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What’s next for Troy’s One Monument Square?

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What’s next for Troy’s One Monument Square?

This past July, a relatively cordial public hearing on the proposed 11-screen, luxury multiplex at One Monument Square, where Troy’s city hall once stood, lent the $23 million project an air of inevitability.

“This proposal’s actually pretty close,” a member of the planning board told the applicants. “There’s a palette of materials here, there is a scale, and there is a thoughtfulness.”

This was the city’s fourth attempt, spanning three administrations, to transfer the 1.18-acre site to private hands after a public bidding process. The “dream team” of Bow Tie Cinemas and Bonacio Construction, as local restaurateur Vic Christopher dubbed the partnership, seemed confident. Opinions expressed by the public during the meeting, Bow Tie CEO Joe Masher told The Alt that night, were “actually a lot better than I expected.”

In a concession to critics who scorned the project’s suburban, big-box aesthetic, the development team submitted revised plans in mid-August, which included a “party room with a sunset/riverview balcony overlooking the Hudson River” and, along the much-maligned, 80-foot wall facing River Street, “a storefront appearance to showcase murals depicting Troy’s theater and movie-making history,” the Times Union reported.

But it all soon went awry. “The city of Troy has identified technical issues associated with the Zoning Board approval of area variances for exterior signage for the 1 Monument Square redevelopment project,” planning commissioner Steve Strichman told the TU in late August. A lawsuit filed by developer Sam Judge, who owns buildings on both sides of the parcel, necessitated the variances’ rescission. 

What may have seemed a minor, procedural hiccup—Strichman said it would hardly hamper the project’s aggressive timeline, with construction expected to start this fall and finish next winter—only augured more legal trouble. A second, more extensive lawsuit from Judge, this time challenging the project’s impact on traffic and the city’s right to sell a piece of the parcel that includes parkland, put the project on hold indefinitely.

On Friday afternoon, Troy Mayor Patrick Madden released a statement saying that Bow Tie had called it quits.

“For several months, my administration and representatives of Bonacio Construction met on multiple occasions with the neighboring property owner to address his demands, including those not contained within the multiple legal actions filed against the city,” the mayor said. “My administration strongly believes the issues identified in the multiple legal actions were solvable, but due to concern over potential future litigation Bow Tie Cinemas opted to end their involvement in the project.”

Sonny Bonacio, president of Bonacio Construction, which owns approximately 70 rental housing units in Troy, expressed disappointment with the outcome in statement to the Albany Business Review.

“We have expended a great deal of time and energy with our client Bow Tie Cinemas and the city over the past eighteen months to bring a project that many thought, in addition to finally filling the long-vacant Monument Square site, would have been a wonderful amenity and economic driver for Troy’s downtown,” he said.

Sam Judge, in a statement provided to The Alt, said he had “worked very hard” with the mayor’s office and Bonacio “to reach a reasonable solution,” but nothing came of the deliberations.

“Unfortunately, the concept was doomed from the outset,” Judge said. “The City of Troy was repeatedly made aware of the fatal flaws inherent in the project long before the development agreement was executed. The parking, the traffic, the scale, the land, the design, the approval process: all issues of vital importance and all were ignored or flouted. My interests, and what I believe were the interests of Downtown Troy, were at stake and so I pursued my only option.”

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The city reacts

Joe Fama, who until recently served as the Troy Community Land Bank’s first executive director, spoke in favor of the project at that meeting in July. He had urged critics of the theater’s scale and style to voice their reservations, but constructively, so as not to jeopardize the deal.

“I am extremely disappointed,” Fama told The Alt in an email. “I believe it would have drawn a broader audience to downtown Troy and complemented the many good things that have happened in the last few years.”

Vic Christopher, perhaps the most visible proponent of the project, also believes a theater would have brought more people downtown from North and South Troy. When people from other neighborhoods stop by The Bradley, a bar on Fourth Street owned by Christopher’s company, Clark House Hospitality, they tell him there’s nothing downtown for them to do, he says.

“I’m just stunned, but I guess I shouldn’t be, because it’s typical Troy,” Christopher said in a phone interview on Friday, shortly after the news broke. In his view, opponents savvily seized on technicalities to hamper the project. Now, with nearly $4 million in grant funding tied to the site set to expire at the end of next year, Christopher predicts we’ll be looking at the de facto parking lot for a long time.

“Troy loses,” Christopher said. “It’s a major L.”

We Care About The Square—a vocal, quasi-anonymous group of residents and business owners who opposed the project and its antecedent—did not issue a statement on the outcome before this article went to press, though it shared news of the cancellation on Twitter.

“I think that the concept was great and the project had flaws,” said Jeff Buell, whose real-estate company Sequence Development partnered with Kirchoff-Consigli Construction Management on the previous, failed proposal for One Monument Square. “Every project that gets proposed there is going to deal with the exact same issue. There’s an expectation from the people of the city of Troy, particularly downtown residents and business owners, that [isn’t] realistic—that’s not to say that those expectations are wrong, but it’s just that they’re not going to be achieved.”

Fama, the former land bank director who, before assuming that post, led the nonprofit Troy Architectural Program for decades, cast the former city hall’s demolition as kind of original sin, which led the city government, after a brief stay at the former Verizon building on Sixth Avenue, to become a tenant of the Hedley Building north of the Green Island Bridge.

“People should understand what a colossal mistake it was to tear down the Buckley City Hall before the resources were at hand to construct a new one, and before a viable proposal had been achieved for filling the newest City Hole,” Fama wrote, tagging the quasi-Brutalist structure with the name of longtime city manager John Buckley, who oversaw the building’s construction in the ‘70s. “We used a million dollars of public money to tear the building down, which could have been spent on other things. Instead, we won’t even recoup the demolition cost with the sale of the property.”

Amid concern that incoming Governor Andrew Cuomo might try to clawback the grant funding appropriated by state Sen. Joseph Bruno several years earlier, Troy Mayor Harry Tutunjian commenced demolition work on Dec. 31, 2010, the day before Cuomo’s formal inauguration. A development team was selected that May, but under the administration of Lou Rosamilia, who succeeded Tutunjian the following year, the project was scrapped due to concerns about the extent to which it incorporated affordable housing.

“I think I’m on record somewhere saying, ‘My biggest fear is, if we don’t get somebody lined up quick to do this project, eventually people are gonna fall in love with this view of the Hudson,’” Tutunjian told The Alt in an interview.

For Vic Christopher, the failure of the latest proposal is compounded by the thought of all the responses to requests for proposals (RFPs), site plans, and other materials prepared by consultants that have gone to waste.

“Think about the amount of money that should have been invested into this city in ways that the public could enjoy,” he said. “Instead, we’re investing in drawings and pictures of fake buildings.”

More recently, some observers, including The Alt, had raised questions about the relatively short time window for this round’s RFP, which garnered only two bids for purportedly one of the most high-profile sites in the Capital District. But Christopher maintains that it is naive to think that a louder pitch would elicit a wider array of would-be builders, as if “there’s this unlimited pool of developers and ideas [and] people are just gonna continue to throw money at the black hole.”

“It’s over, man,” he said.

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Now what?

Troy was also dealt a blow in early August, when Gov. Cuomo announced the selection of Hudson as the Capital Region winner of the $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative, a major grant program now in its second year. Glens Falls won last year.

But while it may be difficult to separate grant-seeking bluster from a concrete itinerary—indeed, much of Troy’s plans were essentially predicated on obtaining the state funding—the Collar City’s lengthy application, available online but not widely publicized, suggests the failure of the Bow Tie Cinemas project may not mark the waning of private investment downtown.

The city, the application explains, intends to expand its central business district to include the adjacent Riverside neighborhood, a formal change detailed in the city’s long-awaited comprehensive plan. Initially projected to be finalized in early 2016, the $1 million plan is now expected to be publicized in November or December, planning commissioner Steve Strichman recently told The Alt. (A major overhaul of the zoning code will follow.)

The application points to the notable concentration of tech-related companies in Troy, including cybersecurity firm GreyCastle Security, game-focused investment firm Velan Ventures, and two virtual reality companies. Plans to acquire and demolish the two vacant Taylor Apartment buildings (“We have three developers interested in this site and an anchor tenant/project identified”), redevelop the contaminated Scolite property, and relocate the Adams Street salt pile are all mentioned as potential ways to accommodate the growth of the tech sector in a downtown-adjacent neighborhood.  

“I don’t think there’s ever been more interest in Troy as there is right now,” Anasha Cummings, a candidate for Troy city council, told The Alt, citing in part this push toward “building a culture of tech entrepreneurship.”

Cummings believes there might be potential for a collaboration between the Children’s Museum of Science and Technology, or CMOST, and the city’s nascent gaming cluster at One Monument Square, a concept not unlike one floated by the TU’s Chris Churchill in July.  

“It would have been fun to have a movie theater,” Cummings acknowledged. But “the core question for Troy’s downtown is: Do we want to be a bedroom community with a great nightlife, or do we want to honor our history of building things?”

Developer Jeff Buell, who once served as city spokesman during the Tutunjian administration, believes the site should be redeveloped as a park, with a permanent structure for the popular Troy Waterfront Farmers Market. “I think there’s so much happening in downtown Troy that’s positive and great, that a long-term asset, like a public space, will be much more beneficial than the hundred apartments that can fit on that site or the 20,000 square feet of retail,” he said.

Given the generous financial assistance package that any developer is likely to request from the city’s industrial development authority to build a structure worthy of the site, Buell explained, any potential tax revenue is unlikely to change the city’s financial trajectory. A well-designed public space, though, could have a lasting impact.

Whatever the fate of the keystone site, any plan seems unlikely to go very far without Sam Judge’s tacit approval, given the project’s potential impact on his adjacent properties. (Judge’s company was selected to build on the site in the second round of bidding, but the deal fell through.)

“If I was in office, I would say, ‘OK, Sam. The property’s yours,’” former mayor Harry Tutunjian told The Alt. “Give us [$650,000] and it’s yours, but you have to do X, Y, and Z.”

Asked about any future potential plans or requests for proposals for the site, city spokesman John Salka told The Alt that no information beyond Madden’s statement is available currently. City council president Carmella Mantello, perhaps the mayor’s chief rival, has already called for “an open and transparent process in determining the best and most practical use of this property.”

The failure of several successive projects “to come to fruition will not be lost on the next group of developers seeking to develop the parcel,” Joe Fama told The Alt. “It is unlikely that the next proposal will be more ambitious than the last. It is instead likely that Troy’s citizens will grow increasingly impatient with a public process that reminds us all of nothing so much as the US Congress.”

Notwithstanding his similar bearishness on One Monument Square—had the cinema been built, Peck’s Arcade, his flagship restaurant, would have expanded from a four-day to a seven-day-per-week schedule, something no longer in the cards—Vic Christopher told The Alt that his advocacy had prompted unnamed people to approach him about partnering on a future project at the site. He’s interested, though he declined to share details.

“I’m looking forward to putting something together,” he said. “I plan on having fun with this.”

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