Remaking North Swan Street Park could mean neighborhood rebirth

Section: Capital Region,  Page: D1

Date: Friday, June 11, 2010

ALBANY -- For 17 years, Scottie Bibbs helped tend the lawns at Washington Park, one the city's largest and most celebrated public spaces.

And for two decades, Bibbs, now 71, has lived right next to one of the worst.

North Swan Street Park, if you can even call it a park, is little more than a basketball court -- one backboard tagged with gang graffiti -- and an expanse of graying, buckled asphalt that slopes gently toward what was, not long ago, once the city's most lawless block.

North Swan Street became a symbol for the drug-fueled violence that wracked Arbor Hill in the late 1990s. Residents are hoping the park will become a symbol of the neighborhood's rebirth.

On Thursday city officials, teamed with the United Way, unveiled a plan to remake the park with a new basketball court, an amphitheater, fountain, playground and green space that will be a centerpiece for a larger revitalization of Arbor Hill.

"I used to clean up here and cut the grass," Bibbs said, not far from where his rose bushes and pansies meet the tall chain-link fence that separates his Second Street home from the forlorn lot.

The park is immediately across the street from the old boarded-up St. Joseph's Academy. The city plans to transform it -- using part of a $5 million state grant -- into the Academy Lofts arts incubator with affordable housing for 25 artists above 17,000 square feet of commercial and community space.

The St. Joseph's rehab comes on the heels of two major Albany Housing Authority projects in the area: An $11 million investment in 54 townhouse-style apartments known as the Arbor Hill homes, which opened in 2007, and $6 million spent on Swan Street that culminated with the opening in December 2008 of 23 new rental units and seven storefronts.

Housing authority officials hope to follow those efforts later this year with 10 new houses -- to boost home ownership and further stabilize the neighborhood -- off North Swan.

All together, officials said some $41 million has been plunged into a neighborhood that in 2002 the city proposed leveling vast swaths of to make way for large tracts of new housing.

Abandoned amid public backlash, that plan paved the way for the current Arbor Hill Neighborhood Plan, which has set the stage for much of the smaller, in-fill development -- building on formerly vacant lots -- that's happened since.

"This is a fantastic opportunity for our community," said Arlene Way, president of the Arbor Hill Neighborhood Association and executive director of the Arbor Hill Development Corporation. "It gives the opportunity for folk around here to say 'yes' to something positive."

Plans for the park were drawn up at no cost by the Albany firm 3t Architects.

"Our next step is to build it. We don't want to have just another plan," said Doug Melnick, the city's planning director, who stressed that the plans were drawn up in collaboration with the neighborhood. Planning Commissioner Michael Yevoli said the full cost of the project could reach $300,000, but the city is looking for donations -- in cash and labor -- as well as ways to use city agencies for some of the work.

"There's no reason for this property to sit here like this -- unused, under-utilized and looking like this," said Mayor Jerry Jennings. "Yes, it's going to cost a lot, but we can get it done."

Melnick said the plans also call for incorporating of the neighborhood's history into the park.

A little over a decade ago, that history was dark. North Swan Street had descended into an open-air drug market marred by violence. A police crackdown was the first step, and now even nature and time seem to be helping reclaim the neighborhood. In April, the Mr. T.C. Club at 36 N. Swan -- the scene of the still-unsolved 1999 murder of 23-year-old Okema Curtis, a government witness shot point-blank in the head while she played darts -- collapsed into the street after years of neglect.

"I'm glad to see they're doing something with this," said Bibbs, who walks past the lot when he attends services at Bethany Baptist Church. "If they do it the right way, it should be nice."

Jordan Carleo-Evangelist can be reached at 454-5445 or by e-mail at