The First Prize Center is one of the most prominent sites in the Capital Region core. It sits on the border of Albany and Colonie, right alongside I-90. And even though it's been been crumbling for decades, multiple attempts to redevelop it over the years have fizzled.
And now there's a new a plan: The development firm Richbell Capital announced Thursday its intent to completely replace the site with a large mixed-use development that would incorporate housing, retail, entertainment, and offices.
Here are some details...
The site and its history
You now this place -- it's the site with the large, decaying factory building along I-90 near the Everett Road exit. The street that it's on, Exchange Street, is right off Everett.
The neighborhood/hamlet in which the site is located is known as West Albany. The New York Central Railroad built a large rail yard there in the mid-19th century, and by the 1860s the location had become a major stockyard for cattle brought in from the west.
In the 1920s the Albany Packing Company started, and it would build a slaughterhouse and processing facility there. The company eventually become the Tobin Packing Company, and the "First Prize" in the name of the site refers to Tobin's First Prize hotdogs. (Here's a short history of the neighborhood and its sometimes rough-and-tumble past.)
The Tobin's facility closed in the 1980s. And since then there have been multiple attempts to redevelop the site, including retail (Walmart and other big box stores), and more recently it was proposed as a potential casino site.
Last year the 32-acre site was included in the Capital Region's Upstate Revitalization Initiative plan as a proposed "mixed-use lifestyle center." (The state passed over the Capital Region for the $500 million URI awards.)
What's proposed now
The idea on the table now is pretty much was was proposed in the URI plan. Here's blurbage from the Richbell Capital press release:
The First Prize Center redevelopment project will integrate residential housing with shopping, restaurants, hospitality, entertainment and places to work. The redevelopment will incorporate the principles of new urbanism to develop a sustainable smart growth community. Residential housing constructed over restaurants, shops and entertainment is proposed to make a pedestrian-friendly walkable community that incorporates all elements of a live/work/play atmosphere. Outdoor entertainment venues further enhance overall site design. The First Prize Center redevelopment not only reinvigorates a dormant eyesore, but also will act as a new lifestyle option for residents of the Capital Region.
The entire site would be demolished for the project. Richbell's William Hoblock said they do want to keep the name and the signage, in a nod to the history of the site.
But he said many of the specifics of the project -- size, cost, timeline -- are not settled because the project faces a few key hurdles before it can move forward. (More on that in a second.)
So why this, now? Hoblock said Richbell's experience with other projects -- which includes the Paddocks of Saratoga and the in-progress Adelphi Hotel makeover in downtown Saratoga Springs -- indicates the market is receptive to this sort of mixed-used development. And the location, with easy access to I-90, makes it very attractive -- he called it the Capital Region's "bullseye" during remarks to the crowd.
"This is a longterm project that needs to evolve," Hoblock told the media afterward. "It's a heavily-phased project, and then it's strictly market driven. So it depends on how the market responds to every phase, which we're confident it will be positively received."
Albany and Colonie, together
So that first big hurdle: The site is split between the city of Albany and the town of Colonie, which presents a potentially difficult situation for getting the necessary approvals. So Richbell is pushing for Albany and Colonie to create a joint zoning overlay district to cover the site, which is allowed under a provision of state law. If the two municipalities agree to do that, they would also create a special joint planning board that would oversee issues such as site plan approval.
"The zoning district makes the project a reality," Hoblock said. "Today, all we're saying is here's our concept, we need the city, we need the town, to come together to put this in place. Without that, there's nothing."
Colonie supervisor Paula Mahan was at the announcement and spoke in favor of the plan, and afterward she said town officials had been briefed on the idea.
"We are ready to move forward on the steps to get this going," Mahan said afterward of the special zoning district. "We want [the project] to happen."
Albany mayor Kathy Sheehan was not at Thursday's announcement. But city treasurer Darius Shahinfar was there and spoke in favor of the project.
Update: Said Kathy Sheehan in a statement this afternoon: "This is certainly a very exciting project and the city is actively working with Colonie officials on an overlay district."
Cost and financing were among the details Richbell's William Hoblock said were still not settled because of the project's early stage. But he said the redevelopment would involve private and public money. They'll be applying for funding through the state's Regional Economic Development Council process.
Specifically, Hoblock cited the large cost of work needed at the site before construction can begin -- including "massive" demolition and abatement of asbestos -- that would require public money to get the plan off the ground.
He said they will also be seeking a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes arrangement from the city, town, and county for the project.
"It's the only way this project works. You don't get redevelopment of this magnitude without help from the public. We partner public and partner private and we can make this a reality."
The next steps to watch for: Whether the city of Albany and the town of Colonie approve that joint zoning overlay district. Then the plan will have to go before the resulting joint planning board for approvals. And there will be the quest to snag some sort of public funding for the project.
Hoblock said Thursday that if everything lines up under a best-case scenario -- a big if -- the project might be able to starting moving forward in two years.
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