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Clashing Visions

A proposed city ordinance to prevent historic buildings in Saratoga Springs from suffering “demolition by neglect” is slammed by one of the developers who inspired it

 

On Broadway, the front of the former Rip Van Dam Hotel is a fully restored, prime example of Saratoga Springs’ Victorian legacy. Around the corner, however, the buildings on Washington Street tell a different story; historic elegance survives next to 20th- and 21st- century deterioration. The 40,000-square-foot back potion of the 167-year-old Rip Van Dam is separated from the front by a firewall, but it might as well be in a different plane of existence. Its balconies stripped off, the massive back section is visibly abandoned. Next to this, however, is a solid 19th-century stone house, still vital and in use, and the soon-to-be-completed renovation of the former Universal Baptist Church.

To Carrie Woerner of the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation, this is a cohesive row of buildings, an example of what she described in a phone interview as “the historic fabric of our city.” To Bruce Levinsky of Merlin Development, this is an example of one structurally unsafe, economically unviable wreck that needs to be cleared away.

In this case, the preservationists’ vision lost. The remaining back building of the former Rip Van Dam hotel will be demolished this month. Part of a wall collapsed into the adjoining Adelphi Hotel courtyard last year, sealing its fate, but the battle over the preservation—or destruction—of the structure played out over seven years, since developer Bruce Levinsky first proposed demolition. (And was turned down.)

Woerner contended, in a March 31 article in The Saratogian, that “in the hands of a different owner, a different outcome would have been possible.” And so, the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation has proposed an ordinance that it hopes the city council will adopt—an ordinance that would prevent what Woerner characterized as “demolition by neglect.”

This would be, Woerner explained, “an enforcement tool [that would] enable the city codes officers to intervene earlier” than New York state law currently permits. After an owner was cited by the city for a code violation, the ordinance would set a specific time period in which the violation would have to be fixed—and if the problem was not addressed, the city would have to take the owner to court. And the owner could be legally required to address the violation.

Developer Levinsky rejects the very concept the ordinance is based on. “There has been no ‘demolition by neglect.’ ” He is also direct when asked about this proposal. “I am strongly opposed to the legislation.” As he sees it, this is about preservationists attempting to “superimpose control over how [property] owners spend their money.”

It would be “confiscatory of property rights,” Levinsky said. “Their methodology has been completely prejudicial.”

It’s the central conflict of historic preservation—property rights versus a view of the public good.

So far, the preservationists’ proposal doesn’t have a backer; Woerner said it is “under discussion,” presumably with one or more council members. As for the Washington Street side of the Rip Van Dam, Levinsky said it will come down as soon as all the official approvals are in place.

—Shawn Stone


What a Week

Say “Uncle”

After 226 days in prison, California video blogger Joshua Wolf was released from prison Tuesday (April 3). Wolf, 24, was imprisoned last year for refusing to comply with a federal subpoena demanding that he turn over footage he shot of a G-8 Summit protest in San Francisco. Authorities wanted the video to determine if Wolf filmed the assault of a police officer or the destruction of a police car. On Tuesday, Wolf complied by posting the full video online, showing neither crime being committed.

Speaking With the Enemy

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) visited Syria this week amid objections from the White House that such a trip sends mixed messages to a country that the United States considers a sponsor of terrorism. Pelosi, who is the highest-ranking U.S. politician to meet with the Syrian president in 12 years, shrugged off the criticism and noted that a similar visit by her Republican colleagues elicited no such response from the White House. Pelosi did stand by the claim that Syria supports terrorist organizations, however.

Another Kind of Blow

There is a joke people make about Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, his level of drug and booze intake and the idea that perhaps one day his ashes will become the hottest designer drug out there. In a recent interview with New Music Express, Richards indicated that he had already looked into the potential of human ashes as a cocaine substitute. In speaking about his dead father, Richards told NME, “He was cremated, and I couldn’t resist grinding him up with a bit of blow. My dad wouldn’t have cared.” Richards’ spokesperson later claimed it was just a joke.

Let He Who Is Without Sin . . .

ABC News reported this week that a Pakistani tribal militant group called Jundullah that has conducted raids against Iranian military targets has been secretly advised by American officials since 2005. Jundullah has videotaped the executions of Iranian intelligence agents captured during their raids. The United States reportedly does not provide Jundullah with funding. However, according to sources for ABC News, Jundullah’s mission was a topic of discussion during a recent meeting between Vice President Dick Cheney and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.



Needs More Review

Councilman Corey Ellis assembles a task force to review Albany’s Citizens’ Police Review Board

“If they cannot believe a person who has ‘honorable’ in front of their first name, how can a regular person file a complaint against an officer and have the board rule in their favor?” That is what Common Councilman Corey Ellis (Ward 3) wanted to know after his experience with Albany’s Citizens’ Police Review Board. As a result of his experience and the stories he hears from his constituents about their disappointment with the board, Ellis recently decided to convene a task force to look at the CPRB, its six-year history and changes that could help improve the board’s functionality and the way it is perceived by the public.

Ellis charged that the officers who pulled him over during a traffic stop in November 2004 were motivated by the fact that he was a young African-American male driving a Lexus. But on March 14 of this year, the CPRB accepted a report by Albany Police Chief James Tuffey that attributed the incident to a breakdown of procedure. Ellis’ charge that one officer treated him poorly was labeled by the board as “unsustained.”

“That ruling left me with a hole,” said Ellis, “but this is not about me, because I know the board’s rulings have left a lot people with holes. I hear about it all the time.”

In late March, Ellis began assembling community members he felt had experience with the CPRB and who would be able to understand its inner workings and eventually make recommendations to improve the board. “The task force is something that needed to be put together so I could ask other folks who have been there, ‘Is what I’ve been through normal?’ And, ‘Are the flaws in the board that I see—am I correct in seeing this?’ That’s why I put it together, so they could say, ‘Corey, you are off-base!’ or ‘You are on-base.’ ”

Ellis is still looking for more members for the task force, which currently includes Councilwoman Barbara Smith (Ward 4); Melanie Trimble, executive director of the Capital Region New York Civil Liberties Union; Alice Green, executive director of the Center for Law and Justice; Ron Quartimon, director of the Arbor Hill Community Center; and attorney Mark Mishler.

“The people I brought together for the task force are people who have been to the board numerous times, not just once,” said Ellis. “They are people who have continually heard case after case and heard the holes and flaws. They will work on recommendations that would allow the board to do a more diligent process of investigation.”

During a meeting on Tuesday (April 3), Mishler discussed a stipulation in CPRB code that would allow the mayor to ask the CPRB to call off an investigation if the city faces a lawsuit in connection to the investigation. Ellis brought up the possibility of giving officers who have cases brought before the CPRB numbers so that it would be possible to identify a pattern of misbehavior if certain officers were repeatedly involved in incidents brought before the board. Ellis noted that these are just areas to focus on and he hopes they will be fleshed out as the task force continues and adds to its membership.

On the immediate horizon for Ellis and other members of the task force is Local Law A, a law pending before the Common Council’s Public Safety Committee that would define who is eligible to bring a complaint before the review board as either someone directly affected by an event involving an APD member or someone who witnessed an incident. The law also would allow the police chief, at his discretion, to reject complaints by witnesses. Ellis said that he feels the measure is a move backward for the board, which already lacks credibility. Ellis hopes to see a large turnout of community members at the Public Safety Committee meeting of the Common Council on April 11. The meeting will take place after the regular council caucus at 5:30 PM.

“I see this as a quality-of-life issue,” said Ellis. “The chief talks about quality-of-life issues and building relations with the community. Well, this impacts the police department. It affects whether they will be looked on favorably.”

For Ellis, one thing over all else tells him that Albany’s CPRB needs reviewing. “In six years, the board has never ruled in anyone’s favor. If I’m a regular citizen, I see we’ve had this many complaints, and you mean to tell me the police department is the only employer in the nation where the employees never make a mistake? One-hundred percent of the claims have been unsustained. I’m not saying every complaint is valid, but out of 100 complaints you’d think you might find two or three incidents where the officer was wrong. That’s just the law of averages of employees behaving badly at their jobs.”

—David King

dking@metroland.net


Fashion Police

In an effort to curb statewide gang violence in schools, legislators want to impose a dress code

“I don’t condone profiling,” said John Fleming, president of New York’s Detective Investigators Association, “but schools have become a target for gangs, and this legislation provides a comprehensive approach to dealing with this organized crime.” On March 22, assemblymen Jose Peralta (D-Jackson Heights) and Peter Rivera (D-Bronx), joined by supporters, gathered outside the New York City Department of Education to demand tougher legislation on gang activities in and around New York state schools.

The laws proposed by Peralta and Rivera, who is the chair of the New York State Assembly Puerto Rican/Hispanic Task Force, work in part by authorizing school districts to impose uniforms on students, in the hopes that this will lead to less gang-related violence by eradicating gang colors and symbols.

However, some are disturbed by the potential for abuse that the laws could bring.

“This raises a lot of First Amendment issues, like defining what a gang is, or singling people out based on the way they look,” said Alice Green, executive director of the Center for Law and Justice. “The bills don’t focus on any particular criminal behavior. If there is proven criminal activity then the police should be able to deal with that—but to label any association with or activity by a gang as negative is too vague.”

“We’re not asking schools to eliminate gang apparel directly,” said Guillermo Martinez, Rivera’s legislative director. “The way to deal with it is to get rid of class and group distinctions across the board and focus children on education, not on being part of a clique.”

Having students citywide wear the same uniforms, he said, would eliminate the risk of “turf wars” between kids from different schools.

Jessica Avurdin, Peralta’s legislative director, agreed, but added that uniforms can only go so far in reducing violence within schools, since gang activities taking place outside and around schools also affect children.

The laws, she said, deal with this by attaching an additional sentence of two to five years in jail for anyone convicted of a felony as part of a gang activity; 10 years for a violent or class A felony. Another proposed bill adds a $1,000 fine for gang membership and allows for “the abatement of property where gang activities take place.”

“If you run a gang out of a penthouse, or apartment, the police would be able to take it and use 75 percent of the profit for anti-gang programs in schools,” stated Martinez.

Green is concerned that the legislation aims to oversimplify a complex issue. “The justice system always tries to come up with a quick fix rather than getting at the root of the problem. Why do kids join gangs in the first place? The existence of gangs says more about our society than the individual gang member. These kids are looking for what every person wants—support and to be able to feel part of a family unit.”

“If there’s a gang problem in a school, putting kids in uniforms wouldn’t solve it,” she added, “and enhanced penalties on young people are not the answer. We need to focus on prevention at the family level.”

The solution, Green said, is to “look at what’s causing the problem, then structure our policies and programs to address that. We are incarcerating a whole generation of people because we have failed them.”

“Police can’t stop someone based on their race or how they look—you need probable cause for that,” said Fleming. “The proposed legislation provides law enforcers with the needed tools to investigate and arrest gang recruiters that grab children when they’re going to school, when they leave and at lunchtime.”

Noting that New York is one of the few states without laws that help police address gang activities in schools, Martinez added, “New York has not taken this problem seriously enough.”

“There is a lack of leadership on this issue because people who live outside the communities that are affected are well-off and just fine with the status quo,” he said. “They fail to see that these people need help.”

—Jeannielle Ramirez


Left for Ruin

Years of neglect finally bring an abandoned Albany building down

If an abandoned building in Al bany is ever going to collapse, it’s probably going to happen in the spring. The repeated cycles of freezing and thawing loosen the joints and pop the fastenings. The floors collapse and then the walls buckle under the staggering weight of water-soaked wood.

So it was last week for 130 Dove St. in Albany’s Hudson/Park Neighborhood, when neighbors heard a crash inside the vacant house. The wood-frame, two-story building with the beautiful cornice, which may have been built before the Civil War, had been part of a memorable legal battle between the city and its former owner. The house had also become the object of a more personal dispute between the city and a neighboring homeowner [“The Wreck Next Door,” Oct. 14, 2004].

The controversy surrounding the house came to an end March 29, when the second floor dropped free of its supports and the rear addition began to list. Neighbors alerted the Albany Fire Department, and the city ordered the demolition of the house that night, deeming it too dangerous to leave even until morning.

“We lost an asset,” said Terrence Gorman, an assistant corporation counsel who has handled the city’s case against the building’s former owner, Dominick Cubello. But the deciding factor in a demolition is always the protection of lives, Gorman said.

Wesley Vroman, the owner of the attached 132 Dove St., had been pushing for the demolition for a decade. Among Vroman’s complaints about 130 Dove include foul odors from feral cats, unsanitary conditions and a thriving population of mice, not to mention the house’s reputation as the neighborhood eyesore.

“I am so happy,” Vroman said after the demolition. “I can breathe in my house now. No more mice. They ate right through my main beam.”

Cubello, who has served two jail terms for code violations in Albany, sold 130 Dove St. for $35,000 two years ago to Sebastyan Kopolovich of Nanuet, in Rockland County. Soon after, Kopolovich began clearing out debris, and then abruptly stopped working on the house. Neighbors concluded that he, too, had walked.

Susan Holland, executive director of the Historic Albany Foundation, responded to a call from city officials in time to see that the rear addition was listing. She still wonders if the building was beyond repair.

“Anything can change with the right amount of attention and the right amount of owner investment,” Holland said, clearly agonizing over the loss of one of the older houses in that part of the Hudson/Park neighborhood. “It’s a hard call.” Hanging over everyone’s head, she added, is the haunting fear that someone could get injured or killed even if a building is stabilized.

The city is trying a number of incentives to encourage renovation of abandoned buildings and to keep others from joining the list of approximately 900 vacant structures, Gorman noted. The story of 130 Dove St. highlights the need for such programs, he said. Five years ago, the building could have been saved. Maybe even two years ago. But once the roof fails, a vacant building is usually doomed.

“At a certain point, we’ve got to say, ‘That’s it,’ ” Gorman said. “It’s too bad.”

—Darryl McGrath


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