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Residents and church clash over abandoned house

July 6, 2012

by Jaired Crofut

The debate over what to do with an abandoned house owned by Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church is stirring up controversy in the Pine Hills neighborhood. With boarded up windows, a rotting exterior, and numerous untrimmed hedges perched out front, the house at 472 Western Ave. has been what many are calling an eyesore for the last few years.

The House at 472 Western

“Saint Andrew’s is our neighbor, but they have an eyesore,” said Mike D’attilio, who is the executive director for government and community relations at The College of Saint Rose. “We’re now going on a year that people have wanted it down and or saved. There’s little movement.”

According to documents provided under the Freedom of Information Law by City Clerk  Nala Woodard, St. Andrew’s church applied for a  demolition permit last October. They
removed asbestos, cut off electric services, and even completed a pest inspection.

However, when the city received the application, Saint Andrew’s representatives were told they needed to provide more information on the intended use for the land once it became a vacant lot. On the demolition application Saint Andrew’s indicated its plan to build a parking lot as a possible long-term plan. But members of the Historic Albany Foundation and the Pine Hills Neighborhood Association are opposed to a parking lot. Both organizations argue a parking lot would negatively effect the quality of life for residents in the Pine Hills neighborhood.

“I want it to be sold, and I want it to be fixed up, and I want somebody to live there,” said Virginia Hammer, a prominent member of the Pine Hills Neighborhood Association. “It’s a nice house.”

“In monetary terms you get less money in taxes for an undeveloped piece of property, which is a parking lot, if the house went back on the market you would get taxes,” said Hammer.

The situation is more complicated for Saint Andrew’s since the discovery of the building’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Members of Saint Andrew’s had previously thought the Church was the only one of their buildings on the registry.

According to Susan Holland, executive director for Historic Albany Foundation, the designation makes the church eligible for up to 40% in state and federal tax credits of the rehabilitation costs if the house is

“If you put money into that building there, that building is going to realize a profit, not right away but you’ll be able to sell that building at a good price,” said Holland.

Representatives from Saint Andrew’s, however,  have not expressed interest in selling the property or renovating it since it is in close proximity to the Parish Hall.

“We’ve owned it for 50  years, why should we be forced to sell it,” said Leonard Sippel, treasurer for Saint Andrew’s. “With money, you can do anything you want. But, first of all, we have no money. Second, we have no need for it.”

In addition, selling the property would not be a simple process for Saint Andrew’s since the property is technically owned by the Episcopal Dioceses.

“Technically all the land is owned by the dioceses. And we do not have permission from the dioceses to sell the land,” said Sippel.

Saint Andrew’s developed a document proposing a three-tier long-range land utilization plan for the property lasting until 2026. The first phase would be to add gardens and outdoor landscaping. The second phase is to build a small parking lot to support the many groups that rent the parish hall during the school year, when parking around the upper Madison area is often difficult. The third phase would use the back
corner of the lot to construct handicap access to all parts of the parish. This would include a two-story plus basement elevator and a new fire stairwell.

An expansion to the thrift shop on the first floor was also mentioned, provided there were the financial resources, a topic that both Hammer and Holland have reservations about.

“What would happen if they were gone, you would just see the land sitting there,” said Holland.

Hammer added: “Our feeling is that the church may never get enough money to build an addition.”

Despite skepticism over the financial ability of Saint Andrew’s to complete their plans for the property, and since Saint Andrew’s does not want to sell the building, church leader said there are financial
hurdles in the way of renovating the property.

However, despite what is covered on the Land Use Documentation Plan, Sippel acknowledges that a parking lot is only a possibility and not definitive.

“What’s set in stone is we want to have a green space there,” said Sippel. “The parking lot may or may not even be useable.”

On October 18th, 2011, U.W. Marx Construction Company estimated it would cost about $547,800 to rehabilitate the house for use, a price that Sippel  has said is too high. In a letter dated October 6th, 2011 Sippel acknowledged that the total revenue collected by the church last year was $228,000.

Still, members of Historic Albany questioned the estimate, and inferred that the actual cost would be much lower due to the building’s current state. Recently, Cara Macri, the director of preservation services at the foundation toured the house with Hammer and two private contractors.

A sign outside St Andrews Church

“It was beautiful. Structurally the building was in very good shape,” said Macri. “As far as vacant buildings go, it was definitely one of the better ones we’ve seen.”

Despite opposition about demolition, some residents who live near the house support the decision. Recently 10 individuals signed a petition in support of the proposal.  At least two
of the signatures were from temporary residents – student tenants.

“Last year a guy from the church came over and basically just said they were asking the neighbors if they were against it and just moving in I was kind of indifferent so I just signed,” said Derek Montanye, a student at Saint Rose, who is  from Mayfield. Montanye’s roommate signed the petition as well.

The house was built in 1900, originally as a single family home with seven bedrooms. In 1945 the owner left the
property to Saint Andrew’s Church under the condition that it would be used for church purposes.

Shortly after, 472 Western was turned into a rectory. In 1976 the house was no longer a rectory and in the last 22 years the house held several programs sponsored by Catholic Charities, which rented the house from the church.

Representatives from Saint Andrew’s claim it was not their responsibility to maintain the building, but rather the tenant’s – Catholic Charities.

“The contract we had with them is they were supposed to maintain the building,” said Sippel.

Representatives from the Catholic Dioceses did not return calls.

Although the house at 472 Western has stood for more than 100 years and is on the National Register of Historic Places, if left untreated it may eventually have to come down, whether residents like it or not, said  Saint Rose’s D’Attilio, .

The neighborhood’s Hammer added: “Even the Taj Mahal would fall apart if somebody didn’t take care of it.”  -30-


472 Western Ave Documents


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