First Thought, No
commission immediately rebuffs proposal to demolish the Wellington
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
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.
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.
last thing anyone wants is litigation,” warned McCarthy.
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.
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
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
though a certificate of appropriateness was granted by this
commission, Sebba Rockaway never exercised that option,” said
14 years, things do change,” responded commission member William
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
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 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.
like to thank Mr. Collins for his comments. As
always they were enlightening.”
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.
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.
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.
in verse: Victorio Reyes reads at the Social Justice
photo credit: Shannon DeCelle
Night to Remember
Albany County legislation adds hope and passion to Transgender
Day of Remembrance
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.
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.
Good Care of the Canopy
looks into looking after its trees
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
That Bother Us So
that neighborhood south of Empire State Plaza called Mansion
or Mansion Hill?
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
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.”
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.
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).