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Plowing The Back Forty
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 if necessary".

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.

The Loophole

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 Bush Newsletter

"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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Copyright (c) 2005 by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff. This material may be freely distributed subject to the terms and conditions set forth in the Open Publication License. This license relieves the author of any liability or implication of warranty, grants others permission to use the Content in whole or in part, and insures that the original author will be properly credited when Content is used. It also grants others permission to modify and redistribute the Content if they clearly mark what changes have been made, when they were made, and who made them. Finally, the license insures that if someone else bases a work on this Content, that the resultant work will be made available under the Open Publication License as well.

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