State holds off on action for Albany neighborhood after resistance surfaces

Section: Capital Region,  Page: B4

Date: Saturday, October 2, 2010

ALBANY -- A bid by preservationists to have lower Washington Avenue, the neighborhood at the center of the Fort Orange Club's controversial demolition plans, declared a historic district has been tabled by the state amid resistance from nearby property owners.

The state Historic Preservation Review Board put the proposal on ice last month after 14 of the 23 affected property owners -- including the New York State Association of Realtors, which branded the move an "unnecessary and punitive" example of "over-regulation" -- wrote letters opposing the designation.

The district would include the south side of Washington Avenue between Swan and Lark streets as well as the north side of Spring Street between Dove and Lark.

Historic Albany Foundation stepped up its push for the designation amid a bid by Fort Orange to demolish two adjacent 19th-century buildings it owns at 118-120 Washington Ave. and replace them with a parking lot shielded from the street by a wrought-steel and masonry wall.

The preservation group has been battling the club's plans for more than two years and is suing in state Supreme Court to overturn the Planning Board's approval of the demolitions.

But opponents of the designation noted in letters to the board that much of that block -- including the buildings to be razed -- have already been radically changed.

Some called the application a transparent attempt by Historic Albany to bolster its lawsuit against the city and scuttle the demolitions.

"This entire proposal is predicated on the blatant though unstated concept of defeating the plan," wrote Paul Whitaker, owner of 170 Washington Ave.

While in an earlier letter to the city's Historic Resources Commission Whitaker acknowledges he personally opposes the club's plan, Whitaker also noted that "a substantial portion" of the buildings in the proposed district have already been altered.

But Susan Holland, executive director of Historic Albany, said many of the opponents fundamentally misunderstand what the designation would mean.

Unlike a local historic district, which requires property owners to go before the city's Historic Resources Commission when they want to make significant changes to the facades of their buildings, listing on the state and national registers of historic places would not add any additional hurdles.

Recognition as a state and national historic district means properties would receive added protection from federal or state-funded projects while allowing the owners to take advantage of tax breaks for the costs of rehabilitation. Not-for-profit owners would also be eligible for historic preservation grants.

"We feel like we've done everything we could possibly do to get to this point, and they're not hearing what we're saying," Holland said. "One of the biggest things is, my goodness, who would give up incentives?"

Holland also disputed claims by some property owners that they weren't properly notified of the application and that the not-for-profit is pursuing the district solely to stop the demolitions.

She noted that as long ago as 1980 Historic Albany had been involved in trying to establish a larger version of the district, which would have extended all the way to Townsend Park. That push was dropped for reasons that Holland said were unclear.

Historic Albany renewed its push for the district in spring of 2009, Holland said, several months after Fort Orange tabled its initial demolition plans and several months before it resurrected them in November.

Still, some property owners say the district is unnecessary because the landowners on those blocks already maintain their buildings well.

"I feel bad for the folks at the Fort Orange Club because they really do have some positive things they want to do to their properties," said Duncan R. MacKenzie, CEO of the New York State Realtors Association, located within the proposed district at 130 Washington Ave. "It's really a solution in search of a problem."

Jordan Carleo-Evangelist can be reached at 454-5445 or by e-mail at jcarleo-evangelist@timesunion.com