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This is no highway: Councilwoman Shawn Morris at the vacant lot on Holland Avenue, with the VA Hospital in the background.

photo:Alicia Solsman

A Little Highway in the City

Albany residents oppose plan to rezone a lot on Holland Avenue as highway commercial

A 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.”

They 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Lynch, saying that highway commercial would be inappropriate and detrimental, and suggesting that the application be withdrawn.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).

“It’s 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.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

maxel-lute@metroland.net


What a Week

We 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, was unacceptable.




Touchy Subject

If state legislators aren’t actually talking about giving themselves a pay raise, they are talking about how best to do so

 

’Tis the season for giving, but questions remain about who, if anyone, will receive taxpayer-funded goodies from New York’s lawmakers.

“When 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.

“If 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 Paterson.

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 a system.

“It 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.

“After 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,” he said.

“Which we’re not,” he added.

—Rick Marshall

rmarshall@metroland.net

A Hard-Knock Victorian Life

Street theater brings some balance to annual Troy stroll

Troy’s 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.

“I 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.

“I 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.

“It’s 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 lesson.

“Workers, 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.

“I’m 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.

“I do sympathize with the young girl who lost her fingers,” said a woman who identified herself as “Bessie Jones.”

“Certainly, 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?”

—Rick Marshall

rmarshall@metroland.net


Overheard

Overheard:

“Delaware Avenue’s haunted.”

“Delaware Avenue?”

“Yeah. Something bad happened there.”

—CDTA Route 18 bus, in the midst of a discussion of haunted houses.

 

Overheard:“Question his manhood.”

—Ralph 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.



Loose Ends
At 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.


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