Another mixed-use proposal for contaminated Western Avenue site

— From Guilderland Village LLC to the town of Guilderland

A developer is seeking permission from the town of Guilderland to build 285 apartments — 171 two-bedroom units and 114 one-bedroom units — at the corner of Western Avenue and Foundry Road. 

GUILDERLAND — Perhaps the fifth time will be the charm for the latest developer looking to turn an environmental disaster at the corner of Western Avenue and Foundry Road into expensive housing and retail space.

The Guilderland Town Board on May 7 voted unanimously to accept Guilderland Village LLC’s application for a proposed Planned Unit Development, to be called Foundry Square, on 13 acres of land spread across five separate tax parcels between 2298 and 2314 Western Ave.

Acceptance of the application, it was stressed during the meeting, is merely the first step of many toward project approval. And it would seem, given the board’s cool reception, it could also end up being a high point for the proposal, as no board member had anything that could be characterized as resembling a positive statement about the development. 

“This is kind of our last hurrah,” Theresa Bohl had told the town board on April 16 of the Guilderland Village proposal.

Bohl identified herself as the inherited major shareholder of Charles Bohl Inc. and noted that her family hadn’t been the cause of the pollution, having bought the dry cleaners in 2011 to satisfy a potential buyer.

“Since 2013, I have been working with DEC and trying to get that site remediated … Everyone has kind of passed so I’m left holding the bag,” said Bohl.

“We have spent over a million dollars remediating the old gas-station site,” Bohl said.

She went on to say that the corporation that owns the properties, Charles Bohl Inc., is bankrupt and owes $1.5 million to a lender. “The property is selling for less than that and I stand to get zero out of it …,” said Bohl.

Guilderland Village LLC is seeking approval from the town board, the lead agency for all proposed PUDs because it requires a change in zoning, to build two four-story buildings consisting of 285 apartments: 171 two-bedroom units and 114 one-bedroom units. 

Neither the proposed height of the buildings, four stories, nor the number of units proposed, 22 units per acre, are allowed by Guilderland’s zoning, but in seeking a PUD, the developer is able to ask the town board to approve both requests because planned unit developments do not have a set limits on height or density; however, the town board typically uses the allowable density in its multi-residential district, 12 dwelling units per buildable acre, as guidance.

When last proposed, two years ago by a different developer, Armand Quadrini, the then-Foundry Village project was envisioned as a two-story 202-unit development with 6,400 square feet for a medical office, 5,000 square feet of commercial space, and a separate 1,500-square-foot building for a restaurant or a bank.

 

Contamination

Two years prior, in early 2020, Foundry Village was proposed as 140 apartments with over 15,000 square feet of commercial space. Quadrini at the time was prepared to pay as much as $2 million to clean up the site, which was once home to Master Cleaners, the source of the contamination, and, in 2016, was added to the list of state-designated brownfields. 

A brownfield, according to the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, is defined as any real property where a contaminant is present at levels exceeding the soil cleanup objective or other health-based or environmental standards, criteria, or guidance adopted by the DEC, which in 2019 concluded the former Master Cleaners site posed a significant threat to the public health and environment, and that clean-up of the soil and groundwater was required.

Master Cleaners was in operations from about 1956 through 1996. Albany County took title to the property in 2001, following a tax foreclosure. It was then purchased in September 2011 by current owner Charles Bohl Incorporated.

Previous testing of the site found its “primary contaminants of concern” to be “chlorinated volatile organic compounds (VOCs), particularly tetrachloroethene (PCE), trichloroethene (TCE), and their breakdown products. PCE and TCE, widely used in fabric dry-cleaning, are nonflammable, colorless liquids at room temperature that evaporate easily into the air and emit an ether-like odor.”

Both chemicals, according to a 2017 investigation by engineering firm C.T. Male, were “detected in the site’s soil and groundwater. While soil concentrations of these chemicals were found to be below the soil cleanup objectives for restricted use, groundwater concentrations exceeded the applicable standards set by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC), necessitating further investigation and possibly remedial action.”

C.T. Male’s claims were backed up by earlier testing, which “suggests that dry cleaning chemicals might have been released into the site’s soil and groundwater at some point during its operation,” but “the nature and extent of the contamination [was] not fully characterized.”

A project memo submitted to the Guilderland Town Board by Town Planner Kenneth Kovalchik stated, “Chlorinated solvents are present in soil and groundwater at depths up to 15 feet below grade. Groundwater is present at shallow depths ranging from 1 to 6 feet below grade depending on the season and location. There is a distinct confining clay layer at the site ranging from 11 feet to 15 feet below grade that appears to be limiting the vertical migration of contaminants.”

This contamination, Kovalckik wrote, “has already impacted a tributary of the Hunger Kill and is in close proximity to the Hunger Kill and residential properties along Foundry Road.”

Because of the cost of clean-up, Quadrini initially told the town he would need approval for 248 units to make the project work, but eventually told The Enterprise he’d settle, rather was he “hoping” to receive permission, for fewer than half that figure, 120 units. 

Quadrini’s contamination problem wasn’t the first time a developer had been derailed by the site’s existing conditions. There were earlier attempts to build an assisted-living facility, but that proposal fell through over a disagreement with property owner, the late Charles Bohl, as to who would be responsible for covering the cost of environmental cleanup.

Another developer also expressed interest in building 75 units of “workforce” housing on the site, but that proposal was scuttled by an associate of the developer with whom he did not wish to compete with for state brownfield credits. 

 

May 7 presentation

During its most-recent meeting, the town board heard a presentation from engineer Daniel Hershberg, who was speaking on behalf of the project’s owners. 

Hershberg first laid out why the proposal is a money-suck, seeking to make a case to board members why the additional height and density was necessary.

“People aware of the site know there’s a significant brownfield cleanup to be done, Hershberg said, which is “not an inexpensive process … even with brownfield credits.” Earlier estimates were that it would cost $2.5 million to clean up the site; Hershberg said 15 percent of the site was covered by the brownfield.

Hershberg also said the proposal would need “significant traffic improvements,” which meant developer-provided turn lanes on Western Avenue and a new right-hand turn lane on Foundry Road. 

“And the third,” Hershberg said, “the third problem is … the development of the site.” In order to get enough density, Hershberg said Guilderland Village would have to build four-story buildings; town code allows for only two-and-a-half-story structures.

The proposal is “certainly an opportunity for this town to clean up that corner, which has been a problem for a number of years, and [isn’t] getting any better by itself,” Hershberg said.

 

Affordability

But to make that opportunity a reality, Hershberg said his client needed “some consideration here with regard to density,” a request that was followed by what appeared to be, at least in the opinion of the project development team, a sweetener.

“The applicant also proposes,” Hershberg said, to designate as workforce housing 10 percent of the proposed 285 units. Workforce housing, Hershberg explained, “was a step above affordable housing.”

The project team preferred to use the workforce-housing designation, rather than the affordable-housing standard because more income would be received from workforce renters than ones who qualified for affordable housing. 

In his memo to the board, Kovalchik explained that “workforce housing is defined as housing affordable to households earning between 60 and 120 percent of area median income (AMI),” which in Guilderland is approximately $102,000 per year.

Kovalchik wrote, “Workforce housing targets middle-income workers which include professions such as police officers, firefighters, teachers, health care workers, retail clerks, etc.”

“Workforce housing,” according to Kovalchik, is a term “most often used to indicate a program targeted at households that earn too much to qualify for traditional affordable housing subsidies,” which, according to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, are vouchers for households earning up to half of the area median income.

Kovalchik wrote “Households earning up to 80% of AMI are eligible to live in Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) properties. Relative to these programs, workforce housing is most commonly intended for households with incomes between 80% and 120% of AMI.”

On May 7, Supervisor Peter Barber was the first to respond to Hershberg’s presentation. 

“I understand it’s a brownfield,” Barber said. “I understand it’s costly to repair, remedy, and all that. I understand there’s going to be substantial road improvements,” but what the supervisor wanted both the board and public to understand was “those are statements right now. And we need to find out what’s actually behind all that.”

The board would not make any decisions about height or density on May 7, Barber said, “I mean, these are all things that need to be analyzed.”

He then turned to the workforce housing proposal.

“I always thought that workforce housing was a subset of affordable housing,” he said. “It’s not Section 8 housing,” he said, referring to a federal program that pays part of the rent for income-eligible households. “But it’s still meant to provide housing that was more affordable to people who are teachers, police officers, [and] state workers .…”

Hershberg told the supervisor that teachers, cops, and other government employees are “exactly the group” workforce housing is designed for. 

But the issue with workforce housing being “a step above affordable housing,” Hershberg said, is that there “are virtually no grants available … you’re on your own to try to make it work.”

He estimated that about 95 percent of affordable housing today receives some kind of subsidy to make it affordable, but that isn’t the case with workforce housing. “There’s no such funds available to us,” said Hershberg.

Hershberg said Guilderland’s code didn’t define workforce housing, let alone affordable housing. “So we’re sort of on our own,” he said.

Barber responded that was why the second item on the May 7 agenda was the proposed adoption of a six-month residential building moratorium. The board delayed the adoption till its next meeting, on May 21,  due to what the Albany County Planning Board said were notification issues: The moratorium proposal had to be sent to neighboring municipalities, per New York State’s General Municipal Law.

Barber said the residential building halt would allow Kovalchik and the planning department the opportunity “to look into some of those questions.”

Board members Gustavo Santos and Amanda Beedle also wanted to discuss the Guilderland Village workforce housing proposal. 

Santos asked Hershberg who decides who gets approved for the lower monthly rent. 

“Anybody else that applies, that meets the qualification, gets it,” Hershberg responded. “Now, there’s a process to go through. The applicant has to accept it, and then they have to maintain a list, which is normally  — in communities — it’s either passed out, passed on to a controller or a treasurer in the town government that reviews it and says that those figures look correct and they qualify.”

But the problem with workforce housing, Hershberg admitted, is they are “normally annual year-to-year rentals,” where “somebody comes along and all of a sudden they’re earning more money than qualifies them for that area,” at which point the renter would either have to vacate or agree to pay market rate for the apartment. 

“Some of the problems with workforce housing is it’s an administrative process,” Hershberg said. “The applicant has to keep a list, has to maintain it, has to annually send out a questionnaire to the people who are on it, and has to normally refer it to a person in the town that maintains those lists.”

Beedle asked if it were possible for the developer to increase the percentage of workforce rentals at Foundry Square from 10 to 25 percent of total housing. 

“This project can’t afford to be done with 25 percent [workforce] housing,” Hershberg said, to which Beedle responded, if 25 percent were too high a figure, what about 15 or 20 percent?

Hershberg told her he didn’t believe the project was “at the position yet [where] we can really work all in numbers. There’s still things to be determined, how far we have to go.”

In a conversation he had just that day, Hershberg said the impression he’d received from the developers, who are the same folks who once made the claim that the now-very-luxury Hamilton Parc apartments on State Farm Road would be market-rent rentals for senior citizens, was that “10 percent workforce housing is the most they can afford to put in the site and have it financially viable.”

Hershberg said he thought committing to a minimum of 10 percent workforce housing was “a good position for us to take and present it to the board, because it’s more than required to do.”

But he also admitted, “We’re asking this board to approve more than they would normally approve, both with density, building heights, etcetera,” before concluding, “It really is a give and take,” Hershberg said, an observation that appeared to be very one-sided in the opinion of most board members. 

Deputy Supervisor Christine Napierski said she’d be more inclined to “to grant this if you would assure us that you’d at least try to find more workforce housing.” But, she went on, she’d have “to really consider voting against” the application “if you’re going to sit there and say, ‘No, we’re not going to do that.’”

While the vote to accept Guilderland Village’s application was ultimately unanimous, the gesture was more perfunctory than supportive. 

“To me, this is like: Does it pass go?” Barber said in a response to Napierski’s question about the board’s options and obligations on May 7. “I mean, is it enough for the board to say it’s a brownfield site, it’s got some problems, it’s got some issues, [but] we have an applicant that is willing to address these concerns, knowing full well that they’re looking for a density that is greater than what the code allows, [and] that we’d like to see more affordable options in terms of workforce housing as part of that.”

There are still many questions to be answered, Barber said, “and we all express[ed] our concerns, [but] I just think it’s best to get the ball rolling on this by doing the the first steps,” which is declaring the proposal a Type I action under the state’s Environmental Quality Review Act, “the highest SEQR review, starting the coordinated review with all involve agencies,” and hiring a town-designated engineer to help start the process.

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