Sara Foss raises serious issues about the demise of the historic Nicholaus Building (Daily Gazette, “Nicholaus Building could have been saved,” April 11, 2017).
The Nicholaus Building was one of Schenectady’s last Erie Canal era structures, an iconic symbol of the city’s rich history, and an anchor at State Street/Erie Boulevard. Over two centuries, it was successfully adapted for a variety of uses.
Only seven years ago, a news release announced, “One of the most historically significant buildings in downtown Schenectady is… the Nicholaus Building.
Under the guidance of Foresight Architects, it…was preserved and restored…. The exterior was partially funded by a Facade Grant from the Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corporation.
The interior renovation included complete rehabilitation of two apartments using funding provided to the building owners (Viroj and Malinee Chompupong) through the NYS Main Street Program.
Completed in 2010, this project received a 2011 Schenectady Heritage Foundation Preservation Award.”
Both of these taxpayer-funded grant programs are administered by Metroplex Development Authority. Ironically, “Main Street” funds are not available for demolition.
Until April 1, 2016, the Nicholaus Building was fully functional.
It housed a successful restaurant and fully rented apartments on upper floors. This model is exactly what Schenectady’s 2020 Master Plan recommends for downtown.
So, the Nicholaus Building was not threatened by neglect or indifference.
Instead, the threat came from Metroplex and its client developer, John Roth, the CEO of Highbridge Development and a managing member of Highbridge/Prime, the investors group for Electric City Apartments, the $20 million “luxury” apartment/retail proposal for the “pit” next to the Nicholaus Building site.
Even though it negatively impacted their business, the Chompupongs cooperated with Highbridge/Prime before construction began, allowing project engineers to undertake some measures to protect their building.
Obviously, these measures were inadequate. Or possibly, the engineering plan was not followed by Highbridge/Prime’s construction crew.
Demolition of the adjoining Olender Building and new construction would have required a permit and a plan approved by the City’s Building Department.
Demolition and new construction adjacent to historic buildings is carried out successfully all over the world. Were these existing strategies and technologies considered?
The day the Nicholaus Building was evacuated, Highbridge/Prime’s construction crew was pounding huge steel plates immediately adjacent to the 19th century laid stone foundation of the Nicholaus Building.
Was that the plan the City Building Department approved?
Seismic sensors were reportedly installed on the Nicholaus Building to detect movement and to prevent damage; those obviously did not accomplish their goal.
Were they functioning properly?
After the building was damaged, it was appropriate for Metroplex to hire a well-regarded engineering firm to provide plans for stabilizing the building.
But, they should also have paid for the repair work. Highbridge/Prime is receiving a $1.2 million Empire State Development grant through Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Regional Economic Council.
These funds should have been used to repair the building.
It was outrageous and unjust to expect the owners to pay for repairing damage others caused, and to recoup the expense through insurance or litigation.
Adding insult to injury, the city of Schenectady intends to hand them the bill for the “emergency” demolition!
Now that the pesky Nicholaus Building is gone, Highbridge/Prime will proceed full speed ahead with its development.
What better time to reflect on the company’s Mission Statement: “…We believe that long-term relationships [with our clients], built through trust, respect, service and commitment will lead to mutual success.”
Unfortunately, Highbridge/Prime’s success does not appear to include Schenectady’s history, architecture, or culture.
Metroplex and the City claim that they “did everything possible to save the Nicholaus Building.”
If this is true, an immediate moratorium on similar development construction is in order.
What and how things went terribly wrong must be determined.
As Ms. Foss reminds us, “Last year, The Gazette called for a thorough public investigation into the causes of the collapse of the Nicholaus Building.”
Gloria Kishton is chair of the Schenectady Heritage Foundation.