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An inventory of Albany's 840 vacant buildings records a wealth of information—and provides a potential blueprint for bringing some of them back to life
By Shawn Stone • Photos by John Whipple

Cleveland Street is a beautiful, tree-lined residential block located just off Washington Avenue in Albany. It’s a typical uptown street, with well-kept, early-to-mid-20th-century single-family homes and carefully manicured lawns—except for the house at 23 Cleveland.

The first thing to notice is the square patch of what used to be lawn, now overgrown with weeds. This is next to the asphalt driveway, now cracked. At a glance the house looks fine—but the paint is mostly worn off the porch, the siding under the eaves is coming down and there’s a “no trespassing” sign in the window. The backyard is forlorn and overgrown, with an abandoned swing set and lawn furniture. Through the front window it’s possible to view the kitchen ceiling collapsed down onto the floor.

Grand Street couldn’t be more different than Cleveland Street. Located in the Mansion neighborhood, east of the Governor’s Mansion and the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Grand Street, which spans the Pepsi Arena at the north end and Morton Avenue at the south, is a splendid thoroughfare of 19th-century brick and brick-façade buildings, pockmarked with vacant structures. While there is a major redevelopment effort in progress (the Grand Street Initiative) and many buildings are being renovated, it’s easy to miss a few that do not overtly appear vacant.

The brick building at 141 Grand St. isn’t burned out or boarded up. There is no partially collapsed wall or any sign of drug dealers hanging out on the front steps. It is nicely painted and the front windows appear intact. But it is abandoned.

These are just two of 840 vacant buildings in the city of Albany, as inventoried by a team of graduate students from the University at Albany’s Department of Geography and Planning working with neighborhood volunteers. Under the direction of Dr. Catherine Lawson, Albany neighborhoods were canvassed block-by-block in October and November 2002, and information about each vacant building was recorded.

The Vacant Building Inventory was the brainchild of Historic Albany Foundation, explains executive director Elizabeth Griffin. The directors of this nonprofit institution, founded in 1974 to promote the preservation of Albany’s “built environment”—a term incorporating both historic neighborhoods and individual buildings—realized that only a comprehensive survey would make coherent urban revitalization possible.

“It came about a little over a year ago,” remembers Griffin. “In looking at all of the major advocacy issues we faced for Historic Albany Foundation, by and large they were all [related to] abandoned or vacant buildings.”

Going, going, gone? the Wellington Hotel on State Street.

HAF, Griffin says, was trying to move beyond working from crisis to crisis, which resulted only in mixed success. Continually caught up in efforts to save particular buildings, the institution found it very difficult to discern patterns of abandonment.

“I think that one of the big questions we all had,” Griffin says, “was really what’s the nature of this problem. . . . Although there are certain general patterns, specifically it was really unclear to us what the nature of abandonment in the city of Albany was.”

At first, HAF went to the Council of Albany Neighborhood Associations with the idea that residents would carry out the survey. Then, at a CANA meeting, foundation members were approached by someone from the Department of Geography and Planning at the University at Albany. So, HAF entered into a contract with UAlbany, and essentially hired them to do the inventory. Griffin met with the professors involved to discuss the design of the study and put together the technical teams who would carry it out. Local policy makers from both the city of Albany and Albany county were consulted, Griffin says, which “helped inform the process in terms of direction, [and determine what information] to put into the report that would be the most useful.”

“Our goal with the inventory and the database was to come up with a document that was really useful and very user-friendly for finding solutions,” Griffin notes. “What we really wanted was something that was broken down by neighborhood, and the information contained in the database on each building would lead to greater access for finding new ownership. [We wanted to] find a solution on almost a building-by-building basis, even though some solutions that we’re coming up with are larger in scope than just one building at a time.”

It turns out that the houses at 23 Cleveland and 141 Grand have something in common besides being unoccupied: They’re now owned by banks, after periods of legal limbo. The house at 141 Grand was abandoned by its last owner, an absentee landlord, a few years ago, and passed through a local realtor into the hands of a Minnesota-based financial institution. The homeowner of 23 Cleveland defaulted on a Veterans Adminstration-guaranteed mortgage. The VA then ended up with a building it didn’t want, and initially did nothing with. The house had been empty for more than a year when, in December 2002, the VA transferred ownership to Washington Mutual Home Loans of Milwaukee, Wis.

This was followed by what 12th ward alderman Michael O’Brien describes as a classic example of “bureaucratic incompetence,” as the VA failed to record the deed as required. A round-robin of letters between Alderman O’Brien, the appropriate VA office in New York City, and city of Albany assistant corporation counsel Todd C. Burnham ensued. The deed has recently been recorded, and, presumably, the building will soon be put up for sale.

“You’d be surprised by how many buildings out there that are caught up in the legal system and/or bank foreclosures,” Griffin observes. “I really was surprised at how complex the ownership issues were.”

Griffin says that this was one of the main goals of the entire project: “. . . creating a document that helps people contact owners so they can actually do something with the property.”

Ray Bromley, the UAlbany professor who approached Historic Albany Foundation, is the graduate planning director for the Department of Geography and Planning. Bromley explains that the geographic boundaries of the study encompass nearly all of Albany. The boundaries are I-787 on the east, the Thruway (I-87) to the south, I-90 to the north (except for the actual North Albany neighborhood, which is north of I-90 but is incorporated into the study), and state Route 85 to the west.

Within these boundaries, teams of graduate students and neighborhood residents completed what the final report on the data calls a “comprehensive street-by-street survey.” Vacant buildings were identified using three primary references: 2000 U.S. Census information, the official city registry of vacant buildings, and lists compiled by the various neighborhood associations. Information on the exterior condition of each building was compiled, using specific criteria for whatever type of material was being observed. A digital photo was taken of each vacant structure.

From left to right: the Wellington Hotel and Elks Lodge; former mixed-use building on Clinton Avenue; vacant house at 23 Cleveland Ave.

At the time of the UAlbany survey, the most recent Albany city register counted only 160 vacant buildings. Perhaps this is because property owners are supposed to register vacant buildings by completing a form and paying a $200 fee to the Division of Codes in the Department of Public Safety. It’s unlikely that someone abandoning a building would pay a nickel or waste a drop of ink to notify the city.

Later, the rest of the information for the database was collected: name of owner and/or legal status of ownership, tax lien information and more. The result, Historic Albany’s Griffin hopes, is a database that will be as comprehensive as possible: “The more information we have, the more information neighborhoods will have to find solutions for these buildings.”

“We’re primarily interested,” Griffin says, “in having as complete a data set as possible on each vacant building. We have assessment, we have building permits, [we have] the data from realtors so that we know what the buildings sold for recently, and we have data from the county so we know if there are any liens on the buildings or if any of the buildings have been involved in the county foreclosure and auction process over the last eight years.”

UAlbany’s final report also includes case studies of specific neighborhoods, taking a decidedly urbanist stance on the potential to redevelop Albany’s built environment. Large vacant warehouses in North Albany and the Mansion area, the report suggests, could be rezoned and transformed into artist lofts with retail space. Large abandoned structures, like School 17 in the South End, could be transformed into neighborhood anchors, and reused as community centers, flea markets or serve some other public function. Arbor Hill’s main artery, Clinton Avenue (now officially designated a truck route) could be made more pedestrian-friendly and transformed into a “Clinton Boulevard.”

The report’s description of some of the buildings on Arbor Hill’s most notorious street—North Swan—see past the plywood boarding up their windows, and beyond any tragic or criminal history. A former liquor store at 41 N. Swan St. is “an irreplaceable structure.” The former bar at 36 N. Swan is “a very stylish building.”

The most desired result for the buildings in these neighborhoods, the report suggests, is creative reuse. The report also recognizes that there is always the easiest option—doing nothing. Given the trends of the post-World War II era, however, this would likely be a recipe for disaster.

“The trend of abandoned buildings in Albany is increasing,” Bromley says, when asked what the final data set reveals. Even taking into account demolitions—six buildings were recently taken down on Orange Street between Dove and Lark streets, he mentions—more people are moving out of the city than are moving in.

The numbers tell part of the story. Using data from the 2000 Census, the final report notes that from the mid- to late-’90s, Albany lost an average of 8,200 households per year, while gaining only 7,300 households—a net loss of 900 households per year.

An innovative and proactive approach to reinventing uses for the built environment, the report seems to imply, will be one way to stem or reverse this situation. Something, it would seem, must be done.

Maybe, Alderman O’Brien wonders, the federal government should hire Halliburton or Brown and Root to rebuild U.S. cities, they way they are doing in Iraq.

In the lobby of the Arts and Sciences Building at UAlbany’s uptown campus—the former Administration Building—there is a variety of Albany-related art on display. Among these are a series of infrared photos by Lindsey Wilson taken in 1986, the Tricentennial Series. There are views of the State Education Building, rowhouses on Clinton Avenue, and various historic structures, including the one captured in the photo First Street and Ten Broeck: St. Joseph’s Church.

Among Albany’s endangered vacant buildings, none has had a more perilous history or attracted more attention that St. Joseph’s Church. A highly visible feature of the downtown skyline, this imposing church has the feel of a European cathedral inside—or, that is, had, before it was closed by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany.

“They stripped everything out . . . the sides of the pews were ripped off, the backs [were] broken so that they could get to the seats—and they remilled the oak seats because they were very thick,” Historic Albany’s Griffin says.

The church passed through an owner who was unwilling to, or, depending on whom you ask, not allowed to maintain the building, until the structure was in danger of an immediate collapse.

Griffin remembers: “It was a disaster, but at least we didn’t lose the building—which we almost did, a year ago. It was extremely difficult to save the building.”

Seeing the patterns: Elizabeth Griffin, executive director of Historic Albany Foundation.

Griffin has a set of photographs that trace the grim “before and after” chronology of the church.

St. Joseph’s, Griffin says, is still not able to stand on its own. It isn’t safe to let the public in, even to view the restoration process. The building is being held up by structural steel scaffolding—scaffolding installed at great personal risk to the workers involved, Griffin points out—and it’s still showing signs of movement.

“So,” Griffin explains, “there’s still a lot of work to be done to stabilize the building, and then remove the scaffolding, and then really start to work on the envelope of the building.”

The “envelope” includes the slate roof, which is also a hazard, and the spire, which also needs repair work. Having the building able to stand on its own is the most immediate concern, Griffin explains.

While saving neighborhoods through the restoration of housing stock is complex, the preservation of large, individual vacant landmarks is also important—and presents another set of challenges.

Churches like St. Joseph’s are expensive to maintain, and finding adaptive reuses has proven difficult. St. John’s Church, another large, cathedrallike building located in the South End and a familiar sight to anyone driving the interstate through downtown, has been unused for decades.

“St. John’s,” Griffin says, measuring her words, “[is] not in very good shape.” It’s mainly a matter of the deteriorating roof, which, she says, you can see from I-787. A good roof equals a long life for a building.

Her voice trails off: “But once the roof starts to go . . .”

One of the most recognizable vacant hulks in Albany is the Wellington Hotel, a slim, handsome building just below the Capitol, near the top of the State Street hill. Behind the Wellington is the Wellington Annex, another slim building that was once part of the hotel complex (and briefly, in the early ’80s, housing for UAlbany students) and is now in a terrible state. It is graffiti-covered, and most of the windows are smashed out or boarded up. Next to the Wellington on State Street stands a former Elks Lodge with an impressively detailed façade, and another, older building. All three have been empty for almost two decades, with demolition and redevelopment schemes popping up every few years. Nothing has yet happened to disturb the pigeons, however.

The problem with the buildings, according to the various reports that are recycled whenever the subject of redeveloping the Wellington comes up, is that they are too old/small/thin/outdated to be reused. Looking at them in their context on State Street, the value of the buildings lies alternately in their scale (the Wellington) or beauty (the Elks Lodge)—values seemingly without economic currency. For whatever reason, there has been no compelling imperative to either fix them up or tear them down.

The latest proposal for these neglected properties—and they are noticeably neglected, with missing or open windows—involves a proposed $185 million, 210,000-square-foot convention center, with an attached parking garage and 400-room hotel. This plan would preserve the façades of the three structures, but would also require the demolition of another adjacent, landmark remnant of Albany’s past, the former DeWitt Clinton Hotel. (The DeWitt Clinton is now an apartment building.)

Assuming that the convention center is built—the legislation authorizing the creation of a bond-issuing authority has not yet passed the state Legislature, but the prospects for the latest measure submitted by Mayor Gerald D. Jennings seem good—the Wellington site may be bypassed for one of two downtown alternatives, both centered around vacant land in the area of the Greyhound Bus Terminal.

If that happens, the Wellington may just stand until it falls on its own.

The UAlbany final report prominently makes note of some specific, important findings. There were, at the time of the study’s completion last November, 840 vacant buildings in the city. Of these, 309 (or 36 percent) are designated historic buildings. These 309 buildings represent 7.5 percent of the total 4,184 listed historic buildings in Albany.

When it comes to some of these historic structures, HAF’s Griffin counts some recent successes. School 10, at the corner of North Lake and Central avenues, went from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s endangered buildings list to being renovated as the Brighter Choice Charter School. Historic Albany is also working to stabilize the façade of 41 Ten Broeck St., a handsome apartment building Albany county started to tear down, but was stopped, mid wrecking-ball, by a successful lawsuit filed by the city of Albany and HAF.

“We’re also stabilizing a building on South Pearl, and hope to get that building buttoned up,” says Griffin. This structure, a former hardware store at 399 S. Pearl St., presented its own unique problems—including a not-unusual disregard for the law. One of the side walls is exposed, a byproduct of when the building next to it was torn down.

“When buildings are torn down, the person responsible for the demolition should really make any necessary repairs to [the adjacent buildings], but a lot of times it doesn’t happen,” Griffin says. “That didn’t happen with that building.”

Also among these special “pertinent findings” are two laws related to the disposition of vacant structures. One, it is Albany County, not the city of Albany, that is responsible for liens for unpaid taxes, and the eventual foreclosures on buildings. Two, as per New York State Real Property Tax Law, the county cannot foreclose on properties until the third year of tax delinquency.

“That means we’re stuck for three years,” notes Alderman O’Brien with some exasperation, while abandoned houses sit and rot.

Griffin says that the Vacant Building Inventory is designed to work hand-in-hand with a proposed city entity, to be created under the Albany Local Development Corporation, that would take title to vacant buildings. The idea, she explains, is to be able to take the legal and ownership information in the database, transfer ownership to this entity, and finally sell the buildings, one at a time, for a dollar: “If one is interested in a building, once the entity is set up . . . you can submit your proposal and a committee will look at your proposal, and judge [the proposal] in terms of your wherewithal, schedule, whether or not your goals and objectives are compatible with the neighborhood’s goals and objectives.”

This summer, Historic Albany will work with UAlbany and representatives of the neighborhood associations to update and verify the database. As UAlbany’s Bromley says, “the value of the data becomes much greater” when it is regularly updated.

“So, really, after a year of conversations and collaborations, I think that the progress is quite substantial, even though nothing is set up today,” Griffin says. She sees movement in that direction, however: “In a few months, I think we’re going to see a lot of that work and effort come together.”

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