Blueprint for Harriman site blends new construction with existing buildings

Section: Business,  Page: C1

Date: Friday, January 29, 2010

ALBANY -- Two state officials on Thursday outlined an updated blueprint for the redevelopment of Harriman State Office Campus, describing a plan that will slowly integrate private-sector construction with existing state buildings.

The outlined vision is in some respects a break from previously described plans to meld the 330-acre campus with surrounding neighborhoods in the area near the University at Albany.

But John Egan, commissioner of the Office of General Services, and Peter Wohl, who heads Harriman Research and Technology Development Corp., said the plan is the best and most practical way to proceed after years of stalled efforts.

"Maybe it's small steps, but they're realistic," Egan said, as he and Wohl met with the Times Union's editorial board. "And it (development) is going to be done with consideration of the neighbors and consideration for the region."

Also on Thursday, Empire State Development Corp., which is overseeing Harriman redevelopment, for the first time released the proposal by Columbia Development, the Albany firm chosen to lead initial campus construction.

ESDC had rejected prior Times Union efforts to see the proposal under the Freedom of Information Law, citing ongoing negotiations. But on Thursday, the agency said negotiations with Columbia had advanced to the point where it could release the proposal.

Harriman -- marked by office buildings, parking lots and broad lawns -- is frequently touted as one of the Capital Region's prime development opportunities. But the state's efforts at a transformation, first announced in 2003, have produced few results.

Early Harriman plans called for a brash transformation that would have eliminated the wide roads that ring the campus, demolished existing state office buildings, integrated the campus with the surrounding city and constructed new retail, residential and office space.

The plan shifted in 2007, when Gov. Eliot Spitzer declared that the state office buildings would stay. And the vision outlined by Wohl and Egan on Thursday represents a continued evolution in how officials are thinking about the campus.

The pair described a gradual transformation that would have the campus housing high-technology development, but remaining a place apart from the surrounding city. The campus might house retail, Egan and Wohl said, but is unlikely to include destination stores that would draw shoppers from outside the immediate area.

Housing is now a smaller part of the plan, and the ring road will likely stay, at least until campus development requires additional land.

"But we're not going to move that road until we have that bird in hand," said Egan, who is also a Harriman board member.

Wohl and Egan said the board chose the Columbia plan over a proposal submitted by The Howard Group of Colonie because it more closely matches the current vision for the campus.

The Howard plan, for example, called for the broad transformation of the campus with $2 billion of retail, office and residential construction. It also called for demolition of existing buildings -- making it more in line with earlier visions for the campus.

The Columbia plan, meanwhile, is more measured and less ambitious, accommodating existing buildings and confining new development to smaller pieces of the campus. It emphasizes office and high tech development and calls for less retail that the Howard proposal.

"We wanted a proposal that recognized the realities on the ground," Wohl said.

Egan and Wohl said initial Columbia construction will be limited to a five- to 15-acre parcel at the northwest corner of the property. And they said Columbia will be given a one-year window to market Harriman and find tenants willing to locate in new buildings there.

If Columbia fails to do so, Wohl said, "we've got to huddle up and say, 'Which way do we move?'"

Columbia Development, associated with BBL Construction Services, built the Patroon Creek Corporate Center, which is across Washington Avenue from the Harriman campus and is sometimes criticized as development that's haphazard and sterile.

Wohl stressed, though, that Harriman development will not look like Patroon Creek, even though the current vision for the campus seems unlikely to produce the initially envisioned city neighborhood.

He and Egan said they'll be willing to adapt campus plans to shifts in the economy and market demands.

"The bottom line with the whole plan (is) flexibility," Egan said.

Chris Churchill can be reached at 454-5442 or