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This is my street: Sally D’Agostino points to the spray-painted lines of the proposed street.

Photo: Alicia Solsman

Make Way

Brighter Choice wants to build a new school, and the neighbors aren’t happy

Albany residents filled the council chambers for the regular meeting of the Zoning Board of Appeals to air their concerns with the proposed construction of a new charter school. The school is being proposed by the Brighter Choice Foundation as the permanent home for Albany Prep, one of its four middle-school charters. The 40,000-square-foot building would sit in the vacant lot behind Albany Dodge on Central Avenue, and to access the school, the dead end of Bradford Street, would need to be opened for traffic.

This is why Sally D’Agostino says that she is opposing the construction. And it’s easy to see what she will be losing: Her quiet neighborhood is given its unique character by the respite offered at the end of Bradford. The leafy trees that span the little street enclose three generations of her family. Her mother and daughter both have homes in shouting distance of each other.

If Brighter Choice gets its way, however, the narrow street will be torn up and the massive, stately trees will be torn out to make the street much, much wider. So wide, in fact, that, as it is envisioned, a sidewalk will run over the spot where D’Agostino’s bottom porch step is now. To make the point, her daughter spent one Sunday recently spray-painting the lines of the proposed street and sidewalks on the ground. The spray paint runs over the wooden porch step, right up to the house.

“Mr. Bender says that it will still be a dead-end street,” D’Agostino said, “but you might as well put a Wal-Mart there if you consider that school maintaining a dead-end on that street. We have been four generations on this street. There won’t be a fifth generation if this school goes there.”

According to Chris Bender, the executive director of the Brighter Choice Foundation, Albany Prep, which was opened in 2005, recently had its charter renewed by SUNY. It has been housed in St. James Church on Summit Avenue while Brighter Choice struggled to find it a home. However, “the Roman Catholic Diocese has notified us that the lease will not be renewed in July, and the school needs a new home.”

Criticisms ranged from the burdens that siting a school in this neighborhood would cause residents to the burdens that another costly school building would cause the taxpayers of Albany.

Bender argues that the school won’t be the burden that some fear. The school is being built for 350 students at its maximum, but is currently only enrolled at 180. A third of the students are anticipated to arrive by foot, a third by car, and a third by bus, according to Bender, meaning only two full-size school buses and three smaller ones will arrive per day. Plus, the street that the foundation will be putting in will include new infrastructure, including drainage and a sidewalk.

“Right now, they park on the dirt,” Bender said, adding that they are proposing extra parking spaces to be included in the construction of the new road.

One speaker pointed out that he recently saw his school taxes go up $80 for every $100,000. “We can’t take it anymore.” Many, including Councilman Mike O’Brien, echoed the concern that the only reason Brighter Choice is seeking to build a new school rather than purchase a preexisting building is due to the New Market Tax Credit.

According to an article by Daily News journalist Juan Gonzalez, the program gives “a bank or private equity firm that lends money to a nonprofit to build a charter school . . . a 39 percent federal tax credit over seven years,” almost doubling on the investment.

While this casts doubt on the motivation of Brighter Choice, Bender argued that the New Markets Tax Credit is a highly regulated program “that incentivizes banks to make loans in low-income communities. We qualify for the program, so we use it to finance our buildings. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

“All they have done is read a 300-word article,” he said of the critics who point to the program. “I defy anyone to explain it.”

Judy Doesschate, a member of the Albany City School Board, points out that the school’s charter has been renewed for only three years. The school is also on probation for turning away students that are “more challenging.” And it has been chronically underenrolled. The school originally was chartered for 400 students and was approved last year for 230 students. The building is being constructed for 350 students. The school currently enrolls only 180 students.

Two additional middle schools have been approved for the city. There will be five charter middle schools in Albany, as well as two district schools, she said. “The question is: How many schools do we want in the city of Albany? And all paid for by the city of Albany taxpayers.”

Bender argued that the charter schools can fill a vital niche, as the school district itself has admitted, he said, that it has too many students for its two middle schools but not enough for three schools.

“They talk about how this is going to be an attractive school and while that’s very nice,” Doesschate added. “I think that you should imagine what it will look like when it is boarded up.”

—Chet Hardin

chardin@metroland.net


Myrtle Avenue Blues

Neighbors of Albany Med worry about added burdens of hospital’s expansion

Urban hospitals and the neighborhoods that surround them often have relationships that could best be described as delicate, and never more so than during a major construction project. As Albany Medical Center gears up for a $360 million expansion on New Scotland Avenue, residents and the hospital are already learning that the plan will involve a good deal of give and take.

A block of Myrtle Avenue between Robin Street and New Scotland Avenue will close for two and a half years during the construction, probably starting in the fall. The hospital originally had sought to permanently close that block, to make it easier for pedestrians to navigate the increased traffic that will come with a new six-story building for patient care. That building will go up on what is now a front lawn and small parking lot in front of the emergency department, on the corner of New Scotland and Myrtle.

But Albany Med unexpectedly pulled the street-closure request off the table. The change was so sudden that several members of the Common Council went into a community meeting on the construction project hosted by the hospital last week still telling constituents that a block of Myrtle Avenue might well permanently close.

The hospital says it still needs to temporarily close that block to store construction equipment and supplies. Sidewalks will also be closed there during the day, while construction crews are on site. Eventually, the hospital also will demolish three houses on Morris Street that it owns and that are already vacant, to make room for a valet parking lot on Robin Street between Morris and Myrtle.

Thirty months is better than forever, but Common Council members and hospital neighbors say even a temporary closure will be difficult.

“Myrtle Avenue is like a secret neighborhood route that gets you to a lot of places,” said Council member Leah Golby, whose 10th Ward’s boundary includes Myrtle up to the targeted block. “It is not a congested street, but I definitely have neighbors who love using Myrtle Avenue.”

One of them is Myrtle Avenue resident Gayle Driggers, who starts her commute to the Berkshires by driving on Myrtle to South Swan Street. If the block starting at Robin closes, she will take Robin to Madison Avenue to get to South Swan and the entrance to Interstate 787 North.

“People always ask me, ‘Why do you commute so far?’ ” Driggers said. “I really love Albany. And being able to get out of the city efficiently is really important. Could I go by Madison? Yes. Is it going to add minutes to my commute? Yes.”

Common Council member Richard Conti, whose 6th Ward includes the block that would be closed, said the city is still working out the details of the closure request. Conti does not oppose it, but wants to make sure both sides understand the details the same way.

“Thirty months is a long time to say, ‘It’s not going to be closed permanently,’ ” Conti said.

Albany Medical Center owns all of the buildings on the targeted block. The hospital used to rent several of the houses, although hospital spokesman Greg McGarry wasn’t sure if the tenants had been medical students or neighborhood residents, or where they had gone. The occupants left last year. One building on the block is used for Internet technology staff for the hospital, but medical offices in the remaining buildings have already been moved to a new building on New Scotland.

The city’s planning board is expected to consider the expansion project’s site plan for approval July 8.

Park South Neighborhood Association President Andrew Harvey said he’s taking a wait-and-see approach to the closure. The hospital has steadily expanded along New Scotland Avenue in recent years: Two new medical office buildings have gone up, a 1,500-car garage is nearing completion, and a hotel and several retail stores have filled two blocks. The new medical tower yet to be built is expected to bring thousands more people a week to the hospital. The rapid growth and its attendant quality-of-life issues about noise and congestion have touched some nerves. Common Council member Cathy Fahey, whose 7th Ward borders the targeted block of Myrtle and includes the main hospital campus, accused Albany Medical Center of failing to fulfill its obligation to surrounding residents during a sharp exchange with hospital executive vice president and chief operating officer Gary Kochem at last week’s community meeting.

“You’re a huge employer here and this is impacting our neighborhoods tremendously, and we have to have more discussion about what you can do for the neighborhoods,” Fahey said.

Kochem, who said he was “embarrassed” by the accusations, responded that the hospital has “spent a lot of money improving this neighborhood.” He cited the hospital’s contributions to the city’s first-time homeowner program, the retail and hotel space it has attracted, its planned improvements to several intersections as part of the upcoming project, and its provision of a hospital-owned house on Myrtle Avenue that was used as a base for the Albany Police Department’s neighborhood outreach effort.

In comments after the meeting, Fahey said she and other council members expect to meet with hospital administrators to continue the discussion.

“We have so much poverty in this city, and this is an opportunity to hire from the neighborhood,” she said. “I see this as an opportunity to leverage something.”

—Darryl McGrath



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