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Men at work: Mark Selmer and his crew.

Photo: Alicia Solsman

Building Block

 

A burst of interest in the long- neglected south end of Dove Street has led to exciting rehabs

By Darryl McGrath

Photos By alicia solsman

Word started to circulate two years ago on the Hudson/Park Neighborhood Association’s listserv: 119 Dove St., the local eyesore, had finally landed on the city of Albany’s demolition list. For a building that had teetered on the edge of destruction for at least 20 years, this was the third and final strike.

Historic preservation is a complex and unpredictable part of urban politics. Irreplaceable treasures sometimes fall to the wrecking ball with no public outcry, and other times, residents threaten to form human chains to protect nondescript buildings. But many structures, such as the decrepit little yellow house at 119 Dove, halfway between Jefferson and Elm streets, don’t fall into either category. They have no outwardly apparent architectural or historic value, and they also have no champions. Inertia and a collective public shrug doom such buildings as surely as abandonment.

So when residents learned that 119 Dove had finally reached the demolition list, feedback fell into two distinct camps: Good Riddance, and Regret. From the outside, the house looked like a burned-out shell. E-mails among residents debated the prospect of demolition and opined the circumstances that led to the building’s fate. But no one seemed ready to step forward and save 119 Dove on their own, nor did it seem the type of house to inspire a public preservation campaign.

The story of what happened to 119 Dove is also the story of what has slowly, almost imperceptibly happened to the south end of Dove Street in the last five years. Without any designated program by the city, without any federal or state officials gathering for photo-ops to announce a new initiative, a renovation movement has taken hold on the five blocks of Dove Street between Madison Avenue and Park Street.

This is the section of Dove that crosses the geographic and psychological dividing line in Albany known as “the other side of Madison Avenue.” The transformation of these five blocks started at the height of a real-estate boom, and it has continued through a recession that some economists now call a depression. The south end of Dove Street—and especially the final block, from Myrtle Avenue to Park Street—still has a long way to go, but those who have watched its steady progress say the differences are starting to show.

“Even in the two years I’ve been at Historic Albany, there’s been a significant improvement,” says Cara Macri, director of preservation services at Historic Albany Foundation.

“This is a real neighborhood,” says Bernadette Ambrose, who has owned and lived at 115 Dove, just south of Madison Avenue, for 31 years. “I tell myself I should move, but I don’t see any reason to. And the neighborhood gets better and better.”

The buildings that have undergone renovations on the south end of Dove since 2004, ranging from exterior makeovers to gutted-to-the-studs rehabilitations, are impressive both in their number, and because of the strong ties to Albany held by several of the people responsible for the work.

The list includes 235 Elm St., which can claim a Dove Street presence if not an address because the building’s façade faces the intersection of Elm and Dove on the diagonal, and also because it has a main entrance along Dove. The building now holds apartments, but five years ago, it could have vied for the title of neighborhood eyesore.

A quality paint job and exterior repairs drastically improved the appearance of 128 Dove two years ago. Albany entrepreneur Michael Gilhooly has restored numbers 139, 142, 146 and 149, three of which were abandoned when he bought them; 149 Dove was in such bad shape that part of it started to collapse during the renovation. It has since won a preservation award from the Historic Albany Foundation.

A lifelong Hudson/Park resident, Wesley Vroman renovated 132 Dove and now lives there; he had known the building’s previous owners since childhood. At 136 Dove, owner Timothy Dillon is removing modern shingles that clashed with the 19th-century townhouse, and has restored the façade with historically accurate clapboard. No. 148 Dove was vacant and in poor repair when the New Hope Assembly of God Church bought it in 2003; it has since been restored by Pastor Keith Davey, his wife, Susan, and their congregation. And farthest down the block, on the edge of Lincoln Park, is 169 Dove, another recent renovation by homeowners who live there.

And now this list includes Mark Selmer, a 56-year-old plumber who has worked in the building trades all his life but never owned a house until he bought 119 Dove for $15,000 from an owner who had decided to sell rather than tackle the repairs. Selmer, who rents an apartment on Elm Street around the corner from his renovation project, plans to live in the house with his family. He expects to complete the foundation for an addition this summer.

“We’ve seen an enormous amount of rehabs in that area, much more so than we expected,” says Keith McDonald, Albany’s commissioner of Taxation and Assessment. “It just was in the right location. It was ripe for a few people to go in and make a difference.”

Mark Selmer can’t remember when he first noticed the house at 119 Dove, because he drove by it so often. But he does remember when a tree in the house’s tiny back yard fell into a neighbor’s yard, which in turn set off complaints that caught the attention of city officials and landed the house on the demolition list. He couldn’t stop thinking about the doomed little house.

“Anybody in their right mind would have said, ‘Tear it down,’ ” he recalls as he perches on a stack of lumber inside the house. The interior walls have been ripped out down to the lathe and the exposed posts are blackened from a long-ago fire. Tools and rubble are everywhere, but there is also a serene atmosphere inside the house, which is open to the daylight on this June morning after so many years of neglect. It is, even in this condition, a nice place to sit.

The rear of the house is a gaping hole that overlooks a trench, 8 by 20 by 10 feet, which will hold the foundation for the addition. Selmer and his crew dug the trench with shovels and carried the dirt through the house to a dumpster because they could not get a backhoe through surrounding yards onto the property. His crew consists of his sons Bob and Sean and two family friends, Dan Oldham and Matt Santola—all in their 20s and unafraid of hard work.

The foundation trench was backbreaking and dangerous to dig, but they took delight in the finds they uncovered, which they would have never seen if they’d used a backhoe: broken crockery; white clay pipes; old stoneware bottles and several curious objects shaped like abstract figure eights with flat backs, about six inches long, that look like they might have been decorative motifs attached to a wall or mantle; Selmer can’t tell if they are carved stone, clay or some other substance. These discoveries, along with the hand-pegged beams, attest to the house’s history, and indeed, the house is marked on a city map from 1876, the year that General George Custer and his men died in the Battle of Little Bighorn.

Selmer’s love of putting buildings together dates to the tree houses and forts he constructed in the woods as a child in Greene County. He exudes a soft-spoken confidence, which never waned even when he showed the house to an architect and a structural engineer before he completed the purchase.

The front door and windows were long gone, feral cats had colonized the interior, the foundation and chimney were crumbling and the place was filled with junk. But the roof, staircase and wood floors were intact, and Selmer wanted to demonstrate that the frame could withstand the structural strain that would occur when he shored up the walls and gutted the interior.

“I took the people upstairs and jumped up and down, saying, ‘Look, it’s great,’” he recalls. The engineer replied, “It’s doable. You’re crazy, but it’s doable.”

Susan Holland, executive director of Historic Albany, reached out to Selmer when she heard he had bought the house, and she also asked city officials to remove it from the demolition list. She felt some concern that the house had gotten yet another reprieve, not because she wanted to see it demolished, but because she knew it would either fall down or be taken down if this last-chance new owner started the project and then walked.

“We see that model a lot,” Holland says. “People get in way over their heads. We want success stories. We work really hard to partner those people, but Mark has been such a joy.”

For his part, Selmer sensed that some of his new neighbors were also concerned, and with good reason—119 Dove had once shared the same owner as the ill-fated 130 Dove: Dominick Cubello, who has served two prison terms for egregious code violations at his rental properties in Albany. About five years ago, Cubello sold the vacant 130 Dove, and the new owner did only cursory work before he too abandoned it—an example of the failed renovation model that Holland cited. In 2007, 130 Dove collapsed.

A rainy summer last year delayed Selmer’s work on the house, but he’s made good progress this summer. He’s trying to do the renovation and the addition for $70,000. He decided not to apply for a Housing and Urban Development grant; the application looked complex and he was too short on time. He also didn’t want to be bound by requirements such as using approved contractors.

“I trust my work,” he says. “There’s all different ways to get to the same place, but I know my own work.”

For all the effort going into Dove Street, the last block—the block between Myrtle Avenue and Park Street—remains a major challenge to the city and to concerned homeowners. This block has a decidedly mixed look that belies its inclusion in the otherwise preservation-happy Hudson/Park Neighborhood. There are longtime, stable and responsible homeowners, two buildings that came back from the dead after new owners renovated them, and several houses that speak of incredible neglect.

This block’s story can be told in the progressive decline of assessed values and the increasing frequency of out-of-town addresses for property owners as Dove Street moves from Center Square toward Lincoln Park. In a random sampling of Dove Street in the Center Square neighborhood—which contains some of the most pristine and elaborate houses in downtown Albany—the average assessed value of the 10 houses from numbers 35 to 49 is $231,190, and all but one of the owners lives on the premises, according to city assessment records.

A random sampling of 10 houses in that last block of Dove is a very different picture: the average assessed value from numbers 160 to 169 is $97,260, and only four of the 10 owners live on the premises. None of the off-premises owners live in Albany.

Although not every property owner who lives out of town is irresponsible, city officials have long noted a connection between off-premises owners and an increase in code violations and complaints about the properties. People change cell phone numbers with increasing frequency, and it’s impossible for the city to maintain emergency contact information. The city once considered compiling telephone numbers for property owners, but quickly gave the idea up as impractical, Keith McDonald says. The city’s only recourse is to send registered letters to notify property owners of complaints, problems or a building collapse.

The result? A block like the last on Dove Street, where one of the houses has a makeshift front railing of nailed-together two-by-fours; another has a perpetually opened basement door that reveals a bleak interior; and several others have a look of decline underneath hastily slapped-on coats of paint.

There are hundreds of longtime Albany residents who remember the great rehabilitation movement of the late 1970s in Center Square and Hudson/Park—when suburban growth and the construction of Empire State Plaza drove out so many city dwellers that some downtown blocks had more vacant houses than occupied houses. One Hudson/Park resident who remembers that time is Ellen Picotte, vice president of the Hudson/Park Neighborhood Association, a real estate agent with Prudential Manor Homes, and the owner of a townhouse on Hudson Avenue that was a shell when she got an $8,000 Urban Renewal grant in 1978.

Picotte knows the last block of Dove Street well; she sold one vacant house on the corner of Myrtle and Dove to the New Hope Assembly of God Church, and she sold the vacant house on the opposite corner to Michael Gilhooly, whose careful renovations of four houses along south Dove have won widespread praise.

“That block, to be honest, has always befuddled me,” Picotte says. “The rehabs that took place on Irving and even Jefferson or Madison seemed to have missed that last block of Dove. That has always troubled me.”

Keith Davey, the pastor of the New Hope Assembly of God Church on the corner of Dove and Myrtle, calls the last block of Dove “the most violent street in this area.” Crime statistics specific to that one block could not readily be obtained from the Albany Police Department to verify Davey’s statement, but two residents of that block say they believe that the police need to take a coordinated look at the block and identify the cause of specific problems, instead of repeatedly responding to individual complaints.

“I’ve been here almost three years, I have a daughter now, and I’m planning to move because I don’t want to be here when she gets older,” said one resident who declined to give her name. “And I don’t think it’s from the landlords; it’s from the people who live here. But the landlords know who they’re renting to.”

Her friend Tasha, who gave only gave her first name, agreed.

“It’s no place to raise children,” she said. “This street has a reputation, and people know it. I was concerned about it being Dove Street, but I don’t live outside; I live inside.”

The police have to respond to individual complaints in any part of the city, said Albany Police Department spokesman Detective James Miller, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not also coordinating with other city agencies to gauge overall needs on a street. The city’s fourth phase of the Block By Block Program will include Dove Street from Madison Avenue to Park Street, and will apply such a coordinated response. The program uses several city agencies to address crime, code violations and infrastructure problems, such as broken sidewalks. Miller did not know the exact starting date for Phase Four of Block By Block, but said it will probably start before the end of the year.

Albany Common Council Member Dominick Calsolaro, whose 1st Ward includes the south end of Dove Street, said he believes that several buildings there not only do not meet current city building code standards, but are not even in compliance with basic code requirements.

“I think this last block of Dove has seen improvements already,” Calsolaro said, but those improvements have been scattered. He expects the Block By Block program to address the lingering code issues.

The bright spots at this far end of Dove include the New Hope Church, which has assumed the role of a community center. The church offers a free dinner to local children every Wednesday, hosts a block party every fall and worked with the city to clean up a trash-filled vacant lot on the street.

Progress comes slowly: The church has also been burglarized several times, and Davey—who worked in the building trades before he assumed full-time pastoral duties—lost all of his tools twice in thefts while he was renovating the building.

Such setbacks demonstrate the need in the neighborhood, as does the strong response to the Meals for Kids, says Davey, who explains, “That’s why we chose this area.”

The last block of Dove is also now home to several Burmese refugee families, who have fled violence and oppression in their homeland and have been settled in Albany by the federal government. Their immediate needs have been handled by the Albany field office of the United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a private, nonprofit agency that works with the government.

“They’re stable families,” says Jill Peckenpaugh, director of the Albany field office of USCRI. “They’re raising children, they’re hardworking. They’re going to be home in the neighborhood; they’re very communal.”

And the entrepreneurial spirit is holding strong, even at this end of Dove. Michael Gilhooly, who renovated four houses here, would like to do other projects along south Dove.

“I think this is such a key area, bordered by Lincoln Park, State Street, the South Mall—all the way up to Albany Med—this is city living,” Gilhooly says. He uses the term as a compliment. He sees this section of Hudson/Park as ripe with further potential.

Selmer loves the area, too, but his vision focuses more on the interior of his house than on the really bad sidewalks in front of it.

When asked how 119 Dove will look when he’s finished, Selmer raps out rapid answers.

“We’ve got it all figured out,” he says. “I’ve got a floor plan in my head.” Three bedrooms. Two and a half baths. Radiant heat.

A radiant heat system, which generates heat from tubing installed under a floor, creates a cozy warmth inside a house, Selmer explains. It’s not an everyday feature in a 19th-century structure, but “I’m a plumber; I can do all that,” he says.

“The place I’m living in now is freezing,” he adds. “I’m just looking forward to coming home on a winter’s night when I’m done fixing everyone else’s heat, and it’s above 65 in my own house.”


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