inventory of Albany's 840 vacant buildings records a wealth
of informationand provides a potential blueprint for
bringing some of them back to life
Shawn Stone Photos by John Whipple
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.
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, gone? the Wellington Hotel on State Street.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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
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
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.
left to right: the Wellington Hotel and Elks Lodge;
former mixed-use building on Clinton Avenue; vacant
house at 23 Cleveland Ave.
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.”
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.”
the patterns: Elizabeth Griffin, executive director
of Historic Albany Foundation.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.”