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Albany Times Union
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The following article was printed in the Sunday Times Union on July 11,
1999.

Banking on History
by Colleen M. Ryan

    On Monday, June 14, the National Trust for Historic Preservation announced
its annual list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, and a
location in Albany topped the list.

    Actually, this location can be found in many cities. It's the corner of
"Main and Main," a symbolic representation for the bustling downtown
crossroads of years gone by -- and an important component of most urban
revitalization plans.

    In Albany, the corner of Main and Main can be found where Central Avenue
meets North Lake Avenue. Standing proudly on the southeast corner of the
intersection, the former School 10 was built to serve the population of
Albany as it pushed westward.

    School 10 was designed by Albert Fuller (1854-1934), who at the turn of the
century had a hand in developing many of Albany's landmark buildings. Fuller
contributed to the design of several structures on Washington Avenue,
including the Fort Orange Club, the Key Bank Park Branch, the University
Club and the Harmanus Bleecker Library, as well as the Steamer 10 firehouse,
now a theater, at the junction of Madison and Western Avenues in Pine Hills.

    Now, in the name of progress, the Eckerd drugstore chain has proposed
demolishing this school -- one of some five designed by Fuller between 1890
and 1917 -- and constructing a single-story drugstore, with a large parking
lot at the front and a drive-through pharmacy window.

    And unfortunately, as the National Trust for Historic Preservation points
out, this is the trend around the country. To accommodate
free-standing,"cookie-cutter" stores, significant historic buildings are
being razed. According to the Trust,

"Last year in New York State alone, sixteen communities lost important
structures -- even, in some cases, entire commercial blocks -- to chain
drugstores. While promising discussions are underway with CVS and Rite Aid,
unless executives of all chain drugstores make a commitment to adapt their
shortsighted strategies, America's Main Streets could be turned into
cut-rate versions of suburban strip malls."

    This type of construction would fly in the face of the Avenue 2000 plan
currently being developed for the Central Avenue Business Improvement
District (BID). While the plan will not be released to the public for
several months, the location of School 10 falls into the Main Street Mile
portion of Central Avenue. The goal is make this commercial district
convenient for pedestrians, featuring shops and eateries that are built to
the sidewalk, with parking in the back.

    Main Street-style planning, while recalling the lively downtowns of years
gone by, is also proving a popular business model for commercial zones of
the future. It relies on the concept of downtown as a destination, rather
than a place to drive to, run an errand, and drive home from. The
introduction of car-oriented suburban strip development to this prominent
intersection would break the momentum the ground.

    The presence of historic properties in Albany sets our city apart from
"everywhere else" -- they help to establish our sense of place and to define
the very character of our communities. To demolish a structurally sound,
architecturally relevant building to make room for a 11,000 square foot
drugstore and a huge parking lot is a prime example of planning for the
short-term, while sacrificing the past and limiting the future.

    We should take a lesson from Buffalo's recent experience. In the early
1990's, the city lost several historic buildings for the construction of two
Rite Aid drugstores. These drugstores closed within 5 years, at the whim of
changing corporate strategies. Now, instead of historic properties with a
multitude of possible uses, the city of Buffalo has two more vacant
warehouses adrift in the middle of empty parking lots.

    What are the potential uses for the School 10 building? A local ballet
school was interested in using the building for rehearsal, instruction and
performance space. With office space at a premium, several downtown firms
have expressed an interest in converting the school to a professional
building. And Equinox, an Albany-based not-for-profit which provides
assistance to young people and victims of domestic violence, actually
purchased the property for $1 late last year. They hired an architect to
draw up plans for renovations and an addition. Yet when Eckerd began
scouting for the location, the group was convinced to return the building to
the City.

    While School 10 would need a significant amount of work to be converted for
any of these uses, the long-term interests of Central Avenue and surrounding
community would be better served by preservation than demolition. And in
fact, in the cities of Corning and Syracuse, drugstores actually built
around or moved into existing historic buildings. Why not do the same in
Albany?

    The Board of Zoning Appeals is scheduled to consider a request for a
variance from Eckerd management on Monday, July 26. The variance is required
specifically for the inclusion of a drive-through window, and to install
large free-standing signs at the perimeter of the lot. Later that week, the
Eckerd team will make its preliminary presentation to Albany's planning
commission. These bodies, charged with regulating the built environment of
the city, will set a precedent for similar proposals on the drawing board.

    One of these proposals, also offered by a big-box drugstore, would result
in the demolition of almost an entire block of buildings, mostly
residential, at the intersection of Delaware and Second Avenues. This plan
presents a different set of concerns to neighborhood residents, including
safety issues and access to pedestrians -- especially those who are elderly
or disabled Significant zoning changes would also be required, which could
change the essentially residential character of Second Avenue.

    Almost 100 years ago, five local architectural firms competed anonymously
for the design of a downtown landmark that is currently undergoing extensive
renovations, the Albany Institute of History and Art. The winning proposal
was submitted by Albert Fuller and his frequent partner, William B. Pitcher,
under the name of "Yesterday." Let's hope that Albany's decision-makers will
honor Yesterday as they chart a course for tomorrow.

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Colleen M. Ryan is a board member of the Historic Albany Foundation and
president of the Hudson/Park Neighborhood Association.