But Fort Orange Club steadfast about need for demolition
JORDAN CARLEO-EVANGELIST STAFF WRITER
Section: Capital Region, Page: D1
Date: Thursday, December 31, 2009
ALBANY -- Architects for Historic Albany Foundation offered three plans Wednesday to solve the Fort Orange Club's parking shortage without demolishing two 19th century buildings a block from the Capitol.
The proposals were presented as preservationists and neighbors called on the Planning Board to withhold its blessing to the proposal to raze the buildings next to the Washington Avenue clubhouse.
But representatives of the 129-year-old private institution, which for generations has had ties to Albany's political and social elite, renewed their contention that the buildings have no special historic or architectural value and that rehabilitating them now that they've been prepared for demolition would be prohibitively expensive.At issue was a part of the planned $4.75 million expansion of the club's athletic facilities, which calls for the demolition of 118-120 Washington Ave. to add a handful of parking spaces and reconfigure driveway access to improve safety.
Club President Herb Shultz told the five-member board that Fort Orange needs to adapt to remain competitive, citing parking problems that have also contributed to the decline of the Washington Avenue YMCA, now facing closure.
The club's application marked the first time the Planning Board has been asked to consider a demolition permit -- with many to come in the wake of a new ordinance designed to boost public airing of demolition requests, which were previously reviewed by the building department largely without public input.
The Fort Orange Club's request represents not just the first but a special case. The ordinance was passed Nov. 16, 10 days after the club asked the building department for the permit.
Anticipating the new law, however, the building department referred the application to the Planning Board, prompting the club to sue -- a lawsuit later dismissed by a state judge who ruled the club acted too soon.
Opponents of the demolition have accused the club of trying to squeeze its application in under the old law. The club counters that its plans have been known since 2008 and that its most recent effort to seek a demolition permit were known in City Hall for weeks before the application was filed, even before the new ordinance was introduced. The council, they contend, acted rashly and illegally to avert the demolition.
Central to the debate of the future of the buildings is their historic value. The club contends the two structures, dating to the 1820s or 1830s, have been changed so much over the years that they maintain little to none of their architectural and historic significance.
Preservationists say any analysis of the buildings' value that focuses primarily on the structures alone, and not their part of the streetscape close to the Capitol, is flawed.
"We're not talking about Penn Station here," said Martin Daley, a city resident and planner by training, "but we are talking to about a building that contributes to this city in that it exists."
John Mesick, an architect for the club, pointed out that the buildings sit at the end of a row of continuous buildings, not in the middle of it. Their removal, therefore, would be less glaring and would better showcase the historic clubhouse at 110 Washington Ave., Mesick said.
The "greater good of the city would be served" by allowing the club to expand its lot and build a "historically appropriate" brick and wrought-steel fence with landscaping to shield the lot from the street, Mesick said.Douglas Bucher, a principal with John G. Waite Associates, the firm that prepared the alternative site plans for Historic Albany, criticized that logic.
"If we take down the building at the end of the a block, and we continue to do that, then we don't have a block," Bucher said.
George Carpinello, an attorney and past president of Historic Albany, said the reason the two buildings are at the end of the block is because the club razed 116 Washington Ave. in the 1980s, claiming it would address parking needs.
"We don't solve the parking problem downtown by demolishing downtown," Carpinello said.
But club attorney Bob Sweeney said all standards required by the council ordinance have been met.
Planning Board Chairman Raymond Joyce Jr. said a decision will come at a future date.