|April 2, 2005: In post-industrial cities across the nation bulldozers are on
a roll. Fueled by the power of government to invoke eminent
domain: the right to claim private property in the name of the
public good. In theory, fair value must be paid. But the practice
of eminent domain (also called "condemnation" and "taking") is
rich with examples of property owners forced to sell on the
cheap. Eminent domain is traditionally employed when public
facilities such as roads and bridges are built. However, in the
1950's several U.S. Supreme Court rulings enlarged the use of
eminent domain by broadening the definition of public good in
relation to that period's urban renewal projects. In the
following decades, as countless urban policy experts hashed over
the hash mid 20th century urban renewal made of cities, eminent
domain took a breather. But with government involvement in
real estate growing, particularly in cities, eminent domain
is experiencing a rebirth. Once again, the rationale is
The city of Albany is the New York State capital. One of the
oldest cities in the nation. Like many upstate New York urban
areas, Albany suffers from post-industrial malaise. Though being
the seat of state government has kept it from the near death
condition of other cities. Solidly Democrat for roughly a
century, Albany is a one party town with an autocratic and
conservative political machine culture. Class distinctions
are still strongly felt. Park South is a small blue collar
neighborhood; one of the last of such neighborhoods still
breathing in the original, downtown settlement area of Albany.
Park South covers 9 city blocks with a racially mixed population
of a little under 2000. Most of whom are low or moderate income.
Park South was never affluent, but it was stable and tightly
knit. Yet during the 90's the neighborhood deteriorated into
one teetering on the edge of desolation row. Thanks largely
to the wholesale dumping of HUD subsidized tenants into the
buildings of one major slumlord-- and official neglect.
As Park South slid downward many long time homeowners, landlords
and tenants left. Disrepair, drug trade and violent crime became
the norm. In 10 years the vacancy rate in Park South doubled to
twice that of the rest of the city. Yet a core of residents
remained, held by loyalty to place and neighbors. Plus for some,
property in Park South represented their primary investment. The
value of which was eroding. Abandoning ship would have meant
a crushing loss. For over a decade this nucleus of residents
worked to address the issues driving the neighborhood down.
Some formed a Walk and Watch-- which in 2003 received an award
for excellence from the state's Attorney General. All knocked
repeatedly on municipal doors. Results were either non existent
or inconsistent. Promises were made but seldom kept. Without
sufficient back-up, citizen action re crime and blight produces
little lasting improvement. And a whole lot of disillusionment.
Mayor Gerald D. Jennings of Albany is nearing the end of his
third term and has announced he'll run for a fourth. Many
residents of Park South believe Mayor Jennings never pushed
consistent code enforcement in buildings known for drug activity,
or in vacant ones left open to the elements by absentee owners.
Nor could he be counted on to insure dependable trash removal or
provide sufficient police presence. Some thought Jennings was
so busy revitalizing the corporate/government enclave in the
downtown area near the State Capital that he had little time for
Park South. Others suspected there was a reason why Park South--
and its property values-- were being let slide.
In the Autumn of 2002 such suspicions were fanned when several
city employees, in private conversations with neighborhood
residents about the possibility of revitalizing Park South,
reportedly mentioned that sections of the neighborhood were
slated to be razed by condemnation and then redeveloped. Equally
disturbing were comments made by then Commissioner of Public
Safety Jack Nielsen at a 10/23/02 Park South Neighborhood
Association (PSNA) meeting. Nielsen was a former police chief
and Jennings appointee. As Public Safety Commissioner his
job entailed coordinating police actions with building code
enforcement. At the PSNA meeting Commissioner Nielsen in essence
threw his hands in the air about the possibility of addressing
crime in Park South. Citing problems caused by "an individual
landlord" and a shift in the "social and economic level" of Park
South's residents. Saying that the answer wasn't "for him to tell
the Mayor to put more police officers over here" and that Park
South residents had to "look beyond the obvious".
On the north Park South is bounded by Washington Park, a lovely
old urban oasis created under the influence of Central Park's
Frederick Olmstead. On the south by University Heights. Which
in the words of the Albany Community Development Agency*
contains "a cluster of large, prestigious educational and health
facilities". Including, but not limited to, the Albany Medical
Center, Albany School of Pharmacy, Albany Law School, Albany
Medical College, Sage Colleges, Capital District Psychiatric
Center and the Veteran's administration Hospital. Some of these
institutions belong to the University Heights Association (UHA)
a not-for-profit corporation with "the primary mission of
enhancing the economic vitality and quality of life of its
constituents and neighbors". One of UHA's most notable members
is the Albany Medical Center-- which owns extensive holdings
in two of Park South's nine blocks of real estate.
In early 2003 the Jennings administration officially announced
that a transformation of Park South was imminent-- and also
acknowledged the transformation just might involve some clearance
by condemnation. The full plan for Park South revitalization was
to be developed under the aegis of the Albany Local Development
Corporation (ALDC) a non government agency which works in tandem
with the city. Mayor Jennings is an ex-officio member of the ALDC
board of directors and also appoints other members. The ALDC
would in turn act as agent for the Albany Community Development
Agency (ACDA) a government agency where Jennings also serves.
In early February 2003, the ALDC posted an announcement on the
City of Albany website seeking a consultant to assist in forming
a redevelopment plan for Park South. Two months later the city
announced a consultant had been chosen: Design Collective, a
Baltimore based urban planning firm. Design Collective has a
background in large scale public projects, a number of which have
required condemnation in urban neighborhoods. Randall Gross
Development Economics (RGDE) of Washington DC was also brought
on board. Ultimately RGDE provided a study (Economics & Market
Findings) of Park South and its environs which stressed that due
to the presence of state government, educational institutions and
medical facilities, "Albany is largely a rental market". Hence
rental properties, rather than single family homes, are its real
estate linchpin. And the best hope for redeveloping Park South.
Input into the Park South Plan was also provided by the Park
South Advisory Committee: made up of "a representative group of
residents, property owners and institutions". Advisory Committee
members included Public Safety Commissioner Jack Nielsen. Plus
heavyweight reps from the Albany Medical Center, the University
Heights Association (UHA) and Jack Egan, President of the
Renaissance Corporation, a non-profit entity with development
ties to the UHA. Jack Egan is also CEO of Albany International
Airport and a former Executive Director of the New York State
Dormitory Authority. Also on the Committee was an Albany Common
Council member whose ward includes Park South, as well as more
upscale neighborhoods to its east. The Committee also included
four small property owners and a tenant from Park South.
The input of neighborhood residents in general was solicited at
a series of public meetings and workshops. At these gatherings,
a sizable number of Park South residents had strong objections to
aspects of what was being proposed for their neighborhood. Nobody
objected to revitalization, but many objected to the condemnation
approach. Plus, the plan for Park South seemed not in the making
but already made; with a massive increase of student housing
writ in stone. In a 9 block neighborhood where home ownership
levels have shrunk to 11% and where transience has eroded civic
participation. And though the city was using crime in Park South
as a rationale for condemnation, the majority of buildings owned
by the slumlord who contributed so heavily to the problem, were
on streets not slated for knock-down.
These objections, plus an alternative redevelopment plan put
forth by a group of Park South residents, were duly noted by
assorted reps for the city and Design Collective. Several letters
of protest were even included in an appendix to the July, 2004
draft version of the Park South Redevelopment Urban Renewal Plan.
Commonly called the Park South Plan. Or simply, The Plan.
In early 2005, the Albany Community Development Agency issued an
invitation to qualified bidders to offer proposals for the right
to implement the Park South Plan. The invitation delineates
what The Plan to date calls for:
- Rental Housing: "120-180 net new rental units"
- Student housing: "preferably under single management" with
"200-400 student housing beds". Eighty percent of which will
be in "4 bedroom apartments".
- For Sale Housing: "20 to 27 new for sale houses would be
marketable in Park South in the next 5 years".
New commercial space on Park South's commercially spotty main
artery is also slated, along with 50,000 square feet of office
space for the Albany Medical Center. Also mentioned is the
possibility that Park South will provide expansion space for
the downtown campus of the State University of New York (SUNY).
Long time Park South residents who wonder if official neglect
will affect new residents, can take comfort in the fact that The
Plan promises "City Assistance" will be provided to any new
development in the form of "enhanced City services".
The genius of the Park South Plan is that though only one
neighborhood appears in its title, another containing many
prestigious educational and health facilities plus a major
not-for-profit association will benefit as well. Making the Park
South Plan two, two, two plans in one! However, plans that call
for revitalization by bulldozer frequently come up against
stick-in-the-mud types who cling to their homes. Or greedy folk
who base the asking price of their property on increasing value,
rather than a slum appraisal rate. Since the ACDA invitation
informs bidders that "the preferred developer will be solely
responsible for funding acquisition of all property" it's
probably wise that in order "to assist the preferred developer"
the ACDA, a government agency, will be "willing to use the power
of eminent domain for land acquisition if necessary".
Overall, the financing of the implementation of The Plan will
be handled by the preferred developer. Who will also be paying
"all costs and expenses of the ACDA (including but not limited
to the ALDC)". The preferred developer will "if possible, provide
information regarding programs being used for financing and
teams being used for construction." Let's hope the preferred
developer does find it "possible" to share this info with the
public via its government agency representative-- the ACDA.
Which after all, will be using the power of eminent domain in
the name of the public good.
In order for eminent domain to be used for the Park South Plan,
the Albany Common Council was required to pass an ordinance
designating the neighborhood an urban renewal area. On March 21st
the Council passed that ordinance 9 to 3. The Council member
from The Park South Advisory Committee was on the "yea" team.
Developers are now lining up at the gate, hoping to be among the
three finalists for the role of preferred developer. Many are
politically generous heavyweights based in the Capital Region.
Among the local candidates are State Street Partners, LTD. An
entity with an "under construction" website providing only an
address and phone number. That address is 355 State Street,
a four story apartment building apartment building recently
purchased by State Street Partners.
According to the Albany Times Union, another candidate is United
Development Corporation, at 80 State Street. (There's also an
"80 State Street Partners" on the Albany real estate scene. State
Street seems positively packed with eponymous partners!) United
is part of the United Group of Companies, a conglomerate of
multi named entities that provide assorted real estate services.
Several United Group entities have been involved with a number
of prominent area student housing projects. In 2003, United
Development and United Realty Management were hired to develop,
construct and manage a $20 million student housing complex for
the Renaissance Corporation, acting on behalf of the University
In February, a mention of United Development cropped up in
another context: in news stories examining the unexpected 2004
resignation of SUNY Albany President Karen R. Hitchcock. On
02/25/05 the New York Times citing unnamed sources, claimed
Hitchcock resigned as president of SUNY in order to take
advantage of a loophole in state law which lets state employees
dodge investigations by the New York State Ethics Commission. The
loophole being that after leaving state employment, whether by
retirement or resignation, a person can no longer be investigated
for activities as a state employee. The Times, plus other news
sources, claimed the focus of the aborted ethics investigation
was an alleged kickback deal between President Hitchcock and a
potential developer of what has been described alternately as a
large student housing project on SUNY's uptown Albany campus, or
according to a 02/25/05 story by Channel 10 News in Albany, "300
units of student housing on North Pearl Street". An area in the
corporate/government section of downtown Albany. The developer
involved in the alleged kickback was United Development.
Karen R. Hitchcock, now principal of Queens College in Ontario,
Canada and her attorney strongly deny the story about her exit
from SUNY. But with the loophole in state law making an ethics
investigation impossible, allegations are left hanging in air.
Not only for Karen Hitchcock but for United Development.
As said, eminent domain was a popular urban renewal tool mid 20th
Century. Albany itself took a major hit in the 1960's, when
Governor Nelson Rockefeller used eminent domain to bulldoze a
huge low and moderate income downtown residential neighborhood
in order to build the Empire State Plaza complex of government
offices. Many of the homes within that neighborhood were built
in the same periods as those in Park South. Some were in as poor
shape as some are now in Park South. And like Park South, the
neighborhood was racially mixed. If protests hadn't ensued, Rocky
would have rolled his urban renewal vision up the hill into more
neighborhoods-- with a highway to the suburbs running beneath
Washington Park. To this day, the protests that stopped Rocky
from further decimating Albany's residential downtown are
remembered proudly by progressive Albanians: the Empire Plaza is
still reviled and lost neighborhoods still regretted. Yet by and
large, not much protest about the proposed use of eminent domain
in Park South has been heard. Except of course, from a sizable
number of people who live or own property in Park South.
It could be that to some, the real estate visions of prestigious
educational and health facilities and not-for-profit
associations, and the hoped for ripple effect on property
values and demand for rental housing in the upscale progressive
neighborhoods surrounding Park South, seem like such good public
goods that circa 2005, bulldozers have become public servants.
According to the ACDA invitation to qualified bidders, The Park
South Plan is linked to a wider redevelopment strategy called
"The Midtown Strategy". Planning for The Strategy will be
developed with funding from The New York State Quality
Communities Program. The end result to be "a strategic plan to
leverage the investment opportunities and programming needs of
(Albany's) institutions of higher learning". Institutions which
will be served by The Midtown Strategy include SUNY, members of
the University Heights Association and the College of Saint Rose.
The city will partner with these institutions to address, among
other things, their needs re "student housing, employee housing,
commercial services, and programming/educational space". To that
end the Strategy study will "take account of studies that have
already been completed..." Including "those like Park South".
It would behoove other residential neighborhoods in Albany to
also take into account studies relating to Park South. And to
consider the methods by which the resulting Park South Plan has
been, and will be, advanced. As the use of eminent domain in the
name of urban renewal increases across the nation, not only low
and moderate income neighborhoods are being bulldozed. Nor are
only low and moderate income property owners being forced to
sell. In numerous instances viable neighborhoods and thriving
businesses have been made to decamp in order to make way for
what government deemed bigger and better. The phenomena has
become so pervasive that myriad legal challenges are being
launched from public policy groups across the political spectrum.
As for Park South itself, after the preferred developer is chosen
by the ACDA, that developer will be able to tweak and adjust
aspects of The Plan should need arise. Plans, after all, are only
maps which circumstances alter. The ACDA must approve any changes
and the Common Council will ultimately have to sign off on the
final Park South plan as agreed upon by the preferred developer
and ACDA. Some residents of Park South have been told by city
representatives that this tweaking process means a chance for the
changes they desire. Some folks believe-- or at least hope--
this will be so. Others are less sanguine. When the Albany Common
Council signed off on the urban renewal ordinance that left Park
South open to the use of eminent domain, the neighborhood lost
a major bargaining chip. Leaving it dependent on the word and
social decency of an administration that has proved deficient
in both categories.
Whether this part or that part of Park South is bulldozed, or
whether the crucial slumlord who was left undisturbed for years
winds up being revitalized, or even if the use of eminent domain
hits a legal snag on the state or federal level, a profound
destruction has already taken place in Park South. Over the past
few years the weave of friendship and common purpose that held
the heart of the neighborhood together in the face of crime and
neglect began to unravel as conflicting interests and social
divisions were sought out and exploited by those seeking to
advance The Plan. Veiled threats were made and guilt was mined.
People who worked for years to save their neighborhood were
called spoilers and reproached for being selfish when they
objected to it being bulldozed.
In a neighborhood where the true spirit of community shone
forth, social wedges were driven with the skill typical to pols
who ride high on the hog in old machine cities. Where the art of
divide and conquer has been polished to a fare thee well, while
the will and ability to provide low and moderate income people
with safe, clean streets has atrophied. And where now, with the
help of public money and eminent domain, the evidence of that
failure can be bulldozed into a gold mine for politicians,
preferred developers and prestigious tax advantaged institutions.
All in the name of the public good.
Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
"We like our neighborhood just the way it is. We just want to
get rid of the crime and drugs."
Park South resident Paul Webster, "Residents Want Voice in
Improving Park South" Erin Dugan, Albany Times Union, 01/15/03
"We did not create this mess in Park South. Years of neglect and
inaction by the city have brought us to this point. Now we are
being asked to trust an administration that has failed to live
up to its responsibilities and promises to us"
Park South resident Alice Rabb, "Park South residents lack
details on city's plan" Letter to the Editor, Albany Times
"A bulldozer is not the answer. The city is holding this over
our heads...the trash is still in the streets, and the drugs
are still here."
Park South resident Pat Kelly, "Developer for Park South possible
by April" Brian Nearing, Albany Times Union, Albany Times Union,
"The city has just been waiting for the right time to seize our
homes..They are going to steal it from us, tear it down and give
it to developers"
Park South resident Thelma McCargo, "Door Open for Park South
Plan", Brian Nearing, Albany Times Union, 03/22/05
Sources include but are not limited to:
*Invitation to Qualified Bidders, Request for Proposals (RFP)
For the Redevelopment of the Park South Plan Area in the City of
Albany, New York. Unless otherwise noted, quotes describing The
Plan are taken from this 2005 Albany Community Development
Agency (ACDA) document.
Transcript 10/23/02 Park South Neighborhood Association
Opportunities & Market Findings, Draft 3-30-04, Randall Gross
Development Economics and Park South Market Study, Appendix C,
Randall Gross Development Economics
Park South Redevelopment Plan, Implementation Action Steps,
Draft 03/30/04 Design Collective
Alternative Plan For Park South Revitalization, Park South
Concerned Citizens, Autumn 03
"Albany Project Attracts Interest", Brian Nearing, Albany
Times Union, 03/03/05
"Door Open for Park South Plan", Brian Nearing, Albany Times
"Renaissance works on student apartment project" Apartment
Finance Today, Regional News: July-August 2003
"Case of Former SUNY Official Points to Ethics Law Loophole"
Michael Slackman, New York Times, 02/25/05
"Ethics Probe May Have Led Hitchcock to Leave Albany" WTEN News,
Albany, New York posted: 02/25/05 7:40 pm
The general topic of increasing abuse of eminent domain has been
covered in too many places to list here. One notable document
being: "Government Theft: The Top 10 Abuses of Eminent Domain"
Dana Berliner, Castle Coalition, 2002.
Send comments or confidential tips to: