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Fighting blight in Schenectady a sustained effort

Fighting blight in Schenectady a sustained effort

Schenectady making headway on the take down of derelict
Fighting blight in Schenectady a sustained effort
Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority Project Director David J. Hogenkamp inside 602 Hattie St., which will be razed.
Photographer: MARC SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER

SCHENECTADY — Derelict buildings pose a chronic problem in Schenectady. 

Slowly but surely, the city is culling the herd. 

Earlier this spring, city officials and the Capital Region Land Bank announced they would collaborate on nudging 34 blighted properties and empty parcels down the path of finality, whether demolition or renovation.

How did they fare? 

Over the summer, the list grew to 36. Of those, at least 14 have been flagged for demolition or have already been taken down, including headline-grabbing properties on Francis Avenue (Mont Pleasant), Jefferson Street and a sagging six-unit apartment building on First Avenue in Mont Pleasant. 

An Eastern Avenue brick row house near Mangino’s Gourmet Market has been flagged for rehabilitation; one property has been added to the city’s list of priority parcels and nearly two-dozen remain on standby. 

And those are just the efforts spearheaded by the Land Bank.

On the city's end, six structures are scheduled to be taken down this fall and eight more are in the bidding process. 

Working with the list of parcels provided by the city and access to the properties, the Land Bank spent the summer systematically evaluating whether the structures could be saved for an economically feasible sum of money or would best be demolished.

WORKING THE PROCESS

The precise number of properties is constantly shifting and stakeholders said they will continue to find the best solution for the remaining structures.

“That list is ever-evolving and ever-changing,” said Rich Ruzzo, chairman of the Capital Region Land Bank. “If it turns out to be 34 or 38, the net change is we’re still continuing to take the worst of the worst out and revitalize the neighborhood.”

Structures on some of the parcels had already been demolished, including Crane Street.

In those cases, the Land Bank, which is overseen by the Schenectady County Metroplex Development Authority, offered recommendations for what to do with the footprints, which ranges from selling lots to neighboring homeowners or folding them into city initiatives like the Schenectady Street properties — a pair of two-family houses located across from the Hamilton Hill Arts Center — which will find new life as a sculpture garden.

Habitat for Humanity of Schenectady County has said it will build a new house on the footprint of a home on Carrie Street in Goose Hill, while the properties on Strong and Backus streets in Hamilton Hill will be purchased by neighbors to expand their yards. 

TARGETED APPROACH

While neighbors can grumble about the often-glacial progress to remediate problem properties, nearly 200 such properties have been demolished in recent years.

The city and land bank are leading efforts, but a broader coalition also includes nonprofits, private developers leveraging tax credits and lending institutions. 

A key strategy is working with neighborhood groups to zero in on clusters and knock down several structures on a single block.

Recent efforts have focused on Crane Street in Mont Pleasant, which has been particularly hard-hit by creeping blight over the past several decades, where several properties have been demolished this summer, and where the city is weighing streetscape improvements

The approach creates a benefit greater than a single demolition, Russo said, and will ideally invite new development and individual investment.

Structures on First Avenue and Orchard Street in Mont Pleasant — both flagged to be taken down this week — were chosen because they are near Orchard Park, which the city is renovating. 

Several take-downs of abandoned buildings herald marquee projects: 

To make way for the new $40 million Hillside Crossing project on Hamilton Hill, structures at 749, 759 and 763 Albany Street will be torn down. 

Two buildings facing Van Vranken Avenue will be demolished later this month ahead of a new $24 million investment at Yates Village, according to Metroplex. 

Additional properties will be demolished for the Renaissance Square project on Eastern Avenue, and the Live In Schenectady investor group, which is building new townhouses on Barrett Street, recently took down 1128 and 1132 Barrett St. 

NOT JUST DEMO

Another component is rehabilitation.

While analyzing properties, the Land Bank is mindful of what projects may fit better for their constellation of partners, including Habitat, the SEAT Center and Better Neighborhoods Initiative, which announced earlier this year plans to renovate 20 houses for purchase by low- to middle-income buyers.

Those efforts are on track, said executive director James Flacke on Friday. 

“We’re just trying to provide an opportunity to knit them together,” said David Hogenkamp, project director for the Capital Region Land Bank. 

ICEBERG AHEAD

Despite the success stories, the process isn’t without its speed bumps.

A batch of city-coordinated structures was scheduled to come down by July 2, but the work has been pushed into fall.

The main reason is asbestos remediation.

“The original bid for these six properties had an ambitious timeline for contractors, but had to be extended to the fall due to extensive asbestos and environmental abatement,” said Kristin Diotte, the city’s Director of Planning and Development.

Asbestos is also responsible for soaring demolition costs. 

Taking down blighted properties typically cost approximately $55,000 to $60,000 per single-family house, and the bid for the six properties approved by the City Council in May clocked in at $487,188. 

Those demolitions are funded by Community Development Block Grants, a federal program that funds myriad community development projects. 

Diotte said the city will aggressively continue to pursue additional demolitions as funding is made available.

At the same time, storm clouds are gathering over funding land banks statewide. 

New York’s land banks are funded through money secured by the state Attorney General’s Office in settlements after the credit crisis and housing crisis of the Great Recession. 

The model was designed to be at least partly self-sustaining by acquiring derelict and foreclosed properties at no cost, fix or demolish them, sell them, use the money to buy more sites, fix and sell those. 

But the costs exceed the income and the pot of money is running out: The $2 million grant the Capital Region Land Bank got for 2019-2020 is the last appropriation it will receive from that source. 

While Russo said there are several existing funding streams in which to dip, including $275,000 awarded to the city as part of the state Attorney General’s “Zombies 2.0” program, without a new source of funding, their work may be curtailed.

“We have enough to go through until the end of 2020,” Russo said. “We’re going to get one more year done and that gives us one more year to figure out where the next funding steam is going to come from.”

HAPPY NEIGHBORS

Stakeholders said they’re proud of the progress they’ve made, and believe their efforts encourage neighboring property owners who are more inclined to make improvements to their houses if they see nearby derelict hulks being demolished.

Hogenkamp said he notices an uptick in home maintenance following neighborhood demolitions, even shifts as small as people sweeping their stoops more often.

Russo also believes there is a spiritual component, theorizing that clearing blight helps to counteract such socio-economic factors as the breakdown in family structures that have been shredded over time.

“If we can play a part in creating unity within the neighborhood, that creates unity in the family,” he said. 

Neighbors of hulking structures appear genuinely appreciative.

Tom Oliver lives two houses down from the hulking apartment building on First Avenue and recalled the building as a haven for drug dealers and prostitutes. 

Once shuttered, he regularly called the police because the door kept getting kicked in, allowing access and vandalization. 

“That house is nothing but trouble,” Oliver said days before its razing. 

Despite broader changes in the city, the street continues to contain a healthy number of owner-occupied houses.

He pointed at two homes across the street with sweeping panoramic views of the city. Both are being fixed up by owners he believes will ultimately occupy the dwellings. 

“Landlords in this city have destroyed it,” Oliver said.

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