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February 6, 2006

A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.

February 6, 2006

More Than Zoning

Walgreens, the corporate enemy we don’t need

Mary Connair of the Delaware Avenue Neighborhood Association (DANA) hit Mayor Jennings with the first question at the February CANA meeting. Why, she asked, (I’m paraphrasing here) are you imposing this spot zoning on us? We do not want Holland Avenue to be zoned ‘highway commercial’ and we don’t want a Walgreens to invade our neighborhoods. What you are doing is illegal.

The Mayor sounded tired and defensive. He talked around the issue, said he was of ‘two minds’ about it, said he was in favor of development bringing jobs, tried to minimize its importance and distance himself from it, etc. etc. But he said, five times by my count, “I don’t like the term ‘spot zoning.’ “

Of course he doesn’t. Spot zoning, like redlining, is illegal in New York State and can get your sorry butt hauled into court by outraged citizens and attorney generals. Spot zoning runs contrary to comprehensive planning, which is indeed required by the State. This is the point that is animating CANA, a growing list of neighborhood associations and several of our better politicians to organize together and fight back against The Mayor and his minions.

But, for those of us who live nearby this nonsense, there is a more immediate gut issue. We don’t want a big-box Walgreens surrounded by a parking lot making our neighborhood problems even worse and more insoluble than they already are.

Walgreens is a corporate parasite. Their outlets are not designed to add to the local economy, their purpose is to extract wealth from the surrounding area and send it far, far away, never to return. In return for our sacrifice, they give us increased traffic and auto exhaust, unsafe streets, and destroyed nearby businesses which are forced to lay off their employees so as to accommodate Walgreen’s unstable low-paid jobs.

This is the Walmart Model, based on the insane notion that our society exists to serve and enrich irresponsible corporations. Now, call me old fashioned and out of touch, but I think that the purpose of retail establishments and other businesses is to serve the needs and well-being of human beings. And, I also firmly believe, if these businesses don’t do anybody a bit of good then they have no right to exist. They certainly have no right to impose themselves on our neighborhoods against our will.

And boy, do they know how to impose themselves. Corporations like Walgreens and Walmart, when they wish to move into a municipality, go directly to the top. They line up the local power brokers and the elected officials with the one thing that these bad boys and girls respect more than anything else in this world and the next: CASH.

Let me give a little example. Back in 1992, the Walmart Corporation wanted to force its way into the City of Albany. They cast their evil eyes upon 25 acres of beautiful prime Pine Bush on Washington Avenue Extension. What happened? Albany County sold the sand dunes and pitch pine trees to the Pyramid Corporation (you know, Crossgates Mall, bribery, defaulting on payments to contractors, union busting, etc.) for the sum of $186,000.

A few days later, Pyramid sold this land to the Walmart corporation for $7.2 million.

Now, that’s a profit! With more than $7 million being laundered through the Pyramid Corporation, you can be sure that every public official who cooperated with this transaction came out with a tidy packet. The shadowy de facto leader of the Albany County Legislature at the time, Democrat Harold Joyce, engineered this lovely transaction. Joyce passed away several years ago, and I sincerely hope, if he got a piece of this action for his very own, that he is spending it right this moment on ice water and air conditioning. (Notice how I word this very carefully.)

Joyce could not have pulled this off without cooperation from the temporary County Executive at the time, Republican Michael Hoblock. A hapless party loyalist, Hoblock joyfully proclaimed the 25 acres of undeveloped Pine Bush to be “useless land.” Later, when he was running for the State Senate, he tried to distance himself from this remark and from his association with the whole stinking Pyramid/Walmart land deal.

Of course, Joyce and Hoblock could not have done this without cooperation from a majority of the county legislature, nor could they have managed without cooperation from the City of Albany’s Whalen administration. As much as one peep of objection from any of the elected officials at the time would have scuttled the whole deal.

Of course I can’t prove a thing. There’s no paper trail, these guys weren’t idiots. But I ask you, what do you think made all these elected officials so cooperative?

I’m bringing up this ancient history to illustrate how these funny little land transactions work. The empty lot on Holland Avenue is owned by the Picotte Company, a real estate management firm that has a major presence along the Avenue. They have been crying repeatedly that the land is completely unsalable under the present zoning of office commercial, and that they’ve been trying to market it for years.

Bull crap.

Picotte has loudly and repeatedly tried to give the impression that under the old zoning, the only thing that they were allowed to build was offices for doctors. Take a look at this list of allowed uses for C-O commercial Office zoning and decide for yourself if they were suffering under unreasonable restrictions.

The simple fact is that Picotte could have built just about anything from a funeral home to a restaurant to a field of solar collectors. As real estate people, they know full well that there is an acute shortage of rental housing in downtown Albany. Under the old zoning, they could have built a complex of high-end rental units and sold out all of them in a matter of days.

How do I know that, you might ask? I own and rent apartments for a living in the neighborhood. It rarely takes me more than a day to rent my apartments, and I can pick and choose my tenants. By necessity, I have to turn away sometimes hundreds of people every time I place an ad for apartments in the paper.

So what’s going on here? Why didn’t Picotte build here years ago and make a nice, respectable profit? Why are they crying?

Again, nothing can be proven and everything I say is conjecture. But it looks to me like Picotte has been doing what every other land speculator in the City of Albany does, sitting on this piece of property, letting it rot while they wait for the maximum possible profit to come down the road. In this regard, they are no different than any other suburban speculators who buy vacant houses at auction and sit on them, hoping somebody with more money than sense comes along to make an offer.

Well, now. After owning the Holland Avenue lot for who knows how many years, Picotte has managed to attract a buyer with an obscene pile of cash. Someone with enough money to dangle in front of the snouts of everybody who cooperates with the process. And you had better believe that Picotte is willing to do whatever is necessary to bring home the prize.

There was only one problem. You see, Walgreens has no intention of competing fairly with their already established competition in the neighborhood. And they certainly have no intention of making the neighborhood a better place to live, or even of doing the least damage possible. They are here to extract money and transport it away. They are not here to play fair.

So Walgreens told Picotte that they need to plant a big box on the Holland Avenue lot and surround it with a giant parking lot. And, they need a drive-through. Neither of the nearby established drugstores, Lincoln Pharmacy and Chazan, have been allowed these unfair advantages. They are both easy pickings for Walgreens.

If Walgreens actually had wanted to play by the established rules, they would have looked for a vacant storefront on, say, Delaware Avenue and set up shop. They probably would have given their rivals some serious competition, which would have been just fine. And, they would have contributed to the neighborhood while still extracting a fair bit of cash.

Walgreens could have gone to, say, Wolf Road in Colonie. But if they had located out in the suburbs, they would have been just another cinder block box surrounded by a parking lot. They wouldn’t have had any unfair advantages over their neighbors along the blighted automobile slums of the suburbs.

With this in mind, it is easy to see that it is worth any amount of investment dollars for them to grease their way into the Holland Avenue empty lot.

And what do we see down in City Hall? Mayor Jennings and all of his minions on the Common Council, both past and present, are falling all over themselves with enthusiasm to place this horror exactly where it does not belong. They are willing to defy angry neighbors, create new and probably insoluble traffic problems, drive legitimate non-corporate businesses into the ground, break several State laws and fight against lawsuits.

For what, exactly? What strange intangible force makes all this miserableness acceptable to The Mayor and his eager minions?

Like I’ve said before, maybe my neighbors have figured out the answer. They aren’t dumb. They’ve been around long enough to know how these guys operate. They know the motivation.

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