Albany touts building plans that would bring new apartments and new life to the city's center

CHRIS CHURCHILL Business writer
Section: Business,  Page: E1

Date: Sunday, March 18, 2007

Correction: Correction published March 20, 2007 A photo caption in Sunday's Business section misidentified the location of an industrial building where Matt Baumgartner plans loft apartments. It is on Learned Street in Albany.

Twenty years ago, Albany city officials looked around their downtown and didn't like what they saw.

The streets were deserted after dark. Shops closed at 6 p.m. And on a typical Saturday afternoon, the corner of Pearl and State streets, among others, was distressingly quiet. But city officials believed they had a cure for what ailed downtown: housing.

The mayor at the time, the late Thomas Whalen, asked developers to come to the city with residential proposals. He said it was time to create a downtown where people not only worked and played, but lived.

Two decades later, downtown Albany has made progress.

There are new office towers and people on the street after dark, headed to trendy restaurants and nightclubs. There's a vibrancy that longtime observers say the city center lacked.

Yet if you want to buy a condominium or rent an apartment there, you'd have few from which to choose.

Albany officials say that's about to change. Really.

Joe Rabito, the city's commissioner of planning and development, even said he sees a coming "perfect storm" for housing construction. And there are, in fact, several significant proposals on the table.

On one two-block stretch of Broadway, there are plans for two towers that would together add about 125 apartments and condos near Quackenbush Square.

Just up the street, near the Miss Albany Diner, a developer plans about 45 more condos.

And right in the heart of downtown, on State Street's Wellington Row, a developer plans another tower, primarily an office building, that would include about 15 high-end condominiums.

There's good reason to view the proposals with skepticism. After all, on none has a shovel hit the ground. And Albany over the years has had many such housing proposals - but little action.

"Housing downtown?" skeptics say. "I'll believe it when I see it."

But city officials insist the city needs just one major project under way for the dam to break, one building to prove the market for downtown housing in Albany is ready - and waiting.

"I'm hearing from everyone that there's a real demand," Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings said. "Hopefully, one of these projects will take off ASAP."

Meanwhile, as officials hope for the start of a big, iconic housing development, several smaller projects actually are happening.

Projects like the one undertaken by Mike Urgo.

Urgo, 63, is a New York City native who moved to Albany in the 1970s and opened Jonathan's, a Pearl Street pizza parlor. Back then, he said, someone suggesting the construction of upscale apartments downtown would have been considered daft.

But times have changed.

So much so that Urgo, after waiting for decades to find a use for the upstairs floors of his building at 33 N. Pearl St., spent about $600,000 to convert the space into six apartments, which last week became ready for occupancy.

As soon as construction began, Urgo said, passersby began peppering him with questions about the apartments, leading him to believe they will rent quickly. "People want to be where the action is, and I guess downtown is where the action is," he said.

Conversely, experts say residents are the best way to create downtown action.

"If you can make your downtown attractive for living, retail will follow, restaurants will follow and businesses will follow," said John McIlwain, senior fellow for housing at the Urban Land Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C. "And it will reverse that giant sucking sound of people moving to the suburbs."

Moreover, McIlwain and others say, a thriving downtown is key to a successful city. You wouldn't, after all, eat an apple that's rotten at the core.

In Albany, there's more than just anecdotal evidence of demand for downtown housing. A study released in November by Zimmerman/Volk Associates Inc. of Clifton, N.J., found a market exists for about 2,400 downtown housing units.

The study, commissioned by the Downtown Albany Business Improvement District, says there are two types of people who would move downtown.

The first are empty-nesters looking for an easy-to-maintain apartment in a walkable neighborhood.

That category includes Jack Ryan. The 70-year-old owner of an Albany single-family home said he would "love to live downtown if they had some decent housing down there."

The second group identified by the study consists of younger professionals seeking a character-rich urban environment.

Matt Baumgartner, 33, is a member of that group. "Just because I live in Albany doesn't mean I should give up on loft living," he said.

Baumgartner, who owns Bombers Burrito Bar, paid $225,000 for an old industrial building on Learned Street. He'll convert the building into two apartments, one of which is for him.

With Niko, his black lab, gallavanting around, Baumgartner gave a tour of the building. A former woodworking shop, with brick walls and wide-planked wood floors, the space is raw, to say the least.

"You sort of have to have a vision," he said. "And if you can't see it, then it's not for you."

The same might be said for the surrounding neighborhood. North of downtown, it's a gritty industrial area lacking greenery and residential services.

But it's an area that could emerge as a warehouse residential district that complements the city center, as the Lower Downtown neighborhood does for Denver or the Fort Point Channel area does for Boston.

In fact, just around the corner from Baumgartner's building stands a former piano factory, at 889 Broadway, that is set to become 26 loft-style condos. A second phase would put a second building on the site that would include 18 additional condos.

Down the street, just blocks from downtown highrises, Norstar Development USA of Buffalo plans a $35 million project that would include 122 units.

That project would be near The Amos at Quackenbush Square, the proposal that really has city officials salivating.

The $40 million, 11-story tower would include retail and more than 100 apartments.

Rabito, the city's planning commissioner, describes the proposal by Queri Development of Syracuse as crucial for downtown housing hopes. Yet it's currently mired in a dispute over the lease held by Broadway Auto Clinic, which sits on the site.

The dispute raises the possibility that another downtown housing proposal could fail to occur - and add to frustration for those in the city who want downtown housing.

After all, as Albany has talked about downtown housing, similar cities have built it.

Downtown Hartford, Conn., for example, has sprouted several residential towers, while Providence, R.I., has found success converting older building to residences.

In the Capital Region, Albany has fallen behind cities such as Saratoga Springs, where hundreds of new apartments and condos have been constructed, and Troy, which has seen significant rehabilitation of older apartment units.

Some say the Albany lag results from redevelopment decisions that brought Empire State Plaza and ubiquitous highway ramps.

"What you see there now is a consequence of years of tragic decisions," said James Howard Kunstler, the Saratoga Springs-based author of "Geography of Nowhere" and other books on the urban environment.

Added Saratoga Springs developer Jeffrey Pfeil, who is converting a former department store in Troy into apartments: "The incentive (for developing housing) in Troy is that it's got a wealth of fabulous architecture, and, unlike in Albany, most of the architecture wasn't torn down over the years."

Others point to a lack of political will to make downtown housing happen. "It's been talked about as a priority in this administration," said Paul Bray, founder of the Albany Roundtable civic forum. "But talk is talk, and I'm not sure how actively they've moved on it."

But it isn't as if Albany doesn't have successful neighborhoods near downtown, areas like Center Square.

And Mayor Jennings contends that downtown, which he says has improved greatly since he took office in 1994, has been a priority.

He notes the city is fighting forces that extend beyond the Capital Region. "What we're trying to do is reverse the suburbanization of America," he said. "We have to reverse that trend."

Rabito said Albany has measures in place to help developers of downtown housing, such as tax breaks available through what is called the 485e program and the city Industrial Development Agency.

He said the city will help builders acquire land needed for development. The city is even trying to lure a high-end grocery store downtown, to make the area attractive to potential residents.

"We know it's kind of a chicken-or-the-egg thing," Rabito said. "You need the services to be there, and no one wants to be the pioneer."

For now, at least, the city still waits for the big downtown residential project, and waits for the day when a person wanting to rent or own downtown has dozens of choices. "We need one of these major ones to start coming out of the ground," Rabito said.

Chris Churchill can be reached at 454-5442 or by e-mail at

****FACT BOX:****

Prime locationsDowntown Albany is beginning to attract attention from developers looking to fill demand for urban living: A. Amos at Quackenbush Square (proposed) Queri Development, Syracuse $40 million, 11-story tower At least 100 apartments B. 733 Broadway (proposed) Norstar Development USA, Buffalo $35 million, nine-story tower 122 units C. Wellington Row (proposed) Columbia Development Cos., Albany $62 million, 14-story tower 15 condominiums D. 33 N. Pearl St.(complete) Mike Urgo, Albany $600,000 conversion and renovation 6 apartments E. 109 State St. (under construction) AR Building & Construction, Albany $650,000 renovation 9 apartments F. 111-113 State St. (complete) AR Building & Construction, Albany $630,000 renovation 11 apartments G. 889 Broadway (proposed) Ed Rosen and 3t Architects, Albany Undisclosed cost, conversion of four-story building and construction of four-story building 44 condominiums Source: Albany Department of Development and Planning