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Questions That Bother Us So

We can’t tell you why the sky is blue or why chickens don’t fly, but thanks to our team of crack researchers, we can tell you what’s going on at the NL Industries site, who uses the Taconic Parkway, and what happened to the Lark Street Dunkin’ Donuts

By Travis Durfee, Erik Hage, Stephen Leon, Kate Sipher and Erin Sullivan

What’s going on with the cleanup of the toxic mess at the former NL Industries site in Colonie?

When we checked in at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Web site, we were unable to come up with a whole lot of current information on the status of the cleanup effort at the former NL Industries site in Colonie.

Until it was closed by federal officials in 1983 for spraying uranium dust all over the neighborhood where it was located, National Lead Industries occupied the 11-acre site on the 1100 block of Central Avenue and used it to convert depleted uranium into ammunition and airplane parts. After NL pulled out, it left behind tons of nasty lead- and uranium-tainted soil and 200 buried drums of radioactive waste. Between 1984 and 1997, the U.S. Department of Energy was in charge of the site, and it demolished all of the NL Industries buildings and remediated contamination at 53 residential and business properties in the area. In 1997, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took control of the NL Industries and was charged with its cleanup. One of the first orders of business? Find a way to bury the contamination rather than ship it out of town.

A couple of years ago, Assemblyman Bob Prentiss (R-C-Colonie) led a neighborhood charge to discourage the U.S. Army Corps from disposing of the contaminated materials in an on-site dump. Essentially, Prentiss and his neighborhood said, that would have created a 24-foot-high, 2-acre toxic-waste dump on the very spot that the U.S. Army Corps was supposed to be cleaning up.

Things have been very quiet around NL Industries the past couple of years, and as columnist Al Quaglieri pointed out [Al Things Considered, June 13], there’s not much information at the Army Corps’ Web site (www.nan.usace.army.mil) to clue citizens in on the progress being made there.

So we did a little checking around, and here’s what we found:

A new soil-remediation policy for the NL Industries site was finalized in December 2001, which called for a large-scale excavation and disposal of contaminated materials found at the site. The materials would be trucked and disposed of off-site due to “community concerns about the original plan.” Under the new plan, the soil cleanup goals are as follows: 35 picocuries per gram of soil for uranium-238; 450 milligrams per kilogram of soil for lead; 1,912 milligrams per kilogram of soil for copper; and 7.4 milligrams per kilogram of soil for arsenic. Two feet of clean soil will be placed over contaminated areas; when cleanup is complete, the site is expected to be safe for unrestricted residential, commercial, industrial and recreational uses.

“We have planned a public meeting in mid-September, and we’re going to continue to excavate and treat and dispose of soil via rail,” says James Moore, project manager of the NL site. “So far to date, we have excavated a total of 53,000 cubic yards of soil. As of this year, 8,800. We have shipped off-site this year app 15,000 cubic yards of soil.”

Moore says that the project appears to be targeted for completion in the Army Corps’ 2004/05 fiscal year.

“Right now we’re currently planning that the soil-remediation efforts will be complete at the end of fiscal year 2004,” he says. “So figure we’ve got another two years left. Things are going very well. I’m very pleased.”

Why isn’t there one single bookstore in that huge expanse of real estate they call the Crossgates Mall?

It struck us that Crossgates Mall has no bookstore. After scouring the directory several times and thinking “I must be missing something,” our researcher inquired at the customer service desk. He was sure that, somewhere in this cavernous, brave new world of goods, there had to be a bookseller. The conversation went something like this:

“Does the mall have a bookstore?”

“No, we don’t.”

“Really? Do you know why that is?”

“No.”

“Do you get asked this question a lot?”

This was met with the kind of nod that can only come from someone who has been asked this question a lot.

Some might attribute Crossgates’ lack of a bookstore to the presence of large area retailers such as Borders and Barnes & Noble. Nevertheless, Colonie Center, which sits in close proximity to both of those stores, has a bookstore, as do other Capital Region shopping centers such as Rotterdam Square Mall. But nowhere in Crossgates’ sprawling acreage, which encompasses 1.5 million square feet and 300-plus stores (that run the gamut from Yankee Candle Co. to Nordic Track to Orange Julius to Pottery Barn to you-name-it) is there a single bookseller.

Why is this so? Crossgates management declined to return several phone calls, but Patrick White, a manager at Borders in Albany, breaks it down succinctly: “Rent.” White, who used to manage the Lauriat’s bookstore in Crossgates (which left the mall in ’99), points out that it’s expensive for bookstores to maintain “the inventory that’s necessary to satisfy a customer’s needs.” As many know, Crossgates is owned by Northeast mall-company-on-steroids Pyramid Cos., which is behind such other commercially strong, well-located venues as the Carousel Center in Syracuse and the Palisades Center in Rockland—places that have extensive waiting lists for space. And, as one might imagine, the bustling, massive Crossgates Mall, which expanded considerably beyond its already formidable dimensions in 1994, is prime, mega-priced real estate, and therefore prohibitive to many booksellers.

Where does Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings get that dark, savage tan?

This is no “does-he-or-doesn’t-he?” question. No one in Albany—the city where winter seems to last for nine of the 12 calendar months—could ever maintain a tan like our mayor’s without a little boost. The question is, what is our mayor’s bronzing method of choice?

Tan-in-a-can? Long weekends spent on the beaches of Ft. Lauderdale? (Southwest does fly there, ya know.) Nivea bronzing lotion? The tanning beds at Sunsations?

OK, so we didn’t have the—ahem—balls to ask our fair mayor this question directly. But we did have the spineless audacity to ask a number of people we thought to be in the know about some of the mayor’s more intimate affairs. We got the following answers:

“What do you mean? Is this a joke?” followed by a hangup.

“I don’t know the answer to that question,” another person told us. “I know people who do. But I don’t know anyone who would spill it to you.”

Damn, we thought. This question may bother us forever. Until we ran into a person who claimed to have the inside track on the mayor’s trademark glow.

“He has a tanning bed in his house,” this person told us. “I’ve seen it myself, and I’ve seen them change the bulbs.” Interesting, we thought. And though this little bit of gossip is unsubstantiated, unimportant and altogether uninteresting, we receive a strange bit of satisfaction mulling over the image of Jennings in his own private tanning hut. The question that bothers us now, of course, is whether Jennings does his tanning in his briefs or in the buff.


Nothing to see here: the FBI headquarters in Albany. Photo by Joe Putrock

What does the FBI do in that huge building in Albany?

The answer to this question is not as exciting as we had hoped. While we were imagining that behind the fortress-like doors of the massive building on McCarty Avenue in Albany all manner of X-Files type excitement was going on, it turns out that nothing of the sort happens there. Rather, according to law enforcement coordinator and acting media relations coordinator Lisa Massaroni, the FBI’s Albany office performs your standard, run-of-the-mill federal-agenty tasks.

“Obviously, we investigate federal crimes,” she told us.

“Well, of course,” we said. But why the humongous, Gotham City building?

“Well that’s the headquarters building,” she tells us. “The Albany division territory covers as far west as Syracuse, and as far south as Kingston and parts of the state of Vermont. There are smaller resident agencies within the territory, but the building in Albany is the headquarters. So that’s why it’s a bigger building.”

Like we said, not terribly exciting.


Oh, black water: the reflecting pools at the Empire State Plaza. Photo by Joe Putrock

Why is the water in the Empire State Plaza reflecting pools black?

When they drain these pools every fall, it never ceases to confound: All summer long, the water in the reflecting fountains is black, yet the bottom of the pools is a bright, swimming-pool liner blue. To top it off, the water that sprays out the fountainheads in the center of the pools appears to be white. What gives?

Paula from the state Office of General Services was kind enough to give us the following answer: “We fill the pools with river water, so we add a black dye to retard the growth of algae and the collection of debris. There is no filtration system in the pools, so we need to do something to keep them cleaner. The water that comes out of the fountains appears to be white because of the spray heads. They disperse the water, so when it comes out into the air, it looks white.”

And if you’re one of those Empire State Plaza visitors who likes to let Fido play fetch in the fountains, not to worry about his well-being: Paula says that the dye that turns the water black is “environmentally friendly and nontoxic.”

Why the hell is the Rapp Road Landfill always burning?

Since days of yore, a few of the more literally burning questions bothering we alt-journalists is the matter of the flames leaping from Rapp Road landfill and whether or not the source of said flames is being used for any productive purposes.

Well the source is methane, folks. The natural decomposition of the rubbish discarded by the residents of Rensselaer, Watervliet and Cohoes, the towns of Berne, Bethlehem, Knox, Guilderland, New Scotland and Westerlo and the village of Green Island produces enough of the methane gas that a company from Minnesota came in six years ago and erected an electrical generating station to harness the potential of this renewable fuel source.

No need to fret over the 20-foot flare to the side of I-90 westbound sporadically exuding flames monstrous enough to roast a buffalo—it’s only temporary. Willard Bruce, commissioner of Albany’s Department of General Services, said the torch will continue to exist only until the generating station finds its new, permanent home, on-site at the landfill.

Trond Aschetoug, general manager of Minnesota Methane, the company in charge of harvesting trash gas, said the landfill generates 1.9 megawatts of electricity per hour, enough to power some 2,000 homes per month. The electricity created from the rotting garbage’s breakdown is sold to Niagara Mohawk and pumped into the area’s general power grid, resold to you and used to power the lamp under which this article is read.

So the city of Albany didn’t require/strongly suggest that Minnesota Methane or NiMo donate/invest some free/discounted electricity in the downtown area to aid revitalization projects, lure prospective businesses owners, or attract homebuyers or renovators—but at least they are making some return on their waste.

How much land remains undeveloped in the Albany Pine Bush?

That’s a good question. And though we do not have an exact answer, we can give you the ballpark estimate. The Albany Pine Bush originally encompassed 26,000 or so acres. Over time, much of that sensitive ecological environment has been developed, strip malled, landfilled or otherwise ruined by urban sprawl. At last count, the Albany Pine Bush Preserve contained a mere 2,000 to 3,000 acres of undeveloped land. But the Save the Pine Bush group and the Pine Bush Preserve Commission are always looking for new ways to add scraps of land to the preserve. The goal is to eventually obtain 4,000 acres of preserve land that will be protected from development.

Has Steuben Place Partners been making payments on the $2.4 million it currently owes the city of Albany?

No.

Steuben Place Partners made headlines and aroused citizen concern in the late ’90s when its failure to make payments on a loan from the city put Albany’s federal Community Development Block Grant funds in jeopardy. In a sweetheart deal arranged through the administration of former Albany Mayor Thomas Whalen, the block grants were used as collateral to back a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development loan, funneled through the City of Albany Industrial Development Agency, to Steuben Place Partners, which owns the building housing the Steuben Club. A few years ago, the financially troubled partnership struck a refinancing deal with the city to make a lump-sum payment on the loan of $600,000; but as part of that settlement, SPP is under no specific obligation to make regular payments on the outstanding balance—and in fact has made no further payments.

According to George Leveille, Albany’s commissioner of development and planning, the Albany IDA still owes HUD about $1.3 million on the original loan, but is well-funded and is making regular semiannual payments. In other words, he says, the city’s community block-grant monies are no longer in jeopardy.

But will the city ever recover its loan money? Only if Steuben Place Partners finds a way to profit from the Steuben Club property. “There’s no way they can make any money on this property without paying us first,” says Leveille. “The bad news is that if they don’t ever recover the investment they made on this real estate, they’ll never pay us back.”


The train stops here: the Rensselaer Rail Station. Photo by Joe Putrock

Why does Amtrak go to Rensselaer and not Albany?

Local historian and state Assemblyman Jack McEneny explained the reason for this, as he also does, apparently, on page 166 of his book Albany: Capital City on the Hudson. When the Empire State Plaza was built in 1962, Nelson Rockefeller’s vision was that it reside on the hill between his pad, at the Governor’s Mansion, and his job, at the Capitol. According to McEneny, that’s why the Plaza, then known as the South Mall (Washington, D.C. style) because it extended south from the Capitol, wasn’t put along the river instead of where it went—smack dab in the middle of a neighborhood, displacing more than 7,200 people.

Getting to the train issue: Workers and visitors alike needed a way in to this seemingly impenetrable plaza, so I-787 came into being. But the road that would bring folks into and out of this marble mall, was built over the train tracks that, at that time, brought train travelers into and out of Albany’s Union Station—a splendid depot on this side of the river. Once the tracks were covered, the station moved across the creek, to, as McEneny puts it, “that cheesebox in Rennselaer.” The last train pulled out of Union Station in December 1968, and the Union Station building was empty for a decade after that; however, the structure has since been brought back to some semblance of glory as Peter D. Kiernan Plaza.

Why does the I-90 exit leading onto Albany’s Henry Johnson Boulevard still, after all these years, look like an unfinished construction project?

Because it is.

It’s weird enough how the exit’s design feeds cars so clumsily from the interstate to the city street, featuring, at one point, a too-wide ramp that narrows suddenly, guided by construction barriers that have been there as long as we can remember. It’s even weirder when you notice the section of pavement that heads straight into the side of a hill.

That, and a couple of other roadway oddities in the city, are the enduring results of the failure—more than 25 years ago—of highway planners’ overwrought scheme to build a crosstown arterial through the heart of the city, tunneling under Washington Park in the process. Unexpectedly, vehement citizen resistance halted the project, which would have connected the Arbor Hill exit on I-90 to New York Thruway Exit 23 at the southern end of the city. Meanwhile, another interchange under Washington Park would have connected the arterial to the I-787 exit that instead feeds motorists through the bowels of the Empire State Plaza to . . . a U-turn back under the plaza, or a modest little ramp onto one-way Swan Street.

Another little oddity left behind by the project’s cancellation was an unusually sharp curve, since corrected, at the entrance to I-787 at McCarty and Hoffman avenues. And it’s downright frightening to imagine what the finished project would have wrought, especially when you consider that (A) at some point between Washington Park and Thruway Exit 23, the arterial was to come out of the ground and rise over the city on a viaduct, and (B) air vents resembling small smokestacks would have poked out of the ground in Washington Park to provide fresh air to the carbon-monoxide-choked tunnels below.

One more piece of fallout from the whole mess was that I-787, originally planned for the Rensselaer side of the river, was hastily moved to the Albany side. And that highway, like the rest of the project that was never built, is now widely considered a design disaster.


Now you see it, now you don’t: former site of the Lark Street Dunkin’ Donuts. Photo by Joe Putrock

What happened to the Lark Street Rankin’, er, Dunkin’ Donuts?

There are things in life you just expect will be. The sun will rise. The sun will set. The cat will piss behind the couch. The Lark Street Dunkin’ Donuts will always mark the northwest corner of Lark Street and Madison Avenue. What are we getting at? Well, the cat’s healthy as a horse, and there’s a gaping hole where my beloved donuts used to be. Someone stole the Dunkin’ Donuts. It was there on my walk to work, but gone by the time I passed in the evening. Reduced to sweet and sticky rubble—a pile of powdered sugar and jimmies.

But never fear, the Coolattas again will flow from that very location—just from a newer, historic-neighborhood friendly building (it will be more in keeping with the character of the neighborhood, we’ve been told) sporting a brick exterior. Also, expect a more efficient use of the inside space, with additional counters (and, hopefully, more servers). The new building should be up and running some time in August. Until then, there’s a hole where that four-in-the-morning sickly sweet smell used to be.

Where do all the doggies in Albany live?

It’s been a burning question burning in our bellies for ages. How the hell do all of the city’s dogs fit into the three available pet-friendly apartments? It doesn’t add up. It’s not possible that all of the park’s stick slingers fall into the homeowner category. It just can’t be. So in an attempt to find the answer to this oh-so-vexing question, we took to the parks, we took to streets, we took to the stoops. But, lo and behold, no one was talking. Mum’s the word on the doggie digs. In the parks, pet owners mimicked their wary beasts, eyeing us distrustfully and cautiously, then sprinting in the other direction—Dewdrop in tow. On the streets, dog-walkers feigned hearing affliction. On their stoops, they went inside.

Perhaps these animals are living on the edge of the law—in apartments not accepting of their canineness, but taking it nonetheless. Is it just a big don’t-ask-don’t-tell scheme? We don’t know. No one will talk. Not even Dewdrop.

What are the prospects for some kind of light-rail or commuter-rail transit coming to the Capital Region?

Not so good, in the near future.

For one thing, our local leaders seem unlikely to move beyond conventional wisdom on transportation issues, which says, in general, that the automobile infrastructure merits endless subsidy while mass-transit projects must meet stringent cost-justification guidelines.

Still, we almost had a commuter rail “demonstration” project, a line running on existing track from Saratoga to Albany, for which some federal funds had been earmarked. But there was political infighting over whether the line would swing through Saratoga County over to Mechanicville and down to Albany, or follow a route through Schenectady. And when the CDTA added up the costs, it realized there wasn’t enough funding to go through with it. Now, such a “demonstration” project—sort of a test run—is considered even less likely to happen, as rail projects are just too costly for a short-term commitment.

Also, the implementation of a modern light-rail line along the Route 5 corridor between Schenectady and Albany—something that has been bandied about over the last five years or so—is unlikely in the near term, according to the Capital District Transportation Committee’s John Poorman. To make a long story short, such a line might be justified if it would bring significant new economic development to transit “nodes” that might develop along the line; but local experts are skeptical that the Route 5 corridor will grow enough to meet that requirement (or even reverse its current decline).

More likely, says Poorman, is that the region might soon see something called “bus rapid transit,” sort of a hybrid mixing the features of rail and conventional bus transit: Buses would be used, but on dedicated lanes, with formal station stops, and higher speeds between stops.

So rail buffs, don’t get your hopes up, and get used to using those buses. Or move to Portland.

Who uses the Taconic Parkway?

Nobody.

OK, we exaggerate. But as anybody can attest who does use the upper portion of this roadway—which snakes through the rolling hills of Columbia and Dutchess counties on its way to . . . well, somewhere in Westchester—the Taconic often is virtually deserted. For a divided highway that more or less parallels its counterpart across the Hudson, the southern leg of the New York Thruway, it may seem strange that the Taconic doesn’t pick up more of the Thruway’s traffic—after all, the Thruway is more crowded and less scenic, and has tolls.

Our researchers couldn’t find exact telltale statistics or a definitive explanation for the Taconic’s apparent underuse, but were offered a clue in the form of a reminder of the road’s historical and social origins. Like other “parkways,” the Taconic comes from an era (think Robert Moses) when highways typically were designed primarily for affluent city dwellers escaping to someplace more pleasant. Some were built with the destination in mind—such as Moses’ highways that eviscerated entire New York City neighborhoods so that rich people could get quickly to Long Island beaches—while the parkways were meant to be destinations in themselves, offering lovely countryside vistas, little if any congestion, and perhaps an inviting spot to stop for a picnic.

So the Taconic, with its narrow lanes (and only two of them on each side), its too-sharp curves, and its general lack of focus (it doesn’t really go directly from anyplace to anyplace), is an anachronism that simply doesn’t fit the way we live today—or at least, the way highway planners believe we should live today. And as befits an anachronism, the Taconic stretches sleepily through hills and forests, overlooked and neglected by most of the driving public, its in-median service stations long-since closed. And ironically, with its lovely views, lack of traffic, and easy access to any number of spots for a quiet Sunday picnic, it is perhaps everything it was originally designed to be.

How did that big old U-Haul truck get on top of that big old U-Haul building?

The fable passed down through generations of U-Haul workers is: a crane.


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