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Old meets new: A development plan in Niskayuna will transform the Ingersoll Residence.

PHOTO: Chris Shields

History in the Marring?

Preservationsists go to court to save historic property and put the brakes on a Niskayuna strip-mall project

In two years, the town of Niskayuna will celebrate the bicentennial anniversary of its founding. Some local preservationists, however, question whether there’ll be much history left to celebrate after town officials gave the thumbs-up for a project that will radically alter one of the town’s most historic plots.

“What are you going to have to show for [the 200 years of history]?” asked John Wolcott, one of several people involved in fighting the commercial-development project that’s planned for the State Street and Balltown Road area.

The plan put forward by Highbridge Development of Schenectady would surround the historic Stanford Home (which today is an adult-care facility called Ingersoll Residence) with retail, restaurants and parking spaces while clear-cutting and paving the bordering trees and open space. As for the home, it would be partially deconstructed and converted into a restaurant, an idea that makes some preservationists, such as Linda Champagne, cringe.

Champagne, president of the Friends of Stanford Home and former Niskayuna town historian, has been a major player in the fight to protect the Stanford building and its surrounding scenery. Having come away with few results from their efforts at the town level, on Friday she was among several petitioners who argued the matter in the state Supreme Court.

The crux of the legal challenge, Champagne explained, is the town board’s decision not to require a full environmental-impact statement for the commercial-development project, called Stanford Crossings.

“A place of this significance, historically and environmentally, deserves the same thorough treatment that an environmental-impact statement would provide,” Champagne said. “We have never picked out something so significant, and smaller places have had a full environmental-impact statement. So why did we rush this?”

In March, the town board voted 3-2 that the Stanford Crossings did not have significant environmental impacts and therefore did not require a full EIS, a process that can take about a year. The decision came despite a conflicting recommendation from the town’s Conservation Advisory Council, which as far back as November 2006 had voted unanimously to recommend that the town board require the thorough environmental review.

The council’s recommendation stated that “the proposed action would cause an adverse change to the existing environment; impair the character and quality of an important historic, archaeological and aesthetic resource; and adversely impact the existing community and neighborhood character.”

An EIS would have forced studies into factors such traffic issues, the historical significance of the plot, alternative scenarios, and others.

Included among the three-person majority that rejected the need for environmental review was Luke Smith, town supervisor, who said he has been painted incorrectly by many of those seeking to preserve the Stanford plot.

“I know people who have said Luke Smith is pushing this,” he said. “No. What I’ve done is I’ve followed the state laws and rules and regulations. The property is zoned commercial. It has been for about 40 years.”

The plot’s commercial designation shouldn’t exempt the need for an EIS, however, said those fighting against Stanford Crossings, and that perhaps the plot should never have been zoned commercial in the first place.

Champagne and Wolcott both expressed concern about adding more commercial development to an area that they said has seen enough suburban sprawl.

“Today when I was in the co-op store in Niskayuna, somebody said to me, ‘I see they haven’t done anything on State Street yet,’ and they said, ‘That’s all we need is another store,’ ” Champagne said. It’s a sentiment she said she’s heard from many others.

Others have expressed concern about how Stanford Crossings, which would be located along the border with Schenectady, could affect business there, especially after the city’s work to attract business to the downtown.

Smith responded to that concern by pointing to the support that’s been expressed by Ray Gillen, chair of the Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority, with whom Smith has had discussions. Smith said the county planning department also has indicated no problems with the project.

“I don’t sit at home dreaming about creating malls and stuff like that,” Smith said. “I do take my oath very seriously as far as following the codes and the laws, and that’s what we did and that’s why the majority of the board voted the way they did.”

That decision also had nothing to do with a disregard for historical preservation, added Smith, who said he is concerned about protecting historic properties. “That’s why we worked with the developer to make sure that the historic Ingersoll home would be used,” he said. “We convinced him [the developer] to keep the historic building from the early 1800s, and they’re going to convert it into a restaurant, so I’m very pleased with that.”

Champagne said she’d like to see the building be used for other, more educational purposes that could incorporate the telling of the plot’s long history.

Although the original Stanford House (additions were later added to expand the structure) dates back only to the early 1800s, when the Stanford family resided there, the history of the land’s previous owners dates back to the 1700s.

—Nicole Klaas

nklaas@metroland.net


What a Week

Cheney Capable of Emotion

When Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff Lewis “Scooter” Libby was sentenced to 30 months in prison on Tuesday for lying to investigators, Cheney felt it necessary to release a statement. In the statement Cheney said that he was “deeply saddened” by Libby’s conviction. Last year Cheney did not feel the need to publicly apologize or show regret when he accidentally shot his 78-year-old hunting partner, Harry Whittington, in the face, which in turn led to the man having a non-fatal heart attack.

Great Minds?

The RecCapitalize Albany Committee (the committee of local business people who took that lovely trolley ride through Albany last year [“When a City Closes Its Eyes,” Sept. 14, 2006]) weighed in this week with recommendations for ways to improve the city. The commission recommended that Albany should take a cue from Schenectady and form an authority for economic development, as Schenectady has done with the Metroplex.

Anywhere but Home

On Tuesday, the United Nations’ refugee agency reported that 4.2 million Iraqis have been displaced by the violence in their home country and that the figure will only continue to rise. Of that number, 2.2 million is the number of Iraqis who have fled the country as refugees. Another 2 million have been driven from their homes but remain elsewhere in the country, mainly in “impoverished shanty towns,” according to U.N. agency spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis. The largest number of Iraqi refugees is in Syria, where about 30,000 flee to each month. For a little perspective, that number is roughly half the population of Schenectady.

Olympic-Sized Controversy

The Geneva-based Center on Housing Rights and Evictions reports that 1.5 million Chinese residents recently were groundlessly evicted from their homes as the country prepares for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. The Chinese government promptly rejected COHRE’s figures and said that 6,000 families had been relocated but were properly compensated and resettled. “Our research shows that little has changed since 1988 when 720,000 people were forcibly displaced in Seoul, South Korea, in preparation for the Summer Olympic Games,” said the organization’s executive director, Jean du Plessis.



Overdue Acknowledgement

One man’s crusade for a proper police memorial for his friend raises another question: How has law enforcement changed since 9/11?

Ask people who knew Charlie Mills and they will tell you, in no uncertain terms, that he was a good cop. Ask Schenectady Mayor Brian Stratton, and he will tell you that the things Mills accomplished during his time as police commissioner for Schenectady may never be eclipsed.

“We really compare everyone to Charlie Mills,” said Stratton. “He is the standard. He was a great man, and he did some very good things.”

During his time as commissioner, Mills was known for being involved in the community and for traveling incognito to make sure all was well with the city. Mills eventually left the region and returned to New York City, where he had begun his career as a police officer years before.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Mills was working as the chief of the revenue-crimes investigation unit of the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance. He died while helping to evacuate employees from the World Trade Center. And since that time, his friend Terry O’Neil, a lawyer and public-affairs consultant, has been trying to secure Mills (and the investigators who died with him on that day) a place on the New York State Police Officers’ Memorial at the Empire State Plaza.

At the time of his death, investigators in Mills’ unit were looking into revenues generated from the sale of alcohol and tobacco.

While no one questions that Mills was a good police officer, there is the question of whether Mills was acting as a cop when he died. And O’Neil says that even though New York state law generally recognizes investigators such as Mills as peace officers, they are given police-officer status when performing certain duties.

O’Neil unsuccessfully argued his opinion to both agencies responsible for the memorial, the Division of Criminal Justice Service and the Office of General Services. O’Neil said he was told that resistance to his proposal came from police representatives.

“Police groups on the monument committee said they are not going to have this,” he said. “That is the attitude of the police groups. But we need to look at this in a larger perspective and not just because Charlie is my friend.”

O’Neil said that the state has to recognize that since 9/11, law enforcement has changed. According to O’Neil, since the start of the “war on terror,” the federal government has spent less time on the kinds of crime it once aggressively monitored. And as a result, investigators like Mills are playing a crucial role in ensuring that the crimes the federal government no longer has time to prosecute aren’t allowed to slip through the cracks.

In a letter to New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, who was friends with Mills, O’Neil made his case that Mills should be honored in the spirit of recognizing that police work involves cooperation between many agencies. O’Neil wrote: “White collar crime, tax evasion, smuggling, identity theft, insurance fraud, official corruption and many others are now very much our local responsibility. Organized crime and terrorist networks are heavily involved in these forms of crime. We must augment the forces we have at our disposal to deal with this unarguable fact.”

“Commissioner Kelly has a terrible manpower problem,” O’Neil said. “He says it’s the contract and the starting pay. I happen to know it’s going on all over the country. It is a consequence of the war on terror that has created this Homeland Security industry. There are all kinds of alternative careers for people that would otherwise go into police work. You won’t see it here in Albany, but all over the country the same thing is happening.”

O’Neil has made his case to the office of State Assemblywoman RoAnn Destito (D-Oneita), chair of the Government and Services Committee, who oversaw the hearings on the state police’s five-month pursuit of fugitive Bucky Phillips. O’Neil said that he is unsure how concentrating so much manpower in the rural areas where Phillips was hiding affected policing in the rest of the state, but he would like Destito to consider putting together a commission to assess how the state police force has been affected by the new Homeland Security industry, and how the state has adapted.

O’Neil said it is past time for New York to consider exactly how to patch the holes left in law enforcement left by the war on terror.

“The FBI is not doing white-collar crime, civil-rights violations,” he said. “So who is doing it? No one. The municipal agencies will have to step in and take over. When [Albany County district attorney] Dave Soares did the steroids thing, he did it because the DEA considered it a very low-priority problem. We have created a situation where I see everything in flux, and we have to consider how to address it.”

—David King

dking@metroland.net



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