Tony Civitella insists he bought the former International Order of Odd Fellows hall with the intention of preserving its historic facade.
Civitella, founder and president of Transfinder, said his aim was to preserve the ornate terra-cotta work during a massive $5 million project to convert the building at 440 State St. into a modern work environment for his Schenectady-based software company. But after reviewing engineering reports, he now claims the entire building will need to be demolished — facade and all — to make way for the new structure.
“There’s no way there’s anyone who is more heartbroken than I am,” he said Tuesday.
Transfinder will propose a new building to replace the one-time Proctors’ arts incubator during the city Planning Commission meeting today. Civitella said the new proposal will be an aesthetic addition to the block and will be a positive replacement for the building that exists now.
“I’m not going to do something that’s less than first class,” he said. “It’s either going to be beautiful or I’m not going to do it at all.”
City preservationists are not convinced. They question why Civitella must demolish a structurally sound city building eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, when there are other shovel-ready sites available.
“I really am baffled as to why they want to create so much controversy and bad feelings in the city by tearing down a building that is eligible for the national register,” said Gloria Kishton, the chairwoman of the Schenectady Heritage Foundation. “Why would you want to spend the money on doing that when you could go to a shovel-ready site?”
Kishton also questioned why Transfinder was being allowed to demolish a building that offers a ground-level retail component, to replace it with another lacking any sort of storefront accessible to the general public. She likened the Transfinder project with the one to construct the state Department of Transportation building on Broadway, in that it doesn’t fit with the vision for the Proctors’ block outlined in the city’s comprehensive plan.
“It’s the wrong business for the wrong location,” she said.
The International Order of Odd Fellows purchased 440 State St. in 1898. Over the next three decades, the benevolent organization grew to more than 800 members and required more space. The structure and facade was built for $100,000 in 1927. No expense was spared in building the new hall, which included bronze doors and marble-lined staircases.
“It was apparently quite opulent,” Kishton said.
Transfinder purchased the building from Proctors for $600,000 and announced plans to extensively renovate the building in July. The company indicated the project would rely on $210,000 from the Metroplex Development Authority.
In mid-August, Transfinder paid the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation $150,000 to lift a covenant placed on the building that would prevent him from demolishing it. Dan Keefe, a spokesman with the agency, said the covenant was put in place after a state Heritage Area grant helped to install an elevator and stairwell in the building in 1997 so Proctors could use it as an arts incubator.
Proctors rented low-cost space in the building to artists, but began relocating them once it had a purchase agreement in July 2010. The building has remained vacant ever since.
Keefe said purpose of the old grant was to bring vitality to an empty building. But now that the building is vacant again, he said the grant is no longer achieving its intended purpose and that Transfinder was within its rights to buy out of the deal.
“I would say its unusual, but they did pay back the grant,” he said.
In an October memo, an estimator with Bonacio Construction indicated that protecting the facade would be costly and would have no guarantee of success. Maintaining the front of the building would require the fabrication of a custom steel bracing system to ensure work on the other side of the facade could be completed safely.
“This option, while possible, would be expensive and again, not offer the finished product the client desires,” stated Bill Willard, a lead estimator with Bonacio.
Willard also indicated removing the terra-cotta pieces from the three-story brick building would not be feasible. And replacing them with historically accurate replicas would cost more than $400,000, according to one estimate.
The state historic preservation office asked Transfinder to photograph the building’s facade and compile a written record of the building’s past. Metroplex approved changes to the proposal earlier this month.
Metroplex chairman Ray Gillen said the demolition will allow the city to trade an old building off the tax rolls and in deteriorating condition with a new one that will bring economic vitality. He said the building doesn’t have the weight bearing capacity required by Transfinder and the facade simply isn’t strong enough to withstand the construction proposed for the site.
“We had three major construction companies with extensive experience in urban projects and facades look at the building,” he said. “All determined that saving the façade was not possible.”
Calls about the project to the city planning department were referred to Zoning Officer Steve Strichman. When contacted by phone, Strichman said he needed to pull up plans for the project, but disconnected the call and didn’t return repeated other contacts on Monday and Tuesday.
City Historian Don Rittner said he has nothing against Transfinder, but the project simply doesn’t seem like a good fit for the property or the block. He said tearing down the historic building will demolish another visual reminder of the city’s past.
“I see no reason to tear down a perfectly good historical building,” he said.