March 15, 2005: Early 2005 brought new twists in an ongoing story about rebirth
by bulldozer in the venerable city of Albany, New York. Albany is
the state capital. Park South is a small blue collar neighborhood
within it-- one of the last of such neighborhoods still breathing
in the original, downtown settlement area of the city. On the
north, Park South is bounded by Washington Park (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 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".*
During the 3 term administration of Albany Mayor Gerald D.
Jennings, the UHA neighbor of Park South deteriorated from a
relatively stable low and moderate income area to one verging on
desolation row. Many residents felt Mayor Jennings never threw
his back into keeping Park South safe and clean-- via such
measures as consistent code enforcement against landlords whose
buildings were rife with drug activity, or by insuring dependable
trash removal. Some thought Mayor Jennings was too busy
revitalizing the corporate/government enclave in the downiest
part of downtown to pay attention to Park South. Some even
suspected Jennings was purposely letting Park South deteriorate
and its property values slide. In 2002, such suspicions were
fanned when public officials, in private conversations with
neighborhood residents about the possibility of revitalizing Park
South, mentioned that sections of the neighborhood were slated
to be razed by condemnation and then redeveloped.
In early 2003 Mayor Jennings officially unveiled a vision of
transformation for Park South. One which city officials
acknowledged just might involve clearance by condemnation. The
full plan for Park South revitalization was to be developed under
the aegis of the Albany Local Development Corporation (ALDC).
Where Mayor Jennings is an ex-officio member of the board of
directors and also appoints other members. The ALDC would in turn
act as agent for the Albany Community Development Agency (ACDA)
where Jennings also serves. The Park South Plan would be guided
by the consultant assistance of Design Collective, a Baltimore
based urban planning firm with a background in large scale public
projects requiring condemnation, and Randall Gross Development
Economics, of Washington, DC. A Park South Advisory Committee
made up of "a representative group of residents, property owners
and institutions" would also help steer the plan. Advisory
Committee members included Albany's Public Safety Commissioner
Jack Nielsen (a former police chief and Jennings supporter) plus
heavyweight reps from the Albany Medical Center, the University
Heights Association (UHA) and The Renaissance Corporation, a
non-profit entity with ties to the UHA. As well as an Albany
Common Council member whose district includes Park South, several
small property owners and a tenant from that neighborhood.
Neighborhood residents would also provide input via 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 the idea of revitalization, but
many objected to the bulldozer and 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 neighborhood of 9 city blocks where home ownership levels
have shrunk to 11%. Objections and alternate suggestions from
Park South residents were duly noted by ALDC representatives.
A few written examples were even included in an appendix to the
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 ACDA issued an invitation to qualified bidders
to offer proposals for the right to implement the Park South
Plan. The invitation delineates what this entails. The Plan calls
for "120-180 net new rental units" as well as student housing
"preferably under single management" with "200-400 student
housing beds". Eighty percent of which will be in 4 bedroom
units. Anyone concerned about home ownership need not worry:
"20 to 27" new family homes would "be marketable in Park South
in the next 5 years". New commercial space on Park South's
commercially spotty main artery is 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).
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! But plans that call for
revitalization by bulldozer frequently come up against some
stick-in-the-mud homeowners (often elderly) who don't want
to leave. Or greedy folks who base the asking price of their
property on future value. Since the ACDA invitation informs
bidders that "the preferred developer will be solely responsible
for funding acquisition of all property" it's no doubt wise that
in order "to assist the preferred developer" the ACDA will be
"willing to use the power of eminent domain for land acquisition
Eminent domain is the right of government to claim private
property for projects which serve the public good. As long as
fair value is paid. (While ideas of fair value may differ between
governments and property owners, the latter are always free to
take the government to court.) Bridges, roads and waterways are
among the most traditional uses for eminent domain. But in the
1950's, several 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. Since then, countless urban
policy experts have hashed over the hash urban renewal made of
American cities. 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
condition 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 more upscale neighborhoods
surrounding Park South, seem like such good public goods that
circa 2005, bulldozers have become public servants.
In order for eminent domain to be used for the Park South Plan,
the Albany Common Council must pass an urban renewal ordinance.
The full Albany Common Council will vote on the ordinance at
the end of March, 2005. Meanwhile, developers are lining up
at the ACDA gate, hoping to be among the three finalists for
the role of "preferred developer". Many (though not all) are
politically generous heavyweights based in the Capital Region.
One of the local hopefuls is United Development Corporation. Part
of the United Group of Companies, a conglomerate of entities that
provide assorted real estate services. Several United Group
entities have been involved with a number of 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 Heights Association.
In February of this year, a mention of United Development popped
up a different context: in news stories examining the unexpected
2004 resignation of SUNY Albany President Karen R. Hitchcock.
For roughly a decade, the New York State Ethics Commission has
been pressing the New York State Legislature to close a loophole
in state law covering investigations into possible ethics
violations by state employees. The loophole works this way:
if a state employee under investigation leaves their job, the
investigation can no longer continue. No matter how egregious
the suspected violations. On 02/25/05 the New York Times, citing
unnamed sources, claimed that in 2004, Karen R. Hitchcock
resigned as president of SUNY in Albany in order to take
advantage of the ethics loophole-- knowing an investigation was
in the works. The Times, plus other news sources, claimed the
focus of the 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 campus, or according to a 02/25 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 alleged developer was United Development.
Karen R. Hitchcock is now president of Queens College in
Ontario. When at SUNY, Dr. Hitchcock was widely respected. Her
credentials are impressive and she acted energetically and
successfully to promote the Tech Valley vision of the Capital
Region. Hitchcock and her attorney strongly deny the story
about her exit from SUNY. But with no investigation now possible,
the allegations hang in the air. Hence, the existence of a
loophole which lets shifty public servants leave legal problems
behind, can muddy the image of an exemplary one. For Karen
Hitchcock's sake, let's hope New York State Attorney General
Eliot Spitzer looks into the kickback allegations. Or maybe
Albany County Prosecutor David Soares could do so-- as
suggested by an Ontario newspaper.
The Hitchcock story, plus the general topic of the ethics
loophole in New York State law was widely discussed not just
in regional newmedia, but outside state and national borders.
Perhaps publicity will help drive the New York State Legislature
to finally close the barn door through which too many public
servants have passed in the last 10 years. After all, as a
newspaper in New London, Connecticut put it: "Corruption is
corruption. Leaving office does not remove the stain..."
When Connecticut points its finger at a stain, it's definitely
time to get scrubbing!
Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
"We are always running after a moving bulldozer."
Albany Common Council President and Albany Community Development
Agency member Helen Desfosses, speaking about Albany's historical
and archeological heritage, May/June 2001, Save The Pine
"Residents often lack the power or ability to control not only
development, but also the image created for the community and
the direction of public policy."
Randall Gross/Development Economics, Strategic Planning
Recommendations for Neighborhood Economic development for the
City of Greensboro, 03/20/00
"You just slip out the back Jack/ Just make a new plan Stan"
Paul Simon, 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover, 1976
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes regarding the Park South Plan
are taken from the Albany Community Development Agency (ACDA)
document "Invitation to Qualified Bidders, Request for Proposals
(RFP) For the Redevelopment of the Park South Plan Area in the
City of Albany, New York".
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