Thursday, September 25, 2008

Credit where credit is due ...

Hi Friends and Neighbors --

It seems that, for the time being at least, the buildings at 118-120 Washington have been reprieved.

Please, take a few moments to thank those who played a role in this important decision:
  • members of the Board of Zoning Appeals;
  • staff of the City of Albany's Planning Department;
  • your colleagues, friends and neighbors who may be members of the Fort Orange Club; and last but not least
  • Mayor Jennings.

Unfortunately, many other buildings in our neighborhoods are still in danger of careless destruction because they don't have the most basic protections afforded by local historic district designation, or the safety net of statutes or practices that may arise from a Comprehensive Plan.

I hope we will all remain vigilant, and continue to advocate for sound, sustainable policies that protect our neighborhoods and contribute to a more liveable city.

Thank you for all you do!

Colleen Ryan

Fort Orange coverage on Ch. 13/WNYT

Expansion of the Fort Orange Club Moves Forward

Posted at: 09/24/2008 11:55:27 PM
By: Kumi Tucker

Albany's Board of Zoning Appeals approved the Fort Orange Club's plan to expand. The club's request to build a parking lot has been withdrawn.

It appears Mayor Jerry Jennings and City Hall have been busy, working out a solution.
The Zoning Board voted to approve the Fort Orange Club's request to build an addition to expand the health and exercise facilities at the exclusive social club.

The club withdrew its bid to make a parking lot in place of two buildings it owns on Washington Avenue, in a move that surprised and pleased preservationists.

"The buildings still are a bit in danger, I would say, but we're hoping for the best and we're glad that they did amend it so they can go forward with their proposal," said Susan Holland, Executive Director of Historic Albany Foundation.

Fort Orange Club attorney Robert Sweeney said they are pleased with the vote to approve the expansion.

"It was important to get moving forward with the health facility, construction seasons and so forth, and if they don't start building now, then it probably would have been put off a year," Sweeney said.

It appears that City Hall was working behind the scenes.

"It took a number of months and a lot of work through the Mayor's office and through our office to work with the club and the neighborhood to come up with a decision at the board level that addresses the club's need to expand, it's a very important institution in the City of Albany, but also to preserve that urban context that's there with the buildings in place," said Michael Yevoli, Commissioner of Development and Planning.

"It was obvious that this was not a solution to their parking problem, so we had to balance what was good for the community and what was good for the club."

Commissioner Yevoli says the city will be working with the Fort Orange Club not only to find appropriate uses for those buildings, but also to solve the club's parking problem.

Without parking lot application, Fort Orange Club plan approved

Zoning board OKs part of Albany club's expansion

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

ALBANY - With the Fort Orange Club withdrawing its plan to demolish two buildings for a parking lot, the Zoning Board of Appeals tonight approved the rest of its proposal to expand the club's health facilities.

The club had originally sought permission to build a parking lot where connected buildings at 118-120 Washington Ave. now stand, and to place a stone fence there instead. That request prompted opposition from neighborhood groups and nine Common Council members.

The club altered its application to remove the fence and parking lot, and the board swiftly approved the remainder of the plan.

Michael Yevoli, the city's commissioner of planning and development, said Mayor Jerry Jennings worked with club leaders to convince them not to remove the buildings, located a few doors away from the Alfred E. Smith Building and a block from the Capitol.

"The mayor worked very, very hard to bring the club around to the importance of that urban context, but also the importance of the club to the city," he said.

The city will continue to work with the club leaders to find alternate parking, Yevoli added.
The club had planned to spend $4.75 million plan to increase its parking from 51 to 73 spaces and add squash courts and a weight room to an expanded athletic wing.

Plans for the health club addition must still get approval from the city's Planning Board. The project will be on the agenda of that board's Oct. 9 meeting.

Club representatives did not attend the meeting, and board president Daniel Hogarty could not be reached for comment afterward.

Unprecedented - a third editorial from the Times Union

Preservation, not parking

(print version headlined "Park that plan" )

Albany Times Union
First published: Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Issue: The Fort Orange Club needs to reconsider razing buildings to expand parking.
The Stakes: Why can't the club expand without resorting to a demolition plan?

"Premature" comes the subdued battle cry of Albany's Fort Orange Club, trying to quell its opponents' declarations of victory in their efforts to save two buildings along Washington Avenue, just up the street from the state Capitol.

We just hope there's nothing premature about the city's preservationists, along with neighborhood leaders and activists, hailing the club's apparent reluctance not to try to demolish those buildings after all.

It appears the club won't, for now, further press its case at today's Zoning Board of Appeals meeting to put a parking lot and a stone fence where two buildings now stand at 118-120 Washington Ave. Withdrawal of the application to put up a parking lot doesn't necessarily mean that the buildings will be saved, however. The club could do an end run around the board, and the community, and simply try to get a demolition permit from the city to raze the buildings.

How encouraging it would be, though, to think that a club for Albany's power elite had decided that there was nothing premature about changing its plans and keeping the buildings as they are.

What would be very premature, of course, is the razing of sound, functional and by no means unattractive structures to accommodate a few more parking spaces.

Shortsighted is another word that comes to mind. It's time for the Fort Orange Club and its members to think very differently when it comes to urban transportation and land use. The days of cars coming before all else are over, or should be.

The club is still seeking city approval for the expansion of its health club. We can't think of any reason for the zoning board to object to that. Yet a club willing to make such an investment in exercise facilities might go the extra mile, so to speak. If parking is so scarce on the club's property and on the streets around it, the club might encourage its members to walk or bike to the club. The club might regard the streets of Albany as a further extension of their health club — shared as they would be with the public.

That, come to think of it, would be quite the opposite of premature.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Preservationists' celebration called premature

Demise of parking lot plan cheered, but Fort Orange Club says options open

By TIM O'BRIEN, Staff writer
First published: Tuesday, September 23, 2008

ALBANY -- The Fort Orange Club is no longer seeking permission to build a parking lot where two prominent buildings now stand.

While some opponents of demolishing 118-120 Washington Ave. are hailing it as a decision not to remove the two buildings near the state Capitol, the president of the club's board said that view is "premature."

The club has filed a revamped request to the Zoning Board of Appeals, which meets at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday. It is deleting a request to build a parking lot and to place a stone fence where the buildings now stand. The application still seeks to add a 2,350-square-foot addition to expand its health club.

Roger Bearden, president of the Hudson/Park Neighborhood Association, sent out an e-mail Monday to his membership hailing the move. "Your hard work has helped preserve this city's streetscape," he wrote.

Daniel J. Hogarty, president of the club's board, called Bearden's announcement "premature" but said there are ongoing discussions about the project. He declined to be more specific.
City officials could not be reached for comment after hours Monday.

Bearden said he received a revised agenda for the zoning board meeting, and he noted the change to the club's application.

Uncertain what that meant, Bearden said he called Brad Glass of the city's planning office, who works on zoning issues. Glass informed him that the plans for the parking lot were off the table, Bearden said.

Glass could not be reached for comment Monday evening.

"We're extremely pleased by what we see as the Fort Orange Club's having really listened to the concerns of the neighbors," Bearden said. "We think this is wonderful news."

But Hogarty said he could not confirm that the demolition plan had changed.

"We're actually quite a bit right in the middle of these discussions," he said. "Your question is a bit premature."

Richard Conti, the council's president pro tempore, said he too noted the agenda change and asked Glass if this meant the proposed parking lot was off the agenda. In an e-mailed response, Glass simply wrote "correct."

"I think it's good news," said Conti, who represents the neighborhood. "It is definitely a step in the right direction, and I compliment the Fort Orange Club for moving in the right direction."

Tim O'Brien can be reached at 454-5092 or by e-mail at

Monday, September 22, 2008

118-120 Washington Avenue has a new lease on life!

This is wonderful news.

I have just confirmed with Brad Glass at the Albany Planning Dept. that the Ft. Orange Club has withdrawn its application for a parking lot permit and fence.

According to Roger Bearden, President of the Hudson/Park Neighborhood Association, "This means that they are no longer seeking to construct a parking lot at the site of the buildings at 118-120 Washington Ave. The Ft. Orange Club continues to seek permission to expand their health facility, but this part of the project does not involve knocking down buildings."

As Caroline Mason wrote in an Op Ed piece in the Times Union on Friday, Albany's future must keep its past. I couldn't have said it better myself.

She cites the sad example of buildings torn down across the street from Lombardo's in 2001. Even though Lombardo's may be a fine establishment, she uses the words of Anthony Tang to explain why 7 years of hindsight show that "the loss of old ancient buildings involved much more that just the visible destruction of ancient bricks and stones."

We must remain vigilant to ensure that Albany's historic streetscape is not chipped away little by little -- but for today, at least, we have cause to celebrate. We are grateful that the Fort Orange Club has embraced the neighborhood view that it's never acceptable to tear down historic buildings to make way for surface parking.

Thanks so much for all of your efforts. Please stay tuned to the NeoAlbany blog and keep the lines of communication open ...


Albany's future must keep its past

First published: Friday, September 19, 2008

In the Times Union editorial "No parking, please" (Sept. 10) the acknowledgement that "there is a rhythm to a city's landscape, especially an historic one" is music to the ears of preservationists.
In the context of rendering an opinion about a proposal for increased parking for the Fort Orange Club, however, it sounds a cacophonous note in view of the failure of Albany's Zoning Board of Appeals to apply consistently the criteria that would safeguard our city's unique sense of place.

A case in point is the demolition in 2001 of three 19th century buildings on Madison Avenue to make way for a parking lot for a restaurant favored by influential politicians and judges.

Surely, the special interests of a few do not pass what should be the litmus test for the granting of every variance or special exception.

That lapse in judgment and foresight is but one example of a rupture in the "complex tapestry" occupied by residential or commercial buildings since the early 1800s.

Unlike the editorial, this commentary is not intended to be a referendum on the merits of the Fort Orange Club proposal, but rather a plea for city officials in future deliberations to heed the significance of an "array of different designs, the variations of height and mass of buildings, the materials and colors and all the details down to the way the doors and windows were built" to tell the story of a street's history.

A lack of appreciation for our historic treasures, the desire for an immediate return on investment and an inability or unwillingness to take the long view are all too often the culprits in the loss of historic properties or in the desecration of the view sheds along our rivers.

Oversight boards such as the Landmarks Conservancy, the Historic Albany Foundation, and neighborhood organizations are essential in helping to educate all of us about the value that historic preservation adds not only to particular projects, but also to the enrichment of an entire community.

Michael Meyer in "The Last Days of Beijing" points to the critical role our cities' caretakers play in preserving our identity and unique sense of place.

He cites the wisdom of historian Anthony Tang, author of "Preserving the World's Great Cities," on the subject:
"The preservation of great cities is ultimately the story of how different urban societies created environments of extraordinary meaning, were affected by their cityscapes through centuries of habitation, and came to realize that the loss of old ancient buildings involved much more that just the visible destruction of ancient bricks and stones."

In the year that Albany is celebrating her 400th birthday, the sentiments expressed in "No parking, please" could not be more timely.

It is meet and right to call on our city's collective nostalgia to preserve the symbols of our identity, and to hold the feet of our city's caretakers to the fire.

Caroline B. Mason of Glenmont is chairman of the Preservation League of New York State.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

No News is Good News

Last night, the Board of Zoning Appeals did not issue a decision on the Fort Orange Club's application for a Use Variance, Area Variances and a Parking Lot Permit.

Nor did they issue a decision on the Northeastern Association of the Blind at Albany (NABA) variance to create a 21-car commercial parking lot which would require the demolition of two buildings.

I've been told that NABA is working on an alternative solution to address their parking needs.

Please join your neighbors in asking the Fort Orange Club to do the right thing for our community and our city -- urge them to consider an alternative site plan that will preserve the historic cores of these buildings and the built-up streetscape of Washington Avenue.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

TU Editorializes: NO PARKING, PLEASE

No parking, please

First published: Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Albany's Zoning Board of Appeals tonight will consider once again whether to let the Fort Orange Club raze two buildings to clear the way for a parking lot and an expansion of the club.

At the risk of repeating ourselves, we'll say it again nonetheless: Albany should not let this happen.

You don't have to be an expert on architecture or urban design to appreciate that there is a rhythm to a city's landscape, especially an historic one. The array of different designs, the variations of height and mass of the buildings, the materials and colors and all the details down to the way doors and windows were built all combine to tell a street's history. Even if one doesn't know that history, one can witness it in a city like Albany — even more, one can feel the texture of 200 or 300 years just in the sweep of an eye.

The private Fort Orange Club wants to pull a few threads from that complex tapestry by demolishing the two-story office buildings at 118-120 Washington Ave. The razing would be part of a $4.75 million plan to gain some parking spaces and expand the club's athletic wing to include squash courts and a weight room.

That these buildings are not in themselves historic is not the point. That spot has been occupied by residential or commercial buildings since the early 1800s. It is in a key part of the city with a richness of architecture, from the ornate state Capitol to the Greek revival columns of the State Education Building to the Art Deco facade of the Alfred E. Smith Building to the more modern Empire State Plaza and private "Twin Towers" offices across the street from the club.

For the sake of convenience for a few members of a private club, what would be left for all the world to see would be a hole in an important streetscape. Fill it with a nice fence and shrubbery as the club proposes to do, and there would still be a void where a void does not belong.

Washington Avenue already has its share of parking lots that insinuate themselves on the street, and they are as inappropriate and unwelcome as a vacant lot would be in a neighborhood of row houses.

Nor are we convinced the club has done all it can to find other solutions, such as access to parking elsewhere for, say, a valet service.

We recognize that the club is part of the city's fabric, too, and appreciate its desire to expand and thrive. We also recognize that parking is a big asset for any downtown enterprise. Just ask any state worker or resident of the neighborhoods near the club.

But Fort Orange's argument for tearing down buildings in an historic area is no more persuasive than landlords or homeowners in Center Square would be in saying they'd like urban life to be a little more convenient for them at the expense of their city's character.

All Times Union materials copyright 1996-2008, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

LAST CHANCE to save 118-120 Washington Avenue

One week from today, we'll probably know the fate of the historic buildings on Washington Avenue, just west of the Fort Orange Club.

During the past several months, I've talked with many people about these structures. I've also received a number of calls from people who wondered what was going on with the building next door to where I work -- at "the point" where Central Avenue and Washington Avenue meet Henry Johnson Boulevard.

The callers often expressed concern about the facade of the building, and asked what the new tenant, TrustCo Bank, was doing to the windows. "It looks terrible," the callers would say ... "How could they brick up those windows?"

Several of these calls came from people frequently considered champions of the preservation movement. People whose silence was deafening on the situation just a few blocks east on Washington Avenue.

The powerful and influential members of the Fort Orange Club want to do much more than reconfigure a facade or close off a few window openings. They want to demolish viable buildings that illustrate the commercial legacy of Washington Avenue, and revise our city's history to enclose their private club in a fenced-off, "park-like" setting.

So, one week from today, will you think, "It's too bad that the Fort Orange Club was allowed to tear down those buildings," or "I'm glad I wrote that letter or made that phone call to say that the unique streetscape of our neighborhood should not be sacrificed for a few private parking spaces."

I hope you will join your friends and neighbors and let the Fort Orange Club, the BZA, and other decision-makers know that residents of Albany don't think it's EVER a good idea to tear down historic buildings to create surface parking lots!

The BZA meets next on Wednesday, September 10. Please take a moment to:

Thank you.