Carol DeMare Staff writer
Section: LOCAL,  Page: B2

Date: Wednesday, March 18, 1987

In January 1982, Albany insurance executive Peter E. Noonan Jr. wrote Albany Mayor Erastus Corning 2nd about a plan to build a civic center at the east end of the city's Lincoln Park.

Corning was enthusiastic, calling it an "interesting idea," in a return letter to Noonan. The mayor also wrote state office of General Services Commissioner John C. Egan about possible access to parking under the Empire State Plaza to accommodate the proposed arena. The three pieces of correspondence - which indicate that discussion took place about a downtown civic center much earlier than had previously been known - are among items contained in files of the so-called Corning Papers, which city officials made available to the public this week.

Capital Newspapers, which publishes The Times Union and The Knickerbocker News, won a ruling last month in the state Court of Appeals which held that Corning's personal papers - as well as public papers - were subject to review under the freedom of information laws.

Initially, the newspapers began reviewing the papers in late 1984. But within a month, Albany Mayor Thomas M. Whalen III, who succeeded Corning after his death in May 1983, cut off access, saying the documents had to be reviewed by city officials to determine if any were exempt from the freedom of information laws.

In the same file with the Noonan letter was one written to Corning in January 1983 by Rensselaer attorney James S. Millea Jr. Millea said his firm represented "a group" interested in building a civic center/sports arena in the city, and the lawyer asked for a chance to discuss it with the mayor.

The mayor's response was brief: "Please discuss this with Jim Coyne," a reference to the Albany County executive. Four months later Corning died from respiratory ailments after being hospitalized for a year.

In October of the same year, Coyne, while running for his third consecutive term as county executive, announced plans to build a civic center. The initial concept involved a facility in Latham on land owned by developer Joseph N. Futia Sr. near the Colonie Colesium.

Subsequently the idea mushroomed, the state became involved, and ground was broken in February for a $41.5 million, 15,000-seat facility in downtown Albany off South Pearl Street.

Noonan said Tuesday that "Jim Green (of the Downtown Merchants Association) and myself and a couple of other people, downtown merchants," were exploring a privately developed civic center containing 12,000 to 15,000 seats at the East End Bowl of Lincoln Park. But the plans didn't get far.

"We never did any work on it," Noonan said. "We never got beyond the stage of proposing it as an idea ... After that things developed in other areas. The mayor got sick, and Jim Coyne came up with other ideas, and it just got sidetracked."

However, Noonan recalled that he made a "pitch for that location (Lincoln Park)" at civic center public hearings sponsored by the county in December 1984.

Millea could not be reached for comment on his inquiry.

Altogether, there are 328 boxes of the Corning Papers, according to County Historian Robert W. Arnold III, who is director of the Albany County Hall of Records. "Industry standards (estimate) 3,000 pages to a box," bringing the total of the Corning Papers up to about one million pages, he said.

Arnold, who has physical custody of the records while legal custody rests with the mayor's office, has 12 boxes available for inspection at this time.

City Corporation Counsel Vincent J. McArdle Jr. said he and an attorney on his staff, W. Dennis Duggan, have gone through the 12 boxes and culled from them what they believed to be exempt from freedom of information laws.

Those documents, some of which are "interoffice or interagency memos," will be given to state Supreme Court Justice Lawrence Kahn to determine if they should be open to the public, McArdle said.

The state Court of Appeals held in effect that since Corning left personal papers in City Hall files, they should be open to the public. But the high court reinstated Kahn's original decision that the city let a judge review those which the city chose to exempt.

However, McArdle said, some of the boxes will not be reviewed.

Today, he said, "we are advising Bob Arnold that a number of older boxes, probably from 1942 through 1967 be allowed opened without any exception, because their value is more clearly historic and any of the exemptions wouldn't have much application today of the confidentiality thing."

There are 32 boxes between the years 1942 and 1967, McArdle said. Corning was elected mayor in November 1941 and held the post until his death in May 1983.