New York’s
Legislature last voted to give itself a raise in December
1998, increasing members’ annual pay from $57,500 to $79,500—a
salary that, seven years later, remains quite a bit higher
than the state’s $44,600 median household income.
But even that may be a bit misleading, as most of New York’s
lawmakers also receive “lulus”—extra payments for holding
“leadership” positions—that can add thousands of dollars to
their yearly earnings. These lulus are often used as rewards
for loyalty, and in many cases require nothing more than occasional
meeting attendance. Even without the lulus, however, New York’s
Legislature is the fourth highest-paid in the nation, after
California, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
According to Paterson, the only surefire way to tackle rumors
and public outcries over pay raises is to take salary power
out of the hands of the people who have the most to gain.
By putting that power into the hands of a commission that
includes representatives of the governor, good- government
groups and the Legislature itself, a decision to boost lawmakers’
salaries would not only have a broader range of perspectives
behind it, but also might not create as much ill-will, argued
Another proposal is for legislators to receive smaller, automatic
yearly cost-of-living increases in their salaries rather than
the sporadic, large-scale raises that have become the norm.
Congress, as well as many other state legislatures, uses such
could mirror what the typical state employees receive,” said
Assemblyman Robert Reilly (D-Colonie). According to Reilly,
who lives off his state pension and donates his legislator’s
paycheck to charity, the elimination of lulus—which every
one of the state’s senators and almost every assembly member
currently receive—could also help.
all, participation in committees is part of the job,” he pointed
out. “Extra compensation shouldn’t be forthcoming, because
it’s what we’re supposed to do.”
Yet, lawmakers might have to consider more than their own
pockets if they do begin pay-raise talks, since the state’s
judges have been demanding a salary boost too. Representatives
of the state’s court system, which is the longest to go without
a raise in the nation, have been calling for their first raise
since 1999—and have submitted a proposal under which even
the lowest-level full-time judge would earn more than $140,000.
Traditionally, lawmakers have linked pay raises for many of
the different branches of government in order to prevent public
ire from focusing on a single branch. Critics have contended
that such a system of linking legislators’ salaries to judges’
salaries could erode governmental checks and balances, encouraging
the courts to reject private citizens’ lawsuits against legislatures
in return for pay-raise approval.
The greatest obstacle to a salary increase might be constituents’
memories, however. After Pennsylvania’s lawmakers voted to
give themselves and the state’s judges a hefty raise in the
dead of night last July, voters expressed their anger by ousting
one of those judges last month. Six days after the election,
the state’s Legislature repealed the salary legislation.
Whether New York’s lawmakers will attempt to do the same remains
to be seen. “The earliest anything like that would be taken
up here is next year,” said Sen. Neil Breslin (D-Albany),
who added that his own proximity to the Capitol (and subsequent
lack of commuting or hotel expenses) puts him in a unique
position when it comes to salary issues. “I don’t really have
much use for a pay raise, even if we were talking about it,”
we’re not,” he added.
Hard-Knock Victorian Life
theater brings some balance to annual Troy stroll
annual Victorian Stroll has always been noted for its participants’
willingness to parade through the streets in fancy dresses,
hats and suits in the style of their Victorian-era counterparts.
The event is often portrayed as a fun trip back through time,
full of petticoats and bonnets, coattails and top hats. Thanks
to a group of local artists and activists, however, this year’s
stroll included a sense of realism that the event’s organizers
never intended—but only if you were in on the joke.
was laid off when I burned my hand on the job,” said a man
on one street corner who called himself Michael Breen.
Dressed in a tattered jacket and using one arm to steady a
wheelbarrow containing two children bundled in old blankets,
he shifted from one foot to the other with faux nervousness
as the stroll’s attendees wandered past. When one couple dressed
like Victorian aristocracy approached, Breen peered down at
the pavement and stepped aside to let them by. The well-dressed
man tipped the brim of his top hat as he passed.
couldn’t work the 15-hour day no more, so now I can’t put
food on the table,” Breen added, shaking his head.
Nearby, another man whose face was smeared with soot (or something
resembling soot), asked a passing couple if they had heard
about the plight of the local working class. They hadn’t,
so he pressed a pamphlet into their hands.
a right disgrace,” he muttered in a bad cockney accent.
While few of the local artists, students and activists participating
in this counter-stroll were particularly forthcoming—or even
in agreement with each other—about its specific goals, the
one general theme touched on by most of the men and women
clad in ragged pants, faded shirts, dirty dresses and smudged
bonnets was that the event was meant to raise awareness about
the dirtier, exploited side of Troy’s Victorian-era culture
that is often left out of the visitors’ guides. The group,
which called itself the “United Victorian Workers, Local 518”
and was organized by a Troy-based collective of artists and
activists, wandered among the annual stroll’s thousands of
attendees, passing out fliers and sounding like aspiring members
of an Oliver Twist performance. Several camera-wielding
assistants chronicled the live-action art project and history
rise up! Unite!” shouted a shabby-dressed young man in suspenders
and knickers at event attendees surveying the decorated storefronts.
When the Aquaduck tourist shuttle drove by, a chant of “Rise
up, Aquaducks!” could be heard.
The group members’ reluctance to identify themselves or their
mission did lead many stroll participants to assume they were
either a marketing ploy or just another government-approved
part of the show. In at least one case, passersby seemed to
believe that one of the UVW members was actually homeless
and begging for change.
looking for the name of the store they’re advertising,” said
one perplexed attendee as she examined the UVW flier that
had been pressed into her brightly colored ski gloves. “I
wonder who hired them.”
Shrugging her shoulders, she dropped the flier in a trash
can a moment later.
For some of the stroll’s participants, the UVW simply provided
another opportunity to get into character. After listening
to a young girl in a tattered black dress say that she had
lost her fingers in a factory accident, a couple dressed in
Victorian finery seemed to have no trouble falling into the
roles expected of them.
do sympathize with the young girl who lost her fingers,” said
a woman who identified herself as “Bessie Jones.”
darling,” laughed her partner, “Tudyr Jones,” tipping up his
top hat with the handle of his cane. “But really, she does
have eight more, doesn’t she?”
Something bad happened there.”
—CDTA Route 18 bus, in the midst of a discussion
of haunted houses.
Nader, at a press conference Tuesday supporting
Alice Green, in response to a question about how
Green could convince Mayor Jerry Jennings to participate
in a debate.
the Dec. 1 Albany Common Council General Services
Committee session, Dominick Calsolaro’s resolution
to donate land in the Pine Bush to the
Pine Bush preserve was sent to the law committee
[“Land Trust,” Newsfront, Nov. 24, 2005]. The Jennings
administration refused the request of the committee
to have General Services Commissioner Bill Bruce
and a city lawyer answer questions about the city’s
commitment to donate land to the Pine Bush Preserve.
Council members Michael Brown, Glen Casey and Sandra
Fox voted to close the meeting to the public, thereby
preventing 40 people gathered from speaking during
a planned public-comment period. Brown then stormed
out and was harangued by the crowd as he went. Calsolaro
insisted the committee was violating the state’s
open-meetings law by closing the meeting. After
Brown left, the remaining committee members changed
their minds, reopened the meeting, and allowed the
comment period. . . . The proposal to reorganize
the Albany County Crime Victims and Sexual Violence
Center by moving its therapists to the Mental
Health Department and its caseworkers to the district
attorney’s office [“Crisis Center Shuffle,” Newsfront,
Sept. 29] was voted down and removed from the county
budget by the county legislature at its Dec. 5 meeting.
. . . We spoke too soon when we reported [“Loose
Ends,” Dec. 1] that Roumen Dimitrov [“Go
Unpublished or Perish,” Nov. 13, 2003] had left
his troubles with academia behind him. In a follow-up
e-mail message, his wife reported that he may soon
lose his job at the University of Sofia for failure
to publish a sufficient number of papers. . . .
William Bonanni, one of the two Albany police
officers involved in the shooting that resulted
in the death of bystander David Scaringe on New
Year’s Eve 2003 [“Death and Disbelief,” Newsfront,
Jan. 8, 2004], has returned to work with the Albany
Police Department and will soon return to active
patrol duty, reports the Times Union. He
will be assigned to North Station. Officer Joseph
Gerace, who has not pushed for a reinstatement as
Bonanni did, remains on leave.