Schenectady County

Grant funds to help stabilize Schenectady embankment

Schenectady County officials will use a new federal grant to help solve a very old problem.
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Schenectady County officials will use a new federal grant to help solve a very old problem.

For years, the steep embankment running above Broadway has threatened both homes and the former Schenectady International complex. Under extremely wet conditions, the hillside’s layers of silt and sand could slip down, explained Joe Ryan, Schenectady County’s director of public works.

“You have natural event factors,” he said. “There are things that are here today and tomorrow they could slip.”

Such was the case in January 2004 when a combination of heavy rains and frost caused a 250-foot fissure to open up along the hillside. The crack prompted city officials to condemn two houses overlooking Broadway on First Avenue and cost Schenectady more than $50,000.

But with funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, county officials are prepared to stabilize the bank. The county Legislature received a $1.5 million grant from the program to launch a project that will secure the hillside and improve drainage, county officials announced Thursday.

After the hill is stabilized, the Galesi Group can push forward with plans to redevelop the vacant 158,000-square-foot former Schenectady International factory complex, a project scheduled to be completed by the fall of 2009. Then, the county’s Department of Social Services will rent a 47,000-square-foot building and 200 parking spaces on the property.

Susan Savage, chairwoman of the county Legislature, said, “These funds will enable us to create a new purpose for an existing building, and get under way with a safe and successful project while saving county residents’ tax dollars.”

The FEMA funding became available after county officials completed a hazard mitigation plan last fall, assessing vulnerability to natural and manmade disasters and planning to avert them.

To date, six local governments within Schenectady County have adopted the mitigation plan. Glenville, Niskayuna and Princetown are expected to adopt this month, county officials said.

“The goal is to get in and take advantage of this funding,” said Ray Gillen, commissioner of the county’s Economic Development and Planning Department. “The opportunities are there.”

Schenectady Mayor Brian U. Stratton lauded the county’s efforts to stabilize a situation the city has wanted to fix for years now. The hillside last collapsed during Stratton’s first weeks in office four years ago.

“We had the hillside literally slipping away and houses going over the edge,” he recalled.

In addition to protecting lives from future slides, Stratton said, the grant will also help protect properties in the area from potential damage. In doing so, he said the project will help boost economic development potential along Broadway.

“The residual benefit is that it helps to promote the marketability of these properties,” he said.

Ryan said the county is now planning the project and will go out to bid before the spring. He said contract work could begin during the early summer.

Ryan said the hillside is not in imminent danger of collapse. But the combination of soils and the area’s high water table could lead to a landslide like one that swallowed an excavator off I-890 in February 2007.

State contractors were clearing debris from a culvert near the Michigan Avenue exit, when the hillside gave way and buried the machine beneath tons of soil. Though no one was injured, the state Department of Transportation needed to spend weeks stabilizing the hillside before work on the ailing culvert could commence.

Heavy rains caused part of Hamilton Hill near Summit Avenue to collapse and bury the former Tel Oil Co. gas station in January 1996. More than 7 feet of soil and debris cascaded down from the ridge, killing 42-year-old Thomas Frank while he pumped gas; city workers subsequently stabilized the hillside.

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