Heavy lifting at Alco, Erie and lower State this year

This should be the year that Schenectady finally gets rid of a deteriorating piece of its industrial
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This should be the year that Schenectady finally gets rid of a deteriorating piece of its industrial heritage.

The Alco plant, which ceased operations in 1969, sits rusting at the northern edge of the city. From Erie Boulevard, drivers can count the broken windows on line after line of vacant buildings. But not for much longer.

By the third quarter of 2010, demolition is slated to begin. Workers must knock down several buildings and remove many foundations left from a century of rebuilding at the plant.

Then truckers will haul out thousands of tons of soil contaminated with diesel oil and solvents.

At the nearby Big N Plaza, which was also the site of an Alco facility, contractors removed 9,500 tons of diesel-contaminated soil and 500 tons of dirt tainted with solvents. The Erie Boulevard plant is six times as big — which may mean proportionately larger amounts of contaminated soil.

But the pollution that kept most of the land from being reused for four decades may now prove to be a blessing in disguise.

The property may qualify for the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s brownfields program, which would pay for 20 percent of the cleanup and 20 percent of the cost to reuse the site.

“The credits are incredible,” said Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority Chairman Ray Gillen. “If you spend a million on cleanup, you get $200,000. And then if you build a $10 million building there, you get $2 million out of the state. It’s a very lucrative thing.”

Metroplex also won a $4 million Restore NY grant for the project, which can be used on both cleanup and rebuilding.

And the needed demolition may be essentially free.

“We have very strong interest from the demolition contractors, because of the value of the scrap. A lot of the cost of demolition could be offset by the scrap,” Gillen said, referring to the steel buildings that must come down.

It’s only now, with all that funding, that the project is coming together.

“Four million from Restore, and the scrap, and the 20 percent, and you see how we begin to be able to compete with the suburbs,” Gillen said.

Glacial progress

But qualifying for the money has taken years. The state environmental quality review is still not done — although Gillen expects it to be finally complete by March.

Officials had to review every building for historic merit, meet with the Army Corps of Engineers (which has jurisdiction over the shore of the river), and provide documentation for all of the soil contamination.

“It’s complicated also because we’re using Restore. Sometimes we’re like, you know, if we didn’t have that, this wouldn’t be such an involved project,” Gillen said.

The paperwork is nearly done — but construction work will go on for the next decade.

“I expect it will be a 10-year project,” Gillen said. “We’re still developing plans. A tech office? Green space?”

He wants mixed-used commercial and residential development, with low-key office buildings rather than high-rises. Private developers are interested in those plans and will invest in and own the property, putting it on the tax rolls, Gillen said.

The Alco complex is a former locomotive manufacturing site with close to 60 acres at the entrance to the city. The original office, warehouse and heavy industrial buildings still exist, but most are vacant and some are in very poor condition. Several will be demolished, though no final decisions have been made yet, Gillen said.

STS Steel and its 70 workers will remain, as will the three businesses in the front building near the guardhouse. Also, building 300, which is full of offices for several businesses, will stay, Gillen said. Dimension Fabricators, another steel company, soon will be vacating leased space in the Alco campus for larger quarters in Glenville.

At one time, Gillen had envisioned a much larger commercial presence — possibly something as large as the Golub headquarters, which needs 1,000 parking spaces.

But now that the Golub headquarters is at the former Big N Plaza, he doesn’t want a similarly sized project across the street.

“That’s not really our thinking now,” he said. “You have a very big, tall, intense user. It kind of argues for a less dense development at Alco.

“So we’re looking at green space, bike trail, office.”

In particular, he wants to make sure that the scenic river vistas that will be seen from the top offices at the Golub headquarters aren’t blocked by tall office buildings at Alco.

“You’ll want to preserve the viewshed and have a plan for the site that maximizes the water views,” Gillen said.

Erie Boulevard

This year will be the year of beginnings for many long-awaited projects.

Gillen wants to begin focusing on the outskirts of the downtown, now that the core is flourishing. He hopes work on Erie Boulevard will spur development on lower State Street, while city officials believe improvements at Alco could help encourage residential development in the nearby East Front Street neighborhood.

Not only will workers finally start digging at Alco, but the $14 million Erie Boulevard streetscape is expected to go out to bid no later than June, Gillen said. That project, which was held up for more than a year for redesigns to satisfy the affected business owners, will start in 2010 “for sure,” he said.

“That is just pivotal.”

Gillen hopes the redesign of Erie will jumpstart work on the lower half of State Street, below Proctors. Developers say they can’t sell property there until the main entrance to the city — Erie Boulevard — looks inviting. Currently it’s wide enough for an airplane runway and bereft of any landscaping.

Parking is difficult and driving can be nerve-wracking, because vehicles stop in the driving lane to cross the street and park near their destination. The street is too wide to cross safely on foot.

Resolving those issues is critical, developers say.

“We need to make Erie Boulevard usable,” said developer David Buicko, Galesi Group chief, during a public hearing on the plan.

But Gillen said lower State — between Erie and the Western Gateway Bridge — will need a lot of work too.”We’re going to have to improve the amenities down there, the sidewalks and curbing,” he said.

Metroplex is already offering facade grants to property owners there.

There are a few developers interested in the block, but no signed deals yet.

And the biggest flaw on the block — the hole where the huge Robinson’s Building once stood — has yet to be addressed.

The building — actually, three connected structures — began to pancake onto itself in fall 2007 and had to be demolished. In mid-2008, Gillen announced that the developer who had been involved in the project had bowed out.

Metroplex bought the property from the city so it could better market it to developers. So far, there has been no progress.

One other lower State Street project is also still in limbo: the long-discussed dormitory for Schenectady County Community College.

It has been postponed indefinitely because the developers can’t get any bank to finance the project.

“The dorm is just vexing,” Gillen said. “The banks want equity, and there’s just no equity in the deal.”

But he has other projects to work on this year, including the possibility of relocating the Schenectady Museum and Suits-Bueche Planetarium to the former armory at 125 Washington Ave.

The museum is now in a hidden corner off Nott Terrace, at the edge of the downtown. Moving it to the armory, a more visible and much larger location, could allow it to more than quadruple its annual visitors.

Gillen said he plans to focus on the lower State Street neighborhood all year.

“We are moving to lower State.”

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