Don Reeb and his neighbors in McKownville are feeling a bit pinched.
President of the McKownville Improvement Association and a retired economics professor, Reeb is concerned that his former employer, the University at Albany, may purchase a 9-acre parcel of land located between the school’s campus and a small cluster of homes located just west of the Albany city line along Western Avenue.
“I haven’t run into anybody yet who thinks it’s a good idea,” said Reeb, who retired from UAlbany in 1999 after 34 years. “Some people have told me it’s a waste of time to fight, that we’re not going to beat the state, and that’s not the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. But there’s enough of us who want to fight it, so we’re hoping we’ll discourage them.”
The wooded area has served as a buffer between the University at Albany and the homes in McKownville for 50 years now, ever since the uptown campus was built and opened its first classroom in the fall of 1962. In 1963, the university gave assurances to the community of McKownville that their homes and the neighborhood would never be threatened by the school in the future. In a meeting with the McKownville Improvement Association in May 1963, Col. Walter Tisdale, assistant to the president for planning and development at the college, told the group that the school would never seek to purchase their homes or property “in your lifetime or mine.”
“When he made that statement there was widespread fear that the university would expand,” said Reeb. “But the Colonel said, ‘No, no, no. We’ll stay on this side of the ring road, and you can stay on that side.’ It was a promise by the assistant to the president.”
Reeb, however, concedes that he and his neighbors have little legal ground to stand on. There was no written document signed at the time, and McKownville is not an official entity of any kind other than a fire district in the town of Guilderland. Its boundaries are vague, beginning at the Albany city line to the east and extending to the Northway or Crossgates Mall to the west, the Thruway to the south and UAlbany to the north.
The area involved runs west of the Western Avenue entrance to UAlbany up to Fuller Road. In that stretch, there are six roads that head off toward the UAlbany campus and all but one are dead-end streets. Reeb lives on Norwood Street, which is in between two other dead-end streets, Glenwood Street and Waverly Place.
The nine-acre parcel of land belongs to descendents of Judge John E. Holt-Harris Jr., a prominent Albany political figure and longtime confidante to Albany mayor Erastus Corning. Holt-Harris lived at the end of Waverly Place and died in 1999 at the age of 82. When the property came on the market earlier this year, UAlbany president George Philip met with the McKownville Improvement Association on June 29 and informed the group that the college was interested in buying the property, but not for the asking price of $1.6 million.
On Friday, UAlbany Director of Media Relations Karl Luntta confirmed that the school remains interested in the Holt-Harris property.
“The university is interested in purchasing that land because the parcel is contiguous with the university and would give us more flexibility in our master planning,” said Luntta. “But I should emphasize that we do not own the land, and we have not determined its use. We’re interested in purchasing the land at a fair price, but we are still in the early stages of assessing the property.”
Harriet Temps, who lives on Glenwood Street, is concerned that McKownville residents may experience the same fate as homeowners who live in the University Place/Tudor Road neighborhood just east of the campus.
“That was a beautiful little oasis, a wonderful little neighborhood that backed onto the forested area next to the campus,” said Temps, who worked at UAlbany for 13 years as assistant to the chair in the school’s history department. “Now, that area has been totally clear cut, and it’s changed the whole neighborhood.”
Along with being a UAlbany employee for 13 years, Temps is a UAlbany graduate who also got her master’s degree in history at the school.
“I was a student there, my husband got his Ph.D. there, so we don’t hate the place,” said Temps. “We’re just very concerned about the destruction of trees on campus. These forests are great wooded places that have spiritual value to me, and they also have value to our neighborhood and the community on campus. But in the past few years, it seems like it’s been one thing after another. We don’t want a parking lot there. We don’t want anything intruding on our beautiful neighborhood.”
Reeb said the McKownville Improvement Association will meet again in September to address the issue.