Schenectady County

Land bank event leaves local officials hopeful

State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced $20 million in funding would be made available to
A construction worker sprays down a vacant, blighted building at 722 Eastern Ave. in Schenectady in August as an excavator tears into its side.
A construction worker sprays down a vacant, blighted building at 722 Eastern Ave. in Schenectady in August as an excavator tears into its side.

Minutes after a Friday afternoon news conference by state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman blocked off a portion of Eastern Avenue in Schenectady, an excavator tore into the side of a vacant, blighted building along the corridor.

Surrounded by orange safety fencing, the building at 722 Eastern Ave. — with its rusted door, dirty white siding and boarded windows — was the perfect backdrop for Schneiderman to announce $20 million in funding would be made available to community land banks this fall. And the subsequent demolition was the perfect opportunity for local officials to show the attorney general the progress they’ve made with their own land bank, even after being passed over last fall for funding.

“We are extremely hopeful that we will get a significant grant this time,” said Schenectady County Legislator Bob Hoffman, who chairs the Schenectady-Amsterdam land bank. “Our application is pretty much in the hopper, ready to go. I’m not sure if we’re first in line. I’m not sure if there is a line. But we’re very confident this time.”

Schneiderman is dedicating money from the 2012 national settlement with five major mortgage lenders over foreclosure practices to the land bank initiative. The $20 million that will be awarded this fall comes on top of $13 million allocated last year, the first year of the initiative. Applications are due in mid-September. Awards will be announced in October.

The state Legislature passed a bill in 2011 establishing land banks that could acquire vacant, abandoned or foreclosed properties and choose to rebuild, demolish or redesign them. There are currently nine in land banks New York, though up to 20 are authorized.

The Schenectady-Amsterdam land bank was passed over for significant funding last year. At the time, Albany County was seeking to join the land bank. Officials speculated they lost out on the big pot of money because their application encompassed too broad of an area. Winning land banks, for example, encompassed just a single city or county.

Now that Albany County has its own land bank and local officials have consulted with the Attorney General’s Office on the application process, officials are much more confident the Schenectady-Amsterdam land bank will be a big winner. Schneiderman’s visit to Schenectady on Friday (after a morning stop in Newburgh for the same announcement) reinforced that conviction.

“I’m particularly happy to be here because the folks here, the mayors and other officials who are here, have the vision that I’m confident is going to make the Capital Region land bank one of the most successful land banks in the country,” Schneiderman said from behind a podium parked in front of 722 Eastern Ave.

The building behind him, he said, is a perfect example for why the state needs land banks and other aggressive efforts to emerge strong from the housing recovery.

“This has been vacant for three years, but it’s been a blight on the community for longer than that,” he said. “Over the last 15 years, there have been 28 police and fire calls to respond to just this one property. This poses a danger to first responders, it poses a danger to the community and it costs a lot of money, between police, fire and maintenance.”

Local officials have already decided the land bank, though still fledgling, will aggressively target residential blight along Eastern Avenue. Commercial structures are getting help from the Schenectady County Metroplex Development Authority.

So far, a machine shop at 813-815 Eastern Ave., Arket Electric at 835 Eastern Ave. and a neighboring apartment complex at 833 Eastern Ave. have all been renovated. Earlier in the week, a building at 821 Eastern Ave. was demolished. On Friday, 722 Eastern Ave., a building next to the 10-story Schaffer Heights apartment building, came down. Next up for demolition are the former Kilgore’s Tavern at 803 Eastern Ave., a building at 870 Eastern Ave. and at least six other buildings.

The land bank did receive $150,000 last year in “capacity building” funds to build a support staff. It has also previously received $100,000 from Schenectady County and $50,000 from the city of Schenectady Industrial Development Agency.

Hoffman said this year’s application identifies areas in the city’s north side, Hamilton Hill, Mont Pleasant and downtown neighborhoods as opportune for land bank help. In Amsterdam, Mayor Ann Thane has worked with a committee to identify properties, including a site on Julia Street, in need of help.

Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, whose district encompasses both Amsterdam and Schenectady County, said he’s confident the land bank is in a “good position” to compete in the upcoming round of funding.

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