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Site of things to come? The block along State and Eagle streets, one of the possible sites for a new convention center in downtown Albany. Photo by: Alicia Solsman

The Center Holds
State Legislature passes amended version of convention-center bill

A number of bills found their way out of the New York State Legislature last week in the annual flurry of activity preceding lawmakers’ departure. Included among the last-minute legislation is a bill that would create the Albany Convention Center Authority—bringing the city one step closer to becoming the new home for a multimillion-dollar convention center.

After nearly two months in the Senate, the bill that left the state Legislature is significantly different than the one that was first introduced [“Betting on the Big Project,” Newsfront, June 10]. Initially, plans for the $225 million project called for a portion of the funding to come from a 3-percent hike in the county tax on hotel- and motel-room occupancy. But in the amended bill, which is currently awaiting approval by Gov. George E. Pataki, this source of funding has been removed. The 85,000-square-foot facility and neighboring 400-room hotel will instead rely upon their own revenue.

Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings, who initiated studies concerning Albany’s potential as a convention destination in 2000, acknowledged that the room occupancy tax was one of the more contentious aspects of the original bill. Making the project more self-reliant, he explained, was a key to winning approval.

“Now, financing for the convention center won’t rest on the taxpayers of Albany,” said Jennings. “The hotel’s revenue will pay for the hotel.”

The initial arrangement of the authority was also amended in the bill. The legislation originally called for seven Albany county residents appointed by state and local officials, but that has been expanded to nine members, and the residency restriction has been removed. The new bill also grants the governor two additional appointees to the authority. A chairperson for the group must be elected from among the governor’s appointees.

According to Jennings, a concession to greater state influence on the project was necessary for the bill’s passage, as the authority will rely upon funds borrowed from the state to get the project off the ground. Once Pataki approves the bills—which is generally expected, given that he was instrumental in pushing the bills through the Senate—the members of the authority can then be appointed.

One of the first decisions awaiting the new authority will involve the location of the complex. Potential sites for the convention center and hotel include two overlapping areas of downtown Albany east of the Pepsi Arena and bounded by Pearl Street, Broadway and Interstate 787. A site farther uptown, the block bounded by State and Eagle streets and across from the Capitol, was also proposed. Jennings indicated that all the sites are already being considered for additional projects, so those not chosen for the convention center will also be developed.

According to Elizabeth Griffin, executive director of the Historic Albany Foundation, construction on any of the sites would require that the state give some attention to Albany’s past.

Lining the perimeter of the upper site are the skeletal remains of the Wellington Hotel and Annex, as well as an abandoned Elks Lodge. While the façade of the Wellington provides one of downtown’s more recognizable landmarks, the building’s innards have been ravaged by years of vacancy.

“There’s not a lot of historic material left in those buildings,” said Griffin.

According to Griffin, the most valuable part of each building—historically speaking— doesn’t extend very far beyond the street, so while any alterations to the exterior would have to come before the Historic Resources Commission, developing the interior of the block wouldn’t be a problem from a preservation standpoint.

Yet the main draw for moving the convention center farther downtown may be financial, according to Joe Galu, chief of staff for Assemblyman John J. McEneny (D-Albany), the bill’s initial sponsor in the Legislature.

“Tearing down buildings is expensive,” said Galu. “The whole back thing there behind the Wellington—that’s a wreck.”

While the lower sites offer the advantage of being relatively undeveloped, Griffin indicated that a mid-18th century building located within the boundaries of both lower sites should warrant some attention from planners. The building on Hudson Avenue dates back to the same time period as Albany’s famous Quackenbush House, and Griffin said that it could easily be incorporated into the surrounding project.

“The building is small enough so that it could be worked into any plans,” said Griffin, who added that a convention center on one of the lower sites could serve as a “curtain to the ugly [Interstate 787] ramps.”

Neither site has come out a clear favorite among officials, though. According to Jennings, all three sites share an equal chance at becoming the new home for a convention center.

“Sure, [the lower site] offers the advantage of being cheaper, but once you’re downtown, you’re away from the Knickerbocker Arena and the Empire State Plaza,” said Galu.

—Rick Marshall

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