ALBANY — Albany officials on Tuesday said the immediate threat from the crumbling Central Warehouse is over.
But comments by the city’s mayor at a news conference and by the building’s owner in a subsequent phone interview suggest the tug-of-war over the landmark hulk towering along Interstate-787 is far from over.
The city says it has given owner Evan Blum documentation of the problems and asked him to fix them, while Blum says the city wouldn’t share its engineering report and wouldn’t let him on-site.
The city has given Blum 10 days to deal with the situation but isn’t sure where to go from there if he doesn’t — having resolved the immediate threat, the city loses its sweeping emergency powers, Mayor Kathy Sheehan said, and must revert to the slow legal process of code violations and tax foreclosure.
Blum has moved repeatedly in state and federal courts to block seizure of the building by the county, which says his overdue tax bill exceeds $550,000. No resolution appears imminent.
The 95-year-old, 11-story concrete building is built like a fortress, but even a fortress wears down when subjected to decades of neglect, water infiltration, countless freeze-thaw cycles, vandalism, scrappers and, in 2010, a massive fire.
A report prepared last week by Troy-based civil engineering firm Russ Reeves documents extensive deterioration of the concrete structure, both interior and exterior.
But the trigger point of this emergency was the exterior wall, which has a cavity filled with ground cork insulation between two layers of masonry. When the cork aged, it compacted and created pockets; a large gap at the roofline let water into the cavity and into the pockets where it freezes in the winter. Some of the tie rods holding the two layers together are in poor condition.
The southerly exterior wall above the Amtrak tracks was judged in danger of collapse in places, prompting Amtrak to halt service Friday, but was stabilized to the point that Amtrak resumed service Monday.
Additional stabilization work continues this week, Sheehan said.
Asked about the cost of all this to the city, Director of Building and Regulatory Compliance Rick LaJoy said: “To date it’s over $100,000 but we’re not done yet, so I don’t have a firm number yet.”
Sheehan didn’t put a happy face on the situation.
“Even though the emergency is abated, we will be back here again unless the owner of this building takes immediate action to address the deficiencies in this building,” she said. “We will continue to pursue this in court.”
“I was left out of that, as usual,” Blum said of Tuesday’s news conference. “They’re the public hazard, I’m not. I would have fixed it, they refused to give me a permit.”
The decay of the former cold storage warehouse far predates Blum’s ownership.
Exterior photos taken in June 2010 show crumbling window frames and small piles of fallen concrete rubble on the rail siding that leads into an upper floor. The exterior was much whiter than it ever would be again: Four months later, a spark from a scrapper’s saw landed in cork, triggering a fire that burned for three days.
In late 2017, soon after he purchased the Central Warehouse, Blum led a news team from the Albany Business Review through the building; the video they posted shows concrete rubble littering the staircases and extensive damage inside.
Asked at the news conference whether previous owners were any more responsive or responsible than Blum, Sheehan said that she didn’t know, but that Albany’s landmark eyesore was better maintained at some point in the past.
What’s happening now is, she said, a familiar pattern seen with old, decaying buildings — demolition by neglect, except that in this case, public safety is at stake, and untold millions of dollars of public money if it needs to be demolished.
Blum scoffed at the idea of collapse or demolition.
“This was a perfectly planned — well, reasonably well-planned event, a manufactured emergency,” he said.
“No one wanted the building for 25, 30 years. Apparently they want somebody else to take it.”
Sheehan let out a little laugh when a reporter asked her Blum’s assertion that the city or county is trying to force a change of ownership by exaggerating the problems and their danger.
(There is a development team with redevelopment plans waiting in the wings to buy the building if the county is successful in foreclosing for unpaid taxes.)
“This building has been owned by a recalcitrant owner who has a long history in New York City, in Harlem, in New London, Connecticut … he simply does not believe the rules apply to him,” she said.
And what of the substance of the complaint — that Blum has done nothing with the Central Warehouse five years after buying it for his Harlem-based architectural salvage business, Demolition Depot?
Blum said his focus shifted while his father was sick, his business was shut down for COVID, his business took time to recover from COVID, the city and county are running interference on him.
“There’s a variety of things I want to do with it,” he said. “I’ll get it done faster than anyone, they just need to get out of my way.”
There’s also a fundamental difference of opinion between the city’s engineers and Blum, who said he takes apart dozens of structures a year and has been working in demolition for decades.
“It’s very hard to fool me when it comes to demolition,” he said.
LaJoy as a longtime building inspector also isn’t easily fooled, especially since he was hit in the head by a piece of falling masonry at another site that left permanent damage and by rights should have killed him.
“Three trains passed, every time dust and debris fell inside,” he said, describing his time inside the warehouse last week.
“The superstructure, the main structure, is very solid. The issue is, all four perimeter walls are eroding, and the pace they’re eroding. Those are significant portions of the stability of the building. The floor structure, it’s a rigid structure, but your exterior holds your interior, so it’s very important that the water penetration stop.”
LaJoy witnessed the result himself.
“We had a piece on Saturday morning approximately 6 feet in height, about 2 feet wide, just fell. We weren’t manipulating anything near it. And when it hit the tracks it blew up into small pieces, fell right where we’d been walking for hours.”