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High-rise opponents: (l-r) Leonard Morgenbesser, Mary Rahmati, Joe Sullivan, Pete Sheehan. Photo: John Whipple

NIMBY or Not
A proposed apartment building on Krumkill Road stirs up controversy over definitions of sustainable development

You might think that Peter Sheehan and Constantine Kontogiannis would have a lot in common. Sheehan is chairman of the Hudson-Mohawk Group of the Sierra Club. Kontogiannis is an accredited green building professional with the U.S. Green Building Council who used to work for the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority advising on green building. And they both agree that Albany’s Upper New Scotland Avenue neighborhood is best off staying residential.

But when it comes to 7.2 acres of vacant land on Krumkill Road, they seem to have different ideas of what “residential” means. Kontogiannis and his father Arthur, through their company, Marathon Point, have owned the parcel for almost two years. It is on an isolated stretch of road bounded by Route 85 and the Thruway, across from the 10-story Ohav Shalom apartments, next to one single-family home. Marathon Point wants to build a 12-story luxury apartment building with a 370-car garage there. For it to do so, the site would first have to be rezoned to allow multifamily housing, and then receive a height variance to accommodate the 12 stories.

Throughout August, a number of neighborhood residents showed up at Albany Common Council and zoning committee meetings to denounce the proposal, and some have been flyering their neighbors as well, encouraging them to ask council members to vote against the rezoning. Many are frustrated with what they see as a railroading of the decision, which was approved 4-0 by the zoning committee at a meeting during the blackout. It is now before the full Common Council.

These residents have a litany of complaints. Traffic, for one. Although the stretch of road looks empty in the early evening, the neighborhood is hard-hit by commuter traffic during rush hours. “We’re under assault from all this traffic,” said Joe Sullivan, chair of the Buckingham Pond/Crestwood Neighborhood Association.

On the flip side, Sullivan pointed out that Sematech recently decided to keep its headquarters in Austin, Texas—and questions whether there will actually be an influx of people interested in luxury apartment living.

At the heart of these contradictory concerns are differing opinions on the appropriate use of the land—a steep, wooded plot that’s partially a wetland. Kontogiannis said he believes an apartment building will be attractive to high-tech workers and retiring empty-nesters because it will allow for amenities like indoor parking and an indoor pool. Demand for Marathon Point’s current rentals in the area—some apartments, some town houses—make him think there’s a market for more apartments, and he predicted the development will bring $25 million in taxes to the city. Kontogiannis picked this location because it will be near the new employment centers on Washington Avenue Extension. “If you look at the travel time, impact on the roadways, it’s lowest the closer you get to the workplace,” he pointed out.

Sullivan disagreed. He said that downtown would be a much better place for a luxury apartment building. “We’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars [on downtown revitalization],” said Sullivan. “What’s lacking is that people with money, they go home at night. After 6 it’s like a ghost town.”

The city is working on generating housing development downtown, according to planning commissioner Lori Harris. But that has little to do with this proposal. Alderman Joseph Igoe, whose 14th Ward includes the proposed lot, said, “Obviously I would love to see it on the riverfront. However, this developer’s proposal is on this plot of land.” Councilman Daniel Herring (Ward 13), chair of the zoning committee, agreed. “It seems like there’s some wishful thinking [going on],” he said. “I haven’t seen any evidence that that [downtown] option exists.”

Downtown option or no, residents are particularly afraid that “spot zoning” this land will reopen other controversial zoning proposals they have fought off, such as one to open a big-box CVS drug store in the neighborhood. “This is what these people are going to want,” said Sheehan. “You get people who demand convenience, you get box stores and strip malls.”

“I don’t see the linkage [to the other requests],” said Herring. “There certainly isn’t a linkage that says if this goes, other things have to go.”

“The neighborhood has legitimate concerns,” he added. “The point that is getting missed here is we’re just starting the process.”

It stills seems backward to Sullivan to have the rezoning happen first. “The zoning should be the last possible consideration,” he said. “Once this is rezoned, it’ll have a domino effect.”

Harris said that rezoning first is actually good planning, because it allows the council to consider the kind of big-picture issues the residents are raising. “The council needs to determine the highest and best use of the land,” she said. “You wouldn’t want that to be determined by [the details of a specific proposal]. The first question is does it make sense to go from one zoning classification to another.”

At base, those opposed to the development don’t want a high-rise building. “If it has to be developed, [it should be] single-family, good quality homes,” said Sullivan. “There’s also a real need in this neighborhood for more senior housing,” he added. “Not high-rise.”

Sheehan thinks open-space preservation would be best. Isn’t high-density urban living the kind of anti-sprawl measure the Sierra Club supports? “This is not really the city per se, this is the suburbs,” Sheehan explained. “This is not the urban infill that we would like to see happen.”

Sheehan also said the city “should go back to the planning process that they initiated,” referring to the city-sponsored neighborhood plan released in Jan. 2002, which focused on traffic improvements and suggested a combination of low-density housing and parkland for the Krumkill Road site.

Meanwhile, Kontogiannis seems to be a few steps ahead of his detractors. While they are still talking about not developing “potential wetlands,” he has already hired Roberts Environmental Consulting, of Queensbury, to map the wetlands in the plot. That map is on file with the city. Usually, discussion of environmental mitigation wouldn’t occur until the site-plan approval stage. But, Kontogiannis said, “We’ve tried to address some of these potential impacts . . . ahead of time.”

There are approximately 1.5 acres of wetlands on the site, and Kontogiannis said he plans to disturb less than one-tenth of an acre. Developing a single apartment building gives him much more flexibility in preserving the site, he said. “If we were to build the property out in single family homes, there would be no wild areas, no open space preserved on the project,” he explained. “As we’ve proposed it, we’re leaving the majority of the space [as] open space.” He added that with an apartment building, the trail or linear park proposed in the neighborhood plan could also be a possibility.

Kontogiannis plans to have the apartment building certified as a green building, including such items as efficient heating and cooling, rainwater recovery, low- emission materials, and low-impact, native-species landscaping. Besides, just having a high-density building is green in and of itself, he said. “There’s no other type of living where you would come close, as far as reducing your impact on the environment,” said Kontogiannis.

As for the neighborhood density concerns, Kontogiannis said, “It’s pretty secluded. A lot of the people who raise issues with it . . . I suspect many of them do not know how far away from them it is.”

Sheehan and Leonard Morgenbesser, another concerned resident, said they are still suspicious, and alleged that the elder Kontogiannis has a long history of amassing code violations, fines, and complaints of shoddy work.

The proposed rezoning is on the agenda of the Common Council for Sept. 15, pending receipt of an environmental report from the Department of Planning.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

Grown in New York
Sen. Hillary Clinton wants to help the state’s farmers by connecting them with big-time distributors

Baldor Specialty Foods doesn’t know upstate New York exists. At least that’s what Michael T. Muzyk, sales manager for the Bronx-based food service company, said. “We buy from Canada, New Jersey, Long Island, overseas, California—[but] we don’t look at New York state for products other than apples,” he explained.

U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton wants to change that. On Aug. 28, she announced an initiative to connect upstate farmers and producers with New York City “consumers, retailers, and restaurateurs.” The initiative is being administered by the Metropolitan Development Association, a nonprofit economic development organization out of Syracuse. It involves a partnership with Sodexho, the country’s largest food service company, and with Baldor, which sells wholesale produce in the New York City metro area—to both restaurants and companies like Sodexho.

The companies’ contribution to the initiative is information about what they need from farmers. The biggest thing that’s lacking, said Muzyk, is communication. “We have no idea what’s available [upstate], who’s growing what and where,” he said.

To that end, MDA is organizing a group of interested growers, and has initiated a survey that will collect this information for food distributors to use. In the slightly longer term, they are looking into some kind of centralized clearinghouse and transportation system, perhaps like the produce auctions in New Jersey.

Tracy Frisch, executive director of the Regional Farm and Food Project, a Troy-based organization dedicated to “foster[ing] new opportunities for family-scale farming which sustain the land and community,” is skeptical. “There is a need for distribution services,” she said. “But this is going a bit far. It’s hard for farmers growing 5 or 10 acres to deal with a company like Sodexho or Baldor.”

In fact, Frisch is afraid that emphasizing alliances with the “big boys” could reinforce the problems that small farmers have. “The average going to farmers is 9 percent [of the food cost],” she said. “The rest goes to middlemen, advertisers, and the input industry: pesticides, fertilizers, etc.” Those middlemen include both Baldor and Sodexho, not to mention brokers at the produce auctions.

The only way for small farmers to survive, said Frisch, is to sell directly, through farmers markets, for example. “Right now at least some of the small restaurants shop directly at the farmers markets,” she said. “Bringing the convenience, bringing more New York state products into the city [through the distributors], could cut out the share for the small farmers who are direct marketing, so [this initiative] could backfire.”

To really help New York’s small family farms, Frisch suggested enforcing antitrust laws so that “we don’t have two or three grain dealers controlling 75 percent of the grain, and we don’t have three or four meat-processing corporations controlling the vast majority of beef, pork, chicken.”

Along with fewer middlemen, selling directly provides farmers with crucial feedback about what to plant, said Frisch, rather than having an account with a distributor canceled for no apparent reason. Muzyk said that Baldor actually does provide that kind of feedback to its growers. He described convincing one struggling farmer to switch from Christmas trees, pickles, and strawberries to greenhouses of micro-greens. Baldor even provided financing. “Ultimately, if we can buy the product and help the farmer, we will,” he said. “Baldor looks at quality first and price second. But it’s hard to buy $7 cabbage if the market’s $3.50.”

Frisch is suspicious, though, of the rock-bottom prices that larger growers offer. She pointed out that the initiative doesn’t involve any commitment to promote ecological growing methods or fair-labor standards. Banning bovine growth hormone and limiting pesticides and factory farms would help, she said. “These are the aids that allow the concentration of agriculture and push prices downward.” In terms of improving the visibility of New York’s agriculture and ease of getting to market, she suggested that farmer cooperatives, while not easy, have been successful in many areas of the country.

Tom Blanchard, of the MDA, said the initiative will “solidify the rural New York economy. We organize ourselves to say here’s what we can provide, and Sen. Clinton’s office has really opened the door to [downstate] markets.”

Frisch is still concerned, but admitted that “the attention is welcome.”

—Miriam Axel-Lute

A Bigger Lie

On Sept. 7, 2002, at a joint Camp David press conference, President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair each stated that the International Atomic Energy Agency had issued a report that morning suggesting that Iraq was close to having a nuclear device. No such report had come out that day—or ever.

In contrast to the furor over President Bush’s uranium-from-Niger claim in his State of the Union speech, the IAEA falsehood has drawn relatively little attention. This may be because unlike the uranium claim, which was a single lie British intelligence got from a document later proven to have been forged, the devil is in the many details of the Camp David story.

In arguing their case for military action to the press that day, both Bush and Blair leaned heavily on IAEA reports.

Blair led off with, “. . . [T]he threat from Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction—chemical, biological, potentially nuclear weapons capability—that threat is real. We only need to look at the report from the International Atomic Energy Agency this morning, showing what has been going on at the former nuclear weapon sites to realize that.” Blair was referring to recently released satellite photos of Iraq showing new construction at several sites formerly connected to Baghdad’s nuclear-weapons program.

Bush added, “I would remind you that when the inspectors first went into Iraq and were denied—finally denied access, a report came out of the Atomic—the IAEA, that they were six months away from developing a weapon. I don’t know what more evidence we need.” (The United Nations withdrew its inspection teams in 1998.)

Blair remained on message, saying, “Absolutely right. . . . We know that they were trying to develop nuclear-weapons capability. And the importance of this morning’s report, is that it yet again shows that there is a real issue that has to be tackled here.”

At first the media were somewhat critical. That night, NBC’s Robert Windrem reported that the 1998 IAEA document Bush referred to did not say Iraq was six months away from having nuclear capability, though he noted that a 1991 IAEA report did say Baghdad was six to 24 months away. What the 1998 report, itself an update of a 1996 report, had said in its summary was that, “. . . based on all credible information available to date . . . the IAEA has found no indication of Iraq having achieved its program goal of producing nuclear weapons or of Iraq having retained a physical capability for the production of weapon-useable nuclear material or having clandestinely obtained such material.”

Confronted with the discrepancy between Bush’s statement and the 1998 report, a White House official told NBC News’ Norah O’Donnell, “What happened was, we formed our own conclusions based on the report.” Conclusions, interestingly, directly opposite to those of the actual report.

As for the satellite photos, Mark Gwozdecky, the IAEA’s chief spokesman, told Windrem that nothing in them had aroused the IAEA’s suspicion. The Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung also checked with an IAEA spokesman, who told her that the agency had issued no new report. But that seemingly important detail was reserved for the 21st paragraph of her coverage.

Nobody got all the way to the bottom of the Camp David declarations for almost three weeks. Finally, Joseph Curl, a reporter from The Washington Times, called the IAEA headquarters to confirm Bush’s and Blair’s contentions. “There’s never been a report like that issued from this agency,” Curl quoted Gwozdecky in a Sept. 27 story.

Curl called the White House seeking clarification. “He’s referring to 1991 there,” said Deputy Press Secretary Scott McClellan. “In ‘91, there was a report saying that after the war they found out they were about six months away.”

But Gwozdecky denied that any such report was issued by the IAEA in 1991, either. The only factual basis for the Bush and Blair statement Curl could find were two 1991 news stories based on the work of U.N. weapons inspector Jay Davis.

Curl’s story set off surprisingly few ripples. The New York Times and the Washington Post never published a full examination, and the matter was largely dropped, except by a few muckrakers like John R. MacArthur, the publisher of Harper’s and a sharp critic of the administration’s Iraq policy.

On Jan. 31, MacArthur appeared on PBS’s Now with Bill Moyers to discuss Bush’s State of the Union address. MacArthur raised the Camp David lie, and noted how ironic it was that only The Washington Times, a very conservative newspaper, had debunked the claim. MacArthur also included an expose of the Sept. 7 claims in a piece he wrote for the March 3 edition of The Columbia Journalism Review titled “The Lies We Bought—The Unchallenged ‘Evidence’ For War.” But the mainstream media stayed silent for months.

Finally, in an Aug. 9 article on the deceitful campaign by the Bush administration to convince the public that Iraq was an imminent threat, the Washington Post cited the debunked Camp David statements and said that a White House spokesman had admitted the president had been “imprecise” on Sept. 7.

The official claimed the president’s statement had been based on U.S intelligence, not an IAEA report. But the Post found even that claim murky—those estimates had reckoned Iraq could have an atomic bomb in six months to a year only if it acquired enough enriched uranium or plutonium from a foreign supplier.

It took a year, but it has been shown—albeit quietly—that with the sole exception of a 1991 report by a U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, every possible excuse for Bush and Blair using the IAEA to back themselves up on Sept. 7 has been removed.

It remains to be seen if the untruths told at Camp David and afterward will become as much of a problem for the White House as the Nigerian uranium story, which made the TV evening news and had senior administration officials on the ropes on the Sunday talk shows. Unlike the Niger story, the Sept. 7 statements and their bogus explanations were not one lie but rather a pack of them. And if MacArthur is right, they were also the opener in series of lies told over a period of months.

Perhaps in the beginning, the news media were less alert to the possibility of deception by the administration, since the pattern was just getting going. Even so, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that as the case for war was being built, the mainstream media fell down on the job.

—Glenn Weiser

The Activist and the CPA

This is an unusual year for primaries in Albany County. Primaries for the legislature’s 39 seats are postponed pending a resolution to the redistricting fiasco. And in the case of the county comptroller race, there is no Republican contender, so the Democratic primary will determine who will win the general election.

County accounting: (l-r) Mike Conners and Allen Maikels. Photo: Leif Zurmuhlen

Politics “is a full-contact sport the way it’s practiced here,” said incumbent Comptroller Mike Conners, who is being challenged by county Legislator Allen Maikels (D-Albany) in a primary worthy of Albany’s tradition.

Because the comptroller’s job is to audit operations and programs and to keep the county’s books, the office is elected rather than appointed in order to maintain its independence. Since Conners has had what some consider an unconventional approach to the office, this year’s county race is testing what sort of independence is desirable, and where its boundaries lie.

In 2002, Conners crossed party lines to endorse Gov. Pataki instead of his Democratic challenger, state Comptroller H. Carl McCall. Many county Democrats, including Maikels, found this unacceptable, and still hold it against him. The decision is one that has “hurt me personally and deeply politically,” Conners said. But he endorsed Pataki because he thought there was “no way [to] back away from the money the governor had put through this county.”

That choice has brought scrutiny to Conners’ term. He has not been the pencil-chewing number cruncher one might expect to find in the comptroller’s office, taking activist stands on a number of issues.

“County’s got to do a better job fighting poverty,” said Conners, who feels that part of his job is to be concerned with larger issues because of the county’s proportionally high budget for social services. “As the county’s chief financial officer, I think you have an obligation to speak out if you don’t like what’s being done.”

Maikels, on the other hand, touts his credentials not as an activist but as a professional. “The people should know the person keeping their books is a licensed professional,” said Maikels, who has spent 25 years as a CPA, and whose license dictates that he must remain an independent reviewer. Because he would be investing his professional reputation in the office, Maikels said, the public can be assured of his interest in the office’s independence.

Maikels said there should be “a constant striving to improve the county’s finances and practices.” For him, this includes providing “more timely and easily understood financial reporting” and to “keep practices of auditing up to date,” goals he said Conners has not done enough to meet. Maikels stressed that “financial numbers need to be fresh to be of any value,” complaining that the 2002 county report from Conners’ office has yet to come out. “I understand the demand of deadlines and I am comfortable with meeting them,” he said.

Maikels also would like to form an audit review committee, whose members would come from the public and the county legislature and administration, and who would convene “at least two to three times a year to go over the county’s operations in an audit.”

Maikels said his opponent’s current audits unnecessarily “make knocks against the county executive.” County Executive Michael Breslin has endorsed Maikels.

Conners countered that his record as comptroller is strong. He said he has worked to save money and improve services, and has “tried to make the office more user-friendly” by extending its hours and by generally streamlining the claims process. Conners is also proud of the countywide integrated financial-records system he helped to implement, giving employees ”point-and-click technology” to access up-to-date account information.

Both of the candidates consider themselves fighters for those in need. Maikels has organized numerous charity races, and feels his Independent and Working Families party endorsements reflect his politics, and show that he is “affiliated strongly with labor and working people in the area.”

Conners said he has used his office as a means to advocate for the poor and elderly. He sees himself as “a good-faith, honest broker for reform and change.” He worries that when the county cuts taxes, it “bumps the problems off the county’s plate and onto the city and school districts.” Conners added that he is “willing to take the hit on revenue increases” if it means that the county’s situation will improve.

According to Maikels, under the county charter, the comptroller’s office should not be about policy making—that’s the county executive’s job—something Maikels thinks Conners should remember. “The office is not about trying to grab headlines, or trying to usurp the office of the county executive,” Maikels said, adding that the people need the “cold, analytical opinion of a CPA, not the rantings of a political animal.”

—Ashley Hahn

Squarin’ Off in Hudson

Putting their squabble over independent party designations on the back burner for the moment, insurgent candidate Linda Mussman and incumbent Mayor Rick Scalera will face off in a primary for Hudson’s Democratic mayoral nomination Tuesday.

Mussman petitioned for the right to challenge Scalera, who is the city’s Democratic Party chairman and received its endorsement earlier in the year. Mussman said she is running against Scalera, who has also been endorsed by three other major political parties, with one goal in mind: to break up what she perceives as the city’s entrenched political system as epitomized by her opponent.

“I think the fact that Scalera has been endorsed by the Republicans, the Democrats, the Independence and the Conservatives confirms my opinion,” said Mussman. “I don’t think he is a true Republican or a true Democrat. He is a true representative of the people who are trying to maintain the power base in this community.”

But Scalera rebuts Mussman’s assessment, saying he actively sought the multiple endorsements in the name of bipartisanship. Scalera prides himself on his ability to work with city, county and state politicians regardless of their party affiliation, a skill he says his opponent lacks.

“Over the years Linda has spoken quite publicly that she didn’t want to be beholden to any political party,” Scalera said. “If she’s independent of everybody, I don’t know why she feels the need to primary the line. But that is her right.”

Scalera also touts the changes his administration has brought to the city’s finances, which he says were in disarray when he was first elected.

“If you look around the city and have been here for the eight years that I’ve been mayor you’ll see one thing: that I’m fiscally responsible,” Scalera said. “We provide all the services the people of Hudson have ever had and more.”

But Mussman counters that point, saying that not all of the people of Hudson are reaping benefits from the city’s recent transformation from an impoverished and failing small city to an arts and antique destination.

“There’s a lot of art and culture here, but there isn’t a lot to do for people who’ve lived here their whole lives,” Mussman said. “There are a lot of things to face and discuss here and. . . . I just don’t think the City of Hudson has dealt with these issues in a really long time.”

Mussman said she will focus her energies on improving the city’s low-income housing, creating a more reliable system of public transportation and updating and expanding services for the city’s youth.

Nine other candidates will join Mussman on the ballot Tuesday, challenging other members of Scalera’s administration for Democratic endorsements for various citywide positions. Mussman’s slate of candidates all petitioned for the right to primary, which greatly angered the mayor. Scalera felt that Mussman and her candidates should have approached him, as chairman of the city Democratic Party, to ask for the endorsements.

Angered by Mussman and her fellow candidates’ decision to petition for Democratic primaries, Scalera recently decided to take ownership of the Bottom Line Party, an unofficial political party Mussman created when she ran against Scalera in 2001. Scalera recently told Metroland [Newsfront, Aug. 21] that his decision to “politically maneuver” for the Bottom Line Party designation was a calculated tit-for-tat.

“It was meant to be devious,” Scalera told Metroland. “If I hurt her feelings in that respect, it was meant to be because that is what she did to most of the people that have worked their ass off in this city for the better part of eight years.”

Scalera remains unapologetic about acquiring the Bottom Line Party designation and said he has put the issue behind him to focus on the upcoming primary. Mussman too is focusing on Tuesday’s election, when she said the “Democrats of Hudson will get to choose their candidates for the first time in a long time.”

“We’re bringing people to the table—people with energy and ideas that, we feel, have been excluded in the past,” Mussman said. “There are a lot of issues we hope to open up to the people of Hudson.”

—Travis Durfee

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