Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Carpinello, Sweeney spar over demo permits

On Monday, 2/8, I spent two hours at the Supreme Court, Appellate Division, listening to oral arguments on the matter of the Fort Orange Club’s request to demolish property on 118-120 Washington Avenue to expand their parking lot.

(I typed up this post last night, and decided to wait until this morning - Tuesday - to see what the Albany Times Union had, to fact check. They have nothing. This is a long post, and I don't have the comedic talent of "Albany Citizen One," -- I won't be making up nicknames for the parties involved or commenting on whether or not they are cute -- but I hope some people find this useful or at least interesting. -- CMR)

Representing the Fort Orange Club was attorney Robert Sweeney. Representing the City of Albany was Assistant Corporation Counsel Jeffery Jamison. (They were at the same table.)

Representing Historic Albany Foundation was attorney George Carpinello.

The Judge first sought to establish why Historic Albany Foundation was seeking an injunction to prevent demolition of the buildings when three additional permissions needed to be secured before a demolition permit was granted: approval of the Board of Zoning Appeals, approval of the Planning Board, and the approval of the City’s Commissioner of Buildings.

Mr. Carpinello stated that the injunction was being sought because the Fort Orange Club would not represent that they would not pre-emptively demolish the buildings.

Upon further questioning from the Judge, he noted that the Fort Orange Club might “prepare the buildings for demolition” in ways that would make demolition a fait accompli.

(We have seen too many examples of demolition by neglect – or in too many cases demolition made necessary by property owners who punch holes in the roof to let water in, thereby making the building "unsafe" and requiring "emergency" demolition - CMR)

The injunction protects the status quo, and prevents the irreparable damage of the buildings coming down, said Mr. Carpinello.

The Judge asked Mr. Sweeney what harm would come to the Fort Orange Club if the injunction remained in place, and Mr. Sweeney replied that his client should be allowed by law to park in that spot. The lack of parking is hurting his client, their membership recruiting, their booking of events that always happen at the Club. (Fear of revised NYS ethics laws wouldn’t have anything to do with that, would it? – CMR)

Much discussion ensued over the timing of previous applications and appeals or lack thereof. Additional time was spent arguing whether the Fort Orange Club pulled its application for a demolition permit at the same time it pulled its application for a parking lot permit and height variance for its fencing. (According to an affidavit given by Mr. Jamison, the demo permit was believed no longer active once the Club revised its application in order to move forward with construction of their health facility.) There was additional back-and-forth on whether or not appropriate analysis had been done when a negative declaration was issued on the need for an environmental impact statement (EIS) on these demolitions.

Mr. Carpinello noted that this was a Type I Action that would meet or exceed thresholds listed in the statewide or agency SEQR (State Environmental Quality Review) regulations. These are likely to require preparation of an EIS.

FYI -- An EIS concisely describes and analyzes a proposed action which may have a significant impact on the environment. The EIS is available to the public for information and comment. An EIS must include:
  • description of the action, including its need and benefits;
  • description of the environmental setting and areas to be affected;
  • an analysis of all environmental impacts related to the action;
  • an analysis of reasonable alternatives to the action;
  • identification of ways to reduce or avoid adverse environmental impacts.

Ultimately, according to Mr. Carpinello, the Fort Orange Club wants to tear down buildings that date to the 1830s for 3 parking spots. He pointed out the absurdity of the notion that the loss of 3 parking spots would harm the Fort Orange Club.

Mr. Carpinello noted that had a full Environmental Impact Statement been required, the Club would have been required to explore reasonable alternatives and mitigating measures. In lieu of an EIS, they issued a conclusory statement of their belief that the buildings are not worth saving.

Mr. Sweeney argued that his client had explored the possibility of valet parking in the large lots and garages across the street and up the block, but said that the facilities were "packed" at the time Club members and guests needed to use them. He also noted that it wasn't really just 3 parking spots, it was 3 new PLUS the spots they lost when they expanded the footprint of their building to create the new health club wing. Finally, he insisted that while they offered valet parking in their lot currently, for those spots in the back of the lot, what the Club's clients really wanted was an individual parking spot where they could simply pull in and park, without giving their keys to an attendant. And besides, the buildings, while old, had been altered and were not historic, and therefore not worth saving.

Additional discussion of who decides whether buildings are worth saving ensued. Mr. Carpinello referred to testimony given by preservation architect Doug Bucher which spoke to the significance of these buildings which date back to the 1830s.

The Judge wondered why Mr. Carpinello hadn’t provided copies of this testimony, and Mr. Carpinello replied that since the City had convened the hearing at which Mr. Bucher testified, it was the City’s responsibility to provide transcripts, but that they had not yet done so. Mr. Jamison indicated that he was working on it, and waiting to learn the date of return on the petition. (Obviously, I am not a lawyer so I may have some of the terminology wrong. Sorry. – CMR)

There was further discussion of the City’s new demolition review ordinance, and specifically how determinations are made as to whether a building is historically or architecturally significant.

Mr. Carpinello noted that since there was a disagreement among preservation architects (with those paid by the Fort Orange Club noting the insignificance of the buildings – CMR) – what are the options?

The Court does not decide if the buildings are significant, Mr. Carpinello argued, rather it determines if the agency responsible for making that determination followed the guidelines of SEQR – did they analyze alternatives, did they analyze mitigating measures?

Mr. Sweeney said the Club did take a hard look at these criteria and their arguments were in their application for demolition.

Mr. Carpinello indicated that the Fort Orange Club had made a claim of a financial impact in excess of $100,000 in chambers (I don’t recall the exact amount – CMR) but noted that he had not been given a copy of the document outlining those losses. There was some discussion of a confidentiality agreement, and the Judge asked the two attorneys to work it out, and noted that he would take Mr. Carpinello’s request under advisement.

He then noted that he would defer decision on this matter.

I boarded the elevator in the Justice Building with a number of dapper gentlemen from the Fort Orange Club side of the hearing room. As they were trying to figure out which floor they were going to, I pressed the button for “C” – for the Concourse of the Empire State Plaza. One of the gentlemen bellowed to the security guard, “How do we get outta here?” and he replied, “Press C.”

The gentleman said, “Oh, she pressed C, she knows where she’s going.”

And I said, “Yes, I do. And I walked here.”

No comments: