The Playdium redevelopment! Downtown residential! Neighborhood critics! And more exciting tales of the Albany planning board

The proposed redevelopment of the Playdium was among the projects up for review.

Despite the fact that they often focus on multi-million-dollar projects that can literally change the shape of the city, Albany planning board meetings are often quiet affairs, attended by few (or no) members of the public.

That was not the case for Tuesday's meeting, which featured a packed gallery, a bunch of neighborhood critics, and even a loud, happy round of cheers.

Here's what had people fired up...

60 Colvin Ave

Albany planning board 2017-09-19 60 Colvin site

The project that drew the most heated discussion of the night was a proposal by Anthony DeThomasis to build two 24-unit apartment buildings on a wooded site at the corner of Colvin Ave and Anthony Street, which leads into Westland Hills Park. The buildings would also each include about 6,000 square feet of commercial space along Colvin. There would be 80 parking spaces.

The apartments would be a mix of 1 BR and 2 BR/2 bath units. Rents would start at $950.

The project sparked some passionate comments in opposition from a group of neighborhood residents. They argued the project is too big for the site, and feared development there would harm the views from the park and nearby Rosemont Street.

Another common complaint: Concerns about increased traffic on Colvin, the current levels of which they described variously as "insane," "unbelievable," and "ridiculous."

Albany planning board 2017-09-19 60 Colvin rendering

Common Council member Michael O'Brien also spoke in opposition to the project, forcefully urging the board to reject it in its current form. He argued the four-story buildings don't fit with the mixed-use neighborhood center zoning for the area and its 3.5-story limit on building height. And he expressed concern that there wasn't adequate parking in the plan, and parked cars would spill over into the park. "I think it's a very bad idea," he said.

This was the project's first time up at a regular board meeting, so it will be interesting to see how it evolves the next time it comes back around -- and whether any changes will make it more amenable to neighborhood residents.

363 Ontario Street (Playdium site)

Albany planning board 2017-09-19 363 Ontario site plan
The proposed site plan. That's Ontario Street running up and down along the right. (Click the image for a larger version.)

Developer Ryan Jankow is proposing to redevelop the site of the Playdium bowling alley in Pine Hills and build three new buildings with 106 apartments. One of the buildings would have about 6,000 square feet of retail space. There'd be 135 parking spaces.

About 60 percent of the units would be 1 BR, the rest 2 BR. Apartments would be 900-1250 square feet. And rents would range from $1250 for 1 BR up to $1600 for a 2 BR.

Plans for the retail space aren't firm, but they could include a cafe/neighborhood market type of business. (Jankow told the board that the Steuben Street Market downtown was an inspiration.)

This was the project's first time before the board in a regular meeting, so it was mostly a general introduction of the plan. A lot of the discussion with board members revolved around understanding the height of the buildings with respect to the site -- the design calls for parking garages to be tucked under each building, and the units on the top floor to be within a mansard-style roof line. Board member Martin Hull said he'd like to see more renderings to have a sense of how the project would actually look.

The project drew two comments from members of the general public. Their concerns largely focused on the scale of the buildings and how they would relate to the surrounding neighborhood of mostly two-story residential buildings. Also: There were concerns about traffic on surrounding streets, and whether there would be parking spillover from the site.

Albany planning board 2017-09-19 363 Ontario elevation

Scale -- specifically building height -- was also one of the main topics raised by Common Council member Judy Doesschate, who ran through a bunch of points discussed at a recent neighborhood meeting about the project that she said drew 60-70 people. She expressed concerns about what the actual height of the buildings would be, and the degree to which the parking underneath the buildings would be sunk into the ground. (She huddled up with project engineer Daniel Hershberg and architect Daniel Sanders to go around on the topic after the meeting.) So that will be a key issue the next time the project is up.

Another thing to keep an eye on: Jankow said the project will be seeking a payment in lieu of taxes arrangement through the city IDA. Judy Doesschate mentioned in her remarks that she's heard from landlords in the neighborhood who worry about not only facing new competition for tenants -- but also competition that's benefitting from tax breaks.

This tension between landlords of smaller buildings and the tax-break-seeking developers of large residential projects surfaced during the lead up to the big Park South redevelopment project a few years back. And it's likely to keep up surfacing as the recent boom in apartment projects spreads beyond downtown.

90 State Street

The developer behind the Harmony Mills loft conversion in Cohoes and the Albany International building loft conversion in Menands/Albany is proposing to convert the upper 10 stories of 90 State Street in downtown Albany into 120 apartments. The commercial space on the street level would continue as is.

The units would be a mix 60 2BR, 20 1BR, and 40 studios in sizes ranging from 600-1,200 square feet. Nadine Shadlock, representing the project before the board, said they'd be market-rate apartments. And the plan is to convert the space floor-by-floor through 2021.

This was the project's first time up, and the board didn't have many questions. There was some discussion about parking -- the mixed-use downtown zoning doesn't require any off-street parking, though the building has control of about 200 spaces nearby. And the board had a few questions about how construction materials would be loaded and staged -- Shadlock said they'd loaded via an elevator in the rear of the building.

This project didn't draw any public comments. But it's notable for a few reasons:

1) It's a continuation of the conversion of office space into residential downtown, and it's a big chunk of space -- almost 144,000 square feet.

2) The the city's new inclusionary zoning requirement -- which calls for 5 percent of units in projects with 50 or more units to be set aside at rent levels prescribed in the zoning -- starts December 1. And this project would be subject to it if it's not approved before then. It's worth watching how developers and the city navigate that transition.

1 Grandview Terrace

Albany planning board 2017-09-19 crowd

The project getting the happiest response Tuesday was easily 1 Grandview Terrace. Samantha Rivera was seeking a conditional use permit to use a ground level space in the building there at the intersection with 2nd Ave as a beauty salon. (These sorts of permits now fall under the jurisdiction of the planning board in the new zoning.)

Rivera had a bunch of supporters in the meeting crowd -- probably 15 or more -- and they cheered loudly when the board unanimously approved her request. Rivera returned to the gallery, a little misty eyed, and was met with hugs and congratulations. It was a very happy moment..

A crowded gallery

As we mentioned up top, planning board meetings typically draw very few members of the general public. So it was great to see the place packed Tuesday night with people there to observe and weigh in.

Also: It would be helpful for the city to provide audio equipment for these meetings so people can better hear what's going on. (This is a common complaint at many public meetings, in many venues.)

Albany Housing Authority

Two quick bits on Albany Housing Authority projects:

Ida Yarbrough
Phase two of the Ida Yarbrough Homes redevelopment was back before the board for another look. It was mostly a check-in, and didn't generate much discussion. It'll be back again.

One of the notable aspects of the project is that the 72 units in phase two will be set aside for a range of different incomes, some all the way up to 90 percent of the area median income.

30 North Swan
AHA got demolition approval to knock down a vacant building at 30 North Swan Street in Arbor Hill. The agency plans to put in grass. It sounds like it's banking the property with the hope of eventually acquiring other nearby parcels.


$1250-$1600 for apartments on the old Playdium site! Holy lack of affordable housing!

I live three blocks from the Playdium (homeowner here!!) and I really don't think our little neighborhood can handle 100 more apartments. Yes, they plaza does need a makeover, but this isn't the answer.

i wish i cared about anything as much as people in the capital district do about parking.

I totally agree Greenguy and T. The neighborhood already has an obnoxious amount of traffic (usually speeding significantly) on Ontario. I am deeply concerned that every new apartment complex in Albany (and the Capital Region) seems to shoot for high-end, luxury tenants. We need quality, affordable housing, not marble counter tops and stainless steel everything.

Personally, I would be happy with a small grocery store and few shops in the plaza.

Stop complaining about parking. This is how we're led down the primrose path to surface lots, stormwater run-off, and terrible buildings. We live in a city. When I hear "neighborhood" advocates get on the box and claim to love a place, but gripe about parking it drives me nuts. Yes, people may park on the streets. It's a public road. It stinks that you're inconvenienced by their decision to put their stuff where ever they want. But no one stood on your lawn when you bought your house, or signed our lease, and stared you down about where to put your car, did they? Focus on access to transit. Will they host or sponsor a bike share station? How about a Car Share car?

After years of living in Pine Hills I see two things: Well maintained houses that are constantly rented, and poorly maintained houses that are either so bad they go vacant or are always turning over. I really have a hard time with property owners crying foul and market competition when, in sum, there's so much affordable and under-maintained housing stock.

For what's it worth if Detomasis was siting the buildings on the east side of Ontario,between Central and Benson - it would be amazing. Same rings true for 800 block of Madison. How amazing this would be if built over the surface lot at St. Vincents. A shared lot, for St. Vincent's barely even full once a week, on Sunday, would benefit everyone.

My concern has less to do with parking and more to do with the infrastructure of the neighborhood as a whole. The streets are pretty narrow and there is already an apartment complex directly across the street from this proposed project, do we really need another one?...I too would love to see a small grocery store BESIDES Price Chopper where I could stop in and pick up last minute items in a pinch.

An apartment building to replace the playdium is a bad idea. We need to stop having these gaudy apartment buildings put in. They have for the most part been over priced and they screw over young people trying to get out on their own. I don't have an alternative but seeing an apartment building put in there would be a very sad thing to see.

Also, we live in a city. Parking usually will suck. It could be worse. Deal with it folks and focus on addressing the actual issues and propose solutions if you have them.

End rant.

Love the Google Earth links for the mentioned projects. They help a lot to let us see the actual surrounding urban context. Nice touch! We can debate design details but the new proposal on 363 Ontario Street looks quite modest to the site, definitely an improvement over the original strip mall kind of setup. Denser uses and more people only make a city stronger and better.

Common Council member Michael O'Brien apparently has his head stuck in the past. It's time to end parking minimums in Albany. The largest mistake city hall made in the rezone plan was failing to abolish parking minimums. There are tons of suburbs surrounding us, let's stop trying to force the city to become another wasteland of parking lots.

I'm thrilled that the Playdium site is being redeveloped, but not a fan of the proposed redevelopment. Part of what's nice about living in that Pine Hills neighborhood is how much of a tight-knit residential community it feels like. At the same time, you can walk a few blocks in either direction and have wonderful restaurants and amenities on Madison Ave. or New Scotland Ave. I'd much rather see something go in there that would be beneficial to the neighborhood and its residents; an asset to the community.

In terms of ideas, one of the things I've always found lacking in Albany is a great, accessible public swimming pool complex. Looking at Pine Hills, Heidelberg, Whitehall, Buckingham Lake and other large neighborhoods immediately adjacent to this location, you have TONS of families, kids and elderly folks who would flock to this place in the summer months.

You could even take it a step further and construct a public, indoor swimming pool, similar to the Wilson Aquatic Center in Washington DC. It was free to the public, there was a large lap pool, a hot tub, a childrens pool / ADA accessible pool. Local schools used it for swim training and competitions, people could take swim lessons, use meeting rooms for clubs/groups, etc. It was an AWESOME thing to witness and experience.

"I'd much rather see something go in there that would be beneficial to the neighborhood and its residents; an asset to the community."

Me too!!

I also live a few blocks from the site. Agreed that $1250+ is a high price point for 1 bed+ units, agreed that a small grocery store would be nice, agreed that something more useful to the community than just rentals would be nice, agreed that a big public recreation complex would be cool. But, the reality is that the developer is not a non-profit, a grocery store was actually mentioned as potential ground floor retail option, the current site is ugly and underutilized, and the City isn't going to buy the Playdium and build a $$MM pool complex. So - if someone is going to build 100 units of housing with ground floor retail, in lieu of a massive, mostly-empty parking lot, I'd welcome the change.

The site on Colvin is extremely contaminated with lead. I don't know about developing that site. Why not remodel those ugly and mostly vacant office buildings along Colvin instead?

Albany's population is still 34,000 people below its peak in 1950 even though we've had outward development since then (around the golf course and in the Pine Bush especially). The city needs more housing and more people to regain some vibrancy, and developers are not going to build single-family homes in the city. They are going to build multi-unit rentals and town home rentals. That's just a fact.

I live in the Pine Hills Area near the Pladium. I'm sorry to see it go. I have fond memories of times spent there. Please do not build more of those expensive apartments there. We need affordable housing in the Pine Hills Area. All the new apartments that have been developed in the city have been swanky, high priced, apartments. What about the low income people? People just starting families that are trying to make ends meet? Single people? ...Everyone just wants a decent place to live without spending their whole pay check on rent. ...A nice family style restaurant (not a fast food place) would also be nice to have in the area. But PLEASE, no more expensive housing.

Am I the only one broken up about the impending loss of a cool neighborhood bowling alley?

I would much rather the Playdium be turned into something like Asbury Lanes - Bowling alley by day, rock club by night. Filled with mid-century weirdness and serving only tater tots, cheap beer, and tiki drinks.

@ cmm2581: A big second to that idea! For years I've had a pipe dream of the Playdium being transformed into something similar to an Asbury Lanes or Brooklyn Bowl (which is a pretty amazing place I must say.) Now THAT'S the kind of adventurous and creative development this area needs.

The fact that luxury apartments are being proposed is something to celebrate -- it's a sign that our economy is improving and Albany is becoming more desirable as a place to live. Look at NYC, Boston, DC, Seattle, or any number of other major cities. The place to look for more affordable housing is older buildings (including the many abandoned ones), not new development. I look forward to seeing these projects progress.

Playdium site: Rents seam kinda high!

@Observer, developers in cities a like Seattle are buying up older buildings and abandoned properties and knocking them down for luxury condos and apartments. While this is great for a city's tax coffers, it is forcing working families to move further and further afield to find affordable housing. We need a balanced approach to new and existing housing to ensure our communities do not price out their residents.

The condemnation of developments center on two arguments

1. The rents are too high

2. Tax breaks.

About #1. Rents are dictated my market, and also by the net revenue a building needs to bring in to be viable. If the rents are too high, no one is going to move in and no bank is going to finance the project. The advertised rents are And rents would range from $1250 for 1 BR up to $1600 for a 2 BR. My home house two blocks from the proposal. $1600 a month would get you a house, just like mine, in great shape, taxes included, for FAR LESS per month. I WANT YOU TO BUY. However, for much much less, you can rent. There's no lack of affordable rents in this area. There is a lack of people shopping for homes, sadly.

2. Tax break. To receive a PILOT, the developer cannot request less that the tax value of the site that's to be redeveloped. IE the Alley pays $100k in year in tax, year one the apartments pay $100k in tax, and it gradually increases. The developer will have to demonstrate the tax savings is passed down to the tenant through a triple net lease. This proforma is part of the public record. In order to get rents to the price point to make the property marketable, and to carry the construction cost of a building this size, the developer is often times going to consider a PILOT.

The board that reviews the tax break must weigh years of blighted property and declining tax value against the opportunity cost of locking in a PILOT, supporting several construction jobs, and encouraging investment while growing a neighborhood. It's not easy decision-making.

There is a lack of people shopping for homes, sadly.

I agree. But having $20,000 in the bank to buy a home is a barrier to entry for many. The fact is, the "American Dream" is unattainable for a portion of the population and they are renters for life. I'm mostly comfortable with letting the market determine prices, but we do want people living in Albany so we have to be cautious and keep that affordable.

The only way Albany will ever be anything like Seattle in terms of prices is if in 40 years, because of coastal flooding and sea rise, people downstate and in Florida begin to move to this area in droves.

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