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Protesting history’s demise: Friends of Building 36. Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen.

You’re Going Down

Much to the chagrin of Friends of Building 36, GE is going ahead with plans to demolish another of its historic structures in Schenectady

As General Electric continues to move ahead with plans to demolish Building 36 at its gas turbine plant in Schenectady, company spokeswoman Jan Smith doesn’t see what all the fuss is about.

“It’s just ridiculous what people are assuming,” Smith said. “A building does not have to look bad on the outside to be bad on the inside. You simply can’t tell from the outside.”

But people have been fussing, particularly the two dozen members of Friends of Building 36 who assembled outside of the vacant structure on April 3 asking GE management not to destroy the historic building.

Many carried placards or chanted their message to GE’s new CEO, Jeffrey Immelt: “Building 36: resource,” “Don’t be a yo-yo, demolition no, no” and “Hey Jeff, Don’t be Jack the Ripper!” Most of the picketers were retired GE workers who’d spent some amount of time either working in or on building 36.

“We’ve tried to appeal to GE, but we have not heard from them,” said Mary Kuykendall, who worked at GE for 28 years and now belongs to Friends of Building 36. “Jan Smith and her PR people don’t talk to people unless they are higher-ups of some sort. We’re just ordinary people and former employees.”

What the ordinary people and former employees want is a new use for the building—possibly as a small-business incubator in partnership with one of the local colleges or as a museum of television or electric history—not its demolition.

Friends of Building 36 point to the building’s particular place in television history as a reason for salvaging the six-story brick structure, which is nearly 82 years old, just outside GE’s fenced-in facilities at 1 River Road in Schenectady.

One of the older buildings at the GE site, Building 36 was home to a number of early television experiments from the late 1920s to the early 1940s. Local television station WRGB, currently located in Niskayuana, used Building 36 as the home for its preliminary research in the use of television broadcasting 75 years ago. In fact, the world’s first televised play, The Queen’s Messenger, was broadcast from building 36 over the local station W2XAF in 1928.

“We think this would help GE,” Kuykendall said. “It’s a shame if they don’t want to celebrate Edison’s legacy and the birth of electricity in this area.”

Arne Loft, a Scotia resident who worked at GE, has another idea: Why not turn the building over to one of the local colleges and let them use it for a small-business incubator, as GE has done in other cities, like Syracuse?

“Why not let Union College or [Schenectady County Community College] use it?” Loft said. “If they are willing to pay the taxes, then GE would have no reason to tear it down.”

According to Peter McElligott, codirector of the U-Start Business Incubator at Union College, business incubators can be funded from a variety of sources, including tenant rental income, grant money, private donations and contributions from the partnering college or university.

But Charley Casey, a spokesman for Union College, said the school briefly looked into acquiring Building 36 and abandoned the idea due to the potential costs of the undertaking. SCCC spokeswoman Heather Meaney said her school had made no inquiry into Building 36.

Considering the building’s current state of decay, that only makes sense, said GE’s Smith. Though the building once was a spot for historic experiments in television, Smith said all of the historic television equipment has been removed from the structure.

“I don’t understand the fascination with it myself,” Smith said. “It’s an old, decaying building that’s unsafe, and we’re taking it down because that is the only appropriate thing to do. There were a few activities that took place in that building, but there is nothing left in that facility to preserve. That is not a landmark, that is rhetoric. We’re not destroying a landmark.”

But when questioned for specifics on the building’s state of decay, Smith wouldn’t divulge its structural deficiencies.

“I am telling you that the building is in fact decayed beyond reasonable use; structurally it is unsafe, and we have moved [employees] out, and that is all I have to say,” Smith said. “I don’t have to prove it to you. The fact of the matter is, it’s coming down. It’s not fit for use and that’s the company’s position.”

LaSharma Sanders, an information processor in Schenectady’s Office of Code Enforcement, said GE has not completed its application for demolition permit, but Friends of Building 36 are not hopeful, and admit that the historic building’s destruction is not too far off.

“We’re very concerned about it and hoping they will change their mind, but we’re kind of powerless,” said Kuykendall. “They haven’t adequately explained why they wouldn’t want to save money for shareholders by finding a new use for the building. You still get it off the tax roles selling it or giving it to the community, and it saves them a million or two.”

—Travis Durfee

Cardmembership Has Its Costs

Public interest group emphasizes hidden fees attached to ATM and debit-card use

To hear Katie Davis tell it, the numerous “convenience fees” many banks attach to ATM use and debit-card purchases present more hassle than ease.

“I’m super-cheap,” said Davis, a communications student at the College of Saint Rose. “I won’t pay the [$3.50] unless I absolutely have to; I just don’t have the dough. The ATM at St. Rose charges me $2, then my bank turns around and charges $1.50. It sucks.”

According to a recently released study from the New York Public Interest Research Group, automatic-teller machines suck in both the figurative and literal meanings of the word. In fact, the group has reappropriated the acronym in the title of its study: ATMs—Always Taking Money.

The group’s study, which looked at the different fees and charges levied by 121 different ATMs statewide, says that New Yorkers are paying more and doing so more often than ever before when accessing their own money from automatic teller machines.

“Bank profits were at $90 billion last year, yet these fees continue to go up and consumers are getting hammered,” said NYPIRG consumer advocate Liam Arbetman.

According to the report, 99 percent of bank-owned and 100 percent of privately owned ATMs charge customers a fee when using teller machines not owned by their financial institution.

Statewide, banks charged an average fee of $1.58 per transaction to ATM users whose account was with a different bank. That average was higher in the Capital Region, where banks charged an average fee of $1.74 per use. Charter One Bank at 111 Washington Ave. in Albany tacked on the highest fee in the region, charging $2.50 to use its ATM with another bank’s card.

“ATMs save banks money,” Arbetman said. “They say these charges are convenience fees, but using an ATM costs the bank less than employing a teller. It is in their interest to use ATMs.”

The study notes that many banks profit by charging customers for viewing their account information and printing mini-account statements.

NYPIRG’s report also points out that every bank it surveyed double-dips: Banks also charge their own customers a fee for using an ATM owned by a financial institution other than their own. The average fee was $1.21 for a withdrawal and $1.10 to check account information. Bank customers in New York using ATMs at banks other than their own can expect to get slapped with a total of $2.79 per transaction, the report states.

“This is like putting a toll at both ends of the bridge,” Arbetman said.

In fact, the report says, operating an automatic teller machine can be such a profitable venture that some nonfinancial institutions choose to run ATMs for the money to be made on fees alone. NYPIRG’s report states that these independent service operators often charge fees on a level with bank-owned ATMs, but target low-income individuals, as they often locate their machines in areas with few banking options.

Also, the NYPIRG study pointed out one of the lesser-known fees assessed by most banks when making purchases with a debit card. Most banks assess a surcharge to their customers who choose to punch in the account number while making a debit-card purchase, as opposed to signing and making a credit-card purchase. Davis, for example, said she was unaware of whether her bank assessed a fee for this transaction or not.

According to the report, VISA and MasterCard debit cards generated nearly $500 billion in activity last year, with an increase in card ownership of 18 percent from the previous year.

NYPIRG urges consumers to actively seek out information on their bank’s charging methods and to stay informed about how their bank will charge for different services. If nothing else, NYPIRG urges consumers to voice their concerns over fees to their bank.

“Let your bank know that you are unhappy with these fees as many ways as possible,” Arbetman said. “Write letters to your bank’s manager, write letters to your legislator. Let people know you are unhappy paying these charges.”

—Travis Durfee

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