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Drop-In Again
Safety Zone reopens in Troy after months of uncertainty

After months without a steady funding stream or a permanent home, Safety Zone—Troy’s only drop-in center for gay, transgender and sexually questioning youth—reopened last week in a new location.

Safety Zone’s new residence, 309 8th St., was officially coronated with a small gathering of friends and supporters Friday night (Jan. 30). Punch, cocktail weenies and other hors d’oeuvres were spread out on a few tables dotted with Brach’s conversation hearts, as the Collar City youth who have spent time at the Safety Zone celebrated the reopening of the place many have called their home away from home.

“It’s about time,” said Troy resident Krystal Blair, 19. Funding constraints forced Unity House, the Troy-based social-services provider that funds Safety Zone, to temporarily pare back Safety Zone’s availability to the city’s youth in September [“And No One Profits,” Sept. 13]. Since then those who frequented the program, which had once operated out of a colorful, cozy storefront space on 4th Street, were hanging out in spare offices and conference rooms in Unity House buildings throughout the city.

Blair and the score of other GLBT teens in and around Troy who spent time at Safety Zone have praised the drop-in center’s open environment, which offers a place for teenagers to explore and ask questions about their sexual orientation without fear of ridicule or judgment. Chris Burke, Unity House’s executive director, agreed.

“It is difficult enough to be a teenager these days,” Burke said. “To be questioning your sexuality as a teenager can make a difficult time even more difficult.”

Youth dealing with those difficulties in Troy were put at a distinct disadvantage earlier this year when Troy High School had to ax its in-school counselors this year due to budget constraints. “These kids have no place to go,” Burke said. Last year’s state budget crunch left Safety Zone ill-prepared to make up the difference.

With the state’s budget billions in the red last year, the New York State AIDS Institute, which funded Safety Zone, was forced to reconfigure how its grant money would be doled out. The AIDS Institute began offering greater sums of money to programs providing services in larger municipalities. Troy and Safety Zone didn’t make the cut. Unity House lost the $65,000 grant it used to fund Safety Zone. The loss equaled 87 percent of the program’s annual operating budget.

Lack of funds forced the program to move out of its colorful location on 4th Street last September, and Unity House had been seeking a new home for the program ever since. The nonprofit found a new space for the program a few months back when some office space opened up in one of Unity House’s own buildings.

Funding for the program has begun to trickle in again, too: The Community AIDS Partnership of the Capital Region cut a check for $10,000, and Burke said that the United Way is expected to give a similar amount.

While the reopening provides a regular place for GLBT youth in Troy to hang out, the new space also give Bruce Clarkson, the drop-in center’s director, a regular space to carry out the education and counseling services Safety Zone has provided since 1995. Youth in Troy can again take advantage of free one-on-one counseling at Safety Zone and use one of the program’s three computers to help with their homework. Teenagers can also receive training in HIV/AIDS prevention, with the prospect of becoming a peer educator and giving presentations in local high schools and community centers throughout the Capital Region.

Safety Zone will be open Tuesdays from 4-9 PM, Wednesdays from 3-6 PM, alternating Mondays from 3-6 PM and alternating Fridays from 4-9 PM.

—Travis Durfee

Travis Durfee can be reached at tdurfee@metroland.net or 463-2500 ext. 144


Do I need to repeat myself? Helen Black, of Arbor Hill. Photo: Joe Putrock

Answers Please
With citizens growing increasingly skeptical of the Albany Police Department, Common Council members gear up for a chance to question the department’s leadership

It’s become a familiar scene at Albany Common Council meetings: Arbor Hill and South End residents filling the council chamber seats, holding protest signs as they wait to address the council with the same concerns they presented the week before: the reassignment of a popular police commander from patrol duties, an abandoned community police council, an apparent unwillingness by the department’s administration to provide crime statistics to the public.

The frustration that has become visible among the frequent speakers—especially Arbor Hill’s Helen Black and the South End’s Betsy Mercogliano, who’ve addressed the council on these issues since October—has even spilled over into city residents who aren’t necessarily directly concerned with police issues.

“As you know, week after week I come down here and say I’m against the rezoning of Krumkill Road,” said Vincent Riguso, a resident of Albany’s 14th Ward. “As I sit here and I hear these residents talk about their problems [with the police department], I feel that my problems are really small. These people come before us every week and they have these same questions about community policing, Commander D’Alessandro, and you just can’t seem to give them an answer.”

Some council members are no longer willing to respond to constituents’ questions by simply turning their palms up in the air. In fact, a number of members have expressed their distaste with their inability to provide answers regarding police issues and criminal activity in the city. The members will finally have the opportunity to speak with Public Safety Commissioner Jack Nielsen and Albany Police Chief Robert Wolfgang on Wednesday (Feb. 11), when the department’s two highest-ranking officials will sit before the council’s caucus to take questions.

Councilman Michael O’Brien (Ward 12) and a handful of council representatives have been requesting to speak with members of the department’s administration since November 2003. Joe Igoe, who represents the 14th Ward and chairs the council’s Public Safety Committee, said Nielsen and Wolfgang did take questions from the council in December, but not all members of the council were able to attend.

“To me, there’s a communications question here,” said O’Brien. “It seems like we’re pulling teeth and we’re not getting any answers. I’m looking to show that the council is at least conscientious about asking questions of puzzling situations.”

And to some members of the public, there has been no shortage of puzzling situations over the past few months.

Cmdr. Christian D’Alessandro, a popular Albany police officer who forged strong bonds with Arbor Hill, Sheridan Hollow and South End residents, was suddenly reassigned in October. This prompted an outcry from some of those communities [“They Got Him Off the Streets,” Newsfront, Oct. 16], which continues to surface at council meetings four months later.

The commander’s reassignment came on the heels of a decision to temporarily ax the Albany Community Police Council for lack of attendance [“Dialogue Disbanded,” Newsfront, Oct. 30].

Last week, a day after two dozen citizens turned out to a Common Council meeting demanding his reinstatement to patrol duties, D’Alessandro was suspended from the force for allegedly circulating a disparaging flyer about one of his coworkers.

In December, a high-speed car chase through a residential neighborhood ended in the accidental, fatal shooting of a pedestrian, David Scaringe [“Death and Disbelief,” Newsfront, Jan. 8]. The tragic event prompted inquiries from the city’s Civilian Police Review Board into the department’s hot-pursuit and use-of-force policies, adding to a list of information requests the board has been waiting for the department to fill for more than three years.

If the review board’s struggle to receive information from the department seemed odd to some, it was not a surprise to Councilman Dominick Calsoslaro (Ward 1). Calsolaro has been fuming of late over the fact that he has not received statistics on gun violence throughout the city that he requested nearly a year ago.

“Why can’t they tell the public what is going on? Why is everything so secretive?” Calsolaro asked. “I think they’re of the philosophy that the less stuff that gets out there the better the city looks. I happen to have the opposite opinion.”

Calsolaro noted that the department’s “crime info” page on its Web site, www.apdonline.org/police, hasn’t been updated for almost two years, while the New York City Police Department updates its online crime statistics weekly.

Nielsen and Wolfgang were supposed to meet with the council to discuss these issues on Jan. 28, but the meeting was canceled with less than two hours notice due to concerns about the weather. Members of the public who planned on demonstrating at the meeting en masse—especially those who attended Tuesday’s [Feb. 3] civilian police review board meeting during a full-on snowstorm—thought this reason for the last-minute cancellation was spurious at best.

Regardless, Igoe said he is hoping that Wednesday’s caucus meeting will help satisfy some of the concerns raised by members of the council and the public.

“I will not predict whether the answers will satisfy all members on all issues,” Igoe said, “but I am hopeful that an improved two-way line of communication [between the department and the council] will be reestablished.”

—Travis Durfee

Travis Durfee can be reached at tdurfee@metroland.net or 463-2500 ext. 144

Gettin’ Heard
Concerned citizens in Albany’s Park South neighborhood are getting what they’ve been hoping for—a voice in the neighborhood planning process

The revitalization planning process for Park South has been controversial from its beginning [“Wither Park South?,” Newsfront, Dec. 4, 2003]. But one of the main complaints—that residents’ voices and priorities weren’t being taken into account [“The Process Matters,” Newsfront, Dec. 18, 2003]—may soon be alleviated. At the end of Dec. 11’s neighborhood meeting, planning commissioner Lori Harris agreed to meet with a task force of concerned citizens and have them review and comment on the draft submitted by Design Collective, the city’s consultant, before it is presented as final to the Albany Common Council.

The plan has brought a measure of relief to a tense situation. “They were saying ‘yes, yes,’ but not listening, but now they’re going to listen more,” said Barbara LaRose, who has taken a leadership role in organizing the task force, Concerned Citizens of Park South.

Harris, too, was happy about the decision. “I never saw that happen at a meeting, so much turnaround when people were so angry,” she said about the Dec. 11 meeting.

LaRose stressed that the task force is separate from the neighborhood association, and has reached out to people who do not attend association meetings regularly. The task force met last Thursday (Jan. 28) to start formulating its ground rules for decision making, and to discuss a mission statement. The mission statement, which has not been completed yet, will summarize the 16-member group’s priorities, and may include such things as the importance of not displacing people or focusing on public-safety concerns. “I asked everyone to write a mission statement [for the next meeting],” said LaRose; a final version will be put together based on what she gets from the members.

Once they’ve finished setting themselves up, task force members will meet with Harris to review the submitted draft. They will “discuss, comment, understand, and maybe suggest alternative and different options, different priorities,” said Councilman Richard Conti (Ward 6), who represents Park South. They will report back to the neighborhood association and the wider community to keep people informed of their process.

Conti has been supportive of new group, and said he is optimistic that this “grassroots input mechanism” will move “past some of the points of contention” that have been coming up by helping people learn more of the details of what’s proposed and by focusing on the broad areas of common ground. Some of those points of contention have been the idea of building a student dorm in the neighborhood and the extent to which eminent domain will be used on occupied buildings. “Some people have disagreement about elements of the proposal,” said Conti, but “there’s not a lot of disagreement about what people [do] want.”

“We do want to see our neighborhood revitalized,” emphasized LaRose. “It’s a complicated issue. It’s like a great big ball of yarn. But this is another step toward all working together.” She expressed hope that this dialogue would “segue into a lot of dealings with the city on these quality of life issues,” like police response to calls about drug dealing or noise.

Park South Neighborhood Association president Andrew Harvey, who is also participating in the Concerned Citizens task force, said he believes “the city will end up being very respectful of this committee.” The city got a wake-up call about its planning process in Arbor Hill, said Harvey, and it was trying not to repeat those mistakes in Park South. “Now, perhaps, it’s learning even more,” he said.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

Miriam Axel-Lute can be reached at maxel-lute@metroland.net or 463-2500 ext. 141.


The site in their sights: BASF’s vacant property could be home to a newspaper-recycling plant. Photo: John Whipple

Unfit for Print?
After Rensselaer derails plans for newspaper recycling plant, state lawmakers take City Council to task, and bargaining table

Last week, the Rensselaer City Council voted to reject a $1.14 billion newspaper recycling and cogeneration project that was in the works for a vacant riverfront industrial site, fearing pollution and traffic problems. And now the council is in hot water with the mayor and state lawmakers who say they need to reconsider and get this project moving forward again.

In 2001, the Besicorp-Empire Development Company filed with the state to construct the integrated recycling-cogeneration plant, proposing it for the former BASF site, a 120-year-old industrial Superfund site. Besicorp officials first tried to locate this facility in Kingston, where the company has its headquarters, and in Ulster, but after both communities rejected it, they looked upriver to Rensselaer.

“Many in Rensselaer wanted this project, especially the mayor, but also many town council members” when it was first proposed, according Eric Daillie, project coordinator for both the Renssealer County Greens and the Coalition Against Riverfront Pollution, a community group who oppose the project. CARP researched the potential impact of the project, and their results prompted members of the council to reconsider. Daillie points to higher traffic flowing through town, about 60 trucks per minute. Albertine Felts, who represents the city’s 2nd ward on the council, worries that the steam from the 12 cooling towers could cover the streets and bridges in ice in winter, and that particulate matter could adversely affect air quality and cause respiratory problems.

The council claimed the company was not negotiating with the city in good faith, and that the benefits to the city in the form of job creation and revenue would not outweigh the costs of further pollution, traffic, and limiting the cleanup of the Superfund site to levels acceptable only for further industrial use. The Department of Environmental Conservation has been working to develop a plan for the site’s remediation with a view to the Besicorp project’s needs.

Many on the council, however, are more interested in a stricter, albeit more expensive, cleanup, because Besicorp has secured neither its state permits nor its funding. And while Daillie admits “they might get the permit,” he cautions even that “doesn’t mean they’re going to find the investors,” for both the paper mill and power plant. He adds that investors are reluctant to invest in energy projects after losing their proverbial shirts over the Enron scandal.

Daillie has extensively researched the newspaper industry, and found it in decline, particularly in the Northeast. He doubts Besicorp could really compete with Canada’s successful plants. Besicorp has never built a newspaper-recycling facility, and Daillie thinks they have less at stake if the project fails because their own finances are not hanging in the balance. “Besicorp is not putting anything on the line,” except investors’ money, he said. The billion-dollar firm would be underwritten by tax-exempt bonds through the Rensselaer County Industrial Development Agency.

In November, the City Council unanimously passed a resolution rejecting the project. Mayor Mark Pratt vetoed it, but the council overrode his veto last month by a vote of 9-2, after one unsuccessful attempt to do so. State Sen. Joseph Bruno, Assemblyman Ron Canestrari, Pratt, and the city’s superintendent of schools all decried the council’s actions as irresponsible and counterproductive.

While people on the City Council and in CARP alike recognize the need for economic relief in Rensselaer, they are not convinced the Besicorp project is the right solution. Daillie thinks it’s time “to see if there’s a better solution to the financial problems of Renssealer rather than trying to desperately take anything just so we can get a few hundred thousand dollars more in taxes.”

Mark Hanson, a spokesman for Sen. Bruno, said he believes the council was “being shortsighted” in obstructing a project that Bruno believes “would have a significant benefit to the vast majority of the people in the community by way of creating jobs and generating tax revenue for the local government and the school district.” He also pointed out that the vacant site is not bringing in any revenue for the city, “and if the project were not to go forward, it’s certainly possible that BASF might simply bulldoze what’s there and then you have a vacant polluted site that’s doing nobody any good.”

“I’m not against labor or getting jobs, I’m against polluting,” said Felts, who brought the resolution to reject the project. She added, “This is not just going to be in the 1st and 2nd wards in Rensselaer, this is going to be throughout the area.”

After the City Council rejected the project, Mechanicville offered a site for the facility’s consideration. Daillie called this “laughable” and noted that “it took Besicorp one year to put [their draft environmental impact statement] together, and another year of litigation; it’s not that simple.”

Felts advised Mechanicville to “read the fine print before you agree to anything” in the name of job creation.

To Daillie, this is a matter of sound regional planning. He finds it “really amusing to have Sen. Bruno talking about what’s good for the region, when every time we ask for regional planning, smart growth and so forth they don’t want it, they see it as an obstacle to free enterprise.”

And despite the City Council’s objections, the sentiment still seems to be that negotiations will continue for locating the Besicorp project at the BASF site in Rensselaer.

This project has taken years to even get to this stage, and those who worked on it don’t seem to want to walk away from it yet. Bruno and Canestrari held meetings with council members on Wednesday afternoon prior to the council’s regular evening meeting.

To Felts, it was important to allow the city to decide what is in its interest without coercion. “We need to decide on what we want to do rather than have the politicians—we are politicians, but we are small time—rather than have these state leaders dictate to us,” she said, calling the project “an unnecessary evil.”

—Ashley Hahn

Ashley Hahn can be reached at ahan@metroland.net


Elect me: Aaron Mair. Photo: John Whipple

Trailmix: Mair Apparent

Adding another kink to an already twisted election, Aaron Mair told Metroland that, in all likelihood, he will run for the Democratic nomination for Albany County Legislature in District 4.

Mair is one of the civil-rights activists who ultimately forced the county legislature to readjust its voting-district maps to provide adequate representation for the county’s growing minority population [“Back to the Drawing Board,” Newsfront, July 10, 2003]. He told a Times Union reporter on Feb. 2 that his wife, Maryam, might challenge incumbent Virginia Maffia-Tobler (D-North Albany) on the Democratic line. But the 43-year-old North Albany resident told this paper that he may seek the endorsement himself.

The opportunity presented itself earlier this week when a panel of Appellate Court judges ordered District Judge Norman Mordue, who is overseeing the long-standing lawsuit, to create guidelines for a special election to be held as soon as possible following a March 2 primary. The new primary coincides with New York’s presidential primary.

The county elections were put off in November because there wasn’t enough time after the lawsuit was decided, but the appellate panel ruled that a prompt rescheduling was necessary to ensure that the county’s minority population could take advantage of the voting rights mandated by the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Because of the time pressure, petitioning rules have been relaxed. The modified petitioning rules require a candidate to gather signatures from the lesser of 25 or 2.5 percent of registered voters in a four-day period.

Although Mair was a registered Conservative up until last year’s general election, he said that his political interests in civil and environmental rights are unwavering.

“There is no such thing as ideological Democrats in Albany County. There are a lot of idiotic Democrats in Albany County,” Mair said. “The best way to beat a Democrat is to become a Democrat and have access to what it means and entails to be one in this county,” he added.

Mair said he wanted to enlist a slate of candidates to mount challenges for the nominations in the county’s 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 13th wards. Mair said that he has yet to file with the board of elections, but that he and a rash of other candidates, including incumbent Legislator Lucy McKnight (D-Albany), whom he does not want to challenge, will do so before the filing date, which is Monday (Feb. 9).

While Mair seemed jubilant at the prospect of running for a legislative seat on such a shortened election schedule, not everyone was pleased with this week’s announcement. Peter LaVenia, cochair of the Albany County Green Party, expressed dismay that an earlier proposal to allow candidates to challenge legislators countywide simply by submitting a notarized “opportunity to ballot” form to the county Board of Elections was not sustained.

“Should we not be encouraging the loosening of ballot-access laws allowing everyone to run? Is that not democracy?” LaVenia said by press release Tuesday. “Obviously the Democrats and Republicans do not see elections as an expression of democracy, but rather as how to best keep their stranglehold on politics.”

—Travis Durfee


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