Saturday, January 23, 2010

A lot of hostility in the blogosphere ...

Check out some of the 56 comments on the Times Union website in response to the approval of the Fort Orange Club's application to demolish the historic buildings at 118-120 Washington Avenue.

There are some really ill-informed bullies out there.

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."

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Fort Orange Club receives demolition approval

By CHRIS CHURCHILL, Staff writer
Last updated: 11:52 a.m., Thursday, January 21, 2010

ALBANY -- The Fort Orange Club this morning won the right to demolish two Washington Avenue buildings that have been at the center of a long historic preservation fight.
The club, which wants to demolish the 19th-century buildings at 118-120 Washington Ave. for parking, argued that the buildings have little historic and architectural value. And the majority of Planning Board members apparently agreed with that assessment.

"I don't believe there's any charm about these two structures," Raymond Joyce, the board's chairman, said this morning. "Being old does not, in and of itself, mean historic."

Robert Sweeney, attorney for the club, said after the meeting that he did not know when the buildings, which are empty, would be demolished. The leader of the Historic Albany Foundation, which led the campaign to save the structures, said the group is still hopeful the buildings could be saved.

"We're weighing our options," said Susan Holland, executive director of the nonprofit. (But) I'm very disappointed in the verdict. Very."

During this morning's meeting, representatives from the Fort Orange Club said the landscaping they have planned along Washington Avenue would be an improvement over the existing buildings and stressed that the prestigious private club needs the parking room because of its recent construction.

"This project is not about demolishing a building for a parking lot," said Larry Wilson, an architect hired by Fort Orange. "It's about replacing the parking lot that is being lost."

After backing away from the demolition plan in 2008 following public backlash, the Fort Orange Club renewed its effort to raze the buildings last November, when it asked state supreme court to compel the city to grant a permit for demolition. The court refused to do so.

The city's Common Council in November passed an ordinance requiring the property owners seeking to raze buildings get planning board approval, leading to the Fort Orange Club's appearance before the board today.

The demolition permit for the Washington Avenue building comes with conditions: Fort Orange can't raze the Washington Avenue buildings into it secures a parking lot permit and has site plan and Historic Resources Commission approval for its proposed design.

See a rendering of the Fort Orange Club's plans and comment on the planning board's decision at Real estate: Places & Spaces

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Group Makes Another Pitch to Save Buildings

But Fort Orange Club steadfast about need for demolition

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.

Fort Orange Plan Going to Board

Planners to hear club's request for permit to demolish two buildings


Date: Wednesday, December 30, 2009

ALBANY -- The Fort Orange Club's quest to demolish two Washington Avenue buildings -- delayed last month by a state judge and a new city ordinance -- will go before the Planning Board this morning.

The meeting marks the first time the board will consider a demolition permit request -- now required under the new ordinance, passed by the Common Council Nov. 16, that significantly increases public airing of the requests.

The club's application to raze two 19th-century buildings at 118-120 Washington Ave., adjacent to its clubhouse, was made 10 days before the measure was approved, when the building department still had the sole authority to issue the permits.

But the department, anticipating the council's action and in light of public protest over the proposal in 2008, referred the Fort Orange Club's application to the Planning Board anyway, prompting the club to sue.

A state Supreme Court judge later dismissed that suit on the grounds that the club didn't yet have cause to mount a legal challenge because the city had merely referred its request to the Planning Board, not denied it.

The club has reserved its right to appeal that decision but has not filed a challenge to the judge's order.

"We'll wait to see what the decision is from the city," said Sal Ferlazzo, an attorney representing the 129-year-old club, which argues the buildings have no historic value and which hopes to use the space for additional parking as it expands its athletic facilities. "If certain action occurred, there'd be no reason to perfect the appeal."

Preservationists have opposed the club's demolition plan since it was first publicly proposed in 2008, contending the buildings are part of lower Washington Avenue's historic streetscape and that their loss would further diminish the urban feel of the stretch just a block from the state Capitol.

The Historic Albany Foundation, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the preservation of the city's historic buildings, asked Supreme Court Justice Joseph Teresi to issue a temporary restraining order against the demolitions -- a point that became moot when he refused to grant the club's demand that the city issue a permit.

Last summer, amid public outcry, the club temporarily shelved the demolition plans but renewed them this fall as the new ordinance loomed on the council's agenda.

In the weeks since, Historic Albany has been in discussions with the club to reach a solution that will satisfy both sides, said Executive Director Susan Holland.

"We're trying to work out keeping the building with just as many (parking) spots, so we've been out there measuring and drawing," Holland said.

While the Fort Orange demolition application is the first to reach the Planning Board, at least two others have been referred by the building department, said Director Nick DiLello.

One of the other applications came from the Brighter Choice Foundation, which is in the process of building a new charter middle school between Elk and Sherman streets, DiLello said.

The new ordinance, proposed by 6th Ward Councilman Richard Conti, requires demolition permit requests for buildings not located in historic districts, or not in imminent danger of collapse, to be reviewed by the Planning Board -- and for the applicant to submit detailed plans about what it hopes to do with the property next. Requests to demolish buildings in historic districts already receive greater scrutiny.

The Planning Board meets at 9 a.m. in City Hall.

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