Seward Place revival a success
Union College, city both come out winners for projects
SCHENECTADY Seward Place falls just beyond the western border of Union College, but the short city street is clearly a part of the school’s campus.
The street has tidy Victorian houses in distinctive colors, nearly all accented with trim of maroon and white — the school’s colors. There are banners on the front of some, giving the buildings names such as Seward, Seneca, Dickens or Arts.
The street has nearly been overtaken by Union College, part of a grand plan that was announced in 1998 with the goal of improving the neighborhood.
Today, the college owns 23 of the buildings along Seward, which runs a third-of-a-mile between Nott and Union streets, defining the western border of the campus. At one end is an orthodontist’s office; at the other, St. Anthony’s Church. Student housing also extends down Huron Street, Park Place, Roger Hull Place, Lennox Road and Union Avenue and at the former Ramada Inn, which is now College Park Suites. Roughly 400 students call this neighborhood home.
Over the past 14 years, the college has invested $30 million to buy and renovate these properties. The redevelopment not only boosted the number of student housing units, but also improved the image of the rundown neighborhood — something college officials say was causing some prospective students to go elsewhere.
“The number one reason why students turned us down was because of Schenectady,” said Diane Blake, vice president for finance and administration at Union College. Blake said that many of the homes were not owner-occupied and were in poor condition.
Former Union President Roger Hull put it even more bluntly.
“There were rapes. There were crack houses. There was crime. Police were constantly coming. We had to address it,” he said.
In addition to the goal of attracting students, Hull added that as a part of the community, the college had an obligation to try to improve it. Hull made this commitment a hallmark of his administration.
Using tax-exempt bonds for financing, Union College in 1999 began buying and renovating houses along Seward. The college now owns more than two-thirds of the buildings on the street.
In addition, the city in 2001 completed a $1.3 million reconstruction of the street with new sidewalks, cobblestone walkways, traffic islands and ornamental lights.
College officials increased the scope of the project based on the success of phase I, which totaled about $14 million and included the renovation of properties on Seward, Roger Hull and some of Park Place. In 2004, Union opened College Park Hall at the former Ramada Inn, now home to about 250 students.
Blake said the college has no plans to acquire more property.
“We really don’t want to start creeping into the community,” she said.
The houses are popular with students, who Blake said have to participate in the lottery for the off-campus housing slots. “They like it because it feels like they’re living on their own, yet they have the umbrella of the college, all the amenities,” she said.
While the student houses are similar in style, they are less so in function. Some have themes devoted to culinary arts or discussion. “We leave that totally up to the students,” she said.
Student Fernando Gomez, who lives at 233 Seward, likes the convenience. “I have restaurants around the corner a block a way. It’s a nice residential area,” he said.
His house’s focus is food and discussion. About once a week, the residents invite in a Union faculty member to talk on a topic, while everyone enjoys takeout food from a nearby restaurant.
Jully Araujo, a senior from Staten Island majoring in neuroscience, lives in Safe House, a community service-themed house that provides assistance for sexual assault victims.
She likes the comfort of her house and its proximity to campus. The only drawback — the ringing bells of St. Anthony’s. “I live two houses down. Otherwise, it’s pretty quiet,” she said.
Room and board is included in Union’s comprehensive fee, which is $56,289 this year. John Bocchino, a senior from Boston majoring in bioengineering, said his house gives him the advantages of living off campus without the hassle of worrying about things like the electric bill.
It’s also nice to have Union’s security force close by. Recently, he said, a campus security officer knocked on his door to tell them that the front door was not locking properly.
But not everyone on Seward is headed off to class each morning.
Sixty-eight-year-old Al Katz lives in the same Seward Place home that has been in his family since the 1960s.
“Almost all of them are nice kids. They walk by, they say hello to you. They’re not wiseguys,” he said.
The worst that happens, according to Katz, is loud noise on a Friday or Saturday night. But there are perks, including being able to use Union College’s fields or take in a hockey game at Messa Rink.
“There’s a lot going on if you take advantage of it,” he said.
Limited parking can be a source of irritation for Katz, who said there are times when the students take up all the on-street spots.
Steve McKiernan and his wife bought their home at 227 Seward Place the year before Union College started its buying spree. After 15 years in Manhattan, McKiernan said having a front porch and being close enough to walk to restaurants made the neighborhood attractive. He also likes the idea that the college’s guards patrol around the neighborhood to check for crimes like vandalism.
McKiernan said Union officials have cracked down on partying, which has declined during the last five years.
He believes that the new attractions such as restaurants in Schenectady have also helped cut down on parties because now the students have more to do. “They’re not telling them that Schenectady is a scary, dangerous town so they go downtown,” he said.
Before Union College’s involvement, Seward Place was just another street in Schenectady, according to Mayor Gary McCarthy. “They were older houses that generally had not received much in terms of update or rehabilitation,” he said.
While McCarthy said the college has been a great neighbor and a great community asset with its work on Seward Place, there is a downside. The houses Union College bought, as well as the conversion of the former Ramada Inn off Nott Street into a dormitory, took roughly 2 percent off the tax base of the city — about $8 million in property values. The city provides fire and other services to the college, but McCarthy said discussions about the college making a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes have not yielded an agreement.
“They’ve indicated they’re not inclined to give the city a PILOT or any direct payment for services,” he said.
The renovation of the Ramada Inn could have been eligible for tax breaks since it was within the Empire Zone. McCarthy said the college could have paid the taxes and then gotten reimbursement from the state. The other renovated properties were not included in the zone.
College officials said they considered it but decided it did not make sense for them. Union has said that purchasing and renovating the properties constituted their investment in the city.
Hull said having to pay taxes on those properties would not have made the project cost effective.
McCarthy said city residents don’t have the option to count improvements to their home as their payment in taxes. “If I could take every house in the city of Schenectady and make it tax exempt, I could get every homeowner to invest substantial amount of money in their property,” he said.
He pointed out that Seward Place is a revenue stream for the college. “You have students living there so they’re paying room and board as opposed to living off campus,” he said.
“We want the college to thrive. We want them to do well. At the same time, we want to be partners. We’re all working together,” McCarthy added.
College officials claim the college’s economic impact to the city is more than $274 million annually and students, faculty and staff volunteer their services to various community organizations.
Union also offers an incentive program to encourage people to buy a house and move into the neighborhood. Residents with children who meet admissions requirements can have their children attend Union tuition-free. Three students graduated from Union since the program began and college officials say they frequently receive inquires about it.
The college had a separate program that would allow faculty or staff members to buy a house with financing through the college instead of dealing with a bank or mortgage company. Many of those homes, which have increased in value, have been purchased by new owners.
College officials believed that fixing these properties would spur other growth, which Blake claims has happened with the new Golub headquarters at the former Big N plaza on Nott Street and proposed residential and commercial development at the old ALCO property.
“It was Union College trying to do its part to help Schenectady and help itself. We’re happy with it. It has definitely improved that area,” she said.