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Business with a conscience: Mary Jane Books staff (l-r) Michele Reno, Dave Trump, owner Carole Renzi, Dan Ruisi and Kate O’Neill. Photo: John Whipple

Clearing the Air
Local bookstore puts its advertising where its mouth is

It’s not always easy to live out your principles. But as Mary Jane Books, an Albany-based independent bookstore that specializes in college textbooks, recently learned, sometimes it’s easier than it might look at first.

Carole Renzi, Mary Jane’s owner, and her employees share a lot of political views, and even traveled together earlier this year to a protest against the war in Iraq. Along with a skepticism of the current administration’s policies, they share a distaste for monopolistic corporations, a position likely strengthened by Mary Jane’s role as the scrappy independent alternative to the University at Albany’s on-campus Barnes & Noble. “We definitely feel like we have a little of David of David and Goliath in us,” said Renzi. “You shouldn’t let one company take over an entire area.”

So it’s not so surprising that the Mary Jane staff collectively began to feel uncomfortable about advertising with Clear Channel Radio, the largest corporate owner of radio stations in the country. Mary Jane is located off campus (and indeed serves students from several different schools), and it relies primarily on radio spots to make incoming freshmen aware of its existence.

“I have young people who work for me. They had been talking about . . . [Clear Channel], their supposed stances . . . , not playing any antiwar songs on the radio,” explained Renzi, who was also disturbed to learn that Clear Channel stations had sponsored “prowar” rallies. And, of course, she was troubled by “the fact that they owned a lot and are growing and everything is sponsored by them.”

Clear Channel owns more than 1,300 radio stations in the country (and is aggressively pursuing more), which puts it in control of at least 60 percent of rock-radio business, according to Eric Boehlert of Salon. This, in combination with the company’s ownership of increasing numbers of concert venues, has prompted widespread concern that the company has undue influence on what and who gets airtime. The company, which is owned by a major donor to the Bush administration, also has been charged with promoting a right-wing agenda. Clear Channel, however, vigorously claims that all programming is locally directed, denies any mixing of business and politics, and points out that it technically owns only nine percent of the radio stations in the country.

That is a somewhat a misleading figure (it owns a much larger percentage of major market stations), but it is still worth remembering that the Clear Channel takeover is not yet as complete as many people fear. In fact, soon after Renzi had a letter to the editor published in The Daily Gazette lamenting the fact that Clear Channel’s dominance made it “nearly impossible” for Mary Jane Books to go forward with a boycott of Clear Channel and still reach its target market, she got a miffed call from Albany Broadcasting Company.

Albany Broadcasting, founded in 1986, owns a total of 30 stations in eastern New York, Vermont, and Florida. Locally, it beats out Clear Channel’s total, with eight stations in the Capital Region. “They were kind of offended,” said Renzi. “They were like, ‘Hey what are you saying?’. . . . It [had] seemed like Clear Channel had most of it locked and I wasn’t going to be able to do too much.” Renzi happily moved her advertising lock, stock and barrel over to Albany Broadcasting.

The move has meant some changes in the bookstore’s approach, since Clear Channel does most of the event sponsorship in the area, which is big exposure, said Renzi. But she’s made the break. “We’re staying away from the big events, keeping it small, trying to connect with the kids on campus,” she said.

The change has prompted a few compliments from politically minded students. But even better, it’s working. “We have a tremendous word-of-mouth [network],” said Dave Ruisi, accounts manager for Mary Jane. “We’ve spent the least on advertising this year and we’ve made the most money.”

—Miriam Axel-Lute

Whither Park South?
A draft revitalization plan for Albany neighborhood has strong friends and firm foes

The map looks deceptively simple. The nine square blocks of Albany’s Park South, bounded by Lark Street on the east, Madison Avenue on the north, Robin Street on the west and Myrtle Avenue on the south, are color coded in four large chunks—red along New Scotland Avenue to indicate mixed-use development (retail/office/ housing), orange in one blocklong, block-and-a-half high patch indicating new student housing, green along Madison Avenue and a small portion of Knox Street to show areas to “maintain,” and yellow across the rest of the neighborhood, indicating a mix of rehab and “infill” construction on vacant lots or the sites of empty or burnt-out buildings.

But like everything else about the first draft of the Park South Renewal plan, which the city has been working on for the past year, the devil is in the details. To get parcels large enough for a “catalyst” mixed-used commercial project on the south end of New Scotland or for the student housing, a large number of individual lots will need to be assembled—which has raised the specter of eminent domain. Drawings of shiny blocks of all-new housing have made residents suspicious that eminent domain may be used elsewhere as well, if there is one “holdout” in an otherwise troubled block.

Many residents are worried that this approach could end up driving out exactly the old-timers who have been the neighborhood’s stalwarts. Pat Kelly, who has rented in the neighborhood for 40 years and started the local Walk & Watch, listed off several elderly homeowners who she said lived in the “target area” for the redevelopment project and hadn’t been contacted so they could participate in the discussions. Others worry about their own homes. “What it really comes down to is the city ignored us for a long time because we were a poor neighborhood,” said 11-year resident Ali Raab. “And now their only solution is to tear it all down.”

While she understands the emotion behind it, this kind of statement frustrates the city’s planning commissioner, Lori Harris. “Many people are characterizing the plan as to demolish the entire neighborhood, and it’s not,” she said firmly, saying it’s primarily the one commercial and student housing project where that would be a concern, and even there eminent domain would be a last resort.

Underlying the eminent domain question, though, is a fundamental difference of opinion about what’s needed to revitalize the neighborhood, which everyone agrees has two major assets: location and a core of very devoted longtime residents. To Harris and other supporters of the current draft plan, “There has to be some kind of infusion of new capital that makes the market look differently at Park South.”

“I absolutely believe that on its own it’s not going to happen,” said Harris. “You need some shot in the arm that convinces the market that it’s a good place to invest. We’ve had a lot of good people stick it out and even come to Park South in the past few years, but it’s not enough. . . . We want to improve the conditions to retain the people who’ve been working so hard.”

But for many of those hard-working residents, it’s hard to believe that the city has their interests at heart. They are full of stories of the crime, drug dealing, noise, bad landlords, and dilapidated buildings that they have been asking the city to deal with for years, and though many say there has been limited progress of late, they still feel like neglect is the main thing holding their beloved neighborhood down. “They have to start enforcing the laws,” said Barbara LaRose, a neighborhood member of the plan’s advisory committee. “I don’t see how improving that spot [New Scotland Avenue] is going to help anybody else.”

“I’m concerned because for 10 years we’ve been trying to get help down here. They didn’t enforce the codes, landlords just do what they want,” said Kelly.

Plan critics are not opposed to any plan at all, but their priorities are more incremental. They agree on tearing down burnt-out buildings and encouraging families to move in to the area. They feel strongly about preserving the historic homes and the urban fabric in the area. “Whatever housing they decide on should fit in with whatever housing [is] here,” added LaRose. And they don’t want anyone to be displaced.

But Andrew Harvey, president of the Park South Neighborhood Association, who supports the draft plan, said, “There are areas where the vast majority of the housing is really very dilapidated, and just leaving it to the discretion of the seller will not be adequate to get to a revitalized Park South.” Still, he said, he thought the plan should “bend over backwards to accommodate” owner-occupants (and only owner-occupants) who want to stay in their existing buildings.

Harvey and Harris both said that a lack of new housing with amenities like larger bedrooms and garages may be keeping people from moving into the city. The important thing is to look five to 10 years ahead, said Harvey. “We should not fear the future.”

—Miriam Axel-Lute


Borrow books here? Albany’s Washington Avenue Armory, the possible new home for the city’s library. Photo: John Whipple

Looking to Branch Out
Seeking to increase its presence in the community, the Albany Public Library unveils lofty plans for the future

The Albany Public Library’s board of trustees unveiled a set of recommendations to expand the city’s library system Monday evening, including the reuse of the Washington Avenue Armory as the new main branch.

According to the plan, none of the system’s existing branches is adequately equipped; most are architecturally insignificant and all are poorly designed to function as modern libraries. Before discussing ideas for the future of the city’s library system, planners tossed around adjectives like “decrepit,” “generic” and “congested” to describe the library’s existing branches.

Henry Myerberg, a consultant with the Rockwell Group, which has helped develop the library’s master plan, said the library should look to increase its civic presence in the city by showcasing more prominent structures and offering a wider variety of programs and services. The plan’s recommendations for the city library included renovating the 114-year-old Armory to serve as the flagship main branch, expanding facilities for the four remaining branches, creating a satellite branch in the North Albany YMCA, and building new branches in western Albany and Arbor Hill.

“Around the country there is this idea of turning the library into places of experience that add to the urban lifestyle,” Myerberg said. Borrowing ideas from retail stores like Starbucks and Barnes & Noble, Myerberg said that public libraries can be excellent “third places,” or relaxing stops between work and home, for city dwellers. “Libraries are well-poised to do that, and here’s the good news—libraries are free,” Myerberg added.

Myerberg said the library’s existing branches do not befit Albany, a city that is home to a number of architecturally unique structures. Myerberg’s assessment should come as no surprise to those familiar with the city’s existing system: Only the Howe Branch, located in the South End, was designed as a library. The library’s main branch on Washington Avenue is a converted office building, formerly inhabited by the Internal Revenue Service. The Pine Hills branch sits inconspicuously off of Western Avenue, the New Scotland branch borrows space from School 19, and the Delaware branch is crammed into a strip mall next to a Laundromat and a vacant Mr. Subb.

Jeff Cannell, director of the Albany Public Library, was excited with the prospect of using the historic armory as the main branch for the public library, seeing it as an opportunity to “honor Albany’s love of history on the outside while providing a door to the future within.”

The library’s plan took a sharp turn earlier this year when Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings put his support and political muscle behind the reuse of the Washington Avenue Armory.

In November, Jennings asked state officials to halt the sale of the Armory to Jim Coyne, former Albany County Executive and convicted felon. Coyne and his business associates, Albany Basketball & Sports Corp., had been looking purchase the Armory from the state since this spring with the hopes of converting the decaying structure into a venue for concerts and sporting events. Coyne, who said the mayor initially backed his plan, was quoted in various media outlets throughout the Capital Region as saying that the whole deal was “the biggest betrayal since Judas.”

“It’s not about Jim Coyne, it’s not about Jerry Jennings, it’s about the history of that building and the better use for it in this city,” Jennings said. “If he’s disappointed, then that’s unfortunate, but we can make things happen in this city. If he’s generally interested in providing what he’s talking about, there are other options to pursue.”

Jennings said the library in the armory could be a part of a citywide learning center, possibly including an archeological museum.

The library’s plan did not include a price tag or a time frame for the overhaul, both of which Cannell said would result from further planning efforts. The board of trustees is seeking comments from the public about the draft. The plan’s executive summary is available at each of the Albany Public Library’s branches, and a full version of the report is available at the libraries’ Web site, www.albanypubliclibrary.org.

In 2002, Albany residents voted to create an independent library system with the ability to levy a special tax. Any tax increase proposed by the library must pass a referendum. Cannell said the library wants to minimize taxpayer responsibility for the expansion by seeking outside funding from state agencies and private corporations.

“This will be at least partially paid for by the public, but we are governed in a democratic way and the public will ultimately tell us what they want to do,” Cannell said. “This is a first, real big step forward tonight.”

—Travis Durfee


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