The new plan for the First Prize Center

First Prize Center exterior medium 2016-December

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.

Google Map of 42.6853125,-73.7857991

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.)

First Prize Center exterior wide 2016-December

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

First Prize redev Richbell rendering 2

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.)

First Prize redev Richbell rendering1

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."

First Prize redev announce Paula Mahan
Paula Mahan

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."

The money

First Prize redev Richbell William Hoblock
William Hoblock

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."

What's next?

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.

Comments

I'd really love to see this happen. It would be great to redevelop this large piece of derelict property instead of cutting down more trees in other parts of Colonie. It would bring a new life to the area. I hope the surrounding neighborhood lets this one happen.

It's great to see renovations and reconstruction of these historic buildings across Upstate New York. Cities and development agencies are working together to create financially beneficial projects which take advantage of tax savings, while at the same time improving both commercial and residential buildings. Great example here, thanks for sharing!

"Massive" demolition and abatement of asbestos is an understatement. What are the other contamination issues for this site? How will they be addressed?

Home run for all involved if it happens. I'm actually excited about this one, unlike (say) the crazy gondola scheme.

This plan looks great! ...for downtown Albany. For this spot, the plan is nothing but giant red flags. A mixed-use, walkable neighborhood touting proximity to a highway? A bi-municipal zoning overlay? That's probably not even a real word since I'm pretty sure I just made it up. The creation of a new urban center so far from anything else in either Albany or Colonie, just north of a pile of strip malls and just west of a light industrial area? 6 day a week transit service on infrequent bus lines?

I don't pretend to have any solutions for this site, but I'd rather see something like this only after the revitalization of other areas of the city gets off the ground.

I think RBC should undertake their obligation to the Holland Avenue project. Thanks to those grand plans, my neighborhood now gets two lovely boarded up fenced in and abandoned buildings. Two years now and counting.

@Charlie: I asked William Hoblock about the Holland Ave project Thursday and I'm hoping to have a short update Friday.

Zooming out just a little bit on Google Maps, I think this is a good spot for such a concept. There's residences nearby which would be within "walkable" distance to the businesses as well as the baseball park.

My only fear with something like this is that the housing is going to be prohibitively expensive for the average person.

More grand plans from the same developer who announced 3 years ago with great fanfare plans for replacing a fine fully occupied 1940's apartment building on Holland Avenue near Delaware with a high end apartment building. Now we have in our neighborhood what looks like and is an abandoned building.
Fool me once shame on you fool me twice shame on me.

Not sure how many units are proposed, but I hope a percentage will be condos; the entire 90 corridor needs more ownership opportunities and therefore more community 'stakeholders'.

Looks promising.

Glenn
Sharon Springs

This is an exciting concept and I look forward to hearing more details. But -- the public must be enaged every step of the way and we should demand that real community benefits (such as sidewalks -- not just on site but nearby - open spaces -- parks -- public squares -- recreatiion) are included. It clearly sounds like lots of public investments are being offered (PILOTS; grants; zoning changes) -- we therefore must demand real community -- PUBLIC -- benefits.

I find it interesting that the developer needs to push for a Albany/Colonie joint zoning district. With the First Prize Center being an eyesore/potentially valuable site for redevelopment for over 30 years, you'd think Albany and Colonie would have proactively done this on their own as a way to entice a developer by making the site one step closer to being shovel-ready. Seems like that would have been a no-brainer.

All I want to know is, will there be dog friendly housing available? If not, then I don't care.

Sounds like another great way to allocate taxpayer money directly into the pockets of already rich developers!

So funny when my relatives visit here from Europe and we park in a desolate empty vast broken parking lot in Downton Albany to attend a Devils game at the TU they always say "WTF happened here?". We then drive thru Latham along Rte 9 looking at all the disjointed strip development and they say "WTF happened here?" Then we cruise over to Wolf road looking out at a hotel here, a car dealer there, and a Chain restaurant there all with NO thought or continuity and they say "WTF happened here"...then we drive to Malta, and Clifton Park, and..........on and on ad nauseum ...when we will ever get it around here???? Me thinks never!

Yay! More apartments I can't afford right where I spent most of my childhood. Woo hoo!

Why are towns in New York so favorably treated? In many other states, it would be no question-- the city would annex this land prior to development and there would be no need to coordinate special zoning with a town. But no, in New York, we think it makes more sense to build a residential development where kids in one house go to a different school than the kids next door and different police and fire departments respond depending on which side of an invisible line a building is on.

JayK said everything I thought when I saw this proposal. Though it would be nice to find a use for this place, Albany residents want retail, parking and apartments in downtown or warehouse district in Albany (per Albany 2030plan and Rezone Albany).

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