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A sense of community: (l-r) Suzanne Spencer, friend of the Next-to-New Shop, with employees Mary Jo Maercklein and Jon Ernst Photo by Joe Putrock

Movin’ Out
A local service organization is leaving Albany and closing its thrift store, to the disappointment of both customers and employees
By
Shawn Stone

Tomorrow (Friday, May 23), the Junior League of Albany is shutting down its thrift store on Madison Avenue in downtown Albany, the Next-to-New Shop. It’s part of a plan, announced last month, to close the Albany headquarters, sell the building (which also contains the thrift store) and move to the suburbs. The employees of the Next-to-New Shop are sorry to see it go—and one of them is willing to buy the building to keep the shop going.

“This has been the best thing in my life for the five years I’ve worked here,” explained Nancy Geller. Geller put in a bid on the building on May 21, the last day the League accepted proposals. When asked why she’s doing this, Geller explained that it’s her commitment to the community that has come to depend on the Next-to-New Shop.

Mary Jo Maercklein, who has worked at the store for 30 years (in three successive locations), also spoke of the shop’s close connection with the community; she showed a notebook containing page after page of signatures, signed by customers requesting that the shop not be closed down.

“We’re a ‘mom and pop’ thrift store. We’re different in that we take the time to listen” to the people who come in, Maercklein said.

Maercklein told of one regular customer who comes in to shop, and, sometimes, just to talk.

“She’s had cancer three times, and arthritis, but doesn’t complain about it. She came in yesterday, and said ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do without [the store]’.”

Through the years, Maercklein noted, the shop has served a diverse community.

“What I’ve learned is that everybody has some endearing quality,” she said, remembering how she struck up a friendship with the late Michael the Archangel.

The historic structure, located at 419 Madison Ave., was built in the 1890s as an Albany police station. (“There are still some cells in the basement,” Maercklein pointed out.) The Junior League has owned the building since the late ’70s, and a spokeswoman told the Times Union that maintenance issues were one of the reasons the organization had decided to sell. (The Junior League did not return a call for comment.)

Maercklein is sympathetic to this issue, explaining that the Junior League seemed to see the additional effort required to maintain this historic structure as a distraction from its mission.

“The building was becoming cumbersome to the Junior League,” Maercklein said. For whatever reasons, she said, “they’re no longer able to take care of the building.”

The Junior League also told the Times Union that the location near Madison Avenue and Lark Street had safety issues. Maercklein, however, is comfortable: “I love the neighborhood here. . . . There’s something very exciting” about being in an urban setting. Maercklein also pointed out that although the store has an intercom so that someone in the back office could be notified of trouble in the store, and an emergency alarm system, they’ve never had to use it.

Maercklein, who had not planned to retire, will miss the Next-to-New Shop if it is indeed closed for good.

“We have [had] great employees—working with the people has been a pleasure.”

Plan C
As Albany unveils yet another proposal to revitalize Arbor Hill, neighborhood residents and concerned citizens remain skeptical
By Travis Durfee

Pauline Oglesby couldn’t care less if the latest draft of a plan to revitalize her long-neglected neighborhood, Arbor Hill, carried a 69-cent or $69-million price tag, as long as the planners promise to clean the place up.

Oglesby, a homeowner and 21-year Arbor Hill resident, said her Livingston Avenue home is constantly under bombardment from the trash and debris blowing through or being dropped on her front lawn. Oglesby’s morning cleanups are often wastes of time, she laments, for her lawn is often littered with garbage once again by the afternoon.

“I would like to see a cleaner Arbor Hill,” Oglesby said. “You come through there and you’re scared that your tires may burst; that is the way people feel about it. I wouldn’t mind if they didn’t have anything else—never mind the gym or whatever else they’re going to have—I’d like to see it cleaned up.”

But when the Arbor Hill Neighborhood Advisory Committee—a 23-member group handpicked by Mayor Jerry Jennings—unveiled a draft of its proposal to turn around the blighted neighborhood on May 14 (nine days after initially promised), it didn’t directly address Oglesby’s concerns, though it did included a number of ambitious plans for improvement.

The group’s draft presented $69 million worth of ideas to breathe new life into a community where one in every three housing units remains vacant and whose residents’ median household income is $16,222, almost half the city’s average, according to U.S. Census data.

But before the draft was even released, neighborhood gadflies were working their beat—faxing press releases lambasting the city-led plan, filing Freedom of Information requests for the unreleased draft and brandishing their right to lawsuits. They obviously haven’t forgotten that this is the city’s third attempt to draft a plan to revive Arbor Hill.

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, but each group’s assessments were successively abandoned and the plans never adopted. Some neighborhood residents and concerned parties remain skeptical that the city will actually move forward with plans for Arbor Hill, a feeling that is justified, said Alderwoman Sarah Curry-Cobb (Ward 4).

“They haven’t seen anything as far as improvements in the neighborhood after all these years and that is very disconcerting,” said Curry-Cobb, a member of the advisory committee who represents parts of Arbor Hill in the Albany Common Council.

Anders Tomson, committee co-chair and member of Community Preservation Corporation, a mortgage-lending group that invests in low-cost housing, said this skepticism is healthy and welcomed.

“I know people are anxious to move forward and that is one of the best attributes about Arbor Hill, its committed stakeholders,” said Tomson. “We weighed the consideration of acting quickly without acting imprudently and I think we did the best combination of that.”

In its report, the committee looks to invest $26 million for residential development and to support homeownership initiatives in Arbor Hill, which will include a mix of new construction and rehabbing some of the neighborhood’s historic structures.

To aid the growth of business in Arbor Hill, the committee looks to invest $12 million, including plans to host small-business development workshops and explore the viability of a business incubator on Clinton Avenue.

The plan includes $25.1 million for quality-of-life improvements, including playground fix-ups and better street lighting, but the majority of that money is earmarked for the construction of a parking garage for the state Office of General Services. The garage, to be paid for with state funds, is being touted as a way to improve the neighborhood’s streetscapes and create a stronger connection between Arbor Hill and downtown.

The advisory committee proposed to invest $5.3 million into the neighborhood’s cultural heritage, the lion’s share going to the rehabilitation of St. Joseph’s Church in the Ten Broeck Triangle. The committee also wants to build upon the neighborhood’s links to history, particularly its place as a stop on the Underground Railroad.

The city has yet to identify funding sources for most of the projects included in the proposal, and the committee did not set a specific time frame for the completion of the new Arbor Hill plan. The next step in the process calls for a period to collect input on the proposal from the public.

A public meeting is scheduled for 6 PM to 8 PM on June 10 at New Covenant Charter School at 50 Lark Drive, and public comment will be accepted by mail until June 24. From there, the neighborhood advisory committee will look to finalize its plan for Arbor Hill and present it to Mayor Jennings sometime in July.

The draft plan, though not distributed en masse to neighborhood residents due to its size (some 70 pages), is available for review on the city’s Web site at www.albanyny.org, and at six locations throughout the city: Mayor Jennings’ office in City Hall at 24 Eagle St., the city’s Development and Planning Department at 21 Lodge St., the main branch of the Albany Public Library at 161 Washington Ave., the principal’s office at Arbor Hill Elementary School, the main office at New Covenant Charter School, and Albany Community Development Agency at 200 Henry Johnson Blvd.


Doctoring debate: medical professionals at Executive Woods. Photo by Chris Sheilds

Who Suffers Most?
Medical professionals and consumer advocates square off in medical-malpractice debate
By Travis Durfee

Nearly 150 health-care professionals rallied at the Executive Woods corporate campus in Colonie on Tuesday to decry the increasing medical malpractice insurance costs that are creating a burgeoning “medical crisis” in New York state. But according to the New York Public Interest Research Group, they were all a bunch of spin doctors.

The Medical Society of the State of New York sponsored the local rally and demonstrations in 20 other cities across the state. The group is calling for reform to the state’s tort laws, which regulate the amount of damages individuals can seek when injured on the job or due to medical malpractice. With no limit on damages sought for pain and suffering under state law, groups like the MSSNY say physicians in New York are stuck with high malpractice insurance premiums.

“This is not only a malpractice [insurance] crisis, this is a litigation crisis,” said Dr. Harold Sokol, PhD, president of MSSNY’s Albany County chapter. “It is killing us all financially to pay for medical malpractice insurance due to all of this litigation, and the cost then has to go to the public. However, physicians have a problem, because we cannot pass along the costs.”

While other businesses can simply raise prices to make up for money lost in litigation, medical professionals are in a different bind, said Sokol, a pulmonary and critical-care physician who practices in the intensive care units of a number of hospitals in the Capital Region.

“Medicare tells me this is what I’m going to get for completing a particular procedure no matter what I charge,” Sokol said. “If I charge $500 and they give me $30, I get $30.”

Sokol said that 60 to 70 percent of his income comes from patients on Medicare or Medicaid, and since state law doesn’t allow him to charge higher prices for patients with private insurance, he has no way to make extra money to pay for increasing malpractice insurance costs.

The group wants to place a $250,000 cap on the amount plaintiffs can seek for pain and suffering, which would not limit compensation sought for lost time at work or medical costs resulting from malpractice. MSSNY believes this would in turn allow insurance companies to lower their rates.

“We’re not saying people shouldn’t be compensated for losing the ability to work or the ability to pay for some care,” Sokol said. “We’re arguing against people saying, ‘Gee, I’m going to sue for a million dollars extra because I suffered.’ How do you put a monetary value on somebody’s suffering? You can’t.”

But Theresa Cassiack, NYPIRG consumer advocate, said it is outlandish for medical groups to ask the state Legislature to limit injured patients’ legal rights when doctors are still being convicted of committing malpractice.

“We think it is foolish for doctors to be out there calling for these reforms when people are being injured in hospitals in New York all the time,” said Cassiack. “Doctors and lawmakers should be focused on medical malpractice reforms. The issue at hand is that people are being injured in the first place.”

NYPIRG also disputes the Medical Society’s claim that there is a litigation crisis in New York. In NYPIRG’s study on medical malpractice, the group reported that the number of physicians paying medical malpractice awards dropped from 2,084 in 2001 to 1,841 in 2002, the first such decrease in the past five years.

The study also noted that the total dollar amount of malpractice payments in New York also decreased for the first time in five years in 2002, even though requests for courts to intervene in alleged instances of medical malpractice increased.

Cassiack said NYPIRG wants the state to better monitor its physicians and correct its flawed consumer-information mechanism. Currently the state offers profiles of its physicians on a Web site run by the Department of Health, but researchers at NYPIRG found 46 instances in which a physician’s profile was missing information regarding a malpractice payment.

“The doctors are not policing themselves, and obviously the Department of Health isn’t either,” Cassiack said.

But Sokol disagreed, saying that as president of staff at Memorial Hospital in Albany, he has overseen the suspension of hospital privileges for three physicians in the past year for questionable practices.

“Every hospital has a quality-assurance committee and there is a whole learning experience to [investigating malpractice claims],” Sokol said. “To hear people say that we don’t police ourselves is untrue. We try very, very hard. Is any system perfect? No, but we try.”

Sokol said there is a need to remember that doctors are human.

“There is a difference in my mind between malpractice and an error—we all make errors,” Sokol said. “Anybody who wants their doctor to be perfect should run like hell and never go to any doctor, because they’re never going to get one.”


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