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A tale of two Pearl Streets. Photo by Joe Putrock

Study? What Study?

Buried report suggests that Arbor Hill isn’t getting a fair share of city funds

Arbor Hill residents say a report on the existing conditions of their community, while dismissed by the city, is proof that their blighted neighborhood needs change.

“This city is a poster child of how government truly underdevelops low-income areas,” said Aaron Mair of the Arbor Hill Concerned Citizens neighborhood group. “Arbor Hill does not look this way because of the people, it looks this way because of City Hall.”

Mair’s voice is representative of the typical Arbor Hill resident as described by Dennison Associates Inc. in a draft of its report on the neighborhood, which was recently made public. The Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm was commissioned by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, at the City of Albany’s request, to assess the needs of one of its poorest neighborhoods.

“The residents of the Arbor Hill area are generally discouraged by the conditions and direction of their neighborhood environment,” states the report. “As prerequisites to any plan of action, residents feel the City of Albany must fundamentally change its attitude toward and relationship with Arbor Hill.”

One of the Dennison report’s most forthright recommendations is for the city to develop a comprehensive physical improvement plan for sidewalks, streets and public spaces in Arbor Hill.

According to information compiled by the Arbor Hill Neighborhood Assessment Group (AHNAG), a new advisory committee consisting of 25 members appointed by Mayor Jerry Jennings, the city has spent considerable money in Arbor Hill on public infrastructure projects over the past three years. In fact, AHNAG reports that the amount jumped from June 2001 to May 2002, during which time more than $8 million was spent on Arbor Hill public-works projects, which included street and sidewalk repairs and the Pearl Street renovations. That amount almost doubled what was spent on similar projects over the previous two years.

But Mair counters that the money was not spent in the residential Arbor Hill neighborhoods, but rather the commercial North Pearl Street district.

“The majority of the money spent in Arbor Hill was spent on the consumption patterns of commuters from other areas,” Mair said. “The beer improvement district and the new pedestrian bridge are all in Arbor Hill, and the mayor boasts that $423 million were spent in that end of the city, but he doesn’t caveat it by saying it was all spent on suburban businesses and suburban entertainment.”

George Leveille, commissioner of the Albany Local Development Corporation, said the information is misleading without looking at the city’s long-term reconstruction projects for streets and sidewalks citywide.

“This project started 10 years ago,” Leveille said. “So that’s why you see that giant public improvements figure. It was really the completion of that phase that actually impacted the Arbor Hill neighborhood.”

Even though money spent in Arbor Hill on housing and public infrastructure projects has been uneven over the past three years, Leveille said, spending on other areas has increased.

“In the last three years, public investment in the areas of community services and youth services have increased every year,” he said. “The real facts are that government spending has increased consistently over the last three years; it’s the large private sector real estate projects that showed a drop in investment.”

According to Mair, Dennison Associates Inc. was dismissed because its report contained information city officials did not want to hear, particularly the concerns of neighborhood residents. Dennison represents the second time a consulting firm came in to look at Arbor Hill and was fired by the city. The first consulting group was hired by Norstar Development USA in 2000 to assess resident concerns regarding the North Swan Street redevelopment project. The city has since formed AHNAG and has been working with a third consulting team, the Boston-based firm Community Builders.

“With the Dennison report, the city realized that their neglect was so pervasive, they had to kill the messenger,” Mair said. “This new NAG (Neighborhood Assessment Group) is not about collecting information, evidence and fact. It’s about, How do you whitewash city statistics, and claims about [how] they spent money, but they don’t want to explain who it went to?”

Though they view it differently, Mair and Leveille agree on one point—the collection of new information and evidence stating Arbor Hill’s need for improvement is over. Leveille said the direction of the city’s plan for revitalizing Arbor Hill has shifted gears.

“We were looking to expand the scope,” Leveille said. “We were looking to do much more of a strategic planning effort, much more of an urban-design-related piece. Dennison’s forte was in public participation, a much more limited scope.”

Though Leveille acknowledged that the Dennison report is full of information on the existing conditions of Arbor Hill, he is unsure how much of it will be helpful in the city’s new plan. Mair said dismissing this report shows that AHNAG and the city are not genuinely interested in bettering the community, because they continue to ignore neighborhood residents.

“The chairmen of the NAG aren’t from Arbor Hill, they’re from Latham and Delmar,” Mair said. “The Dennison report has community input, and the city one under Community Builders has no community input. Both are grim, but one says ‘We don’t want to hear from the people impacted by this,’ and it gives them an opportunity to circulate that and get more money and pour it into the beer improvement district.”

—Travis Durfee

Written in Cement

Texas plant touted by St. Lawrence Cement proponents cited for multiple environmental violations

‘We used to have a beautiful life here,” said Sue Pope of her home in Midlothian, Texas. It was not many years ago when Pope and her family grew crops and had knee-high grass outside their home for their horses to graze on.

But Pope said that things have changed since a Holcim cement plant, one of three such plants near Pope’s house, moved into Midlothian.

“Sometimes you wake up in the middle of the night coughing your head off,” said Pope. “This has a direct effect on your crops . . . so much sulfur being released, it effects the yield. I developed asthma about eight years ago. I know I sound cynical, it’s just hard to tell you how much it’s affected our family and neighbors.”

“I assure you that my household spent more than $111,000 for medical expenses,” said Pope.

Many activists fear this will be the case in Hudson if St. Lawrence Cement goes through with its proposal to close its Catskill plant and open a new, larger facility across the Hudson River in Greenport.

In August 2000, SLC flew Hudson-area reporters and residents to the Midlothian plant to tout Holcim’s use of new technology to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions. Holcim is a multinational cement corporation that owns most of SLC’s stock. SLC contends that a new factory in Greenport would use similar technology to operate more cleanly, while bringing new jobs to the area.

In an ironic twist that was not lost on the Columbia County opponents of SLC, the company’s corporate parent agreed to pay a $223,125 settlement on Aug. 21 for 15 environmental violations at the Midlothian plant.

Holcim was penalized for exceeding air emissions limits for most of the same pollutants that critics in Hudson fear will contaminate the Hudson Valley region: nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide, among others. Holcim also failed to properly monitor its emissions and reported “erroneous” emissions for nine years, which the company blamed on a calculation error.

Although the connection between Holcim and SLC seemed clear to some Columbia County residents in 2000, spokesmen for both companies now maintain that the two are separate entities.

“They [Holcim] have nothing to do with the way we run our plant, and they have nothing to do with the way we permit,” said Dan Odescalchi of SLC. “Operationally, the companies are run with their own management teams.”

Sam Pratt, director of the local citizens’ group Friends of Hudson, said that employees move between the two companies, which share the same board chairman. Most notably, the former director for SLC’s Catskill and Greenport projects now works for Holcim in Colorado.

“They were perfectly happy at the time,” said Pratt, “to score some public relations points on what, at the time, appeared to be a well-run plant. Now it’s blown up in their faces.”

According to Tom Chizmadia, a spokesman for Holcim, the violations are the unfortunate result of the company’s ambitious attempt to reduce pollution in northern Texas. Because their permit to operate in the area required them to maintain unmanageably low emissions levels, Chizmadia explained, Holcim assumed their new technology allowed them to operate well below the state’s requirements.

“If SUVs were to have a required miles per gallon level of 40,” Chizmadia said, “what we did was the equivalent of saying, ‘We’re going to make an SUV that gets 80 miles to a gallon.’ What we came in with was a 60. Was it better than 40? Sure it is, but it’s not the 80 that we said we were going to meet.”

Chizmadia also said the emissions were not high enough to have any environmental or health impact.

Pratt noted that Holcim has been punished and fined for violations in other states and in Canada. TNRCC spokeswoman Adria Dawidczik confirmed that Texas has fined Holcim before.

“Among a network of nearly two dozen kiln activists that we’re dealing with,” Pratt said, “about half of them are dealing with Holcim facilities. We have yet, really, to find a Holcim [or] St. Lawrence plant that hasn’t had these kinds of problems.”

Other details tie Midlothian to Hudson. The Midlothian plant was expanded with similar environmental and economic promises, and both have certain rural appeals.

“I run a bed-and-breakfast,” said Deborah Bowen, owner of Inn at Green River near the potential Greenport site, “so obviously my whole livelihood is based on people wanting to come to Columbia County because it’s a beautiful rural area and the air is clean and fresh.”

A bucolic atmosphere also drew Holcim to Midlothian, Pope said, but for different reasons. “The people are scattered, said Pope. “You just buy and pay a certain number of politicians and you’ve got a free ride.”

—David Riley

John Whipple

Peace Train

With the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks less than two weeks away, a group of individuals have embarked on a 17-day journey to the bring people of different faiths together and hear prayers renouncing fear and hatred. On Aug. 25, 25 people left from Schenectady and headed to Albany in the first leg of the Interfaith Peace Walk. They will walk 15 to 20 miles each day until Sept. 11, when they will arrive in New York City for a candlelight vigil in Union Square. Along the way, the band of peace walkers will stop at worship centers for various institutions of faith in four states.

Like Water for Gravel

Hudson residents fear proposed mining operation will endanger backup water supply

‘I read every day in The New York Times about a worldwide water shortage,” said John Davis, who lives in Hudson. “Just last month the city asked us not to water our flowers or cars because the main reservoir is running low. They expect us to save water—at the same time they are selling off our water?”

The water resource Davis is referring to is Hudson’s backup supply, which sits on a quarry located on Newman Road just outside of the city limits. Presently the city, which owns the land, is negotiating a lease-purchase agreement with local gravel mining company, Colarusso and Son. The deal would allow the mining company to lease the quarry, where it would be permitted to mine rock from the land.

According to Charles Butterworth, superintendent of public works for the city of Hudson, the deal would not include the backup supply. “The gravel mining company would not have rights to that water, just the land,” said Butterworth. “The city would retain the rights to the water for use as a backup water supply at all times. However, if the mining company can present an acceptable alternative water supply, then we wouldn’t need the current supply.”

The lease agreement between Hudson and Colarusso would run for 40 years, and the city looks to net about $8 million from the deal. Butterworth said that money earned would be used to pay for a new water treatment system for the city.

But residents are concerned that the contract would allow Colarusso to buy the water supply when the lease is up in 40 years. And many contend that the current contracts do not stipulate otherwise.

“This is a wonderful water source,” said John Flynn, a retired engineer who has lived in Hudson his whole life. “They claim they have never taken any water from this in over 32 years, yet periodically we have water shortages. I think the need for this water supply will only increase in the future.”

Further, many argue that mining so close to the water could have adverse effects on the supply. “A really good way to pollute a water supply is by mining,” said Davis, who is also the founder of the Hudson New Democrats. “If they pollute that water supply, it is not going to be easy to unpollute it. As far as I am concerned, it is just penny-wise and pound foolish. I think that is going to be a very valuable resource to the city someday.”

Michael Veretis, president of the Hudson City Council, said that the city conducted two studies to determine if mining could contaminate the water. “Two studies done by geologists found that mining that property would not have adverse effects on the water,” said Veretis. He added that Calorusso would be held responsible if it does pollute the water supply.

Alderwoman Judy Meyer said that there are many clauses and protective aspects that have been negotiated over time to protect the water supply.

But residents would like to see where these protections are stipulated in the current contracts. “I wish we could see all of these things that they have supposedly done,” said Davis. “Why don’t they put these things into the contract? That would ensure that our water supply would be safe. We have not seen anything like that.”

The Hudson Common Council was expected to vote on the fate of the quarry on Tuesday (Aug. 27), but decided to put off the decision for another week.

“When something doesn’t make sense,” said Flynn, “you tend to wonder about it. It’s obvious that we have a need for this water, so why get rid of it or risk losing it?”

—Nancy Guerin

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