A former Masonic Temple in downtown Troy, currently owned by Rensselaer County, should be the city government’s next headquarters, according to city councilperson Anasha Cummings.
“I think it meets all of my criteria for a good city hall,” Cummings said during a recent tour of the historic three-story structure, located at 19 Third St., across the street from the Atrium.
At street level, the building features a lobby and adjoining retail spaces, which Cummings says could house “big displays about the things that are going on in city government”—like, say, the ongoing One Monument Square redevelopment effort—and serve as offices for its more public-facing departments.
“I think we do important work in city hall—and I think people have no idea how to engage with it,” the first-term councilperson said. The building’s central location, close to a convergence of bus lines, might facilitate public interaction in a way the city government’s current digs do not.
Under a 10-year lease that began in October 2012, the city pays more than $360,000 annually to rent 36,435 square feet of space on the fifth floor of the Hedley Building, located at 433 River St., according to a past audited statement.
The odd arrangement, in an unremarkable office building, hardly inspires civic pride. “I don’t even call it city hall,” city council president Carmella Mantello told The Alt in a recent interview. “I call it city floor.”
By contrast, the interior of 19 Third St. sports the kind of architectural flourishes and stately vibe that would likely be difficult and costly to replicate today.
“It’s a grand building,” Cummings said. “It’s got dignity. It feels like, ‘This is a place where important things happen.’”
The building’s third-floor auditorium, which features balconies with tiered seating, would make for a substantially larger city council chamber than the space currently used at the Hedley Building, which Cummings says often overflows, possibly discouraging attendance.
There are an array of other large rooms throughout the ex-temple, including a gym that Cummings said might make a good mayor’s office—that is, if the city’s chief executive officer were on board with the whole concept.
“The administration has no plans to relocate City Hall and there are no active sites under consideration at this time,” John Salka, the mayor’s spokesman, said in an email.
Last year, according to Spectrum News, the mayor cited ongoing maintenance costs as one important consideration in the debate about the city potentially owning its home again. His remarks came in response to a committee, formed in 2016 by the city council, recommending several potential new homes for city government, including the Italian Community Center on Fifth Ave. next to Prospect Park.
A recent planned sale of the ICC indirectly led Cummings to alight on his vision of the ex-Masonic Temple as city hall. In late November of last year, outgoing Rensselaer County Executive Kathy Jimino announced the county would buy the ICC for $685,000 and, as part of the same resolution submitted to the legislature, sell 19 Third St. for $575,000 to real-estate developer David Bryce.
The ex-Masonic Temple is the current home of the Troy Area Senior Services Center, where the county provides meals and other kinds of services and programming for the elderly. Jimino had said the facility’s lack of off-street parking discourages seniors from visiting the downtown location.
In December, the county legislature put the prospective sale, which the county attorney at the time described to The Alt as “unusual but legal,” on hold. Newly elected County Executive Steve McLaughlin’s administration is open to offers for the underutilized building, though it doesn’t seem to be in a hurry.
“We view [19 Third St.] as a neat, interesting, and unique part of downtown Troy,” Rich Crist, McLaughlin’s top aide, told The Alt. Multiple private parties have expressed interest, he said.
Crist recently toured the building with Cummings. “It’s an interesting concept,” he said of the councilperson’s vision. “We would look forward to any proposals or ideas.”
The county remains committed to the direct provision of services to Troy-area senior citizens, Crist said, though where exactly those services are provided may change in the future. Cummings, who shares an interest in seeing that commitment stay intact, said one potential location might be the often-empty green space near Kennedy Towers at Federal St. and 6th Ave., close to where many seniors already live.
Council president Carmella Mantello, who has long eyed a permanent home for Troy’s government, said parking might be a “major hurdle” for making 19 Third St. the new city hall. But she also said Cummings has mentioned the idea to her previously—and that she hasn’t ruled it out.
Cummings doesn’t think the parking issue is intractable. He floated the possibility of the city partnering with developer David Bryce to add levels to the Uncle Sam Parking Garage. The city also owns a surface lot near Riverfront Park. And city hall’s proximity to the bus is “just as critical” as adequate parking, he said, “because there’s a lot of people that need to engage with us that don’t have a car.”
A bigger question mark might be potential fit-up costs and the extent of any needed repairs. “That’s just a study that hasn’t been done yet,” Cummings said. A full structural and maintenance review “would be part of the due diligence.” The building’s large elevator is relatively new and the roof seems to be in pretty good shape, he said.
Whatever a thorough assessment of the facility might reveal, having a highly visible, permanent home for Troy’s government once again might afford a boost in civic pride and engagement that, at least for some members of the public, would counterbalance the necessary expenditures.
“People want to feel like we’re owners and we have ownership in our future,” Cummings said. “There’s a sort of rumbling desire amongst a lot of people that I talk to.”