Schenectady County

Fix for Schenectady neighborhoods needs funding

City officials are trying to create a residential version of Metroplex to save the city’s neighborho

City officials are trying to create a residential version of Metroplex to save the city’s neighborhoods.

Just as the Metroplex Development Authority has successfully revitalized the city’s downtown and parts of its commercial corridors, city officials hope a residential agency can rebuild blighted neighborhoods.

They have a framework: the Schenectady Urban Renewal Agency.

It could acquire property through abandonment proceedings. It would fix up some buildings but demolish many of them and then sell the vacant land to developers who would build just a few structures and thus thin out the city’s housing stock.

The City Council would have to dramatically expand SURA’s reach — it is currently limited to downtown and small portions of Vale and Hamilton Hill — and possibly set up an independent commission to run it.

But there’s one major stumbling block: The agency would need a tremendous amount of money to get started.

“It’s like Metroplex, except without a funding stream,” said City Council President Gary McCarthy.

Metroplex has relied on a percentage of the county’s sales tax, which was increased slightly to fund it.

But SURA is unlikely to be able to use sales tax. Some county politicians only supported the Metroplex sales tax increase because Metroplex would work on economic development throughout the county and each suburb was allowed to keep a percentage of the sales tax increase.

McCarthy is hoping for federal aid to get SURA started. The federal government is supporting initiatives to reduce density in emptying cities, demolish blight and build new, environmentally friendly homes. Cleveland recently received $40 million.

That much money could turn SURA into a powerhouse, Corporation Counsel L. John Van Norden said.

“We can accumulate properties quite fast,” he said. “We’ve got abandonment down to a science. It’s going to be a funding issue.”

If the agency could garner enough money to get started, he expects it could continue to run on the money it brings in through sales.

“It operates like a business,” Van Norden said. “It flips the ones that can be salvaged.”

The ones that are too far gone are demolished, with adjacent lots being cleared and then combined for sale. The end result is one or two houses where three or more once stood.

“You want to reduce the density of your structures. You’ve got an awful glut of residential housing,” he said. “But you’ve got to get money for demolition.”

That has been the city’s sticking point for years. It was able to win grants to fund its green housing initiative, in which blighted houses are demolished but replaced by environmentally friendly houses. It has also won grant funding to demolish deteriorated commercial structures and replace them. But no grants will allow the city to demolish structures and not replace them.

Mayor Brian U. Stratton thinks that thinning out the city’s residential housing is essential to developing cleaner, better maintained and safer neighborhoods.

McCarthy has long said that the city should replicate the Metroplex model in order to make that happen.

Now Van Norden is pitching the SURA idea at the state level and at federal think tank meetings in the hopes of getting it off the ground.

“We’re hoping to create a model that can be tested in New York state, just like we did with the tax lien sale,” he said.

Schenectady was the first city in the state to get permission to sell its unpaid tax liens to a private collector. That practice, which is common in other states, now brings in millions of dollars each year to many New York cities.

McCarthy is cautiously optimistic that the city’s plan will win federal and state attention.

“I think it’s got potential,” he said, but he added that the plan is all but worthless unless millions of dollars are funneled into it.

“We have to look at what we have the ability to pay for,” he said.

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