RUINED CHURCH RETURNED TO CITY

ERIN DUGGAN Staff writer
Section: CAPITAL REGION,  Page: B1

Date: Saturday, January 11, 2003

After a year of wrestling with local businesswoman Elda Abate over historic but crumbling St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church, the city won ownership of the landmark Friday when a judge signed an eminent domain ruling in Albany's favor. The city still has to determine a fair market price to offer Abate, who has yet to pay the city's bill for emergency repairs on the church -- totaling almost $240,000 as of August.


The assessed value of the building is anyone's guess: While Abate bought it in 2000 for $1 from the Diocese of Albany, the bells inside could be worth up to $1 million. But the structure is in such bad shape that some preservationists say it wouldn't be standing today if the city hadn't stepped in with emergency repairs.


Historic Albany Foundation, a nonprofit group, secured a $300,000 state matching grant to stabilize and rehabilitate St. Joseph's, called by many the crown jewel of the Ten Broeck area.


``We're very relieved that the building can now be further stabilized,'' said Historic Albany Foundation Executive Director Elizabeth Griffin, who also led efforts to save 41 Ten Broeck St., across from St. Joseph's. ``We can get the building to a point where the weather and change in temperature is not further deteriorating the structure.''


Mayor Jerry Jennings vowed in November to take the church from Abate and give it to Historic Albany Foundation. The foundation now has to raise $300,000 to get the matching grant.


``It's hard to raise money when you don't own the building,'' Griffin said.


Abate's lawyer, Randall Kehoe, vowed to appeal the decision, handed down late Friday afternoon by County Judge Thomas Keegan. He said the city incorrectly pushed for an emergency ruling from Keegan and that the judge rubber-stamped the city's request without giving Abate time to bring in her own specialist.


Kehoe said eminent domain proceedings require a public hearing, except in an emergency. Since the church did not recently fall into such disrepair and has been under the city's care for more than a year, a public hearing should have been held, Kehoe said.


Abate also is angry that her first engineer went to work for the city, getting paid almost $14,000 for an assessment that worked against Abate. And, she said, she hasn't been let into the building since the city took it over.


But Keegan said Abate didn't offer enough evidence that she attempted to do anything with the building since buying it in 2001.


The judge said that although ``the relief sought by the city seems drastic,'' he approved it for several reasons, including that the building was deemed unsafe more than a year ago and Abate offered no proof the building is safe. He also noted the city spent more than $300,000 securing the building.


``The respondent's continuing posturing and delay, the resources available to the city, and this court's belief than an emergency exists, which if not soon corrected, will endanger the public's interest in the health, safety and welfare of the city's inhabitants warrants the grant of the petition,'' Keegan wrote.


Corporation Counsel Gary Stiglmeier, who with Assistant Corporation Counsel Joseph McCann represented the city, said Common Council will be asked to approve transfer of the property at its next meeting.