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September 27
, 2009


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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September 27, 2009

Demolition By Neglect

A proven method by which preferred suburban “developers” get around laws designed to protect our urban heritage in Albany

* * * UPDATE * * * Once again I'm wrong about something. It seems that the houses have indeed been occupied on and off for the past 20 years, some as late as last year. I would have sworn on a witness stand otherwise, but oh well. This doesn't change the main point though, that the houses have been emptied of inhabitants by Picotte, and they are wide open to the world.


Up on a rise along Holland Avenue are six large, one family houses. Seen from the street they look attractive, imposing, perhaps a touch exclusive, like they might be a bit pricey. They tend to evoke the reaction from casual observers, “Hey, I wouldn’t mind living there.”

Well, you can’t live there. The houses have been uninhabited for about twenty years. The owner keeps the lawns neatly mowed and the front facades attractive, at least at a distance. But the owner refuses to sell or rent out the houses or perform basic maintenance. They just sit there... rotting.

The owner of these houses is Picotte, the real property corporation so beloved of our newly reelected mayor Jerry Jennings. Yes, the very same Picotte responsible for that highway commercial spot zoned Walgreens across the street, the unwanted Walgreens that Jerry and Picotte worked so hard to impose on the neighborhood. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that Picotte wants to repeat their “success” at the expense of these unique houses across the street.

One Of The Six Leonard Houses On Holland Avenue
One Of The Six Leonard Houses On Holland Avenue

The six houses, 108 through 118 Holland Avenue, were built in 1937 and 1938, fairly new by downtown Albany standards. Back then the houses would have been surrounded by farms and fields, I’ve heard old timers talk about orchards and horses along there. Must have been pretty nice around there. Unless I’m mistaken Holland Avenue as we know it did not exist yet, it was laid out as an extension of Morton Avenue later in the 1950s.

The developers were the now long gone and mostly forgotten Leonard Realty, the style of the houses is called Tudor. Normally I detest Tudor architecture, which in present day America is usually a sloppy watered down imitation of the building style that was current 500 years ago in England. The Tudor style usually pops up in overpriced suburban mcmansions and those tourist eateries that serve fish and chips, thus my attitude.

I first noticed these houses years ago, back before Picotte bought them and let them empty out. After I got over my initial instinctive disdain for their style I began to admire them. They really are attractive. They are also well built, witness how well they have held up for two decades with zero maintenance and unsecured for all the world to abuse them.

It was a report by a certain teenager with whom I am acquainted that got me looking at these houses again. It seems that this young person, who shall remain nameless, went on a little exploratory expedition through the houses. I understand that he/she is one of many local youngsters who have recently gone inside to look around, word is out there that the buildings are unsecured.

hree Of The Houses Seen From The Crumbling Back Access Road
Three Of The Houses Seen From The Crumbling Back Access Road

I recently walked over there to inspect the buildings for myself. Sure enough, I found open windows and doors ajar. Anybody who has a mind to do so could go inside and then exit any of the houses without causing noticeable exterior damage.

Certain neighbors who are keeping a close watch on the houses have indeed several times asked City Code Enforcement to do their job and tell Picotte to secure the buildings. Not surprisingly Code Enforcement refused to order Picotte to follow the law, or for that matter give a response to the neighbors who filed the complaints. Despite the recent electoral publicity emanating from City Hall, code enforcement in Albany continues to remain at best occasional and selective, used mainly to harass homeowners and small businesses.

The rule of thumb, as I’ve always understood it, is that entering is a misdemeanor while breaking and entering is a felony. As a solid upstanding citizen it would be most unseemly for me to crawl through one of these windows and get busted for trespassing or domestic terrorism or some such nonsense. So I decided that I would not attempt to confirm certain parts of the young explorer’s report. By the way, my amnesia is acting up again and I can’t remember the kid’s name or face so don’t ask me.

Private Road - No Trespassing

But urban lawns are semi-public, as a practical matter one can walk on lawns in the City unless they are fenced off or posted. The only signage I could find was in back at the entrance to the common driveway for the buildings. This sign was clearly directed at automobiles, so I left my truck home and didn’t park there. But I saw no posted sign or legal reason why I couldn’t wander the lawns and look around.

From my vantage points the houses looked to be in fair condition, quite good after being carefully neglected for so long. I say carefully because somebody, most certainly the owner, has meticulously cut the grass and made a tolerable effort to trim the bushes along with maintaining the front facade. If these buildings were merely neglected their abandonment would have become painfully evident to the casual observer within a year.

I could not confirm my teenage informant’s report that some of the ceilings upstairs were falling down from water damage. Peering through the windows I couldn’t see any overt water damage on the ground floors. Actually, the interiors that I saw for the most part looked like they only needed cosmetic work.

Slate Roof, Foliage Growing In The Gutter
Slate Roof, Foliage Growing In The Gutter

Now, what is a building? Basically, it is a roof with a bunch of stuff underneath. As long as you keep the roof intact the walls and floors and windows and doors will last indefinitely. Remove the roof or let it become porous then everything underneath rots away or crumbles in a very short time.

This is how demolition by neglect works. Say for example you happen to be a sleazy suburbanite who wants to make money by destroying an Albany neighborhood. (A very common phenomenon in Albany.) You’ve bought your property and now you want your payday. What do you do?

First step is to tear down any unwanted residential buildings, preferably at taxpayer expense. But unfortunately for you your residential property is probably zoned residential, which means you can’t build nonresidential structures without applying to the zoning board. This application tends to alert the neighbors and the activists to your scheme, which is absolutely the last thing you want.

The other problem is that you can’t get a permit to wreck your perfectly good buildings without a reason. I mean, you can always come to an “arrangement” with The Mayor and get all the permits you want. But it’s not like The Old Days (like, up to ten years ago) when a favored “developer” could wreck any part of the City they wanted and no one would dare raise a peep of objection.

Open Window
Open Window

So if you want the buildings wrecked and you don’t have the stomach to fight lawsuits and be revealed as a public scumbag from the suburbs there is only one choice open to you. It’s a small scale local version of Disaster Capitalism. Coupled with the cooperative City administration like we have in Albany it works like a charm.

Let the buildings fall into ruin by neglecting the roofs until the structures become public hazards. Wait until water pours down through the floors and into the basement. If the buildings are initially in good shape with decent roofs (like these Holland Avenue buildings had been) then this process can take quite a while. So you have to decide if the eventual payday is worth the wait.

Open Door
Open Door

But rule number one of demolition by neglect is to never do anything active to hurry along the process, like poke a hole in the roof. Again, too many people are watching, you don’t want to draw attention to your scheme or give even the appearance of anything except the illusion of passive neglect. However, unless the City specifically tells you to secure the buildings there’s no reason to close open doors and lock the windows. Allowing kids and vagabonds to go inside is exactly what you want.

After the ceilings cave in, all you have to do is call City Hall and ask for an inspection. Now that your buildings are “hazardous” the City will declare an “emergency” and hire the preferred demolition company. Their trucks will rumble out at nine PM on a Friday night and by Saturday morning your buildings will be a pile of rubble.

Once the urban buildings are removed and the zoning designation is changed to something more profitable the City will “work with you to develop the site.” Actually, as long as there is no significant public scrutiny you can do whatever you want with your site. A parking lot, a corporate drug store, an office building, anything that makes you a profit, as long as it hurts or wrecks the urban character of the neighborhood.

That last comment is not an exaggeration, by the way. It’s a sad fact that as a rule for the last 50 years or so the three City administrations have actively discouraged the creation of housing and the maintenance of public space. The few recent exceptions to this rule, such as the current ongoing renovations to lower Morton Avenue, have come about mainly to appease angry taxpaying voters on the brink of open rebellion. That’s no exaggeration either.

View Through A Window
View Through A Window

If my teenaged informant is correct, the slate roofs of the six houses on Holland Avenue will soon be in leaky enough condition to justify destroying the buildings. The timing couldn’t be better. Picotte appears to be ready, always ready for another payday like they’ve had with their Walgreens across the street.

Back in 2005 I heard Picotte’s hired lawyer, Peter “Hairdo” Lynch, tell the Common Council that Holland Avenue is not a neighborhood, that nobody lives there and that the whole area is nothing but parking lots. Those of us who live nearby were not amused by this suburbanite’s arrogant slanders against our neighborhoods.

Picotte expended an astounding amount of time, money and political capital, and sacrificed an awful lot of good will to plant this suburban style corporate shitbox with its enormous parking lot. Clearly, it was worth the effort for them.

I don’t know the exact amount that the Walgreens Corporation handed to Picotte. But typically when big corporations want to build one of their outlets in controversial locations, they offer the property owners way more money than the land is worth, often many times more. This is judicious use of their corporate muscle, the ridiculous amount of money chases away competition for the site and ensures the enthusiastic cooperation of the owners and developers.

Another Window View, With A Glimpse Of A Kitchen
Another Window View, With A Glimpse Of A Kitchen

So it appears that Picotte is ready and willing to pull the same crap again across the street. Apparently it is worthwhile to sit on these houses for twenty years waiting for that big payoff, Picotte’s money shot.

At this point it sure looks like Picotte wants to construct office buildings on the site where the houses stand today. In 2006 Picotte employee Brian Lasch, acting as a spokesman for Picotte, claimed “There is no office space market for that site.” He really said that. He was attempting to justify the spot zoning of the eventual Walgreens site by Jerry’s minions on the Common Council.

I invite anyone to take a five minute inspection tour of the neighborhood today in 2009. Note the numerous large office buildings currently being erected all at once on on either end of Holland Avenue, along Hackett Boulevard and New Scotland Avenue. I’d say that if Brian Lasch is correct and there’s no demand for office space, then we can look forward to these new buildings remaining mostly empty for the foreseeable future.

Now, I’m not going to say that this guy Lasch and his owners at Picotte were being deliberately misleading about the real estate market around Holland Avenue so that they could get their big money shot from the Walgreens Corporation. Oh no, I have no evidence for an assertion like that. I could get in trouble for floating an unfounded statement like that. I’m sure Picotte and their employees would never do something like that.

I’ll say this instead. If Picotte’s reading of the real estate market is so wildly off - no market for office space along Holland Avenue! - then they must not be very competent real estate marketers. Hell, lots of other folks saw the growing demand for office space in the neighborhood years ago. If Picotte couldn’t see that, then they are very, very incompetent and therefore not a good outfit with which to do business.

Let me repeat: we have absolutely no evidence that Picotte was being deliberately misleading in their lousy assessment of the future Walgreens site. But personally, based on this failure by them to read the situation correctly, I wouldn’t trust them to market a virtual dungheap located in Second Life. Should we trust their assessments of the six Tudor Leonard houses across the street?

Another Window View, With A Glimpse Of A Kitchen

So what can we do about this? Well, certain taxpaying citizens are monitoring this situation carefully and are prepared to act. I’ve been asked to not reveal details, but I can tell you that these houses will not be sent to the Rapp Road Dump in a political vacuum. At the very least Jerry Jennings and the Picotte Corporation are going to have to eat a mile of butt cakes before they all get their next big payday off of Holland Avenue.

Of course, it all depends upon the level of public awareness and public outrage. The rate of random destruction and urban removal of viable buildings in Albany has somewhat decreased in recent years, but that’s solely because of the efforts of the growing number of angry citizens who are willing to fight to defend our City from Jerry Jennings. The anti-urban policies of City Hall will continue until we someday get rid of the old boys in office who hate Albany.

Yes, we just reelected Jerry Jennings. I hope everyone who assisted Him is proud. The election is over, the war goes on, and the effort to defend these houses will be one of the latest battles. That’s the way things are in Albany.


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Posted by: Theresa
Posted on: 09/28/2009
butt cakes?

Posted by: Roger Green
Posted on: 09/28/2009
Are the houses for sale? Why don't you make 'em an offer, if only for a reaction?

Posted by: Gabe
Posted on: 09/29/2009
I'd always wondered about these houses, assumed they were for hot-shot profs at Albany Law...

Posted by: Hal Strom
Posted on: 09/29/2009
Dan, I'm confused, if these houses have been abandoned for 100 gazillion years then who owns are all the cars that are parked out behind them? Look on google maps if you don't believe me. I'm not talking about the big parking lots, I mean directly behind the houses.

There's obviously no question that they are abandoned now, and the reason is as plain to see as the neon Walgreens sign is against the nighttime sky. But I could have sworn that these things were occupied and listed "for rent" as little as 6 years ago.

Posted by: Albany Citizen One
Posted on: 09/29/2009
Dan, first, as required by law, they must be listed as vacant buildings. Then, they are subject to being secured, if the owner doesn't do it, the city does it and charges them. They will also be required to have an "approved" plan of action on file with the city, this then will let you know what the current owners are going to do with them. This is the law and the beauty is it's all FOILable.

What are the addresses? I'd love to look into it.

Posted by: mc1
Posted on: 10/01/2009
ACO -- Not so sure about that. I think there's some phony distinction that exempts some vacant buildings from inclusion on the VBR.

I seem to recall that a building secured by ordinary means (a closed, locked door) is different than a building secured by other, extra means (boarded up doors and windows.)

Posted by: NotSure
Posted on: 10/01/2009
I could well be wrong, but I thought that some of these houses were used as doctors offices as recently as 5 years ago. Obivously they are abandoned now, but the story may be more complicated.

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