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Zoned Back Out

In yet another chapter in the ongoing battle between Bill McLaughlin and the Center Square Association, a lawsuit has entered the picture. Just as McLaughlin was about to start renovating his building, located at 57 Dove St. in Albany, his project was placed on hold.

The association has filed suit against the Albany Zoning Board of Appeals in hopes of overturning its February decision to give McLaughlin a variance to turn the top three floors of his building, which currently houses only a Laundromat on the ground floor, into three apartments.

However, current zoning laws for the neighborhood call for one- and two-family row houses only, which is what the association wants to see upheld.

“We are trying to preserve the character and integrity of the neighborhood,” said Alice Oldfather, president of the Center Square Association. “The more you turn buildings into rental units, the further you move away from that.”

She said that the association would like to see more homeowners rather than renters; allowing the zoning rules to be overturned, she says, sets a bad precedent.

But McLaughlin disagrees.

“I am trying to improve their neighborhoods by taking a boarded-up building and putting it back into shape and doing a historic job,” said McLaughlin. “But they [the association] would rather it remained boarded up.”

Part of McLaughlin’s appeal to the board was that the project was not economically viable unless he could convert the building into three units. He claimed economic hardship as the grounds for his variance.

“I am restoring it historically to what it once was,” said McLaughlin. “I’ve gone out and hired the best firms in the Capital District, and probably in the state of New York, to do this. We even brought in the state preservation people and now we have to stop because of this.”

But the neighborhood association isn’t buying his plea. Oldfather said that when McLaughlin bought the building, he knew what the zoning laws were. He shouldn’t have taken on the property, she contends, if he couldn’t have afforded to make the restoration within the guidelines of the zoning laws.

“It says that economic hardship cannot be self-created,” said Oldfather. “What this will say is that anyone can buy a building that they can’t afford with the plans of overriding the current zoning laws.”

But McLaughlin said that the zoning board looks at each application on a one-on-one basis.

“I restore things at a historically higher level than other people do, and you can look at any of my properties and see that,” said McLaughlin.


Access and Justice For All

The Legal Aid Society of New York State held an open house last Wednesday (April 17) to show off its new, more accessible office space at 55 Colvin Ave. in Albany.

For years the group was located at 155 Columbia St., just next to the Albany County family courthouse building. But according to Lillian Moy, executive director of Legal Aid, the organization thought it necessary to provide a more convenient location for its clients.

“As increasing numbers of poor, abused and disabled people turn to us as their only source of legal assistance, we need to ensure that they can access our services,” said Moy. “Our new offices are accessible to people with mobility impairments, and [are] located on several bus lines.”

Legal Aid is the oldest legal-services provider in the United States. The agency offers civil legal aid in urgent, noncriminal situations to low-income people.

Moy said that its services prevent greater social problems that result when the legal needs of the poor are not met, such as homelessness, poverty, and life-threatening abuse.

For example, she said, one client, an 86-year-old woman, received an eviction notice from her landlord. The woman had no place to go and very little money to pay for moving expenses. Legal Aid was able to negotiate with the landlord and buy her more time in her apartment.

“The extra time helped her find a new place to live, without her ending up in the streets,” said Moy. “It would have been very difficult for her to do that, had she been homeless.”

However, for years now the agency has been facing another problem: a lack of funding.

“Legal Aid doesn’t have enough money to provide service to all of those who are in need,” said Linda London, spokeswoman for the agency. “Just about four out of five people are eligible for our services. But at this point, we can only help one out of every five.”

The Albany office handles 5,807 cases a year. It has 16 attorneys employed full-time, and 235 private attorneys who take on pro bono cases.

Moy said that even if every private attorney in the state agreed to take one pro bono case a year, it still wouldn’t be enough to meet the needs of low-income people.

Ironically, this year’s theme for Law Day, May 1—the day designated by Congress to celebrate guaranteed rights under the law—is the celebration of freedom and equal justice for all.

“This issue is really what legal aid tries to address all year long,” said London.


Joe Putrock

Bombs Away

Activists marched up State Street in Albany on Friday night (April 19) in a candlelight vigil to protest the United States’ continued bombing on the island of Vieques. The U.S. Navy has been using Vieques, an island off the coast of Puerto Rico, as a training facility for over 60 years, despite continuous outrage by inhabitants. Many Vieques natives blame the bombings for an alarming increase in cancer and respiratory problems, and the harm done to the island’s tropical forests and beaches.

The demonstrators marched to the downtown campus of the University at Albany on Western Avenue for a send-off rally for those heading to Washington, D.C., for a national protest to call for an end to war and racism around the world. More than 150 people were loading buses headed for the nation’s capital as the protesters advocated for peace around the world, noting in particular Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq and Vieques.

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