AMSTERDAM — A big piece of the city’s industrial heritage is in danger of becoming its next big liability.
Part of the old Mohawk Mills carpet factory complex in the East End has begun to collapse, with a section of roof caving in and the walls disintegrating on three of the six floors.
City officials have been aware for years of the rot inside and have tried to force action to resolve it. The collapse has imparted new urgency to their efforts but brought no more success — the Elk Street property is owned by an anonymous LLC and the city has been unable to track down an owner or obtain any response.
“It’s been a thorn in the city’s side for a long time,” said Mayor Michael Cinquanti.
Taxes and fees have gone unpaid, code violation notices have gone uncorrected. The city isn’t even sure where to send correspondence — one letter just came back as undeliverable, the mayor said.
Cinquanti said the small bright spot in the situation is there should be no injuries and no damage to surrounding property if there is a larger-scale collapse, which he thinks is increasingly likely.
Old buildings tend to fall straight down, rather than tip over, but even if this one did topple outward, there’s a large buffer surrounding it — a weedy lot on the west between the building and Elk Street and a sort of courtyard on the south and east that faces onto other parts of the old complex.
One of the closest neighbors is Sticker Mule, which has made a significant investment in two properties on Elk Street in recent years and revived a bit of the industrial activity that once hummed in the area. Sticker Mule said this week that it is aware of the gradual collapse nearby, but absent any indication that its own properties are at risk, isn’t presently alarmed.
The Mohawk carpet mill was one of the biggest pieces of the city’s booming industrial landscape in the early to mid-20th century, and along with its competitors provided Amsterdam with its nickname — the Carpet City.
But the techniques and machinery in Amsterdam became obsolete, and operations became cheaper elsewhere. Carpet manufacturing ended in Amsterdam by 1968, leaving massive factory buildings idle.
Some of the buildings have been put to new use, but most have disappeared over the course of the ensuing decades — set on fire, blown up, torn down or rotted away.
The third and fourth options seem the likely fate of the building off Elk Street — rot and then demolition.
After the carpet era ended, the complex was home to a textile operation called Adirondack Knitting, but that’s long gone and no one has been taking care of the building since it left. Splintered wooden structural beams are visible through the holes in the brick walls and roof damage is visible in satellite imagery, suggesting water intrusion has rotted the wood and weakened the structure in places.
Demolishing the entire complex with all its wings could run $15 million, Cinquanti said, an impossible cost for a financially struggling city that already has an $8.7 million deficit.
However, only a small portion of the complex is the old-style wood-and-brick construction prone to rot. The rest is the newer-style concrete construction that resists flame and water damage, and therefore might not be rotting in the same fashion, nor be in any danger of collapse. The brick portion is collapsing near its connection with the concrete section.
“It may be possible to take it down without getting the massive concrete building involved,” the mayor said. “The challenge that we have is that there’s a bridge span connecting that building to the old Fownes building, which is not in danger of falling down.
“If there was life endangerment … we would do something. But we are in a position where doing something is beyond our financial ability,” Cinquanti said.
Satellite imagery shows two more of these bridges between the various other buildings in the complex. Back in the day, workers could get from one wing to the next with no need to go up and down stairs or walk outside.
Through merger, Mohawk Mills became Mohasco, and by the time of its departure from Amsterdam, it had two campuses: The sprawling Upper Mill complex off Forest Avenue and the smaller Lower Mill complex off Elk Street.
Some of the Lower Mill complex has been demolished, to judge from historical photos, but much more remains of the Lower Mill — including a towering smokestack on which “Mohawk Carpet Mills” is still legible — than the Upper.
An arson that turned into one of the biggest fires in upstate history consumed eight of 18 buildings of the Upper Mill in 1992 and a scrap metal thief’s torch set two more ablaze in 1994. Even after grants, the cleanup cost city taxpayers more than $1 million.
Some of the remaining buildings were demolished with explosives in the early 2000s, as was the smokestack on the Upper Mill power plant.
(The power plant itself still stands, alone on the Chuctanunda Creek at the foot of what once was a canyon of carpet mill buildings. It’s another derelict hulk the city would like to see gone, as it’s a safety threat to those who trespass inside, but there’s no money to demolish it, Cinquanti said.)
The Lower Mill complex is now owned by something called Lower Mill Complex LLC. Tax records show the LLC’s address as an industrial neighborhood in Queens, but the city has been unsuccessful in contacting anyone there or at other possible mailing addresses it has tracked down.
“We’ve tried a whole new slew of things, none of it is working,” the mayor said. He’s going to ask for state assistance tracking down an actual human being behind the LLC.
“I don’t think we’ll ever get the owner to take responsibility for it,” he added frankly.
Cinquanti also plans to reconnoiter what financial assistance may be available, should the rest of the brick-and-wood section of mill fully collapse. He won’t predict the likelihood or timing of such a collapse, but believes it is possible. “We look at it a lot … it’s definitely in danger of coming down. I don’t have a degree [of danger] for you.”
There’s a bit of a learning curve for Cinquanti, who is a lifelong city resident but is in only the first year of his first term as mayor.
“I’ve researched blight control tremendously as far as housing is concerned,” Cinquanti said. He hopes to make a dent in the hundreds of abandoned homes dotting the city by demolishing one a week instead of the current 10 or so per year.
The six-story, 184,000-square-foot mill complex off Elk Street is blight on a vastly greater scale than the abandoned two-story houses built for the men and women who worked in such factories. The city tax rolls show it to be nearly worthless, with a full market value of $163,934 and an assessed value of $100,000. This is only three to four times more than the houses on De Graaf, Elk and Sweeney streets that neighbor the old mill, though the mill is 80 to 100 times larger than those houses.
So Cinquanti is researching how other post-industrial cities have dealt with the expensive legacies left to them by the companies that once provided their livelihood. The best answer — redevelopment — is almost certainly not an option for this particular mill, at least until the the collapsing portion is removed.
As an interim step until it has a solution, Amsterdam has placed some fencing and increased police patrols on Elk Street in hopes of keeping people out of harm’s way.
“We’re just pressing forward with things we know how to do,” Cinquanti said.