Capital City Battles Blight, Aging Infrastructure

Jul 18, 2014

Like so many other cities across the nation, Albany has had to deal with urban blight and aging infrastructure. When an old house along the city's storied Clinton Avenue crumbled, the mayor took immediate action.

Earlier this month, the building at 162 Clinton Avenue fell apart: the roof fell into the second floor, which dropped down onto the first, collapsing all but the building's facade. The row-house neighborhood was built shortly after the Civil War, so there were historic preservation concerns. Above that, the city of Albany was off the hook for this incident:  162 Clinton's out-of-town owner long ago stopped paying taxes, and after foreclosure, the building became county property. The county footed the $60,000 cleanup bill.

Mayor Kathy Sheehan, who cited the issue of vacant and abandoned buildings during her campaign,  says it became apparent that other questionable structures scattered throughout the city had to be dealt with immediately.    "It was based on the condition of the buildings, the threat that they posed to nearby buildings. There were six properties. We had a partial collapse on Emmett Street that necessitated bringing down the rest of the building. It was a very difficult winter, really hard on abandoned properties, and then I think combined with some of the heavy rains that we received, it just resulted in buildings that were near collapse to getting to that point where they were declared an imminent danger."

Some of those properties were county-owned, others privately owned. Now that they're down, the new land bank (still in its formative stages) could step in...  "On August 1st, the attorney general's office is issuing applications for funding. The attorney general has money from the mortgage settlements that he has committed to providing to land banks, and those applications will be due on September 1st. So that is a real opportunity for the land bank to get the funding that it will need to either stabilize or demolish properties that are placed into the land bank and provide for their disposition. My understanding is that the county has identified 85 properties, all of which are in the City of Albany, in Arbor Hill, West Hill, Sheridan Hollow and the South End that would candidates for transfer to the land bank."

The decay of old age extends beyond buildings: more than a week after the Clinton Avenue building came down, Albany's departments of Recreation, General Services and Engineering found the lighting infrastructure serving the tennis courts at Arbor Hill Park were no longer structurally sound. The lights were declared "public safety hazards." John Lasch is the Operations Manager for the Dept. of Recreation. He explains the Sheehan Administration has taken a more proactive approach to check for problems and structural deficiencies.  "And it was determined that the bases were rotting out. These lights were put in 40 to 50 years ago, and according to t he engineer, that's pretty much what the life expectancy is of those lights.  We thought that we might be able to get through the summer, with the high (seasonal) use, but because of the danger they needed to come down immediately.  We do have some portable lights that we're using over at our softball field that we can possibly move over to the tennis courts in case they have any tournaments or any other programming that might be happening over there."

Mayor Sheehan, a first-term Democrat, says she's always looking for programs and initiatives that would benefit Albany.  "We're looking at how we can be more strategic with the community block grant money that we get on a federal level. We also get some housing money through HUD, so, being very strategic in how we invest those dollars is gonna be very important because we really want to focus on neighborhoods where there has already been the spark of investment. Either Habitat is there, making an investment in building houses, or the Housing Authority has done scattered site housing, and so what's the next investment that needs to be made to really stabilize that area."

The mayor adds a significant development project is already under way along North Swan Street involving affordable housing and creation of a park that will feature a  water garden.