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On First Thought, No

City commission immediately rebuffs proposal to demolish the Wellington Hotel

 

Albany’s Historic Resources Commission called a quick end last week to demolition plans that would have removed the Wellington Hotel and other city landmarks from the downtown landscape, but the future of the buildings is still uncertain.

The commission voted 7-0 to deny the demolition application submitted by the buildings’ owner, Sebba Rockaway Ltd., a company owned by London businessman Samuel Sebba. The proposal would have put the Wellington and Berkshire Hotels, as well as the nearby Elks Lodge, in a wrecking ball’s path in order to make the site more attractive as a potential convention center location.

The vote appeared to take both Sebba’s legal team and the city by surprise, as representatives from both parties repeatedly stated that they had gone into Wednesday’s public meeting under the impression that it would be the opening dialogue of the application process and not the final judgment.

“There was no expectation that we would have resolution tonight,” said Mark McCarthy, an attorney for Sebba. According to McCarthy, the application submitted to the commission was simply a preliminary version of Sebba’s proposal, with studies and additional information to be submitted over time. After commission members indicated that they were prepared to act on the application that night, McCarthy requested that the vote be delayed two weeks so that a more comprehensive plan could be assembled.

“The last thing anyone wants is litigation,” warned McCarthy.

“We also saw this as the beginning of dialogue,” agreed Assistant Corporation Counsel Terrence Gorman, who also recommended a two-week delay on the vote, adding that an immediate denial of the application would likely extend the city’s legal battles with Sebba. Members of the commission seemed to give the delay brief consideration, but after they opened the floor to public comment, a parade of speakers advocating for immediate denial appeared to cement the group’s decision to deny the application sooner rather than later.

“The condition of the Wellington and adjacent buildings results from neglect and a complete lack of maintenance during the time the applicant has owned the buildings,” said James Cohen, president of the Historic Albany Foundation’s board of directors. Cohen and other speakers urged the commission not to reward building owners who let their properties fall into neglect by allowing them to demolish and sell off historic property after it is too damaged to market.

The controversy surrounding Sebba’s downtown Albany properties developed this summer when a portion of the 5-ton cornice along the Wellington’s roof began to dislodge from its moorings above State Street. The city initially called for demolition of the property, but later rescinded the plan in the face of opposition from preservationist groups, opting instead to stabilize the property to the tune of $400,000.

Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings pledged to have Sebba, who bought the properties in the late 1980s as a speculative investment, refund the cost of repairs. Questions remain, however, as to why the property was allowed to achieve such a high level of neglect, especially given that it is within view of City Hall.

In making their case for demolition, McCarthy and Daniel Hershberg, one of Sebba Rockaway’s directors, cited the approval of a 1989 demolition application for the Wellington and surrounding buildings.

“Even though a certificate of appropriateness was granted by this commission, Sebba Rockaway never exercised that option,” said Hershberg.

“Over 14 years, things do change,” responded commission member William Allen.

The commission cited a study by Donald Friedman, a New York City-based preservation engineer who found that the Wellington was indeed in need of extensive repairs, but not demolition, before voting on the proposal. Friedman was commissioned this summer by the ad-hoc group Save Wellington Row in order to provide further analysis of Sebba’s properties after a city-commissioned report advised demolition. Jennings initially called for demolition of the buildings on the basis of the city-commissioned report’s findings, only to soften his stance a few days later.

Sebba’s attorneys questioned the Friedman report, arguing that the city-commissioned report created a “difference of opinion” about the Wellington’s condition and the need for demolition.

Looming over discussion of the Wellington is the possibility of that block of State Street becoming the home of a new convention center. When told by commission members that city code requires a replacement structure to be planned before demolition is approved, McCarthy said that by demolishing the properties, Sebba hoped to encourage the soon-to-be-formed convention-center authority to favor the State Street location as a site for the project.

“Until [the question of where to locate the convention center] is answered, how can we be expected to tell this commission what we have planned for that site?” asked McCarthy. He insisted that it wouldn’t make sense—financially—to invest in restoring the Wellington, only to have it demolished if the authority picks the State Street site for the convention center.

Members of the commission responded by saying that the current condition of Sebba’s properties is “self-created.” The buildings should be restored, said Allen, and if the siting of the convention center is still a possibility at that point, Sebba should “mothball” them until the authority makes a decision.

After the vote, McCarthy said he was disappointed in the night’s events and might consider resubmitting the application. Sebba Rockaway Ltd. is scheduled to appear in court on Dec. 8 to deal with the 17 violations levied against the Wellington’s owner last month by the city’s Building and Codes Division.

—Rick Marshall

rmarshall@metroland.net


Overheard

“I’d like to thank Mr. Collins for his comments. As always they were enlightening.”

—Legislator Gary Domalewicz (District 11) after being cut off by legislator Paul Collins (District 9) because he was speaking about a proposal that had already been sent to committee, which is against the rules. (At the Nov. 8 County Legislature meeting.

 



What a Week

Striking Distance

New York Senate Democrats are holding their breath over the recount in the tight race between Westchester Sen. Nick Spano and challenger Andrea Stewart-Cousins. If Stewart-Cousins wins, it will bring the total number of seats captured by the Dems this year to four, making them just a few seats away from control. Of course there’s always a downside: Assemblyman Jack McEneny would have to find a new pro-labor Senate Republican to propose things like his anti-sweatshop bills in the Senate.

Humanists Fight Back

Tired of seeing public money and energy spent on religious charter schools, public-prayer debates, and evolution revisionism (we’re guessing about all of that, but it seems likely), humanists have created the first humanist charter school in the country, the Carl Sagan Academy in Tampa, Fla. Made possible by a grant from Albany-based Institute for Humanist Studies, the school will focus on “free inquiry . . . the scientific method, rational problem-solving, and democratic principles.”

Free Speech Is for Murderers Too

ABC plans to air a documentary on 20/20 this Friday (Nov. 26) that will revisit Matthew Shepard’s 1998 murder and purportedly will question whether it was actually a hate crime. More important, says Mark Fitzgerald of Editor & Publisher, it will include interviews with his killers, which had once been considered banned by a gag order imposed as part of the plea bargain. Fitzgerald says the press should have raised more of a fuss about that gag order, since the right of the public to know what happened should not be constrained. He compares it to the fight of the press to get access to Guantánamo Bay.

Spotlighting Hunger

Across New York state on Monday, activists held 45 local Thanksgiving Actions Against Hunger calling for both an increase in state funding for emergency food programs and long-term changes to reduce hunger: a minimum wage increase, universal health care, and job creation. It’s great that people come together and help the poor around Thanksgiving, they said, but hunger happens year round, and this year’s numbers of people who need emergency food assistance are on track to match last year’s unusually high number.


Vigil in verse: Victorio Reyes reads at the Social Justice Center.

photo credit: Shannon DeCelle

A Night to Remember

Pending Albany County legislation adds hope and passion to Transgender Day of Remembrance

 

On a dreary, rain-splattered Saturday evening, the light stayed on in the Social Justice Center on Central Avenue in Albany, where the local observation of the sixth annual Transgender Day of Remembrance was held from 6 to 7 PM. The day is set aside every November to remember those killed because of hatred toward transgender people. The Day of Remembrance grew out of an annual candlelight vigil first held in San Francisco in 1999 to memorialize Rita Hester, who was murdered in 1998.

Around 20 people attended Albany’s event, which was hosted by James Ross, executive director of In Our Own Voices, and began with two short videos about two murdered transgender youths, Rita Hester and F.C. Martinez.

>From there, the evening’s focus quickly changed to action. “An issue like this must be dealt with on many levels, and one of those is the legislative,” said Ross as he introduced Albany Common Council President Pro Tempore Richard Conti. Conti has been involved in supporting Albany County’s Local Law B, which would expand basic human rights to three new categories, including transgender people [“Who Gets Rights?” Newsfront, Nov. 18]. Conti, a veteran in the struggle for human rights, spoke of his experience in trying to pass the city’s first human-rights ordinance, which included sexual orientation, in 1987. “It was a new issue back then. It was a multiyear process and it wasn’t until 1992 that it was passed.”

In April, the city’s human-rights ordinance was expanded to include transgender people without a fuss, but the religious right has organized opposition to the county law. Conti ended with an impassioned warning: “When society doesn’t value a type of people it stops them from contributing to the society and we all lose what they have to contribute.”

While Conti’s words were cautionary and a bit somber, the tone that followed from other speakers was characterized by anger and outrage. “Those men at the [county] meeting with their cheap $12 haircuts and their suits from the Men’s Wear House, they don’t even live in Albany and they associated us with pedophiles and said we may as well marry animals. I was flabbergasted!” said one speaker who had attended the County Legislature’s public hearing on Local Law B.

Moonhawk River Stone, a therapist who specializes in transgender issues, tried to change to the tone. “What brightens my heart,” said Stone, “is that in 10 countries and 200 cities this week we are remembering the people whose lives have gone to hate crimes.” Stone went on to celebrate the support and love that the transgender community provides.

The evening was punctuated by the poetry of Victorio Reyes, who drew great applause from the somber crowd.

The last few voices of the night spoke with the future in mind. Bear McHugh, executive director of Diversity Matters, and an anonymous participant from the crowd both spoke about educating the public about issues of gender sensitivity and reaching out to transgender youth to let them know they are part of the community.

The evening closed with an indoor vigil and a reading of names of transgender people who were murdered this year.

—David King


Take Good Care of the Canopy

Albany looks into looking after its trees

Albany’s Department of Gen-eral Services Forestry Unit is launching an inventory of the city’s trees with an eye toward their future protection. A national vegetation-consulting firm, ACRT Inc., has been commissioned to catalog each city-owned tree and record its health, condition and recommended maintenance. As part of the survey, individuals with backpack Global Positioning System units will be around the Albany area checking on trees.

The program has been designed to encourage a large, healthy tree canopy over the city. “The canopy of mature trees over many city streets enhances the quality of life for residents and visitors alike,” said Mayor Jerry Jennings in a written statement. The city also sees a healthy tree canopy as providing “air pollutant filtration, micro-climate regulation, noise buffering and visual screening.”

This statement may come as a surprise to those familiar with the removal of Lark Street’s old tree canopy during the recent reconstruction. While twice the number of original trees has been replanted, the size and quality of the canopy has decreased. However, “Our plan for the trees on Lark Street is in line with the city’s,” said Fredd Brewer, Lark Street BID office manager. “Our old canopy’s health was affected by the overhead wires. They had to be constantly trimmed and chopped up.”

The removal of the old canopy also had to do with concerns about the trees’ large root systems, which didn’t have much room to grow, and pushed up the sidewalk. “With the larger trees there is generally a 20-25 year cycle before the sidewalk has to be redone,” said Brewer. “If they could have been kept, it would have been done.” The Lark Street BID also won a battle with the city to buy more mature trees than the city had originally planned to replace the old canopy.

Despite comments in past months from local businesses praising the absence of overhanging branches and how the smaller trees make the sidewalks seem wider [“Lark Rising,” Newsfront, Sept. 16], Brewer insisted that the trees are heading back to full size. “In three to five years, we think there will be a canopy again that will improve our citizens’ health and the quality of life.”

—David King

 

photo: John Whipple

Questions That Bother Us So

Is that neighborhood south of Empire State Plaza called Mansion or Mansion Hill?

 

The short answer: It’s currently called the Mansion Neighborhood, and the neighborhood association is awfully touchy about keeping it that way.

In early October, when the Times Union wrote a positive article about a project in the area that referred to the neighborhood as Mansion Hill, the next day’s Mansion News & Notes, an e-mail newsletter from the neighborhood association, contained a scathingly sarcastic proposal for a “Mansion Neighborhood Anti-Defamation League” and an “Educate the Times-Union” project, in order that “this self replicating human cognitive virus can be stopped in its tracks and the Mansion Neighborhood made whole again.” Does “Hill” mean something other than what we think it means?

Seeking answers from the neighborhood’s Web site and neighborhood association members yielded only partial answers. “Certain businesses, such as the Mansion Hill Inn and the Mansion Hill Laundromat, include the word ‘hill,’ but the neighborhood is always known as the Mansion neighborhood,” says the Web site. “Therefore, the Mansion Neighborhood Association (MNA) also omits the word ‘hill.’”

The neighborhood association has been Mansion Neighborhood Association for all of its approximately three decades, wrote resident Holly Katz in an e-mail message, adding that Mansion Hill seems to have “cropped up” with that Times Union article, probably because of the familiarity of the Mansion Hill Inn, but “I don’t want to change it just because other people don’t know the true name.”

So we know the residents’ preference, and that should be respected, if only for consistency’s sake. But the history of the name is far from as simple as they make it out to be. Originally, the area was called Cathedral Hill, said Assemblyman Jack McEneny, who has also written on Albany history. The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, at the corner of Madison Avenue and Eagle Street, the northwest corner of the neighborhood, is the clearest architectural landmark in the area, he said, but his guess is that someone was uncomfortable with the religious association.

For a while residents tried to call it the “Mansions,” McEneny continued, but that didn’t make very much sense. “There are some mansions in there, but they are rowhouses and people think of mansions as freestanding. Which leaves you with only one mansion—” the Governor’s Mansion. Mansion Hill may have been one compromise to get rid of the plural, he guessed.

It’s possible that Mansion Neighborhood was a different option coined at the same time, though no one seems to know for sure.

McEneny isn’t thrilled with the change. “It always seemed ridiculous to me, to pick this short building that is walled around to keep the neighborhood out, as opposed to the architecturally significant cathedral, whose doors are always open to welcome the community in.”

“I call it the South End,” said John Travis, county historian, who is also familiar with the name Cathedral Hill, and far more interested in the cathedral’s reconstruction process than debates over what the adjacent neighborhood is called. But he admitted he had not heard it called Mansion Hill.

Mansion Hill still has quite a bit of currency, however, with some residents saying that in their experience in the early ’90s that was the dominant name for the area. Recent uses of the name can be found everywhere from the June 2004 minutes of the Council of Albany Neighborhood Associations to easyroommate.com to Capital News 9 to an in-depth study of Albany neighborhood history by Albany Academy 7th graders.

Interestingly, though Mansion News & Notes accuses the Times Union in particular of trying to “rename” the neighborhood, October’s article was only the third use Metroland could find of “Mansion Hill” by the paper in 10 years; its usual preference is the same as the neighborhood’s.

If the frequency with which people still call the DEC “Encon” is any indication, it may tough to stamp out Mansion Hill. But if you want to give the Mansion folks some love, it seems, for whatever reason, that skipping that little four-letter word would be a prime way to do it.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

maxel-lute@metroland.net


Loose Ends

Civic groups promoting budget and procedural reforms at the state level [“Reform or Bust,” Newsfront, Oct. 7] blasted Gov. Pataki’s veto of budget reform legislation, and are calling on the governor to come up with budget reform he can support. Otherwise they are asking the Senate and the Assembly to override his veto of a bill that would have, among other things, created an Independent Budget Office and allowed for contingency budgets. . . . Another coalition, including labor and religious groups, has renewed its call for the Senate to join the Assembly in overriding the governor’s veto of the bill to raise the minimum wage [“Race to the Bottom,” FYI, Aug. 5]. The Legislature is expected to return today (Thursday, Nov. 18). . . . Even though the city did commit to preserving the Wellington Hotel [“Bringing Down the House,” Newsfront, Aug. 26], Sebba Rockaway Ltd., which owns the Wellington and adjacent buildings, has refused to fix code violations and announced an intention to demolish them. Preservation and neighborhood groups promised to show up in number at a Historic Resources Commission hearing on the demolition yesterday (Nov. 17).



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