living: The Conservatory in downtown Troy.
Can’t Come Here Any More
Troy, the clash of old ways and new money is playing out in
by Leif Zurmuhlen
through the northern windows on the newly remodeled fifth
floor of the old Stanley’s building offers a privileged view
of life in downtown Troy.
is the perfect place for your art collection,” Deane Pfeil
says, motioning along a dramatic corridor.
The long-vacant structure, notable even in a town recognized
for its impressive architecture, recently has undergone an
attentive rehabilitation. Now dubbed the Conservatory, the
building is the current project of Saratoga Springs-based
developers Jeffrey and Deane Pfeil.
The Conservatory is a high-end, luxury apartment building,
with 19 units on the top four floors. The rents range from
$1,300 to $3,000 a month. Many of the apartments, including
the three most expensive, have been rented or are spoken for.
The first floor and mezzanine have been primed for retail.
Each apartment is appointed with the high-end fixtures that
you would expect for $3,000 a month; the building itself boasts
some impressive features, including heated sidewalks and a
private parking garage retrofitted into the basement.
The Pfeils have invested millions of dollars into Troy; first,
with Powers Park Lofts, an old factory in North Troy that
the team renovated into high-end condos. Each of those condos
sold for $160,000 to $280,000. And, as with the apartments
in the Conservatory, the most expensive went first.
is not a whole lot of product for high-end living in downtown,”
says Pfeil. “The people we are attracting are urban pioneers
who like to live well. We have a niche clientele.”
Over the past seven years, out-of-town developers have scooped
up Troy’s once-depressed stock of real estate, planning to
turn the empty buildings into condos or flip them for healthy
profits. Business owners have sunk millions of dollars into
restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and other small operations.
Listening as Deane Pfeil lists off downtown Troy’s numerous
attributes, gazing out from the fifth floor of the posh Conservatory
at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s EMPAC Center, one does
get the feeling that the city has opened a new chapter.
think that the stars are all aligned,” Pfeil says. “There
is so much private investment in the city—real people, who
if you peer down at the sidewalk across the street, you’ll
see Barker Park (known to most old-time Trojans as Pigeon
Park), a small nook of concrete and grass at the corner of
Third and State streets. Here, the homeless, prostitutes,
drug users and dealers, idlers, seniors, and pigeons congregate
by the dozens. In good weather, there might be as many people
gathered as scrounging birds. Little more than a glorified
sidewalk and an alcove of grass tucked between two churches,
Barker Park is an important landmark—important for what it
means to so many people in Troy, and for what means for the
future of the city.
him how you’re the king!” Country Joe hollers above the bashing
and clanging of pots and cans of green beans. “You’re the
alright,” Bill Spenard says to his friend. Spenard is a quiet
man, red-faced and round.
am 40 years old, born and raised here in Troy.”
was crowned King of the Parks!” Country Joe says impatiently.
was a silly little contest,” Spenard says.
it wasn’t silly,” someone gently scolds. “It was important
new blood: Marc Coudert, president of the Friends of
Tuesday, in the basement of the First Baptist Church on Third
Street in Troy. Volunteers with Community Meal, the church’s
weekly free dinner, are opening dozens of cans of vegetables,
sorting hamburger buns, and cooking pounds and pounds of meat.
It is a noisy, warm scene. Average nights, they will serve
80 to 90 people. Busy nights they will break 100. Dinner won’t
be served for another hour, but the dining room is already
half-filled with people.
were nine years old,” Country Joe pushes.
was nine years old,” Spenard continues, “and they chose me
to represent all of Troy’s parks.” He lists the parks of his
kingdom: Frear Park, Prospect Park, Beman Park, Powers Park,
Pigeon Park . . .
Park,” he says, correcting himself.
His mother, he remembers, made him his royal gowns from old
red curtains. His father shaped his crown from a piece of
cardboard—like the old Burger King crowns—and glued poker
chips to it. His scepter was a broom handle, adorned with
an old-fashioned mother-of-pearl doorknob.
The crowning of the King of the Parks was an annual event
in Troy, but after Spenard’s coronation, for whatever reason,
it was never held again.
On page 5 of the Aug. 13, 1976, issue of the Troy Times
Record, there is a picture of 9-year-old Spenard. A thicket
of blond hair pokes out the front of his crown. He is smiling
at someone beyond the camera’s sight. Now, 31 years later,
Spenard lives with Country Joe in an abandoned building. He
has lost all but the round face he had in the photo. A late-stage
alcoholic, he survives on charity and the little cash he earns
doing odds jobs for the sisters at nearby St. Anthony of Padua
He and Country Joe are among the many people you might find
in Barker Park.
And according to Spenard, Joe, the volunteers at the church,
and practically every homeless person you ask, the city is
making it unconditionally clear that Barker Park is no longer
the place for them to hang out.
When asked, they will tell you that the reason is obvious:
People who rent $3,000-a-month apartments don’t want to look
down and see a bunch of homeless people whiling away their
days. And, although many of the Pigeon Park-goers do drink
and use the grassy alcove as a latrine, they say, it makes
no difference what you are doing. If you look poor and a cop
sees you, chances are you will be moved along.
what the moral of this story is,” Country Joe declares in
his big, Texan way. “Bill is the reigning king, and now they
want to kick the king out of the park.”
With Barker Park directly across the street from their investment,
the Pfeils have taken an active interest in the diminutive
urban park. They belong to the Friends of Barker Park association,
which has tasked itself with the park’s care and restoration.
The association has produced a blueprint for the park’s remodeling,
raised money, and secured the support of an enthusiastic city
administration has been fabulous,” Deane Pfeil says. It has
never said no to any request. Whatever the Friends of Barker
Park asks for, the city is happy to oblige, dispatching the
Action Team to tear up concrete, plant grass, remove benches.
Sometimes, the city even takes its own initiative, such as
removing the old playground equipment from the grassy alcove.
The Friends of Barker Park are a group of dedicated young
homeowners and professionals who have taken a leadership role
in the life of a park. They have organized cleanup days, held
a community meeting, and raised tens of thousands of dollars—roughly
$20,000 came in from a brunch fundraiser, and a $10,000 donation
from Troy Savings Bank Foundation recently was secured—and
they expect to attract more. They have produced a site plan
that calls for plenty of trees and 10 to 20 benches. The design
segments the half-acre park into private sitting areas, with
a large open space that could be used for various functions.
Which all sounds nice, but for Dan Schongar, co-owner of Troy
Quick Shoe Repair a few doors down from the Conservatory on
Third Street, Barker Park is little more than a nuisance.
The first Barker Park committee was formed about eight years
ago, Schongar says, with the same goals of cleaning up and
remodeling the park. At that time, the park was full of trees
and benches. On any given day, dozens of people would be in
the park drinking, dealing drugs, killing time. Customers
would call him and ask if it was safe to come to his shop.
Schongar and others agitated to have the benches removed and
kind of cleaned it up,” he says. But as a compromise with
others in the committee, a few benches were left intact, and
with them the idlers remained.
The Friends eventually disbanded and the work halted.
with the Conservatory nearing completion, a few of those remaining
benches, which were right across the street from the building’s
entrance, have been removed, and a triangular patch of grass
Pfeils didn’t want them sitting there,” he says. And he agrees.
He would like to see all of the benches gone.
replace until a year from now. Force those people to go somewhere
else to hang out, and then put the benches back. If they come
back, rip the benches out again,” he says. “Why give them
a place to sit?”
The first phase of the redesign called for the removal of
those three benches on the northwest side of the park to install
sod, a fence and six new trees, says Marc Coudert, president
of the Friends of Barker Park, but it had nothing to do with
who was sitting there.
wanted to show that things were happening and get people excited
about it,” he says.
Coudert lives across from the park on Third Street. He and
his wife, Melissa, have been rehabbing their 19th-century
apartment building for years. He knows that the homeless use
the park to hang out. He sees them drinking and using the
park as a restroom.
the women,” he chuckles.
Although it isn’t ideal, and the Friends don’t condone illegal
activity in the park, Coudert accepts certain behavior as
a reality of living in an urban setting. Like so many of the
young, middle-class professionals moving into Troy, Coudert
enjoys the multifarious collection of people.
ideal city is a city with a lot of diversity,” Coudert says.
“The city is at its best when it is really diversified. Once
you start to segregate the poor people over here, away from
the rich people, you get slums and really shitty neighborhoods.
And you don’t want that. The ideal situation is to diversify.”
With Barker Park, Coudert says, he has a simple goal: “to
make a beautiful park that is open to everybody.” Homeless
and pigeons included.
And although Schongar can appreciate Coudert’s idealism, after
20 years of watching the same guys hang out in the park, drinking
day after day, year after year, he is more than tired of this
aspect of urban living.
are harmless,” Schongar says, “but they are bad for business.”
Although it would be hard to find a Trojan who thinks that
the business interest and excitement surrounding Troy aren’t
a good thing, what has gone unnoticed, say many in Troy’s
nonprofit world, is that the working poor and homeless are
being forgotten, or worse, injured. They are slowly and incrementally
being pushed further into the margins.
have actually had to add a new category to our statistics,”
says Tracy Neitzel, executive director of Joseph’s House.
The center keeps track of what precipitated “the homeless
of the causes of homelessness that has recently emerged, and
occurs enough so that we are keeping track of it, is speculation,”
she says. “People buying buildings and forcing tenants out
so that they can charge much higher rents. So we are getting
people—renting tenants—who have been forced out by changes
in ownership. And it is driven by out-of-town speculation.”
It is not affecting large numbers of people, Neitzel says,
but her agency sees new people every month who have lost their
apartments for this exact reason.
is happening enough,” she says, “that we have to categorize
it and note it.”
Sara Spies, director of housing for YWCA, and Cayla Cahoon,
the apartment program coordinator, agree with Neitzel. Along
with housing people in its building on Second Street, the
Y also maintains seven apartments. Both women note that the
steep increase in Troy rents has placed extra pressure on
their clients and on the Y’s ability to place them in affordable,
decent housing. Couple the increasing rents with the stagnating
federal subsidies that the Y depends on, and many times, Cahoon
says, she is forced to place clients in some pretty sketchy
apartments. These apartments might even be in violation of
building codes. If the code department shuts down the building,
she says, her clients are back on the streets.
of my clients have been affected by their housing being condemned,”
she says. But with the affordable-housing stock dwindling,
the Y is left with very few options.
get grants from HUD to subsidize the apartments our clients
live in,” Spies explains. “But they only get a small amount.
As rental prices increase, the subsidies don’t.”
To a large extent, Neitzel says, this is a national trend.
Federal funding dollars for housing have stagnated or decreased.
The budget for the Troy Housing Authority, as an example,
is smaller this year than last.
When you consider that roughly a third of those people seeking
shelter at Joseph’s House are employed, you get the real sense
for the desperate situation the increasing rents is causing,
she says. “They just don’t make enough money to pay for housing
in this current market.”
Sister Linda O’Rourke, the director of the Roarke Center,
a nonprofit charity, says that she sees people struggling
with this new economic environment, too.
are seeing more and more people with food insecurity,” O’Rourke
says. “They just don’t have enough funds. I think we are in
a particularly bad time,” she says. “This is the first time
in eight years that we have run out of food.”
Food drives that would have stocked the center’s pantry for
months in the past have, this year, provided for only a week’s
worth of food.
even limited our geographic area for the food pantry, but
it hasn’t lowered our numbers any,” she says. They used to
serve anyone in Rensselaer County; now they serve only the
geographical area from Green Island bridge to the Menands
There are roughly 6,000 families in the city of Troy who cannot
afford their rent, says Chris Burke, CEO of Unity House. “They
are on the verge of homelessness. They are on the borderline.”
people living in Troy are cost- burdened in terms of their
rental expense,” says Neitzel. “You look at a person’s rental
cost as part of their overall expense, and if someone is paying
a 30 percent on their housing, that is considered reasonable.
Most of the families we see are paying roughly 60 percent.
So it doesn’t take much to knock them out. People always say,
‘What did they do to become homeless? What did they do wrong?’
Sometimes, she says, it is what they did right. Sometimes
mothers make very good decisions about where their resources
will go in a given month. And unfortunately, that might be
the month that rent doesn’t get paid because she has to put
food on the table or buy winter coats.
think that when the Barker Park issue came up, a lot of people
assumed that this was going to be an attack on the poorest
of the poor,” says Neitzel. “Because this is where they go
to spend leisure time, because they can’t afford to go to
Grafton, or go to the mall, or to see a play. They spend their
leisure time in parks. I think there is a fear that this will
be a concerted effort to dismantle that community.”
Many of the people who depend on Joseph’s House hang out in
Barker Park. In fact, many of Troy’s vital services necessary
for people living on low incomes or no incomes are within
a few blocks of downtown. The Roarke Center offers housing
and food assistance, as well as outreach programs. The Bethany
Center is a day shelter that serves daily breakfast and lunch
and makes available toiletries and other sundries. The YWCA
serves as an emergency shelter for roughly 95 women, offering
domestic-violence survivors’ education, shelter and support,
as well as helping place families in low-income housing. The
Baptist Church offers weekly dinners, organizes food and blanket
drives, and maintains a free clothes closet. Unity House employs
hundreds of people for its myriad programs aimed at helping
the income-vulnerable and abused.
All of these are within a few blocks of each other, and at
their approximate center sits Barker Park. For Neitzel, the
controversy over the men and women in Barker Park is much
like the controversy surrounding the nonprofits who exist
to serve them.
is a perception” in Troy’s current environment, Neitzel says,
“that the nonprofit community adds no value.”
There are those people in the community and the city administration
who seem to think that if the nonprofits that serve the poor
and homeless would just go away, she says, that the poor and
the homeless would simply follow—a belief that Troy can be
made into a city that doesn’t have to worry about poverty.
Just sweep the homeless out of Barker Park, out of the eyes
of the Conservatory’s “urban pioneers,” and all the attendant
problems of homelessness, alcoholism, substance abuse and
domestic violence would go away, too.
As an example of a reluctant community and city government,
she points to Joseph’s House’s battle to rehabilitate a former
pool hall on Fourth Street in Troy’s Little Italy neighborhood.
wanted to create 16 studio apartments,” she says, and it was
blocked by the planning board. Citing a “significant environmental
impact,” the board required a full environmental impact statement.
“Nobody does full environmental impact statements. They are
only required for huge projects.”
It takes at least a year and costs quite a bit of money, she
says, and even once it is done, the city can still turn down
the plans. “It was obviously a stalling tactic.”
The opposition came from the Little Italy community itself,
with business owners, such as Rocco DeFazio of DeFazio’s Pizzeria
and Jean Krueger, decrying the effects of a nonprofit removing
yet another commercial property from the tax rolls.
building is falling down. Nobody can afford to fix up the
building besides us,” Neitzel says. “Private money can’t touch
these buildings after a certain point. I develop housing,
and if I can save a building in Troy, why not?”
Joseph’s House, she points out, employs 50 people in the city
of Troy, and services a hundred times more yearly. Unity House
employs 350 people in Troy. The YWCA, Salvation Army, and
so on, all bring jobs to Troy. More important, there is the
harder-to-quantify profit of saving people from the streets.
If Unity House were a for-profit business, Burke says, it
would be lauded for bringing so many jobs to the city.
are providing services,” he says, “and we are an economic
run a program that provides housing for nine people,” Neitzel
adds, referring to the long-term residents housed in Joseph’s
House. Before they were housed, they were living in hospitals,
jails, on the streets, costing tax payers hundreds of thousands
saves the county of Rensselaer $200,000 a year in tax levy,”
she says. “So it is much more cost-effective to put homeless
people into housing.”
Plus, 60 percent of Joseph’s House’s staff were one-time consumers,
further reducing the strain on the tax payer.
There is a perception, Burke agrees, that if Unity House weren’t
in Troy, the people who rely on them would go somewhere else.
as though we are drawing people here,” Burke says. “And that
is completely the opposite. The only reason we are here is
because there are people who are here who are living in poverty,
who are victims of domestic violence.”
I accepted my job at Joseph’s House, I didn’t get to pick
and choose my constituency,” Neitzel says, in a pointed comment
seemingly meant for the city administration.
For the 22 years that she has worked in the city of Troy,
she says, she has always at least felt welcome to the table
with whatever administration was in power.
if what I had to say didn’t carry the weight I thought it
deserved,” she says, “at least I could put it out there. It
was asked for. And that is not true now.”
think that when you choose to represent a city . . . you are
accepting the responsibility to represent everyone’s interests.
I think the mayor loves Troy. I think he has a genuine belief
that Troy can be revitalized. But I think he has a simple
. . .”
Neitzel stops, looking for the right wording. “Not simple:
I don’t think he has a complete vision of what it is going
to take. And because he doesn’t get a lot of input from other
stakeholders and constituencies, that vision is not expanding
as his time goes on.”