As a crowd gathered Monday to oppose using eminent domain to make a space on State Street for Bethesda House, city officials announced that they’ve found another, better site for the proposed center for the homeless and mentally ill.
But the Schenectady City Council went ahead with a public hearing on whether to seize a businessman’s property for the Bethesda House site anyway, leaving residents confused about what the council intended to do.
“This new proposal is very new to us. We want to hold this hearing in case we have to do eminent domain,” council Chairwoman Margaret King said.
Some council members said they preferred the new site, 917 State St., which is already owned by the city. It is vacant property so Bethesda House would not have to pay for demolition before building its new center.
But Councilman Gary McCarthy said 917 State St. might not be a viable option.
“Bethesda House was shown that site. Originally, Bethesda House was not in favor,” he said, adding that he would personally prefer it over using eminent domain to take 838 State St., the 22-year office of Anderson Blacktop.
“The 917 site is cheaper and quicker,” he said.
The council chamber was packed with residents on the eminent domain issue — government’s taking of a property for the public good — and many chose to speak as if the city were not considering 917 State St.
More than a dozen speakers urged the council not to use eminent domain to take 838 State St. Many also said the city was wrongly forcing Bethesda House to move out of the downtown.
“You’re closing us away from the community so they won’t see us,” said resident Deborah Rembert. “You need to see Bethesda House. If you see Bethesda House, maybe you’ll start thinking about doing better for the people.”
Resident Katherine Delain added that Bethesda House should be allowed to build a bigger facility downtown. Its current site is too small for the proposed 16 housing units it wants to provide for the chronically homeless.
“I think it belongs where it is now. I think you arm-twisted them to force them from their location,” she said.
She and others also said that, like some downtown businesses, Vale neighborhood residents won’t welcome Bethesda House if it does move to State Street.
“This is a fragile neighborhood and you’re going to put people there who make it more fragile,” Delain said.
Resident Mark Townsend said, “We should have had six months to fight this like downtown did …This is part of the national trend to get the undesirables out of downtown. This is a disgrace. You’re trying to dump it on a vulnerable community.”
He said the center would be detrimental to a proposed express bus line from State Street to Albany and said the center is the wrong way to develop Vale.
“You say, ‘Oh, this is where the poor are.’ This is a proposal to keep them there, not revitalize the community,” he said.
He was referring to Corporation Counsel L. John Van Norden’s opening presentation on the issue, in which Van Norden said the location would be sensible because Bethesda House offers services for the working poor. Vale and Hamilton Hill have more residents living in poverty than any other neighborhood in the city, according to census data.
Residents also told the city not to use eminent domain to create a space for Bethesda House.
“It’s nice to help the poor and the needy, but you’re going about it the wrong way,” said Harry Brand. “You can’t give the man an extra $25,000? It’s a shame.”
The city’s negotiations with Fred Anderson, who owns 838 State St., appear to hinge on whether Anderson will sell for $125,000 — which he says was the city’s highest offer — or $150,000, which he says is the lowest he will accept. City officials offered to buy his lot so they could combine it with three adjacent parcels owned by the city, creating a space big enough for Bethesda House.
Van Norden said he looked for alternate sites and found 917 State St. because negotiations with Anderson bogged down.
Anderson attended Monday’s meeting but did not speak. His daughter, Pamela, told the council that her father isn’t asking for an unreasonable amount of money.
“He’s one of the few minority businessmen in Schenectady. I am distressed that this seems to be pitting Freddie Anderson against Bethesda House,” she said. “Both are just as valuable to the community. He’s not saying there’s no need for Bethesda House. What we’re asking for is fairness.”
Bethesda House Executive Director Margaret Anderton declined to speak on whether she supported taking 838 State St. by eminent domain, offering a higher purchase price, or moving to 917 State St.
But on King’s request, she went to the lectern.
She promised to welcome Vale residents’ concerns as plans move forward for the new center, and added, “Wherever we are, we absolutely do need to be a part of this city. I’m glad we’re moving forward.”
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Categories: Schenectady County