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Got it covered: Keith McDonald’s job is to know Albany housing

PHOTO: Joe Putrock

Hidden City

Albany’s most vulnerable neighborhoods share a rich history—and the potential for a brighter future

By Darryl McGrath


Keith 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.

“I 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.”

“What 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.

“Without a doubt, I would like to see much more renovation going on,” McDonald says.

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 have walked.

“Most 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.

“There’s 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.

Building up a neighborhood: Habitat for Humanity houses complement Emmet Street.

PHOTO:Joe Putrock

Capital 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.

“We 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.

“They’ll 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 potential.

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.

“It 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.

As with the Housing Authority’s Victorian Style buildings, these homes are built to last.

“They 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 in Albany.

“It’s 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 the hill.

“This is a very historic neighborhood, and then you see house after house—two, three, four in a row—abandoned, and it’s sad,” McDonald says.

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.

Change 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 and strife.

“There’s 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.”

“People 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 or rescue.

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 house.

“I 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 neighborhoods.

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 cost.

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.

“All 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.

“We 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.

“It’s 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.”

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