DID TUTUNJIAN TELL THE TRUTH ABOUT $31.5M WATERFRONT PLAN?

CHRIS CHURCHILL THE ADVOCATE
Section: Capital Region,  Page: D1

Date: Sunday, May 6, 2012

Nothing in Troy is easy, it sometimes seems, especially if politicians are involved.


And so it goes with the Troy City Center project, a landmark development that, its boosters say, will be a game changer for downtown Troy.


But the project planned for the old City Hall site is now stalled -- under murky circumstances.


You may remember when former Mayor Harry Tutunjian unveiled the $31.5 million complex last May. He proudly noted that the project's two buildings would hold 106 apartments above lower-level retail and restaurants. He rightly said the project would reconnect the city to its waterfront. And he said it would rejuvenate central Troy, presumably with well-heeled residents who would shop and play downtown.


But there's one important detail that Tutunjian neglected to mention.


He never said that a majority of the complex's units would be set aside for low- and moderate-income renters.


Bill Dunne, the city's planning director, says he discovered that fact in January, as he took office with the administration of Mayor Lou Rosamilia. He quickly ordered the project's developers to overhaul the plan, preferably with only market-rate units.


"There's plenty of subsidized housing in already in Troy," Dunne said. "We just think there's a better and higher use for that property."


So the Monument Square project -- perhaps the most anticipated downtown Troy development in decades -- is in a kind of holding pattern as the city awaits an overhaul from the developers, Latham-based Nigro Cos. and The Richman Group out of Connecticut.


A chain-link fence now surrounds the forlorn waterfront site. It's unclear when redevelopment will begin.


So what happened? Did Tutunjian intentionally mislead the public last year?


Did he purposefully leave out the subsidized housing detail, figuring it would dampen enthusiasm for a project he hoped to launch before he left office?


Now, there's nothing wrong with the creation of affordable housing, and reasonable people can debate whether apartments for lower-income folks would be good and appropriate for downtown Troy.


But a good public policy debate depends on government transparency and the willingness of elected officials to present accurate and complete information. That's a continuing focus of The Advocate column.


Yet I think the public was given an entirely false impression of the Troy City Center proposal.


Indeed, in the last week I've talked to a handful of people who closely watched last year's announcement, and each was surprised to learn that the plan included so much affordable housing. Everybody seemed to think that the point of the plan, rightly or wrongly, was to attract higher-income professionals back to the city.


Some people noted it was hard to get details on the project from the Tutunjian administration last year. Dunne even said that members of the City Council weren't provided with proposal details before they voted to sell the one-acre site to Richman and Nigro for $1 million. (That sale has not been completed.)


On Friday, I asked Tutunjian if he and other city officials were intentionally hiding the project's affordable-housing component.


"I don't believe so," he said. "Not to my knowledge, no."


Tutunjian, now a member of the Rensselaer County legislature, claimed he was given a false impression, too. He said he was not aware that the project included affordable housing. He surmised that it may have been added after he left office.


Well, Harry, I have bad news.


I've seen the original proposal submitted by Richman and Nigro -- the one Tutunjian selected over two competing proposals -- and it makes it crystal clear the development would include subsidized housing. And the original plan of finance, as outlined in the proposal, depends on tax credits available for developers of low-income housing.


Maybe Tutunjian didn't read the proposal all that closely?


John Nigro, head of Nigro Cos., told me the development team decided on including affordable housing because market studies determined there wasn't enough demand for a large number of market-rate units in downtown Troy. He doesn't think, then, that the project can be built without some affordable housing, adding that the precise percentage is now under discussion.


The original plan called for 60 percent of units to be set aside for renters with incomes below 60 percent of the regional median, Dunne said. By my rough estimate, using the census estimate of a $56,000 Capital Region medain, that would mean renters there could have household incomes of no more than $34,000.


Dunne stressed that he's optimistic the Troy City Center project can be salvaged and will eventually move forward.


But Tutunjian was already ready to blame Dunne for the project's demise.


On Friday, he took to Twitter. Among other posts, he wrote: "Sabotage. The death of Beastie Boy Adam Yauch is marked by learning (that) ... Dunne has sabotaged my old city hall project."


That, folks, is politics in Troy.


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