Schenectady County

Schenectady’s Stockade: Stay, or bail?

A blue face mask sits on a busted-up piece of furniture inside 28 Ingersoll Ave., a house near the e
John Samatulski  tours the downstairs apartment at 28 Ingersoll Ave. in  the Stockade on June 12. He plans to renovate the home.
John Samatulski tours the downstairs apartment at 28 Ingersoll Ave. in the Stockade on June 12. He plans to renovate the home.

A blue face mask sits on a busted-up piece of furniture inside 28 Ingersoll Ave., a house near the end of a dead-end street on the river in Schenectady.

The outside of this particular home is nothing pretty to look at. In fact, it falls squarely into the category of urban blight. It’s the kind of home that cities desperately want to demolish. Inside, Sheetrock has fallen off in patches, littering a dust-covered floor. Pink insulation pokes out of the wall, which was soaked by the swollen river during the floods of 2011, then torn out to prevent mold. Electrical sockets are naked. Pipes that are usually hidden behind walls are exposed for all to see.

Editor’s note

Nearly four years after tropical storms Irene and Lee swept through Schenectady’s oldest neighborhood, the 350-year-old Stockade Historic District, its residents are grappling with tough decisions. Flood insurance premiums are rising. Neighbors have abandoned their homes. Properties are difficult to sell. And the state is warning the market could collapse if residents don’t elevate their homes out of the flood plain. This is the final of a three-part series sharing stories of people trying to figure out what to do.

Read part one here.

Read part two here.

The face mask, one of many worn during those horrible days following tropical storms Irene and Lee, when everyone was worried about mold setting in, is no longer necessary. But there it sits, nearly four years later, a remnant of days past and a possible omen of days to come.

Instead of demolishing 28 Ingersoll Ave., the city decided to sell it and two other homes like it in on the street for a pittance to a man with a plan. John Samatulski, a guy who has restored other properties around the city, wants to renovate the homes with flood-resistant and flood-proof materials that could cut the cost of future post-flood restorations by up to 50 percent. In conversations with friends, that number is higher. With the media, he rounds down, just to be safe.

“Look at this wood,” he said, running a hand down a thick, chestnut-colored beam. “You can’t even buy wood like this. People restore this wood because it’s so dense. It’s structurally very sound.”


The properties Samatulski is targeting are among 40 to 50 in the Stockade Historic District that fall within the 100-year flood plain. Seven of them are for sale. Unofficial counts indicate at least a dozen of them are abandoned. State officials have warned that flood insurance will continue to rise so much for the remaining homeowners that the prospect of selling their homes for anywhere near what they paid for them diminishes with each passing year. Mass abandonment is a real possibility, they warn.

One homeowner is asking the city for permission to elevate her home out of the floodplain, setting off a fiery debate among residents of the state’s first historic district over what kind of impact that could have on the historic integrity of their neighborhood. At least two other residents are considering elevating their homes.

But Samatulski and a handful of other residents don’t buy the mass-abandonment scenario. The benefits of living in a charming historic district like the Stockade will always outweigh the threat of future flooding and the rising costs of flood insurance, they say. And if the state Canal Corp. properly manages the river during times of high water, the National Flood Insurance Program may even decide to lower rates, they say.

“I just came from a week in New Orleans,” Samatulski said earlier this month. “It’s probably one of the worst-hit areas in the country, possibly even the globe. People walked away. But people are flocking back and picking up these homes. So what is this horrible scenario people are talking about? Regardless of how many flood events we’ve had, people stay. The vast majority of people love this neighborhood. They’re passionate about it. They know they bought in a flood plain and they don’t care. They’re here for the long term.”

Samatulski is partnering with the Capital Region Land Bank and the Schenectady Heritage Foundation, which gave him a total of $90,000 to help restore the homes. It will cost about $100,000 to $150,000 each to restore them fully. But restore might not be the right word here.

While the facades might look like they once did, the interiors will not be returned to their old conditions. To start, the utilities are coming out of the basement and heading to the second floor or attic. The wood floors will be coated several times in polyurethane and then topped with a waterproof marine paint, the kind used to protect boat floors from buckling. The insulation will be water-resistant, so when it floods it can be removed, aired out and reused. If city code allows it, Samatulski wants to rewire the homes from the top down so everything doesn’t have to be ripped out when it floods. And he might use a wall paneling that can pop off in the event of flooding, and counters and shelving that can be hosed off instead of thrown out.

“One of the things that appealed to our board is that John is willing to share his findings that he garners from doing these projects with the community, so that other people can learn from him,” said Gloria Kishton, who chairs the Schenectady Heritage Foundation. “Because mitigation is a learning process.”

The goal is for the homes to serve as a prototype for others in the flood plain looking to reduce the burden of restoration costs in the future when it floods. But flood mitigation doesn’t reduce flood insurance. If you pay a mortgage in the flood plain, you pay flood insurance.

Samatulski had hoped there would be some financial breaks out there for homeowners who restore their homes with flood mitigation in mind, but so far he’s found nothing.

“I can tell you it’s been incredibly challenging to find that information, to find any information at all on flood mitigation,” he said. “There’s not a clearinghouse, if you will. But elevating homes is not the answer. If you want to see how bad that can get, take a drive down to Staten Island and you’ll see a row of homes with one random one raised up. You can extrapolate from there. What’s the economic cost going to be of willy-nilly raising these houses in the Stockade?”

Financial risk

Joe Fava has sold more than 150 homes in the Stockade. He owns 15 properties in the neighborhood, three of them on the river. He served as president of the Stockade Association in the 1990s and was on the board for about 15 years.

He’s tried to sell homes in the neighborhood only to have potential buyers scared away by the flood insurance. But many who do ultimately buy homes in the Stockade, he says, are people who can afford rising flood insurance.

“That doesn’t mean it’s not a huge ripoff, because it is,” he says. “Most of the flooding in the Stockade, people make a big deal out of it but it’s really not as bad as people say. I think certain people are scared of flood insurance and certain people are not, which is why we have average working people and millionaires living next door to each other.”

Of course even those who can afford rising flood insurance aren’t so confident they’d ever be able to sell. Robin White, a Brooklyn investor who fell in love with the Stockade on a walkabout more than a decade ago, is renovating a home on Cucumber Alley that he bought with cash to avoid the $6,000-a-year insurance premium.

“It’s not a financially rational decision, but I have the money to spare and I’m going to live out the few years left of my life in a lovely space and to hell with what it’s worth in the end,” he said.

Fava helped introduce White to the local real estate market 10 years ago. Since then, White has bought up about a dozen buildings boasting more than 100 units in the historic district.

On the particular June day that Fava and White chronicled their love of the neighborhood, it rained. By evening, it was raining hard. As Fava pulled into the driveway of his home on North Ferry Street at the end of a long day, he talked about the woman who lived there before him.

“My house was built in 1795,” he said. “Actually, it’s earlier than that. Some of these dates are just estimates. But I feel really privileged to own it. The lady who lived here before me lived here like 65 years. I could keep talking, you know. We’re having a terrible rainstorm right now and I don’t want to get out of the car. If this keeps up we’ll have to check the basement.”

He wasn’t complaining. It was just another day in the flood plain. Take it or leave it.

Categories: News

Leave a Reply