Fort Orange members want city to issue permit so it can raze buildings
By JORDAN CARLEO-EVANGELIST, Staff writer
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.