Mayor Joanne Yepsen will ask the City Council to conduct a new appraisal of the so-called Collamer lot on Broadway after a valuation done by a private developer found it to be worth $1.6 million — more than twice what the owner of the Algonquin Building is offering to pay for the land.
Yepsen, who voted to approve the deal contingent on a downstate religious organization selling 14 wooded acres on Union Avenue to the city for $200,000 earlier this month, has not yet signed the contract authorizing the sale of the lot. She said Monday that she’s since received new information that calls into question a 2013 city-commissioned appraisal of the property valuing it at $775,000 — the price developer Joel Aronson is willing to pay for the land.
“Common sense dictates that if we have two appraisals if front of us with such a discrepancy of worth and value, we should take the obvious step of acquiring a third appraisal,” she said.
The goal of the two land deals has been to construct a new fire station to serve parts of the city located east of the Northway — an area called the eastern plateau. By securing land on Union Avenue, the city would have an area near Northway Exit 14 where ambulances and fire trucks could be more effectively dispatched to areas around Saratoga Lake.
The Collamer lot is essentially being sold so that the city can secure land for the station at no cost to taxpayers. The deal with Aronson would net the city $575,000.
The appraisal contrasting the city’s valuation of the land was submitted by Joseph Zappone, an attorney and principal of the Zappone Group, who abruptly offered the city $1.1 million for the half-acre lot. He presented a signed contract to the council shortly before it approved the deal with Aronson. Zappone’s appraisal indicates the 21,000-square-foot lot to be valued at about $75 per square foot.
The appraisal also looked at several commercial lot deals that recently closed in the city, including the sale of The Saratogian’s offices on Lake Avenue, property near North Broadway and the now-vacant site of the Ellsworth Ice Cream plant on Division Street. Based on these sales, the appraiser set per-square-foot value of the Collamer lot, according to a document provided to The Gazette following a request under the state’s Freedom of Information Law.
“Since the last City Council meeting, there has been new information brought to our attention,” Yepsen said. “I feel it would be irresponsible of me to dismiss it.”
But that stance has placed the mayor at odds with Public Safety Commissioner Christian Mathiesen, a fellow Democrat on the council who believes the $775,000 Aronson is willing to pay is fair market value. The city’s 43-page appraisal compares the Collamer lot to one on Broadway where the Washington Building now stands, which the city sold for $750,000 in 2006.
“I don’t think anyone could seriously listen to Mr. Zappone and his appraisal and say he’s doing anything but trying to derail this whole deal,” Mathiesen said Monday. “I do feel $775,000 is a fair price and anybody who looks at the history of property transactions in the city would come to the same conclusion.”
Mathiesen believes the mayor is being influenced by forces that want the city to redevelop the Collamer lot as part of a grander project to develop the city-owned lot on High Rock Avenue. The High Rock Avenue lot is now being considered for a $10 million-plus, 511-space parking deck proposed by the Saratoga Springs City Center Authority, but the city previously sought developers to build on both lots in 2006.
“There seems to be some sort of history there,” Mathiesen said. The council initially approved the deal in December, before Yepsen took office; former Mayor Scott Johnson was the only council member to vote against the measure. The vote in August was to approve the contracts negotiated by Mathiesen.
“The city has been obligated since Dec. 17, 2013, to follow through with the deal made with Mr. Aronson,” he said.
The council appeared set to approve the contracts in July, but several commissioners had lingering questions about the deal. The measure was tabled for several weeks to help clarify the deal, then returned to the agenda in August, when it was approved 5-0.
Yepsen said the only clear way to ensure the city is getting a fair deal is to determine whether the Zappone appraisal has any merit. She said she understands concerns residents have on the eastern edge of the city, but believes it to be in the city’s interest to learn whether the deal for the Collamer lot is fair.
“It’s unfortunate that these two properties were brought together simultaneously,” she said. “On the one hand I feel it critical to secure the property on Union Avenue for the safety and well-being of the citizens living on the eastern plateau, but on the other hand I also want to ensure the public’s property on Broadway sells for the best value.”