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What you need to know for 08/20/2017

Balltown hill: Where did it go, and why?

Balltown hill: Where did it go, and why?

If you ever have occasion to drive down Balltown Road in Niskayuna, or to come into Niskayuna across

If you ever have occasion to drive down Balltown Road in Niskayuna, or to come into Niskayuna across the Rexford Bridge, you will have noticed that something is missing, namely a large densely forested hill that had overlooked the Mohawk River probably since the last Ice Age.

And if you ever have occasion to drive along upper Erie Boulevard in Schenectady, just this side of Freeman’s Bridge, you will have noticed that something has been added, namely a humongous pile of dirt roughly equal in size to the hill that was removed a few miles away in Niskayuna.

This is not a coincidence. The dirt is one and the same.

The state Department of Transportation, in what passes for its wisdom, spent $1.2 million taking down the hill, and the private contractor who did the job trucked the dirt to the site of the former Alco plant in Schenectady where it was needed for fill for a vast new development being undertaken by the Galesi Group.

Whether Galesi paid for the dirt – some 75,000 to 100,000 cubic yards of it – or got it free is “between us and them,” David Buicko, chief operating officer of Galesi Group, told me. The contractor, J.H. Maloy of Albany, did not respond to my inquiry, and a spokeswoman for the DOT said the “DOT is not involved in their agreement.” So I don’t know.

I wondered because it seemed awfully convenient that just when Galesi Group needed a tremendous amount of clean fill to raise the floodplain where it’s building, and also to cover contaminated soil left over from railroad days, that the Department of Transportation would discover a need to destroy a scenic hill that had never harmed anyone.

But after sniffing into the matter, I believe it was genuinely a coincidence.

According to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which is overseeing what’s called “brownfield remediation” at the Galesi development site, Galesi approached them last summer with news that it had the ability to receive a large amount of fill and inquired what hoops it would have to jump through to make that happen.

That was about the same time the Department of Transportation, which perennially has too much money to spend, decided it could expand by a mere million dollars’ worth a project it was already undertaking at a cost of $10.5 million on Glenridge Road a few miles to the north. It could demolish the Balltown Road hill, which it had determined had been slightly shifting over the years, as all hills slightly shift over the years.

Carol Breen, spokeswoman for the DOT’s regional office in Schenectady, acknowledged to me that the hill “didn’t pose any danger to public safety,” but said, “it was getting a little bit worse every year,” – the DOT had been monitoring it along with many other steep hills – so what the hey.

The contractor was already working just up the road. For another million he could clearcut the forest off this hill, dig out all the roots (which of course would have been holding the surface in place), and truck the better part of the hill to the Galesi site, leaving behind a smooth, shelved, man-made eyesore agreeable to highway engineers.

The DOT will even seed it and plant it in maples and elms to stabilize it, which I think is an especially nice touch, nearly equal to the clearcutting of trees 10 years ago in the Northway median between exits 11 and 13 and the subsequent planting there of new little trees.

“It’s not because it was one of the worst in the region,” Breen said, “but because it was close to Glenridge Road. We were going ahead with Glenridge, so we decided to include it.” Why not? If you’ve got an extra million in your budget, might as well. If you don’t destroy the hill today, it might be a problem tomorrow.

I do not fault the Galesi Group for any of this. They have done Schenectady a huge service by demolishing the derelict old Alco complex and cleaning up that site. Of course they’re doing it for profit and not as a public service, but it’s a service all the same.

And the huge development they’re planning, an as-yet-undefined mix of condominiums, apartments, offices, retail outlets and what Buicko calls “riverfront hospitality,” is bound to be a great benefit to the city. If they could acquire a mountain of clean fill on favorable terms to facilitate the project, good for them.

And the Department of Environmental Conservation had nothing to do with it either, apart from testing the soil for contamination before allowing it to be moved.

It’s the Department of Transportation that, in my view, ought to have its budget cut by about 50 percent to deter it from such destructiveness.

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