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Conversion of old St. Mary's School in Schenectady awaits word on grant

Conversion of old St. Mary's School in Schenectady awaits word on grant

Apartment project would be latest piece of Eastern Avenue Corridor revitalization
Conversion of old St. Mary's School in Schenectady awaits word on grant
Metroplex CEO Ray Gillen takes a tour of the St. Mary's School on Irving Street in Schenectady Friday, April 19, 2019.
Photographer: Peter Barber

SCHENECTADY — Two pieces of the old St. Mary’s church complex on Eastern Avenue are saved, work is underway on a third and developers hope to hear soon about financing for the fourth.

The church has been repurposed as a restaurant/entertainment venue, the former rectory is in use as a residence, and stabilization work is underway on the old convent. 

The biggest question mark is the century-old parochial school building on Irving Street, across from the church, which hasn’t hosted schoolchildren since 1979 and has suffered from neglect, vandalism and water intrusion.

“It was designated a historic place a year and a half ago, so we’ve been trying our best to keep people out of it,” said David Hogenkamp, executive director of the Capital Region Land Bank, which is trying to pull together a multipart renovation and construction project surrounding the church.

The roughly $20 million project would renovate the school building, which is now owned by the city, into 25 apartments. It would also demolish three commercial buildings across Eastern Avenue from the old St. Mary’s Church and replace them with 30 apartments and retail space.

The Schenectady County Metroplex Development Authority, which administers the Land Bank, also is involved in the project. It wrote a critical grant request to New York State Housing and Community Renewal. A decision is expected in May; all local approvals for the project are in place, and winning the grant would allow work to begin in October. 

“We put in a very good application,” Metroplex Chairman Ray Gillen said. “We’re hoping to hear from the state whether the project gets approved. It’s a series of housing tax credits which in combination with the historic tax credits make the project financially viable.”

Also: Eastern Avenue Corridor - Market/restaurant opens in building saved from demolition, April 28, 2019

Images: A look inside the old St. Mary's School in Schenectady, April 28, 2019

Rochester-based Home Leasing would be the developer, in partnership with Schenectady’s Better Neighborhoods Inc., which has been doing extensive work in the Eastern Avenue corridor.

THE POTENTIAL INSIDE

Gillen and Hogenkamp took The Daily Gazette on a walk-through at the old school last week, showing the potential and the challenges that are hidden from public view. 

Vandals have spraypainted their messages on the walls and blackboards of the building. Some of the windows are smashed, some of the smaller rooms are still cluttered with desks from the schoolhouse days, and the doors no longer shut firmly. The upper floors are cut up in an odd array of spaces.

But the building feels solid, and there’s limited moisture rot, thanks to a recently installed new roof.

Walking down to the basement, which is still chilly like winter despite the spring warmth outside, one sees the colorful spray paint suddenly stop — apparently, the vandals don’t want to walk down into the pitch-dark, slightly creepy space. 

That’s just as well for them. There’s a lot of asbestos down there, enough that the cleanup bill will stretch into the six digits. Also, the building is home to wildlife, though two raccoons appear to have recently met their end in the gymnasium.

Even down in the basement, Hogenkamp sees potential hiding behind the boards on the windows.

“You see, looking at all these windows, despite it being the garden level, it’s going to be quite bright.”

The topmost level is brighter, and contains a gym with the backboards and climbing ropes still intact.

“A good portion of this will be preserved, kind of like the Electric City Barn,” Hogenkamp said, referring to the new artist space in Hamilton Hill.

Hogenkamp said the project would be a major addition to the work being done in the Eastern Avenue corridor, a focus area for redevelopment efforts within Schenectady. 

Renovation of the former Schaffer Senior Center at Nott Terrace into apartments and a facelift for the Price Chopper at McClellan Street have bookended the zone.

In between, more than 20 decrepit structures have been demolished on Eastern Avenue and its side streets. A new pocket park was opened last August, new houses are being built by multiple agencies, voters are being asked to approve sale of the former Elmer Avenue School for conversion to apartments, and a gourmet market/restaurant is operating on partial hours in advance of a grand opening.

CHURCH SAVED

The most visually striking of all the projects is the former St. Mary’s Church, an imposing stone house of worship purchased by Sandi Vardine in 2014 and converted to the Renaissance Hall.

“It’s pretty exciting that things are finally happening on Eastern Avenue,” she said. “There’s so much history to that neighborhood.”

Vardine also owns the convent next door to the church, and has been doing roof and foundation work on it.

“The convent is another historic building,” she said. “It’s got enormous character, it needs to be utilized, it needs to be saved.”

She had considered using the convent as her personal residence with an art gallery on site, but decided 8,000 square feet was too much space for her.

Also: Eastern Avenue Corridor - Market/restaurant opens in building saved from demolition, April 28, 2019

Images: A look inside the old St. Mary's School in Schenectady, April 28, 2019

The convent has its own quirks: Each room is a different size, and there’s a multiple wash basin sinks but only one full bathroom.

“There’s so many adaptable uses for the building,” she said. “I just know it needs to be saved. I’m not 100 percent sure what I’m going to do with it.”

Vardine has a track record with historic preservation beyond St. Mary’s Church. She purchased three of the historic brownstones overlooking Washington Park in Troy and brought them back from demolition-ready condition to showpieces.

She once had designs on the former St. Mary’s School and paid for placement of the new roof on it even though she didn’t own it.

Vardine’s thought was to create live-work space for artists, but the Electric City Barn fulfilled that need. She stepped back from the project when Better Neighborhoods Inc. got involved, and says she’s happy to let BNI and its partners pursue its development.

“As long as it gets done,” she said. “It’s a beautiful building. It would be a sin to lose it.”

For herself, she’s looking forward to some of the parking improvements Metroplex has said it would finance, which will help the Renaissance Hall during events there.

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