Guilderland residents fear ‘overdevelopment’ and loss of neighborhoods

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair 
History in his hands: Wayne Crounse, who lives at 2071 Western Avenue, holds up one of the many intriguing objects from the past in his home: a Vapo Cresolene vaporizer that used kerosene to heat a coal-tar product called cresol with an open flame.

GUILDERLAND — In the 1942 children’s classic, “The Little House” by Virginia Lee Burton, a small home in a rural setting becomes less and less able to feel the changing seasons as cars, roads, and eventually skyscrapers crowd in around it.

After it becomes overwhelmed by buildings and choked by exhaust, the little house is rescued by the great-great-granddaughter of the man who built it. Carted away on a flatbed truck to a new idyllic location, the little house is once again surrounded by rolling hills and apple trees, and stars twinkle above it at night.

Picking up a house and taking it to a new location sidesteps a traumatic ending to a children’s book, but it doesn’t work for the many residents of Guilderland who feel that the surroundings of their own — and equally beloved — houses are no longer the quiet, peaceful suburban setting they once were.

Kathy Zazarine and Wayne Crounse, both of whom were raised and still live on Western Avenue in the hamlet area between Route 155 and Willow Street, are concerned with the pace of development in the town.

Crounse, 77, has lived in his home at 2071 Western Avenue since 1946, when he was 3. “This was a community of residents,” he said, recalling that the population approximately doubled after World War II. “The servicemen didn’t want to live in the city,” he said, referring to Albany and Schenectady.

“People who moved out here knew it was a residential area,” he said. “They didn’t want all the commercial stuff. If they did, they would have gone out to Albany.”

He remembers when nearby New Karner Road didn’t exist; now he often can’t turn left out of his driveway, even on a weekend afternoon, he said.

Zazarine loves the home where she grew up on Western Avenue. “Even though it was a busy street, you never felt like it was encroaching on you. You felt really at home and serene,” she said.

But it’s hard for her to imagine someone buying her home now and raising a family there, largely because of the traffic. Last fall, she watched as a school bus on a weekday afternoon put out its stop sign and flashed its lights but kept its doors closed since no cars were stopping for it; finally a van stopped but, within seconds, was hit from behind, she said.

Overdevelopment, she said, is not only an issue for Western Avenue, but a broader one.

The issue is, Zazarine said, “about that buffer of forest that might separate you from what feels like an urban area.” She continued, “It’s not just Western Avenue, but it’s going into side streets, and it’s going deeper and deeper.”

One of those side streets where residents are dealing with a very real fear of development is Westmere Terrace, a cul-de-sac that lies parallel to Rapp Road, one block west. The site where Pyramid hopes to build a complex of 222 apartments and townhouses is at the end of that road, which residents describe as a quiet, long-standing residential neighborhood.

This week, 30 residents of Westmere Terrace signed a petition to the town with the goal of “maintain[ing] the current neighborhood and the quality of life for all Westmere Terrace residents and property owners in the Town of Guilderland.”

The petitioners are asking, among other things, that the street remain a dead-end with the cul-de-sac in its current configuration; that berms, trees, and a sound-barrier wall be placed between the neighborhood and the proposed complex; that traffic be mitigated; that money be set aside for homes damaged by the construction; that construction hours be limited to weekdays before 5 or 6 p.m.; and that Westmere Terrace does not become a “Ghost Street” — “Pyramid should guarantee that they will not buy out properties on Westmere Terrace,” it says.

For the residents of the 30 houses on Westmere Terrace, there has been one bright spot in the recent worries about development, said Stephen Cope of 6 Westmere Terrace: “We’ve come together as a neighborhood so beautifully.”


The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair 
In the Western Avenue home where he has lived since he was 3, Wayne Crounse, left, and Kathy Zazarine, who also lives on Western Avenue and has known Crounse all her life, look at an old spoon. “In those days, they used more silver than the alloy that went with it,” Crounse said, “and that’s why they were so soft.” He demonstrated the way the spoon can easily bend. 


Solidly built in 1927

Route 20 was almost entirely residential, Crounse said, although there were also a lot of mom-and-pop motels along the thoroughfare, as well as gas stations. “People were driving all over, because they finally had cars,” he said.

Route 20 goes across the country to Oregon, and there was a lot of truck traffic on it at first, he said, adding that there was less after the Thruway was built in 1954 or 1955. “But nowadays it doesn’t seem to matter,” he said.

His home was built very solidly in 1927 by Harry Schramm, a finish carpenter for the New York Central Railroad. All the trim in the house is American chestnut, which is now extinct, Crounse said. The home was built of rock lathe, with five-eighths-inch plasterboard, “and they put the plaster on top of that,” he said.” No one makes plaster walls today, because of the labor involved, he said. “Can you see any cracks in it?” he asked rhetorically, gesturing to a wall that remains unblemished after almost a century.

“Very low-key” is the way Crounse describes life in Guilderland in decades past. “Where the middle school is, was the Gipp pig farm.” He recalled everyone in the area putting out food scraps in garbage cans by the road for the Gipps to come by and pick up to feed to their pigs.

State Farm Road led up to a T-intersection at Western Avenue, where there was a blinking light, Crounse said.

He recalled a grassroots citizens’ campaign mounted in the 1950s by the housewives from up and down Western Avenue. Concerned about the number of cars turning up State Farm Road from Voorheesville and turning onto their street, they sat at the corner and counted cars turning right and turning left onto Western, so they could report the numbers to the state in the hope of getting a traffic light. Their pleas fell on deaf ears, he said, until after there were several crashes at the intersection.

Zazarine, who had introduced Crounse to The Enterprise and was there at his house for the interview, wondered aloud if her mother might have been one of those housewives.

It was not until the 1960s that New Karner Road was built, Crounse said; at the beginning, it was open only in the summer, and it was only one lane. If two cars met on the road, one needed to get out of the way, he said.

His house always had a huge vegetable garden on the nearly one-acre property that fed the family, Crounse said. Like everyone on the street, he would plant another row of corn every week-and-a-half or two weeks, so his family would have sweet corn throughout the summer. Everyone had pigs, Crounse said, noting that you just fed them garbage and then, eventually, he said, “You took them to Albany, where the Home Depot and Walmart are now, and they gave them back to you, all cut up.”

Crounse used to put out strawberries on the road and sell them in front of his house.

A kitchen was added in 1955; the Crounses had had only a sink until then. They changed a pantry into a bathroom. The kitchen has tile counters, he said, not very attractive to today’s buyers.

Neither of his two grown children are interested in taking over the house, Crounse said. He struggles to imagine the buyer who would want it. It would need updating to today’s taste, he said. To tear it down would be expensive, he said, “because it has asbestos.”

He’s not sure who would want to move in right between the now-empty Jiffy Lube and a veterinary clinic, particularly since he shares a driveway with the veterinary clinic. People often come down the shared drive and then park in the private driveway area behind his house. When he tells them, “You can’t park there; this is my house,” they say, “I’ll only be a minute,” he said, baffled.


The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair
Neighbors Barry and Karen Howe popped out from their home as Susan Griffiths walked by with a reporter. They brought a site plan of the apartment complex Pyramid hopes to build at the end of their cul-de-sac.


The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair
Susan Griffiths, walking Benji, raised two children at 6 Westmere Terrace, where she has lived since 1976. Her children now live on the same street. At the end of the street is a cul-de-sac put in by Pyramid, on land the company owns.


Intangible value of memories  

Kathy Zazarine, who was born in the 1960s and has lived on Western Avenue in the hamlet since she was born, reflected recently on Guilderland, by phone and at the home of Wayne Crounse, whom she has known all her life.

“I remember when it was such a haven — really lovely, wooded place where absolutely there were businesses, but the businesses weren’t so many, so duplicate, that they took over the hamlet. I don’t know if you could call it a hamlet now,” said Zazarine.

When she was growing up, much of the immediate area “was still forest,” she said, and “you could walk along Western Avenue without feeling like you were walking on a tightrope.” She still does walk on the sidewalks sometimes, she said, but she finds it scary. “The sidewalks in the hamlet are fairly narrow and broken down,” she said.

She worries that the sense of “neighborhood” in the town is diminishing, and not just on Western Avenue.

The town is becoming “a collection of businesses interspersed by the few trees that haven’t been cut down,” she said. She wonders how much of the green space in town will vanish “so we can have a better view of parking lots.” She does not want to see the town become “a string of stop lights that people pass through on their way to somewhere else.”

“Being a resident now, you see more and more of the trees decimated to make a clear view of the Starbucks or banks or the mall,” Zazarine said. “Meantime, those trees lent the business a home-town feeling, and that’s really declining,” she said.

Zazarine has supported the businesses that have moved in, many of them replacing residences, as long as they seemed appropriate and suited to the town in terms of size and character.

Two recent proposals do not seem suited to the area, she said. One is a proposal for a car wash across from the State Employees Federal Credit Union that she believes is too large for the site she says is environmentally sensitive, with the Kaikout Kill running through the ravine below it. Nearly two decades ago, the SEFCU site was the source of a citizens’ lawsuit, filed by FORCE (Friends Organized for Responsible Community Expansion, which had initially formed to oppose Crossgates Mall expansion.) The suit, filed after Guilderland’s zoning board had granted a use variance for a McDonald’s, prevented the planned fast-food restaurant from being built there.

The other is an electronic messaging center — a changing digital signboard — that has been proposed for Hamilton Square, near the intersection of routes 20 and 155, which she worries would be a distraction to drivers.   

“While I want Guilderland’s businesses to succeed, I don’t want it to be at the expense of the common good,” she said.

Zazarine also feels too many projects for senior residents are recently being jammed by developers into a “small, 59-square-mile peg,” referencing the size of the town. Apartments in Guilderland have a high occupancy rate, she said, but she wondered “what kind of proof” town residents have that multi-family projects for older residents will find enough residents.

“A perpetual state of wariness” is how Zazarine describes her recent feelings about development in town.

She’s not sure a different family would want to move into her house someday. “As much as I love the house and the property, I would wonder how a family that’s not used to this much traffic would feel.” She noted that, never having known anything else, she likes the sound of traffic going by. “I’m not sure how many young families would want to be in such an urban setting, within a suburb.”

Zazarine works on Western Avenue, in a location that should be a six-minute drive from her home, she said, although it sometimes takes closer to 45. “It’s the constant starting, stopping, and people swerving.”

Traffic has gotten worse, and it has been bad for some time, she says. When her father died almost 20 years ago, the funeral home that handled the arrangements refused to come out to pick up the family at her home. They were worried about their employees’ safety, if they asked them to pull in and out of her driveway.

Zazarine suggested that a town where it’s impossible to make left turns out of businesses is one that feels as if it is no longer of a safely navigable size for residents.

Her home is filled with memories, she said, and has a value for her that is far beyond any resale value. In the front or side yards, her father taught Zazarine and her sister to play baseball and they always had family over for visits. Her parents tended the gardens that kept the family fed.

Inside, her father — who was a double amputee because of an exploding grenade in Italy in World War II — designed special scaffolding for himself that allowed him to put up paneling and paint the ceiling. The whole family worked together to color in the faded floral wallpaper by hand “to save money for our college fund.”

Paneling may be out of favor these days, Zazarine said of one example of the improvements her parents made, “but if anybody ever wants to take down that paneling, they’ll have to go through me, because I love it.”

She hopes that someday the property will be sold to an organization involved in environmental activism, “some organization that would do my parents proud.” She vowed, “I’m going to fight to make sure it becomes more than a parking lot.” She wants to do her best for the family’s next generation, she said, while honoring the previous generation.


— Photo from Kathy Zazarine 
A tomato brings joy: At 94, while watering her vegetable garden at the family’s Western Avenue home, Margaret Zazarine, Kathy Zazarine’s mother, smiles and holds up a ripe tomato.


Cul-de-sac to be taken away?

Stephen Cope of 6 Westmere Terrace handed the petition signed by 30 residents to the Albany County Planning Board on April 18, the same petition given to Guilderland town officials, asking that residents’ concerns be taken into account when considering Pyramid’s proposal for apartments on Rapp Road.

The five-story multifamily Pyramid buildings — Westmere Terrace residents note that residents living on the upper storeys will be able to look into their yards and swimming pools — would sit at the end of Westmere Terrace, in a project that would also include up to 4,300 square feet of retail space. Currently, the paved cul-de-sac is surrounded by a tree buffer and a fence at the end of the road.

A Transit-Oriented District was established in 2018 that would concentrate development around the Crossgates Mall ring road, as a way of bypassing Western Avenue and creating an area that encourages walking or public transport.

Before Crossgates was built, Cope and a small group of Westmere Terrace residents told The Enterprise recently, farmland belonging to the Gipp family was at the end of the street. A quarter-century ago, that part of the Gipp family land was sold to Crossgates.

Originally, the road was closed off with just a log laid across, the Westmere Terrace residents said. Pyramid built the cul-de-sac for the residents during one of the expansions of Crossgates Mall, they said.

Now the area of the cul-de-sac is to be leveled and paved, residents fear.

The residents met once with James Soos, Pyramid’s director of development, they said, and learned that Pyramid wants to take back the land for the cul-de-sac. The Enterprise left messages for Pyramid executives Soos, Michael Shanley, and Stephen Congel, but did not get a call back.

Westmere Terrace residents are unsure what kind of buffer of trees or fencing they will have, if any. And their main concern, they said, is that they hope Westmere Terrace will not become a through street, an access point between the complex and Western Avenue.

Many neighbors moved to the street because it was a small, friendly cul-de-sac where they could safely walk with children in the road, Hart said. Children on the autism spectrum live in several houses on the street, she said, adding that some families on Westmere Terrace tell her they bought their homes because of the safety a cul-de-sac affords.

“I love this street because it’s so quiet,” Hart said.

“The most important thing is that this doesn’t become a through street,” said Susan Griffiths, who has lived at 6 Westmere Terrace since her house was built in 1976. Griffiths’s son and stepdaughter grew up on the street and still live there, her son in a different house. She and Cope are housemates and co-owners of the home.

Her son happened to drive by, and her daughter-in-law called out from her front door as Griffiths passed by during an informal tour of the street.

“This is like a mother’s dream,” she said of having her grown children so close by.

Neighbors Barry and Karen Howe, who have lived on the street for almost three decades, also popped out, holding a copy of the site plan for the apartment complex. “The street would get shorter,” Barry Howe said.

He pointed to an empty lot immediately beyond the two proposed apartment buildings. He said residents asked Pyramid why they didn’t slide the project over, further from their street. According to Howe, “They said, ‘No, that’s for potential future development.’”

Town Planner Kenneth Kovalchik said this week that the cul-de-sac was put in on property owned by Pyramid, as a condition of the 1994 expansion of the mall. It was never conveyed to the town as public right-of-way, he said.

Pyramid had sketched a hammerhead ending to Westmere Terrace in its plans for the complex.

A hammerhead is an approved turnaround in the New York State fire code, Kovalchik said. He said there are “probably very few” hammerheads in the town of Guilderland.

Westmere Terrace is 1,000 feet long, and so the design of any hammerhead would need to be reviewed and approved by the Westmere Fire District, he said.  

As required in the 1994 condition, Kovalchik said, a turnaround would still be provided; it may, however, be a hammerhead instead of a cul-de-sac.

The residents of Westmere Terrace have made it very clear that they don’t want any pedestrian connectivity or street  connectivity, he said. “We’re working with the applicant now on doing, potentially, a berm and a fence and landscaping.”

Cope said, “Guilderland is being developed without any concern not just for the environmental impact but for the social impact.”

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