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Keeping up a facade: Madison Place buildings shortly after the Aug. 21 fire.

photo:John Whipple

Since the Blaze

Owners of the two less-damaged buildings in last year’s Albany’s Madison Place fire prepare to move back in, as other questions linger

If all goes as planned tomorrow (Friday, Jan. 20), Pat Green and her husband, Michael Schwartz, will be back in their home at 6 Madison Place, almost five months after a suspected arson fire gutted two buildings on the historic block in Albany’s Mansion Neighborhood and heavily damaged two others.

“There will be lights on this weekend, I hope—if we have hot water,” said Green, who has acted as the general contractor on the reconstruction of their home. The couple, who had bought the house 14 months before the fire, have been staying at an apartment in the Mansion Neighborhood.

The fire reduced numbers 4 and 5 Madison Place to shells. Most of the damage at numbers 6 and 3 was from smoke and water, not flames. Much of Green and Schwartz’s home at number 6 is still uninhabitable, and the couple could not let their two tenants move back. Still, Green said that she and her husband never questioned their decision to reclaim their home.

“You’re in shock and you don’t know how to deal with it,” Green said. “Some people retreat and say, ‘I can’t do anything.’ And some people pick up the pieces, and that’s what it’s been.”

Dick and Maura Moneymaker, owners and residents of number 3 since 1971, also plan to return.

“We’re hoping to get back in by April 1,” Dick Moneymaker said. “We’re hoping to put the house back together, and it’s a long road.”

A number of individuals and agencies have helped along the way, Moneymaker said. He cited the willingness of the city—and specifically Albany Mayor Gerald Jennings—to preserve the facades of numbers 4 and 5. (Several residents credit Mansion Neighborhood resident Colin McKnight for prevailing upon the mayor to intercede and prevent the demolition of the facades.)

The Mansion Neighborhood Association raised nearly $8,000 for the 11 people left homeless by the fire.

“To someone who was as new to the neighborhood as I was, I thought, ‘This is the kind of neighborhood I want to live in,’ ” recalled Dorian Solot, who moved to the Mansion Neighborhood two years ago and helped in the fund-raising and collection of clothing and furnishings for the fire victims.

The Moneymakers used the donation they received to buy essentials. The Historic Albany Foundation provided them with a free architectural consultant, who helped the couple prioritize the phases of the rebuilding.

Only the facades and fragments of the sidewalls and floors remain at numbers 4 and 5, and both shells have been closed off for the winter, said Russ Reeves, the Troy city engineer who has acted as a consulting structural engineer to the city of Albany on Madison Place.

David Wilson, the owner of number 5, hopes to sell the remains of the building. The facade and some of the floors survived, and Wilson said he has been told that the building can be reconstructed. The owners of the four condominiums in number 4 could not be reached, but Reeves said he has been in contact with some of them, and that the shell of that building also is likely to be sold for reconstruction.

Although the prevailing mood in the neighborhood is one of optimism about the block being rebuilt, concerns linger. A number of residents remain convinced that the water pressure failed in some of the hydrants during the all-out effort to fight the blaze, despite the adamant insistence by Albany fire officials that all hydrants were later tested and found to be working properly.

“We have very, very good eyewitnesses that the firefighters were yelling, ‘Pressure! Pressure!’ and there was a dribble,” said Holly Katz, who chairs the Mansion Neighborhood Association’s board of directors. “That does worry us if we have another fire.”

Albany Common Council member Dominick Calsolaro, whose 1st Ward includes Madison Place, said he asked the fire department about the water-pressure complaints and got verbal assurances that the hydrants worked properly. He acknowledged that questions remain.

“When you’ve got a multiple-alarm fire and you’ve got five to six hydrants going, the pressure does go down,” Calsolaro said. “I don’t think we’re ever going to find out for sure what the problem was.”

Building owners also learned the hard way that, yes, they are responsible for paying their property and school taxes on homes that either no longer exist, or have been uninhabitable for nearly six months. Keith McDonald, Albany commissioner of assessment and taxation, said that state law requires a tax bill to go out for any property that is on the tax rolls as of March 1. The protest period for assessments runs from May 1 through the fourth Tuesday of May, and the tax roll becomes final on July 1. The Madison Place fire occurred Aug. 21.

“The assessment role becomes final as of July 1 and nothing we can do changes that,” McDonald said.

Nationally, the statistics for solving arson cases suggest that this may be a long investigation. Of the 10 major crimes tracked by the U.S. Department of Justice in its annual Uniform Crime Statistics report, arson ranked 7th for the percent of total cases cleared by arrest, at 16.7 percent, according to the 2003 report, which contains the most complete figures available. (Murder and non-negligent manslaughter have the highest “clearance” percentage, at 62.4 percent.)

“It’s still an open case; leads are being followed,” said Deputy Chief Robert Forezzi Sr. of the Albany Fire Department. “I can’t discuss any of it.”

—Darryl McGrath


What a Week

Always Underinsured. Always.

Last week Maryland became the first state to require Wal-Mart to spend more on health care for employees. The bill, requiring any business that employs more than 10,000 to spend at least 8 percent of its payroll on employee health care, survived a veto by Maryland Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich. Wal-Mart is the only company in the state that falls under the requirement. Critics say the law illegally singles out a single company and will lead to a loss of jobs. Wal-Mart representatives have said they may partially pull out of the state.

Morals and Business Sense

The African division of Barclays Bank didn’t need a legislature to tell it the value of heath care. Faced with low morale and high turnover, absenteeism, and emergency health costs due to a high number of HIV-positive staff, the bank has instituted confidential HIV testing and free drug therapy for HIV-positive employees and up to three members of their family. The bank attributes its rising profits on the continent to this decision.

They’re baaack

Citing a need for a national movement that focuses on civil rights as well as antiwar activism, several newly formed chapters of the seminal ’60s group Students for a Democratic Society have decided to come together for a national conference this summer (the first since 1969) and relaunch a nationwide movement. Saying they’ve learned from the problems SDS’ first incarnation had with lack of connection to seasoned activists, the new SDS has sought out, who else, former SDS members to help it along its way.

Drop That Camera!

Indian documentary filmmaker Rakesh Sharma has filed a lawsuit against the city of New York claiming that he was improperly detained by the NYPD while he was filming a documentary in May 2005. His lawsuit also claims that New York’s film-permit system is unconstitutional. Sharma alleges he applied for a filming permit, which he was denied without being given any reason. “In a democracy, people have the right to document activity in public places without being arrested,” said Donna Lieberman, director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.



Moving the Dream Forward

The Albany PAL Show Stoppers Team performed on Monday (Jan. 16) at People Before Profits, the 8th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. and Labor Celebration at Albany’s Thomas O’Brien Academy of Science and Technology. The event also featured keynote speaker Clayola Brown, national vice president of UNITE/HERE and vice president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists.

 

photo:Joe Putrock

 


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
Albany County disabled people on Medicaid can rest easier this week. According to a letter sent to the nonprofit NYSARC by the state Department of Health on Jan. 9, the notifications the county had issued late last year saying it was prohibited to put SSD benefits into a special needs trust [“Breaking the Trust,” Jan. 5] violated federal policy. “Accordingly, the department has contacted Albany County and instructed it to follow federal policy,” reads the letter from Gregor N. Macmillan, the director of DOH’s Bureau of Medicaid Law. “We are advised that the County will contact any individuals adversely affected by their policy and will provide remediation.” Albany County DSS Commissioner Elizabeth Berlin wouldn’t say whether or not she had been contacted by the state, but confirmed that the policy was officially being withdrawn. “The department issued notices indicating that the notice of change letter that clients had received was being withdrawn and that there would be no change in their Medicaid benefits,” she said. Those notices, which were sent last week, state that the matter is still “under review” and therefore will not be acted upon. Indeed, the Supreme Court has agreed to review the Tenth Circuit Court ruling that Albany County was basing its policy on. . . . Three of the six men charged in the death of Matthew Carlo [“Hardcore Issues,” Jan. 12] have had their charges dropped. One of the men, Bruce St. Gellais, is leader of the area hardcore crew FSU and is credited with founding the local chapter. According to St. Gellais and fellow FSU member Shane Williams, they have been made scapegoats in the death, just as they say FSU has become a scapegoat for violence in the hardcore scene in general. They also note that onetime FSU member and Hudson Duster bouncer Lionel Bliss, who has pleaded guilty to negligent homicide charges in the Carlo death, has had his membership in FSU revoked. Williams and St. Gellais insist FSU is not involved in illegal activities and instead functions as an extended family and support system for members in various parts of the country. Said St. Gellais, “This is the fabric that binds us together.” . . . New York may lose $220 million of federal funding now that the Department of Justice has threatened to sue the state for noncompliance with the 2002 Help America Vote Act, which requires states to update their voting machines [“Speak Now or Forever Question Your Vote,” Newsfront, Jan. 12]. In a letter issued to state officials last week, DOJ assistant attorney general Wan J. Kim wrote, “it is clear that New York is not close to approaching full H.A.V.A. compliance and, in our view, is further behind in that regard than any other state in the country.” If the money is lost, New York will still be required to update its voting machines, but the cost of doing so will fall on the state or, more likely, the individual counties. . . . On Jan. 12, Gov. George Pataki named a new chairman of the State Liquor Authority and announced that he would dramatically increase funding for the agency’s investigative body. Edward Kelly, the former chairman of the SLA, departed amid reports of weak enforcement and gross violations of industry regulations by many wholesalers and manufacturers [“What If I Throw in a Few Drinks?” Newsfront, Nov. 17]. The investigation of the industry initiated last year by State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer remains in progress.


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