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Albany’s Least Wanted

Group highlights Albany’s endangered historical buildings

On Tuesday (Dec. 14), at a late morning press conference in St. Joseph’s Church on Ten Broeck Street, Historic Albany Foundation announced its 2010 Endangered Historic Resources List. Every five years, HAF looks around at the city’s built environment and selects 10 buildings, or groups of buildings, that have been abandoned or neglected and are in danger of falling apart—and, eventually, being demolished.

The resources on this year’s list range from a large industrial complex on Broadway to a façade on one of the oldest blocks in the city to a group of Depression-era houses in an uptown neighborhood thick with hospitals and doctor’s offices.

The setting was appropriate: St. Joseph’s, unheated and bracingly cold, was on HAF’s first endangered list in 2000. While the church remains in rough shape—most pews are gone and there are gashes in the walls where icons once perched impassively over generations of working-class Roman Catholics—the roof is repaired and the structure has been saved.

This effort took a great deal of public fundraising, as well as help from the city and state governments. In her opening remarks, HAF executive director Susan Holland thanked New York State Assembly Majority Leader Ron Canestrari (D-Cohoes)—who spoke at the press conference about the need to “preserve our history and heritage for future generations”— and Assemblyman Jack McEneny (D-Albany), who was out of the country, for their help in securing funding. Other elected officials in attendance were Albany Common Council members Dominick Calsolaro (Ward 1) and Barbara Smith (Ward 4), both of whose districts include items on the 2010 list; Mayor Jerry Jennings was not at the press conference.

First on the list are 800-812 Broadway, residential properties in Councilwoman Smith’s ward, adjacent to the CSX railroad bridge where it crosses Broadway. The last survivors on the block, they were described by Historic Albany Foundation president Bill Brandow as “long- abandoned.” (It was a working-class neighborhood as recently as the 1980s.) Their opposite number on the other side of Broadway collapsed years ago; HAF’s description characterizes them as having “little prospect of rehabilitation”—though they are eligible for federal and New York state rehabilitation tax credits.

Next is the Argus Press, a “massive” industrial building at 1031 Broadway with two towers that are almost as notable neighborhood landmarks as the giant Nipper figure. The former press has been empty for years, and Brandow pointed out that it is a notable surviving building by Albany architect Marcus T. Reynolds. (To get an idea of how our economy’s changed, this building was built on spec.)

Next on the list is Public Bath No. 2, located in the South End, and a private residence only steps from St. Joseph’s at 10 Hall Place. The latter is the last unoccupied building on its recently refurbished block.

Item No. 5 is the block of Tudor homes at 100-112 Holland Ave. Built in the late 1930s, and the newest buildings on the list, they have been vacant for only two years. The next building, 558 Madison Ave., stands at the southeast corner of Madison and New Scotland avenues. The former bar, health club and travel agency has been vacant since the 1990s, and was described by HAF president Brandow as an important “gateway building” in a neighborhood in the midst of extensive redevelopment, and as being “not in particularly bad shape.”

The façade of 4 Madison Place, in Councilman Calsolaro’s ward, is all the remains of a devastating fire in August 2005. The building is important because it’s part of a “nationally recognized row” of Gothic-style residences.

The 15 buildings on McPherson Terrace, a renamed stretch of houses on Clinton Avenue that begins at Judson Street, were built circa 1887-88; they are an architecturally significant unified development, noted for beautiful details in construction. Unfortunately, while all are intact, almost half are empty.

School 22, built in 1822 and located in the distressed West Hill neighborhood, is the work of another noted Albany architect, Frederick W. Brown; Albany, as Brandow said, “has a lot of abandoned school buildings.”

The last buildings on the list are at 799 South Pearl Street. The Kenwood estate was built as a private residence, but for most of the last 150 years was a school. It’s completely empty, and prospects for reuse are “difficult,” Brandow explained.

While a few of the buildings on HAF’s 2000 and 2005 lists were lost, Susan Holland said that the status of most can be characterized as “favorable” or “saved.”

Before the press conference, attendees could be seen admiring the beautiful architectural details that remain in St. Joseph’s Church; the ornate arches high above with figures of angels carved in wood brought a murmur of admiration alongside the stained-glass windows with iconic Christian imagery, the inlaid stations of the cross, and the Christmas murals above the smashed confessionals that flank each side of where the altar once stood. Their successful preservation reinforced a comment made by Majority Leader Canestrari: “We lose something when we lose buildings like this.”

—Shawn Stone

Last Lap

Mayor pulls plug on Albany’s only remaining public bath

Last week Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings used his veto power for the first time during his administration to quash the Albany Common Council’s resolution to keep Albany’s Public Bath No. 2 open for one more year.

At the Nov. 29 meeting, the council voted 9-5 to restore to the budget money to keep the pool open for one more year by dipping into the city’s contingency fund. But on Dec. 10, Mayor Jennings vetoed the measure.

“On average, fewer than 19 people per day use the facility,” he said in a Dec. 10 press release. It needs “extensive capital improvements that are just not cost effective in this economic environment,” the mayor wrote.

The 105-year-old swimming facility in Albany’s South End, which is in need of an estimated $90,000 in emergency repairs, will close at the end of this month after more than a century of operation. The natatorium was the final holdout of three baths established for the working class during Albany’s commercial heyday.

Albany Free School codirector Deidre Kelley implored the council during a meeting this fall to reinstate funding for the bathhouse. Her children and her students at the Elm Street alternative school swim there regularly, she said.

At subsequent meetings, pool advocates lobbied the council with signs and stories. They talked about the generations who have learned to swim there and folks of all ages who exercise there.

On Monday morning, Free School students took a field trip to City Hall to visit the mayor.

“We waited and waited and waited until he finally saw us—not in his office, but in the hallway,” Kelley said. “The kids did speak to him a little bit and a lot of them left very sad because they knew that he was going to close the pool. He said things like his hands were tied and he would take care of the children. He did a lot of sound-bite stuff, but they didn’t care about that. They were extremely disappointed with the experience.”

Where will these kids swim now? They can use the newer pool at the Arbor Hill Community Center, the mayor has suggested. Kelley was skeptical.

“It’s an empty solution,” she said. “What he’s saying is they’re going to do busing to some facility in Arbor Hill. I’ll believe it when I see it.”

At its Dec. 20 meeting, council members are expected to finalize Albany’s 2011 budget. It is possible to override Jennings’ veto, but unlikely, unless some of them change their minds— especially since “yes” voter Anton Konev (Ward 11) is overseas visiting family.

“I don’t think we have 10 votes to override a veto,” said Councilman Dominic Calsolaro (Ward 1), who unsuccessfully proposed rerouting $140,000 from the Albany Municipal Golf Course budget toward the bathhouse.

“To me it’s priorities,” he said. “It’s very disturbing. It’s the mayor turning his back on the South End even further.”

Councilman Frank Commisso, representing Ward 15, said he supports the mayor’s veto.

“I don’t think that the city has the money to keep that facility open,” he said. “You had an irresponsible budget from the mayor’s office and the council actually made it worse.”

Councilman Ronald Bailey (Ward 3) agreed.

“That bathhouse should have been taken care of years ago, before the city got into $23 million worth of debt,” he said adding he thought the building should be sold. “Let someone else take that building and restore it.”

Public Bath No. 2 can become the anchor for a South End community center, suggested Councilman Frank Sano (Ward 9), who sponsored the amendment to keep the bathhouse open.

“It’s not in my DNA to cut recreation,” said Sano, a physical education teacher and lifeguard. “Here, was unfortunately a gem that was let gone too far. I doubt that we have the necessary votes to turn the override. The fight isn’t over here. Let us try to find some grants. I’m not going to give up working with Albany Historical to try and find some money.”

“We want to see it saved,” said Holland. “We’re begging them to please maintain the building. We don’t want to see it be closed and have deferred maintenance and then have a worse situation than we have now.”

—Laurie Lynn Fischer

Preparing for Health Care Reform

Advocates offer ideas to help the state prepare for the Affordable Care Act

Even as Congressional Republicans are vowing to do everything in their power to overturn the health-care-reform bill passed by the Democratic majority last March, some of the changes in the Affordable Care Act have already begun to take effect. Coverage has already been expanded for young adults, Medicare drug rebates have gone out to seniors and insurance plans for patients with preexisting conditions have been made available.

Some provisions of the new legislation will be carried out by individual states, such as the creation of state-based health-insurance exchange programs. According to the federal government, the exchanges will be available for anyone who is unable to get insurance through their employer, enabling them to “buy insurance directly in . . . a new transparent and competitive insurance marketplace where individuals and small businesses can buy affordable and qualified health benefit plans.” Even though the state-based exchanges are not required to be fully operational until 2014, a coalition of concerned health care advocates in New York have already begun to champion certain standards that they believe are necessary to “realize the promise of quality, affordable health care for all.”

Health Care For All New York (HCFANY) is a statewide coalition comprising more than 100 organizations in New York, including the American Cancer Society, Children’s Defense Fund New York, the New York Immigration Coalition and New Yorkers For Accessible Health Care. The coalition, formed in 2007, began addressing the new health-care-reform laws over the summer.

“There is a lot of flexibility in terms of how they choose to set up the exchange,” said Sherry Tomasky, the regional advocacy director for the American Cancer Society and spokeswoman for HCFANY. “The standards that our coalition put forth are designed to maximize the benefits of the exchange so that consumers can get what they need and get it easily.”

“We went through a deliberation process and brainstormed about what we wanted to see happen,” she continued. “Then we came up with a set of recommendations and went through a series of meetings where we tried to hone them down, group similar ideas and identify the top five standards that we think represent ways that the exchange ought to operate for the benefit of consumers. There are certain things that we couldn’t address—things that get very specific regarding certain benefits and cost-sharing structures—but, when the time comes, we are certainly prepared to do that. For now, we wanted the standards to be broad and to benefit the maximum number of consumers possible; and we wanted them to be something that state legislators and state regulators could easily understand.”

The five standards put forth by HCAFNY in a press conference on Dec. 1 are broad, but each has specific rationale for being included.

The first standard calls for a single statewide exchange. According to Tomasky, there is no guarantee under the new legislation that the required exchange would not be split up by insurers. “Private insurer companies would love it if the exchanges were divided; it allows them to reduce the risk pool, which allows them to raise prices. One statewide exchange that everybody—no matter how sick or how healthy—was part of would create the broadest base risk pool. And when you spread risk, you reduce prices.”

The second standard calls for an exchange that offers quality and affordable benefits. Tomasky says this one is self-explanatory, but that New York currently has health insurance mandates that may not be included in the federal requirements for the exchange. In this case, HCFANY believes that New York should maintain standards that exceed the federal minimums.

The third standard calls for an exchange that is easy to navigate. “It’s no secret that insurance is an incredibly complex industry,” Tomasky said. Citing the convoluted application process as an example, she said there should be “one entry point” through which every New Yorker can easily apply for coverage.

The fourth standard would be to ensure that the exchange builds on the success of New York’s public programs. Touting the success of New York state’s public insurance programs, such as Child Health Plus, Tomasky said that HCFANY “wants to make sure that those public insurance programs remain as strong as they are right now, because we don’t know what the federal government will set in terms of a floor for what public programs need to offer within the exchange.”

The final standard is concerned with equal access for everyone, regardless of “race, ethnicity, gender, disability, language, sexual orientation and gender identity, and immigration status.” An assertion that abortion coverage should be protected is expected to cause debate.

Although the exchange will not take effect until 2014, Tomasky said that many of the decisions will have to be made during the coming legislative session. “We’re putting these out there now to catch the attention of Andrew Cuomo and his team and to put it on the radar screen of the insurance department; we want to share this with the Legislature as well. Those are the three key stakeholders in creating the structure of the exchange and, within the next few months, there’s going to be huge decisions made in New York state. That’s why we wanted to get this out there now.”

The state insurance department issued a supportive statement.

“The insurance department supports the development of an insurance exchange that is a viable alternative for consumers who need access to affordable, quality health insurance coverage,” said insurance superintendent James Wrynn. We look forward to working with consumer groups to make sure the interests of consumers are addressed when the new insurance exchange is launched.”

—Ali Hibbs

Loose Ends

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