MANSION NEIGHBORHOOD: Alive with community spirit

Section: House-Home,  Page: H1

Date: Sunday, January 16, 2005

The Mansion Neighborhood in downtown Albany is one of the city's smallest, most historic and cohesive neighborhoods.

Located south of the downtown business district past the Empire State Plaza arterial, this tiny enclave of brick and clapboard houses is on the National Register of Historic Places. The name of the area originated because the neighborhood lies directly in front of the Governor's Mansion on Eagle Street.

Bordered by Trinity Place, Madison Avenue, and Warren and Arch streets, the neighborhood, like many of the city's downtown areas was once rundown. In the early 1960s, more than 50 buildings stood vacant, abandoned by owners who owed back taxes and were hopeful the area would be added to the 98 acres cleared to make way for the Empire State Plaza.

Holly Katz, who has lived in the neighborhood for 15 years and is chairman of the board of directors for the Mansion Neighborhood Association, says there are only about a dozen vacant buildings there today.

Thanks to a strong neighborhood association, formed in 1975, and federal assistance, more than half of the properties circa 1845-1910 have been renovated into single-family dwellings. Many more many were broken up into two-family dwellings or condominiums.

Some of the finest examples of Gothic Revival architecture in the country are the houses on Madison Place in front of the newly restored Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, says architect Doug Bucher, a principal with John G. Waite Associates in Albany.

"Eleven buildings were recently completed on Grand Street by Community Builders, between Madison and Park avenues, which equals 44 units," says Katz. "These units are all rented at moderate prices, from $413 to $468 per month. The old Philip Schuyler School never did make a go as condos, so they are luxury rentals instead. A lot of people who are renters are trying to buy a house, because they like the neighborhood enough to stay."

There are two schools in the neighborhood, and a community arts center is being developed in the old St. Anthony's Church on Madison Avenue. The neighborhood hosted a house tour in June and was included on the Historic Albany House Tour in December.

Colin McKnight, assistant director of the New York State Rural Housing Coalition, discovered the Mansion Neighborhood when he was looking for a home within walking distance of social activities and his job.

"I really lucked out in several ways when I moved here," says McKnight, who walks 35 minutes each way to his job near the College of Saint Rose campus up Madison. "I lived in a rural section of Rensselaer County and got tired of having to get into the car and go back and forth again after work or on a weekend. I found the house I am in, and am so pleased that it still had a lot of its original features, even though it needed a lot of restoration."

McKnight said he didn't know much about the neighborhood when he moved there.

"I was very impressed by the neighbors," says McKnight. "Every homeowner came up and introduced themselves to me. It's an absolutely dynamite neighborhood, where people look out for each other. It's also a racially integrated neighborhood, which was the kind of environment I was looking for. ... It's like a small village. I never knew who my neighbors were where I used to live, not even the ones on either side of me."

The active Mansion Neighborhood Association coordinates volunteer projects, activities and events, including neighborhood meetings with informational speakers. There are also neighborhood cleanups, dinners, picnics, street parties, etc.; ongoing contact with city police and Community Policing including Walk and Watch; sponsorship of neighborhood-wide sidewalk sales and home sale/rental events.

There's also a group of volunteer guides who can walk new neighbors through the neighborhood and introduce them to neighbors and other residents.

"I was born and raised in this neighborhood," says Mary Ellen O'Connor, campaign development manager for Community Health Charities of New York. "I live in the same house my grandparents built in 1869. My parents also lived in this house. ... I've lived here long enough to see my neighborhood undergo several changes. I think it's a very safe neighborhood and very pretty. It's surrounded by several parks in various sizes."

Restaurants, shops, galleries and museums ring the neighborhood. If you visit, parking can be tricky, especially during the workday and special events. But it's not impossible to park. Thanks to several off-street lots, garages and converted alleys, many residents find parking within a comfortable distance of their homes.

Other issues for car owners are the snow emergencies and street cleanings that can lead to parking tickets if you're not careful.

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At a glance

Approximate property values: $90,000 to $350,000.

Schools: Giffen Elementary for preschool to grade 6; William S. Hackett Middle School for grades 6-8 and Albany High School for grades 9-12.

Taxes: Residents pay $16.08 per $1,000 for city and county and $23 per $1,000 for school, which includes a library tax. There's also a water bill for individual usage. Taxes on a house assessed at $185,000 would be about $7,230.