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Budget, Park South Plans Draw Criticism

October 8, 2013

by Zachary Olsavicky

The redevelopment of Park South and the budget for the City of Albany’s upcoming fiscal year took center stage at Monday’s Common Council meeting. The public comment period drew a mixture of community organizers, local business leaders, and public officials to City Hall.

The $171,073,000 budget for the 2014 fiscal year, which will be the final budget proposed by Mayor Jerry Jennings, decreases in size by just under $500,000 from the 2013 budget. While Jennings proposed spending $3.3 million less in expenses from 2013 to 2014, the savings gap shrinks because of a $2.3 million increase in debt servicing and a $400,000 increase on benefit spending.

The City also saw a 35% drop in payments from the State on Empire State Plaza, dropping from $22.85 million in 2013 to $15 million in 2014. The decrease in payment was scheduled, however, as the City operated with “spin-up” payments in 2012 and 2013 that gave Albany an extra $7.85 million.

In order to avoid a property tax increase or “extensive” personnel cuts, Jennings proposed no raises for city employees and took $9.8 million from the City’s fund balance. This leaves roughly $8.4 million in the fund balance for 2014 and beyond.

City treasurer Kathy Sheehan speaks to the Common Council on Monday.

City treasurer Kathy Sheehan speaks to the Common Council on Monday.

The remaining amount of money was a point of concern for Kathy Sheehan, city treasurer and Democratic mayoral candidate, who noted that it wouldn’t fill the gap left by this year’s budget, and she called on departments to closely examine what they would do to respond to future budget deficits.

“I think it’s very important,” Sheehan told the council, “as departments talk about their current year budget… that they can tell us what their plans are for dealing with the budget shortfall going out over multiple years.”

Sheehan also spoke in favor of working with three- to five-year budget plans, arguing that they would help the city to avoid future deficits and plan for when state and federal budget grants ended.

Long-term budgeting “would allow us to look out into future years and see where there are going to be issues with future revenue,” said Sheehan.

Following comment on the budget, the council shifted attention to an ordinance addressing Albany Medical Center’s planned development in the Park South neighborhood. The ordinance discussed by the Common Council would amend the Park South Urban Renewal Plan and Planned Development Overlay District.

The proposed amendments were spurred by a two-block, $110 million development plan announced over the summer by Albany Medical Center. A joint venture between the Medical Center and Tri-City Rentals, who will split costs evenly, construction is expected to begin in early 2014 and end in late 2015. The Medical Center will own the land and lease a large portion of it to Tri-City Rentals. In addition to the changes proposed in the ordinance, the plan calls for street-level retail along New Scotland and a five-story medical office building along Myrtle Avenue.

Three changes are listed in the ordinance. First, construction of a parking garage “larger… than originally anticipated,” increasing from four stories and roughly 400 spaces to six stories and roughly 875 spaces. Second, the ordinance calls for an increase in height, from four stories to six, of proposed buildings on New Scotland Avenue between Dana and Myrtle Avenues. The third change is an increase in the number of dwelling units between Robin Street and Dana, Myrtle, and New Scotland Avenues.

Most comments addressed the change to the parking garage. Representatives from Albany Medical Center claimed that the new parking spots would be for residents. But Leah Golby, council member for Albany’s tenth ward, wondered if the garage was built to handle parking for a neighboring office building, which more than doubled in size from the original plan.

Michael O’Brien, council member for the City’s tenth ward, expressed concern that the new office building, while tax-free as part of the Medical Center’s non-profit mission, may house doctors that bill privately.

“I don’t feel comfortable with this new bill,” said O’Brien, “[until] I know whether the doctor, be they staff or non-staff, are privately billing and therefore are very profitable.”

The garage would not add to the neighborhood’s quality of life, and that alternatives should be sought, said Dennis Gaffney, a resident of the nearby Helderberg neighborhood.

“Albany Med should seek other remedies for parking reasons,” he said, calling for the Medical Center to give CDTA bus passes to workers for transportation.

The height change along New Scotland also drew concerns from residents. Michael McGovern, vice president of the Park South Neighborhood Association, said the six-story buildings may not blend in well with neighborhood homes.

“This may not provide an aesthetic transition to the two-family homes,” said McGovern, “which are just two stories.”

The proposed development is part of a larger, nine-block area being renewed by the city under guidance from the redevelopment plan. Originally adopted in 2006, the plan seeks to renew the city blocks bordered by Robin, Myrtle, Lark Street, and Madison Avenue. Since the mid-2000s, a number of new building have been constructed in the area around Albany Medical Center, including a hotel, a mixture of offices and retail space, and a 1,500-car capacity parking garage.

Susan Holland, executive director of the Historic Albany Foundation, expressed concern that the ordinance would stray too far from the original plan, and suggested modifications to the amendments.

“The three amendments change the scope and intent of the original plan and, in result, some tweaks need to be done to the amendments.”

Council members will discuss budget items over the course of the next month and vote on amending the redevelopment plan at a later date.-30-


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