The Divide: Investment in Albany is a good sign for the city’s future

The Divide: Investment in Albany is a good sign for the city’s future

Over the past four years, many development projects have been proposed for Albany. Some of these have been in downtown, others in the warehouse district. One thing that has stood out with the proposals and the actual finished projects is that the developers have not been the usual suspects of past city administrations. The divide between a certain favored few developers from previous years to first-time Albany investors has closed to almost no divide at all. The Sheehan administration deserves much credit for this change in how Albany does business.

Albany has seen new investment from businesses based in Rochester, New York City, Saratoga, and even Brooklyn by way of the Bahamas. The interest from outside investors in Albany is a positive sign that New York’s capital city is on the rebound (even The Patroons are coming back). In fact, the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy has ranked Albany as a “high-performing” city in its recent study of “legacy cities.” Of the two dozen legacy cities studied, Albany was ranked fifth healthiest.

As a board member of the City of Albany’s Industrial Development Agency, I have witnessed the change in who is undertaking development projects in the city. To me, it has been a pleasant and rewarding change to see new faces coming to Albany and investing in the city. Quick story: When I was serving on the Common Council, I was approached by a developer who told me that he would never do a project in Albany as long as Mayor Jennings was in office. He said that if you were not one of the favored companies, you had so many roadblocks put in your way that it wasn’t worth the hassle to propose a project, let alone construct one. Essentially, Albany was closed to outside developers. Not so today. Albany is now open for business.

Downtown and the warehouse district are not the only areas of Albany seeing investment dollars. In the First Ward (my old Common Council area), both the former Howard Johnson site and the old Kenwood Convent property on Southern Boulevard (Rte. 9W) have been sold, and conceptual plans have been submitted to the appropriate city departments and review agencies. These two long-vacant properties located at Exit 23 of the Thruway will finally be redeveloped and productive again. In the case of the Kenwood property, what has been a 70-plus acre parcel of totally tax-free land, will now be added to Albany’s tax base. One caveat: This is not the first time these properties have been slated for private development; plans fell apart for various reasons. Hopefully, this time will be different, and the proposed projects will have the necessary funding to complete the projects.

In addition to the proposed projects in the southern end of Albany, there is a proposal in the works for numerous vacant houses on Clinton Avenue to be rehabbed and offered as much-needed affordable housing units. Also, the western side of the city has seen private investment. Last year, the first of two privately owned dormitories was built on Washington Avenue, across from UAlbany’s uptown campus. The second dorm will soon be under construction now that the old, not-very-pleasant-looking hotel has been demolished, clearing the way for the new apartments. Plus, not only are these two buildings paying more in taxes than the properties paid in their previous life, they had the added benefit of the city lowering the speed limit on that section of Washington Avenue, making that stretch of roadway safer for pedestrians.    

While I was attending Professor Gene Bunnell’s talk on comparing Providence, RI to Albany, one of my lunch table companions was a woman who does not live in Albany. She had seen the Central Warehouse building, visible from Interstate 787, on her way to the University Club for the luncheon and she asked me why the building couldn’t just be painted, maybe with murals like the parking garage on Broadway, so that it is not such an unwelcoming site when entering Albany from the north. I mentioned this idea to some city officials, and was told to wait a few days and I would be pleasantly surprised. Well, I waited, and something happened. It was announced that the old Central Warehouse cold storage building was sold to an investor from New York City. Evan Blum purchased this eyesore of a building and plans on developing “something that is nice and sustainable.” Mr. Blum mentioned that he would like to paint the outside of the warehouse as soon as it was feasible to do so. It was almost as if someone was listening to our conversation and acted on it. It was a pleasant surprise, indeed.  

Albany has been the recipient of millions of dollars of investment over the past few years. This investment looks like it will be continuing for many years to come. The adoption of the ReZone Albany code update, the desire of millennials to live in urban settings, the state’s investment in nanotechnology, and Mayor Sheehan’s decision to notify developers that Albany was “open for business” have helped to feed this surge in investment dollars. However (isn’t there always a “however”?), there are some areas lacking in investment. These include:

  1. The original site for the Convention Center, where the Convention Center Authority has taken property off of the tax rolls and let the property rot. Also, some blame goes to New York state for being stubborn by trying to limit the sale of the land to just one developer, rather than subdivide the properties, thus hindering development proposals for the land.
  2. The historic inner-city neighborhoods where too many of our houses have been left vacant and abandoned for far too long. These buildings have decayed to the point where people’s safety may be in jeopardy and demolition is seen as a necessary evil. Many preservationists are opposed to the demolitions and feel that these buildings, our history, need to be secured and saved like they did in Providence.

The development dollars coming into Albany are welcome. The city is moving forward, as noted by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. Now it’s time to take the next step, and persuade developers to invest in our historic neighborhoods, save our history and revitalize our inner-city communities. The Clinton Avenue project is a good start. Let’s build on that as the next round of investment dollars come to Albany.

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