Schenectady County

City has $1.5M plan to stabilize hill

Four years after the unstable hill at the edge of First Avenue nearly dragged eight houses off their
Three-month-old Adin Maher is held by his mother Patricia in the backyard of their home on First Avenue in Schenectady. The house behind them is scheduled to be demolished by the city, forcing them to lose their backyard.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Three-month-old Adin Maher is held by his mother Patricia in the backyard of their home on First Avenue in Schenectady. The house behind them is scheduled to be demolished by the city, forcing them to lose their backyard.

Four years after the unstable hill at the edge of First Avenue nearly dragged eight houses off their foundations, only one family is still living on the side of the muddy cliff.

The rest of the houses are vacant, but the landlords who rented them out until the near disaster struck are long gone. They sold their properties sight unseen to a series of investors, each of whom tried to unload their house on someone else once they learned about the situation.

Houses that sold for $16,000 before the mudslide went for more than triple that amount afterward, the price skyrocketing upward as investors from as far away as Florida and Colorado bid on the properties.

When the truth became clear, the prices fell faster than they had risen. Now those houses are in the hands of owners who paid $1 to $10 for them, and still they sit vacant. The current landlords said no one will rent a house that might tumble off the hill in the next heavy rainstorm.

It was on one rainy weekend four years ago that the hill nearly collapsed onto Broadway. A deep fissure spread along the edge of First Avenue, threatening every house on that side of the street. It was only stopped after city workers demolished two houses and removed tons of dirt from the teetering edge of the cliff.

As landlords tried to get rid of their houses before another mudslide erased their investments, few seemed motivated to put any money into maintenance. In one extreme example, Rajendra Lakharam — who bought 1230 First Ave. just days before the 2004 mudslide — only put plywood on his windows after a recent fire swept through the building.

“I’m not going to fix it. If they fix the hill, I’ll fix the house,” he said.

But he no longer believes the government will swoop in with a miraculous fix.

“I’m worried about the hill,” he said. “So I’m going to give it to my friend.”

Still, he might want to hang onto it a little longer. This fall, Schenectady County will begin a $1.5 million project to buttress the hill. Engineers believe their solution will keep the hill from ever sliding again.

“It will work. The people up there will be able to sleep better at night,” said county civil engineer James Gabriel, who briefed the city on the plans last week. “These houses are vacant and I don’t blame [the owners]. Knowing what happened to the two houses [that were demolished], I wouldn’t sleep easy at night.”

Work will begin by September and will be finished in December, Gabriel said. The city and county do not have to pay anything for the project; the Federal Emergency Management Agency is paying 75 percent of the bill while Galesi Group pays the rest. Galesi is involved because it is renovating the office building at the bottom of the hill, which will be used by the Department of Social Services.

While Galesi wants to stabilize the hill for commercial reasons, FEMA is only interested in protecting the houses on First Avenue, Gabriel said. The partnership between the private and public entities made the project possible, he said, because it didn’t require the city and county to put aside hundreds of thousands of dollars to save just a few houses.

Residents are excited by the concept, professing total faith in the engineers’ ability to rebuild their hill.

“We’re not afraid we’ll slide back. They’ll take care of that,” said Patricia Maher, who lives at 1202-1204 First Ave., the house at the very edge of the cliff.

Much of her backyard must be deeded to the county so that it can be torn away. Three houses near her on Bluff Avenue — one vacant, two occupied by tenants — will also be demolished so the land around their foundations can be raked to the bottom of the hill. Workers will then carefully layer new soil onto the hill, creating a solid base in what is now a parking lot. The goal is to gradually build up a new hillside that is half as steep as the current cliff.

It still won’t be a gentle incline.

“It will be as steep as your steepest ski slope,” County Attorney Chris Gardner said.

As the hill is rebuilt, pipes will also be placed horizontally throughout the hillside to drain water quickly so that rain does not have a chance to erode the new base, Gardner said.

While water-control is important, removing dirt from the top of the hill is critical to the design. Engineers found that residents piled dirt at the top to lengthen their backyards, putting too much weight on the hill.

“Fill at the top destabilized it. That’s part of the reason for the easements — to take that fill away,” Gardner said.

Those backyards also served as a reassurance for residents, who for decades believed their houses were safe from the steady erosion at the top of the hill because the cliff-edge was more than 20 feet from their back doors.

EVACUATION ORDERED

That illusion was shattered in March 2004 when a 250-foot-long fissure cracked the hillside over the course of one rainy weekend. The city evacuated the entire street and had to demolish two houses because their additions were destabilizing the hill.

Everyone else was allowed to return home, but those who were just renting there immediately left for safer quarters. The Mahers, who own their house, were the only ones left on the hill side of the street.

Gardner predicts that the situation will improve once the hill is fixed.

“This will help the folks at the top of the hill. Nobody is going to invest money in houses that are in danger of falling down the hill,” he said.

But there is at least another month of negotiations to get through before work will begin. The county needs to buy and demolish three houses at the edge of Bluff Avenue, next to First Avenue, so their weight cannot destabilize the hill. The county also needs every property owner on the hill side of First Avenue to sign away a large portion of their backyards so the dirt can be raked to the new base of the hill.

Maher is holding out hope that the county will agree to pay for her backyard. Most of the other property owners on First Avenue have already given up their backyards for free, but the county has agreed to pay for the Bluff Avenue houses and Maher is negotiating for a similar agreement for her yard.

“We use our yard. There’s a fire pit, we sit out here,” she said. “This is where we spend a lot of time. We’re going to lose most of this.”

She’s willing to lose it in exchange for a stable hill, she added — but she wants something for her land.

“Isn’t that fair?” she said.

Gardner said negotiations are continuing. He plans to close on all the property by Aug. 20.

Meanwhile, the absentee landlords who own houses on the hillside are still trying to get rid of them.

Lakharam’s house, which he plans to hand over to a friend for free, was worth $13,000 when the East Coast Management Group of Saratoga Inc. bought it in 2001. But the group stopped paying taxes on the property and the city took the house. Lahharam paid $2,500 to buy it. He’s paid all his taxes on the house since then, but said he doesn’t even want to recoup his losses. All he wants now, he said, is to pass the problem to somebody else.

“Then the hill won’t be my concern,” he said.

Categories: Schenectady County

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