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Troy’s One Monument Square: high hopes, few bids

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Troy’s One Monument Square: high hopes, few bids

On Dec. 31, 2010, the day before Andrew Cuomo was formally inaugurated as New York’s 56th governor, Troy smashed its city hall with a track hoe. It stopped after a few good swipes—mission accomplished, more or less. Mayor Harry Tutunjian had set a goal of demolishing the Brutalist structure, widely hated and structurally suspect, by the year’s end.

Months earlier, from its rented nook in a former Verizon building, the Democratic-controlled city council passed an ordinance that forbade the Republican mayor from knocking down the old digs without its consent, despite previously voting to accept state funds for that purpose. Tutunjian ignored the ordinance, and the broken windows and punched-out parapet sort of forced the issue—city hall was coming down. The preemptive strike also ostensibly allayed fears that the state, under a new administration, might try to claw back the two-plus-year-old appropriation, a parting pork barrel courtesy of state Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno.

This “investigatory” work on New Year’s Eve, as the city engineer later called it in a court filing, yielded three citations from the state Department of Labor the next month for failure to abate asbestos before proceeding. (Tutunjian reportedly accused a political rival, then-councilman Bill Dunne, of snitching, which Dunne denied.) The asbestos citations, in turn, prompted a lawsuit from a losing demolition contract bidder, who alleged that the city allowed the winner to deviate from provisions in the bid documents, a claim dismissed by a judge, and allowed it to perform the work without obtaining a surety bond, which the winner belatedly secured.

Hardly an auspicious start. But in any event, city hall came down that summer, clearing a view of the Hudson River from Monument Square, the heart of the historic city’s downtown.

Some six years later, the view is still only a view; the lodestone site remains a crater. Every plan so far—from a grass-topped parking garage to a $55 million glass tower—has been scotched for this or that reason. The fraught preliminary stage of what promised to be the revitalization of an ever-appreciating parcel might seem, in hindsight, ominous.

Now, after an extraordinary fourth round of competitive bidding, this time attracting only two bids, Bonacio Construction is poised to fill the void with an $18 million multiplex for Bow Tie Cinemas, a national chain with dozens of theaters across the country.

At least one local stakeholder is questioning not the developer’s plans or pedigree, but the city’s apparent reticence to release records pertaining to the RFP process.

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Preliminary design renderings of the Bonacio-Bow Tie collaboration have aroused some aesthetic reservations (“There aren’t many ways to build something on a waterfront with zero windows facing the water, but by golly Troy has found one!” one All Over Albany commenter wrote), but negative sentiment seems matched if not eclipsed by an understandable eagerness to wrap the whole overlong thing up before the 2018 holiday season, as the publicized timeline anticipates.

“Two colleges and a walkable city? This movie theater is going to do great,” one member of the Troy Neighborhoods Action Council Facebook group wrote in an archetypically positive comment. “Downtown Troy will be the best dinner and a movie spot in the Capital Region.”

The high-profile site abuts a public waterfront slated for further public investment and a planned pedestrian trail. Nearly $4 million in state and local grants, plus a bundle of tax breaks and further negotiable “inducements,” make up a substantial incentive package. The ascendant “downtown area has experienced consistent growth in high-quality residential, retail, and office space, coupled with high occupancy rates and a growing creative class,” the most recent RFP explained. “Indicators point to continued prosperity for the district that surrounds the site at One Monument Square.”

Why, then, were there only two bids?

Granted, the site had drawbacks. When the previous deal fell apart in April 2016, the developer derided that round’s RFP as “materially inadequate and misleading in terms of providing mapping and information regarding the presence of significant utilities through the site.” A citizens’ group called “We Care About the Square” had virulently opposed that project, even raising the prospect of litigation. (A member of WCATS also disputed the claim that the site conditions were not adequately disclosed.) Perhaps the tangle of pipes and strong opinions warded off potential new builders.  

The number of bids submitted, it must also be noted, was on par with previous rounds. The first RFP drew three, the second only one, and the third drew two, excluding a disqualified proposal featuring an inflatable hot-dog and junkyard, according to news reports.

But the prior RFP was issued more than three years ago; since then, arguably, Troy’s stock has risen. And the fairly short proposal window this time around—Dec. 19 to Jan. 20, athwart the holidays—likely did little to encourage submissions from unfamiliar parties.

“This site has been out there for five years. People know what the site is,” planning commissioner Steven Strichman told The Alt back on Dec. 21, after an unrelated land bank meeting, when we raised this topic. “I don’t expect this to be somebody coming in from San Diego. I expect this to be a local business or a local developer who knows that site and knows what they want.”

The Alt recently obtained, through a state Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request, a list of every person or entity to whom the city sent the most recent RFP. Excluding media outlets, aggregators, and others unlikely to bid, more than two dozen developers, architects, and design firms requested or received it.

It was not immediately clear how this level of interest compared to that of previous rounds. The Alt asked Strichman about this in an email, and he replied, “I don’t have that information. You are free to file a FOIL for it.” (We have done so.)

We also attempted to contact nearly all the pertinent RFP recipients by email or phone to ask why they ultimately chose not to submit bids. Representatives of Plank Construction of Schenectady and U.W. Marx of Troy each told us they reviewed the request but, simply put, had other priorities. David Biggs, a consulting engineer, requested the RFP “in the event that a developer asked for my assistance,” a contingency that never panned out, he said in an email. Many of our other inquiries went unanswered.

The list includes familiar names like BBL Construction Services, First Columbia, the United Group of Companies, and Judge Development Corporation. As far as unfamiliar names, perhaps the most notable are Selbert Perkins Design Collaborative and Robert A.M. Stern Architects—two nationally prominent firms whose interest might be taken as a sign that the city, had it wanted to go this route, could have sought proposals more vigorously from entities other than the more or less expected, if adept, candidates.

On March 4, The Alt submitted a FOIL request to the city requesting a copy of the other One Monument Square bid, submitted by Redburn Development, a Troy-based developer. (The proposal detailed a “90-room hotel with a rooftop restaurant,” according to the Albany Business Review.) Later that month, our request was denied pursuant to a section of the law that affords agencies the right to withhold records that, if released, “would impair present or imminent contract awards.”

We appealed this determination to the city’s corporation counsel, James Caruso, arguing that Troy’s negotiating position would not necessarily be weakened by publicizing the losing bid.

Caruso sustained the denial. Because the Bonacio-Bow Tie bid had “not yet been finally approved by the Troy City Council,” he wrote on April 7, “the bidding process has not yet been formally and officially completed. In the event that the development agreement with Bonacio falls through, it is both logical and reasonable to conclude that the revelation of Redburn Development’s bid would undermine the bidding process.

“In fact, notwithstanding your conclusory assertions to the contrary,” Caruso continued, “if the Bonacio deal is not formally approved and does not go forward, the revelation of the terms of the bid by Redburn Development would clearly weaken the City of Troy’s negotiating position and have the effect of hampering its ability to obtain the most advantageous development agreement on behalf of the City of Troy and its taxpayers with other bidders.”

Weeks later, on May 4, the city council approved a land development agreement with the Bonacio-Bow Tie partnership, which states the developer will pay $600,000 for the parcel and retain development rights for 18 months (plus two six-month extension options).

The project must still clear the city’s land-use boards, no small or enviable task, but it appears the disclosure of Redburn’s bid could no longer conceivably endanger “present or imminent contract awards,” since negotiations have ended and the city council has given its blessing.

The mayor’s spokesman, John Salka, did not respond to an email asking if and when the city would release Redburn’s bid. On Thursday, we again requested it under FOIL.

One person intently watching the process unfold is Sam Judge, president of Judge Development Corporation, who (1) owns parcels to the north and south of One Monument Square, (2) won the second round of bidding for the site, though negotiations later broke down, and (3) agreed last year to pay a $360,000 settlement to the city related to a dispute involving the former, temporary city hall site at the former Verizon building on Sixth Avenue, which his company owns through a subsidiary.

Back in March, as we recently learned, Judge submitted a FOIL request similar to ours, requesting copies of the Bonacio-Bow Tie and Redburn bids, “follow-up and/or supporting documentation submitted by both companies upon or following the submission deadline,” and materials provided to the administration-appointed review committee that selected the winning bidder.

The portion of his request pertaining to copies of the bids was denied in April; the rest of Judge’s request, as of last week, has yet to be fulfilled. (We also have a similar request pending that relates to the review committee.)

“They kept those deliberations confidential, which I understand,” Judge told The Alt over the phone last week, referring to the review committee. “But following those deliberations, everything should have been made public. It was not. I had a feeling that was coming. So that’s why I FOILed it, and I was stonewalled. They have not, to date, provided any of the material that I requested,” Judge said.

For context: The city received 101 FOIL requests from January through March of this year, according to a meta-FOIL request we previously submitted. Requests encompassed all kinds of records—accident reports, code enforcement citations, traffic cam footage, ethics disclosure forms—that likely entailed considerable search and legal review prior to release. FOIL delays are common at every level of government, and Troy’s administration is perhaps acutely understaffed. It recently adopted a new online portal that may expedite the process.

But none of this quite explains why, once the city council approved the contract with the preferred developer earlier this month, the city did not immediately and proactively release Redburn’s bid and related materials.

Sam Judge, for his part, is eager to understand how the proposed multiplex will affect Front Street, effectively a service road behind the site, as well as the project’s impact on downtown parking and traffic. These matters, presumably, will be addressed in detail before the city’s land-use boards, where there will also be opportunities for the public to comment.

Judge explained that his focus on One Monument Square did not amount to a critique of the developer. Bonacio, Judge said, is “doing a lot of really good things [downtown]—it’s nothing against them; it’s really the process,” which to date has seemed needlessly opaque. With respect to the project itself, Judge has adopted a wait-and-see attitude. We Care About the Square appears to have taken a similar tack.

The nine-screen, 1,300-seat cinema—which is expected to draw an estimated 10,000 visitors per week—may appear on the planning commission’s agenda as early as June.

“We submitted a proposal that mirrored our successful theater project we did in [Saratoga Springs],” Bonacio told The Alt in an email. “Worked in toga, hopefully we will be successful in Troy as well.”

There may be no reason, other than the site’s contentious history, to expect otherwise. Even the famously acerbic urbanist James Howard Kunstler has praised Bonacio for “almost single-handedly” revitalizing Saratoga Springs’ downtown.

Along with many members of the public, the city’s administration evidently believes this project will have a similarly positive effect. What reads as the government’s opacity may actually be prudence—but what if the latter is possible without the former?

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