SCHENECTADY — A prominent downtown building has been deemed dangerous by the city after bricks recently became dislodged and rained down onto the pavement below.
The deterioration has prompted closure of the sidewalk along Erie Boulevard and increased city scrutiny of the hulking structure.
“This is a building that is concerning to me,” said Chief Building Inspector Christopher Lunn. “We want to keep it on our radar to make sure things are being maintained to an acceptable level.”
Known informally as the Wedgeway Professional Building, 271-277 State St. is located at the corner of Erie Boulevard and State Street at the city’s busiest intersection.
While the building houses several businesses, including the Photo Lab and Downtown Convenience, there has been an exodus of tenants in recent years, including Sassy’s Satellite, the Grog Shoppe and Wedgeway Barber Shop, which relocated to a new site on Erie Boulevard earlier this year after 107 years.
MARC SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
Kresge Wedgeway Building roof top towards Liberty St.
Another tenant, State Street Tattoo Co., plans to relocate at Lafayette Street, according to the city Planning Commission.
And the marquee from the former State Theater, once used as a space for announcements and advertisements, hasn’t been updated since September.
No businesses would comment for this story.
The sprawling complex of rowhouse-style buildings is owned by William Eichengrun under the limited-liability corporation 271-277 State LLC.
Eichengrun didn’t return a call seeking comment on Monday.
The complex also contains office space, and a five-story annex on the Erie Boulevard side of the building contains apartment units.
The city's inspection of the property was conducted five days after The Daily Gazette filed a Freedom of Information Law request with the city on Nov. 15 for code violations and “orders to vacate” for 271-277 State St.
The city Codes Department issued three violations five days later, including for falling bricks and a damaged roof parapet.
Chunks of bricks remain visible on fire escapes along the Erie Boulevard side of the structure, which remains barricaded.
Workers at the building appeared to play down the violations on Monday, contending the bricks may have been tossed onto the fire escape by homeless people.
Looking out from a fourth-floor window, piles of bricks and debris are heaped at the edge of the roof, but a worker said they were left over from a repair job that was never completed and didn’t present a threat because the roofline leads to another roof below — not a public space.
Eichengrun must present a written remediation plan to the city by Wednesday.
“We’re looking for an engineering report on the stability of the brick face of the building,” Lunn said. “We want in writing what he’s going to do to fix the problem and ensure pedestrian safety is being maintained.”
If not, the city will begin issuing tickets.
“We will also look at if the city will take any action to proceed with a pedestrian-covered walkway if necessary,” Lunn said.
Schenectady Fire Department Chief Ray Senecal said his department has responded to the building twice this year, including for an alarm triggered by an unsecured door.
Eichengrun also lacks the necessary rental certificates required to house tenants, according to Lunn, which is a violation of a new law signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo earlier this month that prohibits landlords from collecting rent without a valid certificate of occupancy.
“That’s another thing we’re going after them for,” Lunn said. "It certifies all life-safety issues are non-imminent."
Lunn said it’s unclear whether the apartment units are currently occupied. But residents were told they had 15 minutes to collect their belongings and get out when the city issued “order to vacate” notices on fourth-floor apartment units on Oct. 18 for “unsafe conditions," and dogs could be heard barking inside on Monday.
The previous order was issued building-wide for electrical hazards, including faulty smoke detectors, and was lifted five days later after the units were fixed, Lunn said.
But without access to the apartments, Lunn said, the true condition of the building remains unknown.
“Could there be outstanding violations?” he said. “There may be.”
Eichengrun purchased the structure last year for $847,000 from longtime owner John A. Matarazzo, according to tax records.
City Council President Ed Kosiur said he was previously unaware of the building’s condition, but hoped for a quick remediation.
“It’s concerning to all of us and I hope it gets resolved as quickly as possible to provide safety and security to not only the tenants, but city residents walking by,” Kosiur said.
PRIME REAL ESTATE
The sprawling complex is among the few buildings left untouched by downtown’s rapid transformation, sitting dead-center of a swirling series of developments that are dramatically reshaping downtown, including the Mill Artisan District, Electric City Apartments and the rehabbed Schenectady Train Station on Erie Boulevard.
More changes are imminent.
The former Masonic Temple will be renovated and the adjoining two structures – the former Rudnick's and Chamber of Commerce — will be incorporated into planned redevelopment as new retail-commercial-residential space.
And while a major chunk of funds from the $10 million awarded as part of the state Downtown Revitalization Initiative (DRI) are allocated for projects at Mohawk Harbor, some of the money will likely trickle down to lower State Street for façade improvements.
Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority runs a matching façade grant program and has said it will place a “special focus” on completing facades along the Erie Boulevard corridor to help the visual appeal and commercial viability of the route.
The goal is to complete 10 facades at a cost of $750,000 in matching funds, according to the DRI application.
Metroplex Chairman Ray Gillen said that while 271-277 State is in a desirous building in a central location, the authority will not pay for repairs.
“Metroplex has not had any discussions with the current owner of the building, nor would we provide assistance to make repairs mandated by the city building inspector,” Gillen said. “These repairs are the responsibility of the building owner.”
The building is listed on the market, he said, but the asking price is more than three times the recent purchase price.
“Potential buyers have been reluctant to move forward, especially given the fact that extensive repairs are needed,” he said. “If the purchase price was lower, it is likely that a buyer could be found to restore and protect this building. Until that happens, we hope the current owner makes needed repairs immediately.”
Despite the recent spate of violations, questions remain about the actual condition of the complex after the city failed to provide complete records detailing the building’s history of code violations and remediation efforts.
The Gazette asked for “code violations and/or order to vacate for 277 State (or 271-277 State).”
But the city’s practice is to only release violations that remain open, said Mayor Gary McCarthy after the cache of documents was released.
“Those violations were remediated and not carried as open violations,” McCarthy said. "The order to vacate would have been resolved also when the underlying remediations are taken care of.”
But the city did issue 13 violations on Dec. 12, 2018, for numerous deficiencies, including damaged tiles; deteriorating walls and ceilings throughout the building; windows falling out of their frames; leaking basement pipes; and improper gas lines.
Inspectors also determined bricks on the building were missing mortar.
Eichengrun was given 30 days to make the repairs, but whether the work has been completed is unclear.
The city, however, re-inspected the structure on Jan. 24 and issued a stop-work order because Eichengrun allegedly didn’t obtain the proper permits, according to the violation provided by the city.
The Daily Gazette formally appealed the FOIL on Monday, citing the incompleteness of the records.
The state Committee on Open Government criticized the city on Monday for the policy.
“It should have been provided,” said Committee on Open Government Director Kristen O'Neill. “There’s no reason why the ‘order to vacate’ wouldn’t be disclosed — it’s a record subject to FOIL. I don’t think there’s any reason to withhold it.”
Lunn said on Monday his office will make all documents available.
Councilman Vince Riggi said he was alarmed at the developments.
“If the building seems to be unstable, a hazard, to a pedestrian or someone living there, it’s a concern,” he said. “We already went through this,” referring to the Jay Street Fire that killed four residents in 2015.
A grand jury report ultimately found that while the city Fire Department was aware of public safety complaints and referred them to the Codes Department, the reports were ultimately not acted upon.
Those included the lack of fire doors in stairwells; inoperable smoke alarms; and concerns about the building's fire alarm box and residents' efforts to silence it.
Since then, the Codes Department has attempted to reform its operations, including using new software to streamline the inspection process and boost communication between departments.
“Certainly we do not want any duplication of Jay Street,” Kosiur said.