Saturday, January 23, 2010

Club, city board sued

Historic group seeks to save two Washington Avenue buildings from demolition

By CHRIS CHURCHILL, Business writer
First published: Saturday, January 23, 2010

ALBANY -- The two Washington Avenue buildings are humble -- but they're at the center of a fight between the city's most prestigious club and its leading historic preservation group.

That fight was extended Friday, when Historic Albany Foundation filed suit against the private Fort Orange Club and the city's planning board, claiming a demolition permit issued for the buildings is in violation of a new city ordinance.

The planning board issued that permit Thursday -- apparently agreeing with the Fort Orange Club's contention that the structures at 118 and 120 Washington Ave. have neither historical nor architectural value.

But Historic Albany says the city ordinance requires that more than historic value be weighed allowing a demolition.

The group says the demolition ordinance, passed in November, mandates that the board consider whether the buildings can be rehabilitated or if razing them would be an improvement for the surrounding neighborhood, among other requirements.

"All of the factors weigh in favor of denial of the demolition permit," Historic Albany says in the filing with state Supreme Court in Albany.

Conditions attached to the demolition permit likely would have prevented the immediate razing of the structures. Fort Orange, for example, can't proceed until it secures a parking lot permit, and it also must have site plan and Historic Resources Commission approval for the proposed design of its lot.

Nevertheless, Historic Albany on Friday asked the court for -- and received -- a temporary restraining order preventing the buildings' demolition.

"We didn't want to take any chances," said Historic Albany attorney George Carpinello said. "We wanted an order in place."

Fort Orange attorney Robert Sweeney could not be reached for comment. The club previously has suggested its plan should not be covered by the requirements of the demolition ordinance, because it sought to raze the buildings before the city enacted the law.

Fort Orange wants to demolish the buildings to replace parking lost to an athletic club it's building elsewhere on its property near the Center Square neighborhood. The club says the landscaping and fencing it plans will be more attractive than the existing buildings.
"The overall effect, we think, will be an enhancement to lower Washington Avenue," Larry Wilson, an architect hired by Fort Orange, told the planning board.

Some observers will likely wonder what the fuss is about. The buildings are hardly the grand structures usually at the heart of preservation battles.

But Historic Albany does not agree that the buildings have no historic value, noting that they date to the 1830s. The argument, however, did not sway the planning board on Thursday.
Said Raymond Joyce, the board's chairman: "Being old does not, in and of itself, mean historic."

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