Saratoga County

Save it or scrap it? Old buildings spur community debate

Battle lines have been drawn in the city of Amsterdam over whether to save or demolish an old factor

Battle lines have been drawn in the city of Amsterdam over whether to save or demolish an old factory that has been vacant for more than 30 years.

The former Chalmers Knitting Mill has been an eyesore on the city’s South Side for decades. A city plan to demolish the building was halted when a developer from Long Island proposed to save the structure and convert it into 180 luxury apartments.

But after a year, developer Uri Kaufman, contending with the economy’s decline, has struggled to secure financing for the project.

Kaufman, who signed a one-year option agreement with the city, will have the ability to extend the contract for another year in May. Some South Side residents and government officials, however, would rather give up on Kaufman’s plans and knock down the building.

Aldermen Joseph Isabel, R-1st Ward, is one of them. Isabel was the only city politician to vote against the option agreement for Kaufman and advocated that the city continue with his plans for demolition. Isabel’s convictions are only stronger a year later.

“Go over to the South Side and talk to the people. The people don’t want it,” Isabel said. “It’s better for the South Side if it comes down.”

Mayor Ann Thane, however, has been advocating for preservation. Thane said the city is fortunate to have someone from outside the community willing to invest millions of dollars.

“Why would we let this go when everyone is telling us that historic preservation equals economic development?” she said.

Municipalities have been walking a fine line between demolition and preservation for decades. Similar battles have cropped up in Saratoga Springs over architecturally historic homes and in Niskayuna over the former Ingersoll Home — itself formerly the Stanford Mansion.

That became an epic battle that pitted developers against citizens trying to save the mansion and its grounds from becoming a competing commercial site across from Mohawk Commons on Balltown Road.

Hundreds of town residents spoke about the project and a long court battle played out over the project.

In the end, the development project received approval, with the old building preserved for use as a restaurant in the new complex.


In Amsterdam, the line between preservation and demolition is visible in the city’s efforts to demolish nearly 50 city-owned homes. While Thane is fighting to save the Chalmers building from the wrecking ball, she is in favor of the city’s demolition program.

As far as tearing down homes, Thane said the city has residential units that have been derelict for 25 years and are more compromised than the Chalmers building across the river.

The homes the city is taking down, Thane said, are wooden structures that were not made well.

“It’ll take a bomb to take that down. It was built to last,” Thane said.

“It’s a cost-benefit analysis,” Thane said. “Think about what you stand to gain by preserving a large factory building to convert to 180 apartments over a two-family residence in a neighborhood where houses are already in disarray.”

For David Buicko, the chief operating officer of the Galesi Group, a private development firm in Schenectady, the choice between rehabilitation and demolition is always solved by looking at the numbers.

“It’s a case-by-case basis, but no matter how you slice it up, it comes to a matter of numbers, that’s what’s real,” Buicko said. He said developers look at factors such as the functionality of a building and its historical significance.

“Some buildings are just functionally obsolete and you don’t have any choice but to tear them down,” Buicko said, citing the Big N Plaza in Schenectady as an example.

In contrast, Buicko said 797 Broadway in Schenectady was rehabbed because it worked functionally for its purpose. Schenectady County’s Department of Social Services uses the building.

“It laid itself out for a total gut rehab and we were able to adapt it to make it functional,” Buicko said.

Also, sometimes a rehabilitation project is more expensive than building new, Buicko said.

He gave the Galesi Group’s project to redevelop Center City in downtown Schenectady as an example. The company will be tearing down a portion of the building and keeping another.

“It’s a complicated project. Would it have been easier to build new? Probably,” he said.

competing values

In Saratoga Springs, a community known for its sprawling historic mansions and preserved Victorian architecture, Pat Kane, director of the city’s Design Review Committee, said the quest for historic preservation should not get in the way of a municipality’s goal for economic vitality.

Kane said he’s been at odds with the city’s Preservation Commission because their mission is to preserve at all costs. Kane said sometimes that idea can hinder economic development.

“The goal is economic vitality without compromising your values and protecting the past,” he said.

“If at all costs you have to preserve your home, you’re going to run into a lot of resistance from the residents.”

Saratoga Springs does have just as many infilled buildings, which are new but made to fit the historic character of the city, as genuinely preserved buildings.

“I’ve voted for the demolition of buildings before because they were in tough shape,” Kane said. “The thing is, what’s the plan after tearing it down? We need to make sure something else goes up in its place that fits into the character of the neighborhood. The last thing you want is a big hole in the ground.”

For example, the Adirondack Trust building on Church Street is a new building that is made to look old.

The company wanted to tear down the old Hub Building, which was falling down, but didn’t have a plan for the offices it wanted to erect.

The Preservation Committee voted no until they saw and approved a design for the new building. Kane said the older building could have been saved, but it would have been too great an expense.

“Now it is a wonderful presence and has revitalized the street,” Kane said. “It’s been marvelous.”

That said, the Saratoga Springs has a consistent record of demolishing buildings as a last resort.

“We do have a good record saving everything we can save,” Kane said.

Some of the city’s older mansions have been revitalized, including what is now the Saratoga Bed and Breakfast.

In Amsterdam, the fight will continue Monday night at the Wilbur H. Lynch Middle School, where residents will have the opportunity to question developer Uri Kaufman on his plans and progress.

“We’ll see Monday how many want it, but I know a lot of them don’t,” Isabel said.

Categories: Schenectady County

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