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July 1, 2007


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.

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*EXCLUSIVE BREAKING NEWS* Dominick Calsolaro (who else?) has a serious plan. Read Dom's letter to Governor Eliot Spitzer on how the City can use the Convention Center money to renovate vacant buildings and create housing.

July 1 , 2007

The Mayor’s Iraq

There are better ways to spend $300 million dollars than to
waste it on a convention center

Here’s the opportunity we’ve all been waiting for. Last Monday, the corporate media announced that the cost for Albany Mayor Jerry Jenning’s Ridiculous Convention Center, which is to be planted in downtown Albany next to Jim Coyne’s Ridiculous Arena, is going to cost one third more than originally touted.

It’s not much. Only another one hundred million dollars of taxpayer money than we were originally told.

Albany Convention Center site from the air

“I don’t think anyone should be alarmed by the price,” said Jerry. George Levielle, the director of the Albany Convention Center Authority, which is the money funneling agency created by the State at The Mayor’s request, said “There is nothing we can do about that. That’s the reality.” Jack McEneny, who is a participant in these shenanigans, opined that the increase was “primarily because of the Iraqi war.”

Whatever. Elected officials and City appointees who are loyal to Mayor Jennings talk about the Convention Center in downtown Albany as if it has already happened. Everybody is on board, they say. Everybody wants it, they tell us. And of course, the corporate media is in total agreement with the politicos. No one but malcontents are opposed to it, they tell us.

Bull crap. I don’t know anyone with a lick of sense who wants this stupid Convention Center. Hell, even people with no brains consider it a dumb idea. I mean, everyone except the City officials seems to have figured out that it’s a financial and planning disaster from which the City may never recover.

But strange to say, everyone treats it like a done deal. People mutter against it, but no one does anything. No one has tried to organize to stop it, and almost no authority with a public voice has spoken against it. Apparently the initial propaganda blitz was very effective. The opposition was defeated before it was imagined.

To put it simply, this stupid thing is a stupid financial decision. Convention centers, in general, are proven failures. There’s too many of them and not enough conventions looking for a home. All of this was clearly laid out by a now classic Metroland article from March, 2006.

Like Jim Coyne’s arena, currently named the Hearst Rag Center, it will never pay for itself. During some years Coyne’s Box, which is owned by Albany County, can meet operating costs with the revenue it brings in. Most years it does not. But no year does it pay for the debt service on the bonds floated to build it. That’s purely a taxpayer subsidy that never ends.

Now, supposedly there are mysterious economic benefits conferred upon the City by the Coyne Box. I can’t say that I’ve noticed these benefits. What I have seen is a long line of automobiles from the suburbs pulling off the Madison Avenue exit of 787 to attend big name shows at the arena. And when the shows are over, there’s a long line of autos heading back to the suburbs. All that’s left behind for us are their exhaust fumes.

But at least the cost of debt service on the Coyne Box is spread out over the entire county. Sheep farmers in Berne are helping to finance this squat, ugly arena. In contrast, three quarters of Jerry Jenning’s boondoggle will be hoisted upon the backs of City taxpayers as bonds and new taxes. The other quarter, we are told, will befinanced by our State taxes.

Albany Convention Center Site Selection
What $300 Million Will Get Us (click to see full size)

Basically, the convention center will be another downtown playground reserved primarily for suburbanites. It’s a prime example of the “rotting carcass politics” that dominates our City government. That is, the attitude among our elected officials that the City of Albany is a stinking dead animal, and all the fat maggots better eat their piece of decaying City now so that tomorrow they can all buzz away well fed to the suburbs.

The Convention Center will provide little or no employment for the inhabitants of this City. As evidence for this assertion, I present the Coalition for Economic, Environmental and Educational Justice (CEEEJ.) This worthy group, a coalition of community activists and organizations, is trying to get the City interested in hiring people who live in the City of Albany to build and run the Convention Center.

Um, hello? Hold the phone, forward the email please? Why should this even be necessary? It shouldn’t be the job of the City of Albany to think up expensive ways to provide employment for people who don’t live here. Jobs in Albany should go to Albanians. Is that an unreasonable attitude?

So far, the City and the Convention Authority are not too interested in a community benefits agreement, which would guarantee a certain number of construction jobs would go to the actual people who are paying for it with their taxes. I’m sure the worthies would all sputter and beg to differ. But I don’t see any of the top authorities involved giving more than lip service on this vital central issue.

There’s a “benefits agreement” on the Convention Authority web site. It rattles on about hiring “minorities,” a word which they take pains to define. This is done purely to comply with State regulations. Nowhere does it guarantee employment to those of us who live here. Rather, the document repeatedly states that employment opportunities should be spread as widely as possible beyond the City.

The Current Site
The Current Site

And finally, this project will take out a wide swath of downtown. This is potentially valuable land, the transition area between the business district and the South End. It’s mostly a wasteland of asphalt parking lots, although there are a few scattered architectural treasures there. And it looks like they intend to tear down some existing buildings.

But mostly it’s parking lots bordered by parking lots. Any landscape dominated by asphalt is unfit for human beings. That includes highways, strip malls and Clifton Park. Much of the site resembles an abandoned airport runway in a third world country. This location is a great place to build... something.

But what? We have to ask ourselves, is a Convention Center the best use for this space?

Absolutely not. There is one thing that downtown Albany needs more than anything else. A product that will be snapped up as soon as it is produced. A product that will attract outside investors like pheremones attract butterflies.

A product that will sell to the highest bidder for outrageous prices and make loads of money for those who manufacture it and for those who own it. That will generate enough tax revenue to balance the City budget with ease. Not to mention generate loads of graft for our elected officials and their political dependents.

Rental housing.

I know what I’m talking about. The demand is there, and it is intense.

Okay, Tear This Down
Okay, Tear This Down

Admittedly, most of my opinions about most subjects are of less value than dog droppings left on the sidewalk in violation of the scooper law. But you see, this is what I do for a living, rent out apartments in downtown Albany, specifically the South End. You can bring my opinion on this subject to the bank and take out a loan.

Twelve years ago, former Governor George Pataki kept one of his campaign promises and fired ten thousand State workers. The effect on downtown Albany was devastating. The Wife and I had just bought two run-down buildings on upper Morton Avenue and I was renovating them on credit and a song. To our horror, thanks to Pataki, we almost couldn’t rent our apartments. At all.

Those days are gone, probably forever. We rent our newly renovated apartments on Morton Avenue overlooking the park almost immediately. Ask any downtown landlord with decent apartments, they’ll tell you the same thing. And demand for urban housing will continue to go up with the price of gas.

Morton Avenue, In Demand
Morton Avenue, In Demand

We almost never use the classified ads in the newspaper anymore because we get too many calls, as many as one hundred per day. We’ve been using Craigslist online, which attracts young college graduates looking for our mostly one bedrooms. Our apartments rent immediately to the first few applicants.

High placed City officials have no clue about this subject. Last fall I listened with dropping jaw to Nick DiLello, head of the Albany Division of Buildings and Codes. “Nobody wants to live here,” said DiLello. “That’s why there are so many vacant buildings.” He said that several times. He was dead serious.

As far as I’ve seen, Mr. DiLello’s bizarre conviction is widespread in Albany city government. I would guess that’s because most City officials don’t want to live in the City of Albany, so they assume no one else does. Their attitude explains their actions.

Maybe that’s why, when considering development options for the City, the bozos who run this place in our name can only think up a ridiculous boondoggle like the Convention Center. “No one wants to live here,” they think, “so let’s give suburbanites a reason to visit. No matter how much it costs the taxpayers. It won’t cost us a dime. And we’ll be gone soon, anyway.”

What an opportunity about to be flushed down the commode and into the river! Imagine the urban complex that three hundred million dollars could create. High end apartments, affordable middle class flats, low income housing andone bedrooms for the young person on the go. There’s demand for all of it.

Our Public Transit Link To The World
Our Public Transit Link To The World

This swath of land could be packed with new taxpayers. They would roam across downtown, searching for places to dispose of their income. Both new and relocating businesses of all descriptions would fight for storefronts so they could collect some of this swag. It would be an instant renaissance, an economic success story.

So of course, there should be more than housing on the site. Room to place service and retail businesses must be provided, preferably on the first floors of multistory buildings, facing the sidewalks. This is called “mixed use,” and it is also called “urban.” Unlike Clifton Park, it’s a desirable place to live.

It would be a suburbanite’s worst nightmare, a livable city. Since an automobile is not very useful in such an environment, there has to be plenty of public transit. The area also has to be walkable and bikable so that people can get to their newly generated jobs easily.

So here’s my point. Jerry Jennings has staked his reputation and his legacy upon this Convention Center. It is safe to assume that He considers that dropping the project would demonstrate weakness and amount to political suicide. He said this Convention Center would happen and by golly, He’s gonna make it happen. It’s gonna be His monument to Himself for future generations.

But surely, by now, Tthe Mayor is beginning to suspect that He made a mistake with His choice of legacy. It’s sort of like His Iraq War... or is the Rapp Road Landfill His Iraq? Maybe the Convention Center is His Iran, the war He always wanted but could never quite justify.

No matter. It’s time for The Mayor to pull His troops out of His Middle East. Does Jennings really want people to remember Him in that way every time the City pays debt service on this thing? For the next thirty years, at least?

Don't Destroy These Buildings
Don't Destroy These Buildings

This “sudden” one third cost hike, this extra one hundred million dollars, is a political opportunity for The Mayor. He can announce that increased costs no longer justify the project. Of course, the project never was justified, but that’s close enough to the truth to sound plausible. And then He can announce the Big Change Of Plan.

A model new urban community, laid out and jump started with a three hundred million dollar investment. Or less. Such a shovel ready concept would pull in the investors. As long as people want to live downtown, a planned urban community could not be built fast enough to accommodate them.

We can call it “Jerry Town.”

What a dream, eh? We all know nothing sensible like that will ever happen with this administration. The best we can talk about is the lesser of two evils that have been laid before us, an asphalt wasteland or an unnecessary boondoggle.

I vote for keeping the wasteland the way it is, for now. That way, if someday we are smart enough to elect a forward thinking progressive candidate for Mayor who has respect for the City of Albany, we can see something good and beautiful arise on this spot.

Someday, it will happen. We gotta keep hoping.

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