Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Judge puts brakes on Albany demolition

Historic Albany enters bid to save buildings Fort Orange Club wants razed

First published: Wednesday, November 11, 2009

ALBANY -- A state Supreme Court judge issued a temporary restraining order Tuesday barring demolition of two Washington Avenue buildings near the Capitol as the Historic Albany Foundation started a legal effort to save them.

But an attorney for the Fort Orange Club, the 129-year-old Washington Avenue landmark that hopes to use the space for additional parking, dismissed the significance of the order, noting the private club has no plans of razing the buildings until its own dispute with the city is resolved.

The club sued the city Friday after officials declined to immediately issue a demolition permit and instead forwarded its request to the Planning Board. Without a permit, the club cannot legally tear down the 19th-century office buildings at 118-120 Washington Ave.

"This would prevent an illegal act," attorney Sal Ferlazzo said of the judge's order, "and certainly we have no intention of committing an illegal act."

Historic Albany's entrance to the legal fray was only the first of several developments Tuesday surrounding the demolition plan and a proposed ordinance prompted by the club's earlier efforts to raze the buildings that would boost city oversight of demolition.

Hours after the order, the Common Council's planning committee unanimously forwarded the ordinance -- which would require Planning Board review of all non-emergency demolitions not in historic districts -- to the full council for passage on Monday.

But the committee's approval came with an amendment that would also impose a moratorium on all non-emergency demolitions between the date of the ordinance's passage and the date it becomes effective, 30 days later. It was not immediately clear how that would affect the Fort Orange Club's demolition application, which was submitted last week.

A second attorney for the club, however, warned lawmakers that the proposed ordinance is not only illegal under state law but would act as a wet blanket to economic development at a time when the city can ill afford it. "This is a heck of a thing in this economy and in this city to be doing something like that," the attorney Bob Sweeney told the committee.

Historic Albany Executive Director Susan Holland stressed the importance of the city's historic fabric and questioned whether parking for members of a private club qualifies as economic development. Holland was involved in efforts last year to spare the buildings. The club halted those plans amid public outcry and received zoning permission to pursue expansion of its athletic facilities.

The committee approved the measure despite lingering questions about how it will be implemented and -- more basically -- what legal definition of a building will be used.

Historic Albany is arguing that state law requires greater environmental review because the buildings are adjacent to the Center Square/Hudson Park Historic District and eligible to be in a historic district on Washington Avenue.

Buildings in historic districts cannot be demolished without the consent of the city's Historic Resources Commission.

"As you tear down buildings and put up parking lots, you lose the context, the historic context," the group's attorney George Carpinello said.

State Supreme Court Justice Joseph Teresi set a Friday deadline for legal papers and will render a decision sometime after that.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Building issue to get day in court

First published: Tuesday, November 10, 2009

ALBANY -- As the city and the Fort Orange Club head to court today, an attorney for the 129-year-old private club said its request to demolish two Washington Avenue buildings is not a reaction to a proposed ordinance that would make it more onerous to do so.

The city reacted to the club's request on Friday for a permit to demolish 118-120 Washington Ave. by referring the matter to the Planning Board -- a move that in turn prompted the club later that afternoon to ask a state Supreme Court judge to force the city to issue the permit.

Currently, the city's Department of Buildings and Codes is not required to make such a referral.
"We simply want nothing more, nothing less, than the current law applied to this facility," said Sal Ferlazzo, the attorney representing the club, which for more than a century has been a cultural institution and symbol of wealth in the city.

"The Fort Orange Club is a strong proponent of historical preservation," Ferlazzo said, "and the intent behind the renovations is to restore the campus-like original setting from 1812, when the building was first constructed."*

The Common Council is currently debating an ordinance that would require non-emergency demolitions -- that is, the razing of buildings not deemed a danger to public safety -- to first receive the blessing of the Planning Board.

The proposal, introduced last month by 6th Ward Councilman Richard Conti, was at least partially in response to the club's attempt to raze the two 19th-century buildings adjacent to its clubhouse last year to make way for an expanded athletic facility and additional parking, sparking strong public opposition.

Club officials later halted the demolition plans and received zoning approval for the rest of the project but never committed to not tearing the buildings down.

In that way, Ferlazzo noted, "it appears that the law was a reaction to this application, as opposed to our application being a reaction to the law."

The council's planning committee is scheduled to discuss the proposed ordinance at 5:30 p.m. today at City Hall, just hours after both sides are due in court before state Supreme Court Justice Joseph Teresi at 2 p.m.

In its lawsuit, the club alleges its project manager from Sano-Rubin Construction met with Nicholas DiLello, director of building and codes, on Nov. 4 to review all the requirements to obtain a demolition permit.

But after the club completed those requirements, the suit alleges, DiLello instead referred the request to the Planning Board rather than grant the permit. DiLello cited the downtown location and proximity to a historic district.

"The long and short of it is the current law is crystal clear that the permit should be granted," Ferlazzo said.

Conti countered that if the court sides with the club, it sets a "significant precedent" that the city has no discretion so long as basic requirements are met.

"Nipper could come down," Conti said, referring to the landmark RCA dog on top of a Broadway building. "Should their rationale prevail, then there's absolutely no protection for anybody unless you're in a historic district."

Jordan Carleo-Evangelist can be reached at 454-5445 or by e-mail at

* This claim was refuted by architectural historians in July, 2008.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Club turns to judge in demolition effort

Fort Orange members want city to issue permit so it can raze buildings

First published: Saturday, November 7, 2009

ALBANY – The Fort Orange Club asked a judge on Friday to compel the city to give it a permit to demolish two Washington Avenue buildings -- the same two buildings the private club halted plans to raze last year amid sharp public backlash.

The move by the club comes as the Common Council is considering an ordinance that would make it more onerous for property owners to demolish buildings that are not an immediate threat to public safety, including filing plans about what they plan to do with the land next.

The measure, sponsored by 6th Ward Councilman Richard Conti, was at least partially in response to the firestorm over the club's plans to tear down 118-120 Washington Ave. to make room for an expanded parking lot and add squash courts and a weight room.

The buildings, which are actually on the site of the club's land at 110 Washington between Dove and South Swan streets, became a rallying point for neighborhood groups and preservationists who contended the buildings had historic value.

Amid the public outcry, club officials amended their plans to exclude the parking lot but warned that celebrations that the buildings had been spared were "premature." The buildings date to the early 19th century and were previously used as office space.

On Friday morning, the club submitted paperwork for a demolition permit with the city's Department of Buildings & Codes, said Director Nicholas DiLello.

Shortly after 4 p.m., Assistant Corporation Counsel Jeffery Jamison was summoned to the chambers of acting state Supreme Court Justice Gerald Connolly, where he was served with a petition in which the club asks the court to compel DiLello to issue the permit, Jamison said.

Both Jamison and DiLello said they did not know whether the club's action was a response to Conti's proposed ordinance.

Even if it isn't, DiLello said, he's referring the application to the Planning Department -- as Conti's ordinance would require -- anyway.

Citing the building's location on a major downtown thoroughfare near the Capitol and proximity to the Center Square/Hudson Park Historic District, "we thought it would be appropriate for the Planning Board to review this application," DiLello said.

Conti said a section of city code states that DiLello is "authorized and empowered" to make additional rules and regulations and said he believes DiLello was seizing that authority to make the referral.

Sal Ferlazzo, an attorney representing the club, could not immediately be reached for comment Friday evening. James M. Flaherty, its general manager, also could not be reached.

Jamison said the demolition permit application has been not denied, which could be significant in the context of the legal action.

Connolly signed an order to show cause ordering both sides to be in court in Albany on Tuesday, just hours before the council's planning committee is scheduled to review the ordinance in preparation for potential approval on Nov. 16.

Among other things, the ordinance would require land owners to get all zoning approvals for a new project before the buildings it will replace are torn down.

That's what hung up the club's prior attempt to raze the buildings.

The city could have issued the demolition permits without public input but the Zoning Board of Appeals had to approve the plans for a parking lot.

"The point is that it demonstrates why I'm proposing the ordinance and why you need a transparent review that sets the decision against some objective standards that relate to what's appropriate," said Conti, who got wind of the plans Friday.

If approved, the ordinance would take effect 30 days after passage.

Conti said rumors were circulating that the club planned to conduct the demolitions over the weekend. If true, it would have coincided with the Historic Albany Foundation's gala fundraiser scheduled for Saturday night at the Cathedral of All Saints, just a stone's throw away on South Swan Street.

"We're going to fight to keep the buildings up," said Susan Holland, Historic Albany's executive director.

Holland, who said her organization is working to create the Lower Washington Historic District, which would include the buildings, said she sensed something was coming, but not so soon.

If the buildings were in a historic district, their demolition would fall under the review of the city's Historic Resources Commission.

"No one was more surprised than me when my phone started to light up," Holland said as she prepared for the gala. "I was like, 'Really? Today?'"

Jordan Carleo-Evangelist can be reached at 454-5445 or by e-mail at

Friday, October 9, 2009

Grant to fund study of lower Washington Avenue

Hello Friends and Neighbors --

During the summer of 2008, you may have participated in the Neighborhood FORUM in 118-120 Washington Avenue, you may have submitted a letter to the BZA or testified to oppose the demolition of these buildings, or you may have written a letter to the editor of the Times Union.

Whatever you did personally, we - collectively - made it very clear to the City of Albany that we didn't think it was a good idea to trade sound urban fabric for parking lots. As a result of our advocacy and resulting political pressure, the Fort Orange Club withdrew its request for a demolition permit, and has pursued an alternative plan for its desired building expansion.

However, without the protections afforded by historic district designation, the threat of demolition continues to loom for these and other buildings.

Now, in a happy intersection of my vocation and my avocation, I am delighted to invite you to attend a special announcement one week from today (details are pasted below).

The Preservation League of New York State (my employer) will present a grant to Historic Albany Foundation to complete an intensive-level cultural resources survey of the two blocks of Washington Avenue between Lark and South Swan Streets.

Hopefully, the cultural resource survey will provide sufficient documentation of the 30 grand 19th-century rowhouses interspersed with early 20th-century commercial buildings, as well as a few remaining modest early 19th-century houses -- like 118-120 Washington Avenue -- to secure historic district designation for these two blocks.

I hope you will join us to celebrate this important milestone in our efforts to keep Albany's historic streetscape from being chipped away one building at a time.



WHEN: Thursday, October 15, 2009 at 3:00 p.m.

WHERE: Iron Gate Café - Courtyard; 182 Washington Avenue, Albany

  • Erin Tobin, Regional Director; Technical and Grant Programs, Preservation League of New York State
  • Susan Holland, Executive Director, Historic Albany Foundation

WHAT: The Preservation League will present a $7,500 Preserve New York Grant for an intensive-level Cultural Resources Survey of the south (even-numbered) side of lower Washington Avenue between Lark and South Swan Streets in Albany.