BRUCE A. SCRUTON Staff writer
Section: CAPITAL REGION,  Page: B1

Date: Tuesday, February 4, 2003

The city will formally sign papers this afternoon transferring title for St. Joseph's Church to Historic Albany Foundation even while the former owner presses her case through the state courts. The Common Council on Monday night approved the ordinance that permits the sale. Council President Helen Desfosses said she and Mayor Jerry Jennings will meet at 2 p.m. today to sign papers making the transfer official.

Last month, Albany County Judge Thomas Keegan gave the city the right to take ownership of the 1865 church on Ten Broeck Street through eminent domain proceedings. Elda Abate, the local businesswoman who had purchased the church from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany for $1, said she has appealed that decision.

According to the city, Abate did nothing to stabilize the structure, which had deteriorated since the diocese closed the building more than a decade ago. In 2000, Abate took over the building and announced plans to put in a banquet hall.

The neighborhood rose up against those plans, and no work was done on the building, despite studies that said immediate repairs were needed or the walls could collapse.

Abate and the city negotiated for a time over a purchase price, but when those talks broke down, the city initiated the eminent domain proceedings, arguing it had already declared an emergency and spent more than $240,000 to make repairs.

Historic Albany has obtained a $300,000 grant from the state to use for additional repairs, but that money is contingent on the organization raising matching funds.

Abate is still angry about the fight with the city over her plans for the church and said Monday's action was typical, arguing she had not been told the ordinance was on the council's agenda. ``They do things by the back door,'' she charged.

She said she once offered the building to Historic Albany herself, but the group wasn't interested. ``They didn't have the money, then. Now they got a grant,'' she said. ``They'll probably pocket that money for administration then move on.''

Historic Albany Executive Director Elizabeth P. Griffin said Monday night her group had tried to work with Abate, but the building had never been offered to them.

Now, however, she said Historic Albany is serving as ``an owner of last resort'' and will oversee the next phase of stabilization as well as work with the city on pursuing possible owners and uses for the Gothic stone structure. Desfosses said Jennings plans to appoint a task force to look at possible uses for the building once it is stabilized.

She said she hoped stabilization would be completed by the end of this coming construction season and by the end of 2004, using public input and neighborhood concerns, the task force can come up with a permanent owner.

Under eminent domain the city must come up with a fair market price for the building and property to pay Abate. Asked what she thought a fair price would be, she answered: ``Millions. Actually, it's priceless because it belongs to the people of Albany. There's not enough money to pay for what it's really worth.''