it covered: Keith McDonald’s job is to know Albany housing
most vulnerable neighborhoods share a rich history—and the
potential for a brighter future
McDonald got into his car one day in late October and set
out on a street-by-street motor tour of the city. Driving
around Albany and seeing what’s out there is a regular part
of McDonald’s job as Albany’s commissioner of assessment and
taxation, but this time he was on a specific mission to get
a mental snapshot of the city’s buildings.
One week and 250 miles of city roads later, McDonald had seen
it all—the good, the bad and the unchanged. Now, his impressions
of the city’s building stock will become one of the tools
the city uses as Albany gears up for next year’s reassessment.
A visual impression of what’s up, down, under construction,
burned, abandoned and brand-new among the city’s residential
and commercial buildings isn’t a scientific measurement, nor
is it used to value individual buildings. But McDonald considers
such an overview an essential preparation for what will be
the city’s first reassessment since 2003.
drove every street in the city,” McDonald says, heading into
Albany’s South End one recent afternoon as he retraces part
of his tour. “And the real reason for doing it is, while we
have data for each building, and we use computer software,
the computer doesn’t recognize a vacant building.”
I also see while I’m out here is, is anyone building?” he
adds. “You get a feel for how neighborhoods are evolving.”
McDonald’s quick take on his tour: There are many more new
buildings than he expected this time around, but far fewer
renovations than he had hoped to see.
Some buildings have beaten the odds and returned to habitable
condition, while an estimated 900 others languish on the list
of the abandoned, some of them now irretrievable. That’s about
200 more abandoned buildings than the city had in 2003, McDonald
says. Yet in the same period, market values of homes in some
parts of the city have increased by more than 100 percent.
a doubt, I would like to see much more renovation going on,”
Albany has approximately 30,600 parcels of property. Some
5,000 of those are commercial, and about 3,000 are vacant
lots. The remaining 22,600 parcels contain residential buildings,
and it is most commonly residential buildings whose owners
of them are on the tax rolls, but for such a small amount,”
McDonald says of the abandoned buildings. “What we’re trying
to do is put a value on them that’s an incentive for restoration.”
Some of these forgotten properties will probably be assessed
in the range of $7,000 to $10,000, he says.
But overall, McDonald is optimistic about what he sees, especially
the buildings going up on vacant lots on several urban “interior”
streets in Arbor Hill and North Albany, areas that haven’t
seen significant new-home construction in close to a century.
just some beautiful, beautiful areas in the city—there really
are,” McDonald says.
Groups and individuals all over Albany who see every day what
McDonald has just seen in condensed form in one week are wrestling
with some of the same questions. What does it take to bring
an abandoned building back to life, or to fill a vacant lot
with a new home? Why do some areas foster this kind of growth,
while others struggle to sustain it?
There is no one answer, but conversations with people behind
some of the standouts on McDonald’s tour indicate that there
are a number of approaches to improving the building stock
of a neighborhood in Albany, and many of them are working.
Affordable housing is plagued by the persistent image of the
con- crete tower tenement that sprouted in the worst neighborhoods
of the worst cities all over the country in the mid-20th century.
That image persists, despite the fact that urban designers
have been moving away from it for much of the past 20 years
and moving toward buildings that match the architectural style
of the neighborhood.
up a neighborhood: Habitat for Humanity houses complement
District Habitat for Humanity and the Albany Housing Authority
are responsible for most of the new construction in Arbor
Hill and North Albany since the 2003 assessment, and both
agencies favor the contemporary take on affordable housing
that fits in with the neighbors’ homes.
The Housing Authority is well under way with a plan in Arbor
Hill to put up 40 buildings around Lark Street between First
and Third streets that will include rental housing, commercial
space and owner-occupied homes. The Victorian Stick Style
homes that have already been completed faithfully reproduce
the period details, down to the octagonal side windows. Given
proper care, these could be the city’s next crop of historic
homes, McDonald says.
A group of residents and business owners weighed in on the
designs, and the Housing Authority teamed up with the Capital
Region firms of Harris A. Sanders, Architects, and Northstar
Development, to bring the plan to fruition.
had to overcome a lot of baggage that public housing has had
to overcome for decades—poor construction, bad design,” says
Darren Scott, community revitalization coordinator at the
Housing Authority. “Now we’re going to take the lessons we
learned and use them in the South End.”
The Housing Authority plans to break ground in the spring
on the South End’s Broad Street, between Third and Fourth
avenues, to build new homes that will match the mid-19th-century
style of the city’s oldest and most historic neighborhood.
The Housing Authority is partnering with Albany’s Omni Development
on this plan.
blend in, they’ll be dignified, they’ll be done extremely
well,” Scott says of the prospective South End homes.
The city and Albany County gave Capital District Habitat for
Humanity 40 vacant lots in North Albany. Habitat had to combine
some of the lots because they were so narrow they didn’t meet
current building code, but the gift was still a win-win, says
Steve Haggerty, Habitat’s executive director. The city gets
vacant property back on the tax rolls, and old neighborhoods
get rid of the blank spaces on their streetscapes.
Like the Albany Housing Authority, Habitat sees the South
End as ripe territory for future developments. Haggerty just
discovered that Habitat owns a forgotten parcel of about a
half-dozen lots on the South End’s Odell Street that has development
In North Albany, Habitat has built 13 solid-looking two-story
homes with front porches and other homey touches on Emmet
Street, Broadway and North Pearl Street, using the donated
land. The houses are selling for $60,000 to $70,000.
looks a lot better; it actually upgrades the street,” says
Geraldine Gardy, an Emmet Street resident for 20 years whose
house is now next to a Habitat home.
with the Housing Authority’s Victorian Style buildings, these
homes are built to last.
are very hardy houses, and they’re very energy efficient,”
says Richard Stone, Habitat’s construction manager for the
houses around Emmet Street. “One hundred years from now, they
should be very nice.”
Carolyn McLaughlin has days when she believes that the South
End is on the brink of exciting change, and days when she
wonders how this worn end of the city will ever get its fair
share of attention amid so many competing redevelopment efforts
a community that needs some tender loving care, and some attention,”
says McLaughlin, who grew up in the South End and has represented
it on Albany’s Common Council since 1997. “We’ve been trying
to give it that for nine years. There are pockets that are
very rich and very historic, and then there are areas that
have suffered since the 1960s from benign neglect. It makes
you want to cry.”
Sitting in his car at the juncture of Teunis Street and Third
Avenue, McDonald has much the same take as he gazes at a three-block
area with a half-dozen lovingly restored homes in pristine
condition in one direction, and two blocks of almost entirely
abandoned buildings in another, punctuated by a blank space
marking two recent demolitions. Although Albany spent millions
of dollars and several years improving South Pearl Street,
the spillover effects have not worked their way this far up
is a very historic neighborhood, and then you see house after
house—two, three, four in a row—abandoned, and it’s sad,”
McLaughlin is chair of the South End Action Committee, a neighborhood
revitalization committee appointed by Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings.
The committee and the city are planning a two-day forum in
mid-December, open to the community, in which residents and
business owners will assign priorities to a number of economic
development ideas. McLaughlin is excited about the prospects
for this meeting, which she believes will demonstrate the
level of interest in the future of the South End among people
actually living there.
cannot come quickly enough for a section of the city that
sometimes feels forgotten, McLaughlin says, and always feels
like it has to struggle against a distorted image of crime
a number of things that are happening,” McLaughlin says. “I
remain an optimist, and I’ve had to be, because I learned
very early that things don’t happen quickly.”
have not given up on the community,” she adds. “The buildings
are not a reflection of the people. The people who live there—they
have the true reflection of the community.”
When asked why Albany has seen so little rehabilitation of
its rich stock of historic buildings in recent years, McDonald
says it’s a combination of factors.
The cost of materials and labor has risen dramatically. At
the same time, low interest rates brought people into the
real-estate investment market who had an unrealistic idea
of the time and effort required to rehabilitate an abandoned
building. So as Albany gears up for the 2007 reassessment,
hundreds of buildings continue to await either further deterioration
Erin Tobin, director of preservation services at the Historic
Albany Foundation, agrees with McDonald that people can overestimate
their budgets and their abilities when they tackle an abandoned
think that in renovation, there can be unknowns,” she says.
“And unknowns, when you’re working with a limited budget,
can be intimidating. And I think our location makes us especially
ripe for non-local investors looking at our county auction
list—especially considering real-estate prices downstate—and
think, ‘For $20,000, I can have this piece of property and
I can sit on it.’ ”
Tobin, who has a passion for the history and potential of
the South End, says the possibilities are endless for someone
with the know-how to tackle an abandoned building there. Historic
houses—sometimes, in admittedly desperate condition—can be
had for a fraction of what they would cost in other Albany
And because the South End always was a working-class neighborhood,
the houses are smaller and far easier to tackle than the grand
townhouses of the city’s central downtown neighborhoods, Tobin
notes. When the renovation doesn’t include restoration of
the original ceiling medallions and replacement of the 18-foot
pier glass in the ballroom, it makes quite a difference in
Many of the South End houses are also wood-frame clapboard,
and wood can be more forgiving of neglect than brick because
it sags and bends but does not break like brick, says Tim
Spickerman, who speaks from experience.
Spickerman and his real-estate partner, Mark Williams, did
a number of total renovations in the South End in the 1980s
and 1990s; the two now run a property management firm that
handles several of those buildings as rental units.
these buildings here could be saved,” Spickerman says, surveying
a stretch of Teunis Street where most of the houses have boarded-up
windows, crumbling foundations and visible signs of decay.
“It depends on how much you want to put into it.”
On the other side of the street is a cluster of 19th-century
houses that Williams and Spickerman renovated 15 and 20 years
ago. One of them was in such bad shape they could save only
the façade, but in another, they preserved the original wood
floors and hand-pegged joints.
like the South End. Even today, anyone who has a minimum-wage
job and good credit can own their own home in the South End,
“ Williams says.
And he would give this advice to anyone planning to renovate
an old home in Albany, in the South End or elsewhere: Be patient.
Work with the neighborhood, and work to make it better. Take
the long view.
an investment,” Williams says of the properties he and his
partner renovated nearly 20 years ago. “It still is, in the
long haul, and real estate should be in the long haul.”