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Let the makeover begin: Albany’s Lark Street. Photo by Joe Putrock

Fables of the Reconstruction

At last, all systems are go for the Lark Street upgrade

The reconstruction of Albany’s Lark Street—a project long fraught with accusations, disputes and angst—is set to start April 1.

Proponents of the plan were always in plentiful supply, but so were disgruntled residents and merchants, who accused the city a year ago of pulling a fast switch. The dispute started when Mayor Jerry Jennings announced that a $6.5 million grant originally slated for an ambitious, all-out rebuilding and widening of Lark Street would be used instead for a reconstruction project on New Scotland Avenue, near the mayor’s home.

Amid the furor—which always seemed to be fueled more by the sudden way the change was announced than by the change itself—Jennings promised that Lark Street would still get its due, and with much less disruption than the original plan. Now the city says it is living up to that promise.

Come fall, Lark Street should have new sidewalks, better lights, fewer overhead wires, new trees, new bicycle racks and some additional decorative touches such as granite crosswalks that are all packaged under the label “streetscape,” said Willard Bruce, Albany’s general services commissioner.

What Lark Street will not have is parking on both sides, buried utility wires and a mile of new utility pipes underground, ideas that many residents and merchants considered as good as promised last year.

It was never clear in last year’s debate whether those ideas had been tacitly approved by the city, or if they were the wish-list dreams of a planning group of residents and merchants that took on a life of their own. However, the city’s opinion that such ambitious and lengthy work would impede traffic and kill businesses on Lark Street eventually prevailed.

The fact that something, anything, is finally getting done is being greeted with relief.

“I think it’s great. I’m glad they’re finally doing it,” said Elissa Halloran, owner of Elissa Halloran Designs at 225 Lark, near the junction of Chestnut Street. “It’s been up in the air so long.”

Joe Romeo, owner of Romeo’s Gifts and one of the longest-surviving merchants on Lark Street, has seen the street go through good times and bad in his 18 years there. The graffiti that had started to appear on buildings along or near Lark Street is gone, he notes, and he credits the city with stricter enforcement action. But Lark Street itself could use some sprucing up, Romeo said.

“The sidewalks are not in good shape,” he said. “In front of my store, the sidewalk is tilted. The tree has lifted it.”

Both Halloran and Romeo have two concerns: parking and lighting. Both said that Lark Street needs better, brighter lights. And both said that with parking already tight on Lark, the street cannot afford to have either pedestrians or motorists inconvenienced. That’s a concern shared by Richard Conti, the Sixth Ward Common Council member.

“I’d like to see the project move forward and be completed with a minimum amount of disruption to the street, the business community and the surrounding neighborhoods,” Conti said. “We all know that there’s going to be a certain amount of disruption. The plan is that the street is never going to be completely shut down.”

The plan also calls for historic reproduction street lights to be installed on both sides of Lark, illuminating both sides of the street for the first time in decades and casting a brighter glow on the sidewalks and curbs, Conti said.

Preliminary work has already begun on the $2.6 million project, which is being financed as part of a bond issue by the city, said Bruce. Niagara Mohawk crews have been replacing underground gas pipes as a preventive step, because the city won’t allow a newly resurfaced street to be torn up in the first five years after construction for anything but a dire emergency.

The pipe replacement should be completed in time for the April 1 start date by Callanan Industries, the Schenectady-based general contractor.

“I’m just happy that we’re moving forward with this project,” Jennings said. “As far as I’m concerned, Lark Street is a very important main thoroughfare in the city.”

There are losers and winners in any construction project, and this one is no different. On the losing side: Lark Street’s existing trees, which have defied the normally dismal prognosis for urban greenery. Battered, abused and used as bike racks by humans and as bathrooms by dogs, the trees are for the most part flourishing so well that they are getting tangled in the utility wires.

However, the city consulted with tree experts at the Cornell University Cooperative Extension, and all agreed: If the sidewalk work didn’t kill the existing trees immediately, it would kill them in the next few years by injuring their roots, said Joseph Cunin, executive director of the Lark Street Business Improvement District. New trees will be planted when the project is finished.

On the winning side: Lark Street’s two warm-weather festivals, which are still slated to go forward. Art on Lark is scheduled for June 7, and Larkfest will be held Sept. 13.

“We have no intention of canceling them,” Cunin said.

—Darryl McGrath

Waiting for Action

Arbor Hill residents worry that neighborhood revitalization plans are stalling again

When three-fourths of the Arbor Hill Neighborhood Advisory Committee failed to show up for a committee meeting last week, residents expressed concern that the mayor’s plan to renew their neighborhood may be stalling.

“There is a reason why the community members outnumbered the committee members at that meeting,” said Aaron Mair of Arbor Hill Concerned Citizens. “We know the best community development plans are those shaped by the people who the development is supposed to benefit and, more importantly, have to live with the outcome.”

Presiding before about a dozen Arbor Hill residents, only six of 24 committee members attended the Jan. 22 meeting of the advisory committee, a neighborhood revitalization task force commissioned by Mayor Jerry Jennings and run by the developing firm the Community Builders, Inc.

Sue McCann, a vice president of Community Builders, agreed that committee attendance was poor and said it was “the lowest turnout of the committee’s seven or eight meetings.”

Particularly notable absences were Arbor Hill’s representatives from the Albany Common Council, Michael Brown and Sarah Curry-Cobb. Neither returned phone calls for this story.

For years, residents of Arbor Hill, one of Albany’s poorest districts, have cried for neighborhood improvements: more options for low-cost housing, increased youth services and beautification projects, just to name a few.

But members of the community say that working with the city on turning their neighborhood around has been frustrating. Typically, they say, city officials ignore residents’ ideas for improvements to Arbor Hill, instead trying to force their own revitalization ideas on the neighborhood.

The city has twice before hired private development firms—Norstar Development USA in 2000 and Dennison Associates in 2001—to evaluate the community’s needs and proceed with improvements, but each group’s assessments were successively abandoned. The city has since formed the neighborhood advisory committee and hired Community Builders, Inc. to take up the task of revitalizing Arbor Hill. But neighborhood residents feeling alienated from the process wonder if the city’s plan for Arbor Hill will live up to the firm’s namesake.

Draft improvements released at last week’s meeting included plans for the development of commercial space at the corners of North Swan Street and Clinton Avenue, and a cultural center near North Swan Street and Ten Broeck Place. Neighborhood resident Rodney Davis said the most controversial of all the proposals was the idea of constructing 80 low-income housing units on North Swan Street.

“Most residents were not opposed to new housing plans,” Davis said. “What they wanted to see was more opportunities for home ownership, not housing rental units.”

The draft plan calls for the construction of 60 one- or two-unit rental homes, costing $185,900 and $371,800 respectively, and 20 owner-oriented residences at $123,000 apiece. Neighborhood residents said the approximately $14 million earmarked for the new housing could be better spent.

“Why not invest this money in buying up abandoned or foreclosed property?” asked Mair. “At these prices, you could rehabilitate every single multifamily structure in Arbor Hill. The city has a chance [to create] 100-percent owner occupancy and independence in a community or an 80-percent rental [occupancy] and create a poverty ghetto.”

But McCann said that creating 100-
percent owner-occupancy housing in Arbor Hill would be taking things too far, too fast.

“There is currently only one homeowner on Swan Street,” McCann said. “Accomplishing that increase would involve selling far more homes in Arbor Hill than has been possible in the past, and we believe promising any higher number than [20] would be disingenuous because it probably wouldn’t be feasible.”

Mair questioned how easy it would be to sell new homes that cost $125,000 to build, considering the state of Arbor Hill’s real estate market. According to James Ader, executive vice president of the Greater Capitol Association of Realtors, of the 35 homes sold last year in Arbor Hill, the median sale price was $70,000. McCann said that the cost of these homes would need to be “written down significantly,” and that the neighborhood advisory committee would explore financing and construction options to keep costs low.

McCann said discussions about the future of Arbor Hill at this time are very preliminary, and she encourages community members to influence the process. Mair and Davis, who agreed that input from Arbor Hill residents could be better, contended that many community members can’t attend the meetings because they take place at 8 AM, when many of them are rushing off to work or getting kids ready for school. In light of the last meeting’s poor turnout by committee members, Davis questioned the practicality of holding the meetings at such an awkward time. And he questioned the city’s commitment to improving Arbor Hill in general.

“Any plan that the city does is very nice, but what hard dollars have been committed to this project?” Davis asked. “Do they have any money that will commit them or is this just another merry-go-round, a report that will be filed on the shelf? Who can say for sure, but if I were a betting man, I’d say that [neighborhood revitalization] won’t be done again. The city has shown nothing in its past to say otherwise.”

The neighborhood advisory committee meets next on Feb. 5 at 8 AM at 200 Henry Johnson Boulevard.

—Travis Durfee

Let the makeover begin: Albany’s Lark Street. Photo by Joe Putrock

It’s a Sad State We’re In

Yesterday (Jan. 29), Gov. George E. Pataki unveiled his $90 billion executive budget proposal for the state of New York. Offering his solutions for the state’s two-year budget deficit, which he placed at $11.5 billion, Pataki proposed to slash spending on services and cut government jobs, but promised to maintain New York’s role as the nation’s tax-cutting leader. To cover the state’s $2.2 billion deficit from last year, Pataki proposed to enact a state hiring freeze, cut 500 state jobs and recoup $1.5 billion from the state’s tobacco lawsuit settlement. For the $9.3 billion hole in this year’s budget, Pataki wants to cut an additional 500 state jobs and reduce the state’s contributions to higher education, cutting the Tuition Assistance Program by a third. Pataki proposed to further weaken the state’s commitment to education by cutting $1.26 billion from general school-aid spending. But he also recommended extending the health-care programs he has previously championed.

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