In Altamont, residential and business needs collide

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair

At home: Spencer and Beth Tyson sit on the porch to their duplex on Helderberg Avenue with their children. They say affordable and suitable rent is so scarce, an expanding business could push them out of the village.

ALTAMONT — The village board is looking for more details from Stewart’s before it decides on a zoning change that would allow the convenience store with gas pumps to expand. Meanwhile, the two families who are tenants in the house that would be torn down to make way for the expansion are worried about their future.

The tenants at the duplex next to Stewart’s say they are part of the fabric of village life and would have difficulty finding a place to rent in Altamont, allowing their children to continue in the elementary school. Peter Baumann, of Albany, owns the property at 107-109 Helderberg Ave. He said earlier that he bought it with the intention of selling it to Stewart’s and had been unaware that its zoning had been changed to residential.

At a packed May 5 meeting, the village board asked Stewart’s to redo its environmental review form so that it can resubmit its application to change the zoning at 107-109 Helderberg Ave., the house next to its existing store at 1001 Altamont Blvd., according to company spokesman Chuck Marshall.

“Without Stewart’s revising this form, the board cannot go further,” said village attorney Jason L. Shaw of Whiteman, Osterman, and Hanna.

At the meeting, Marshall said it wasn’t necessary and Stewart’s may withdraw its application for the zoning change, and go back to the idea of building an addition as originally proposed to the village planning board some months ago. But this week he told The Enterprise that Stewart’s is working on redoing the State Environmental Quality Review form, and he emailed site plans showing and comparing the current and proposed lots.

The plan for Stewart’s shows the current building, in the center, with a dotted line and parking spaces surrounding it. In its place, the company wants to put a large-canopy area for gas pumps and to put a larger building farther back, to where a duplex is now standing.

 

Preliminary site plans

The site plans show that the store itself would stand in the spot where 107-109 Helderberg Ave. currently stands, although the depth of the new building would be about twice that of the current two-family house.

The number of gas pumps would increase, the site plan shows, from two to three (three pumps, that is, with two sides each), and their position would shift away from the corner and toward the center of the open part of the lot.

There would be parking spots abutting the front of the store — between the store and what Marshall refers to as the gas pump “canopy” — as well as along the side that borders the creek. Marshall said that there would also be limited areas, not marked on the site plan, to park on “the other side of the canopy.”

Marshall was asked how he would respond if the family living at 111 Helderberg Ave. — the Rothenbergs, who have lived there since 1979 — were to say that there is not enough of a buffer between that property and the proposed new Stewart’s building.

He replied, “Through the planning process, we'd work to establish a more substantial buffer than what currently exists between 111 and 107. It's important to realize that we'd only be purchasing to the property line, and we've been able to work with neighbors in similar situations and satisfy their desires.”

He added that right now between the rental home at 107-109 and the single-family home at 111 Helderberg Ave. there’s “only like one large pine tree.” He said that Stewart’s would establish “a landscape buffer between the two properties.”

He added that the site plan is preliminary and that he is not sure of the distance between the proposed store and the property line of 111 Helderberg, but that, depending on village setback regulations, “we might have to be further away than the houses are as they sit.”

The Enterprise contacted Building Inspector Glenn Hebert, but he was away from the office and unable to cite, before press time, setback regulations for properties of specific sizes.

Marshall did point out that the proposed new shop, at 3,975 square feet, would represent a net reduction in square footage, as compared to the current square footage of the existing Stewart’s (3,523 square feet) and rental house (1,754 square feet). The reduction in total square footage of the properties would be 1,302 square feet.

“We have ‘neighborhood’ and ‘traffic’ stores,” Marshall told The Enterprise. “That one’s definitely a neighborhood store. You don’t really go there unless you live in Altamont. It’s different from the one at 146 and 20, because that’s a traffic store.”

At the village board’s April meeting, Stewart’s representative Jennifer Howard, said that the expanded Altamont store would be like the Stewart’s at the intersection of routes 20 and 146. Marshall explained this week, “We meant aesthetically that the buildings would be closer in resemblance.” He wasn’t referring to scale, he said, pointing out that the Guilderland store has six pumps, as compared to the three proposed for Altamont.

He noted that the traffic passing by Guilderland daily is — according to the New York State Department of Transportation, he said — 27,000, whereas the same figure for the Altamont store is about 6,800.

Difficulties for renters

In a letter that was read at the village board meeting on May 5, Spencer and Beth Tyson, of 107 Helderberg Ave., stated that they had been living at that same property for many years, and that they were sure they would find it difficult, if not impossible, to find another rental situation that would accommodate their family and allow them to remain in Altamont, where they have raised their children and become part of the community.

Associate broker Paula Gaize of Realty USA, on Western Avenue in Guilderland, said of Altamont, “I know it’s not a place where there are a lot of rentals.” She added, “Most of the people that are there live in their own homes. On occasion, you may find an apartment above a store.”

There are scattered units here and there in the village that may or may not come up for rent at a given time, she said. “It might be possible for one family to find something, but it would be challenging,” said Gaize. What would be especially difficult, she concluded, would be “if you had multiple families looking at the same time.”

John Donato, owner of the coin-operated laundry at 996 Altamont Blvd., is a landlord in Altamont. The largest apartment he has is a three-bedroom. He has three of those, as well as four two-bedroom units, and seven one-bedroom units.

He said that they are all almost always full. “I am always getting calls about them,” he told The Enterprise. Once people get into them, they don’t tend to leave, he said.

Sandy Murphy, owner of Altamont Oaks apartment complex at 950 Altamont Blvd., said that the largest unit she has is a two-bedroom townhouse. The rent on such a unit, she said, would be $663. The complex is for low-income tenants and operates with federal housing financing.

Troy Miller, owner and broker with CM Fox Realty, owns several two-bedroom units in Altamont.  He said that he “keeps rents reasonable” and has “long-term tenants for the most part,” seeming to confirm the idea that while there may be some apartments in Altamont, many are on the smaller side, and they don’t often come up for rent.

The family upstairs

Minerva Cruz knows that it would be a challenge to find an apartment in Altamont large enough for a family with children. She lives at 109 Helderberg Ave. with her three children — one each in elementary, middle, and high school. Her youngest is currently a student in the second grade at Altamont Elementary, and her middle child graduated from Altamont as well.

Cruz told The Enterprise that she has tried looking for a comparable rental unit, so that her youngest child can stay in the local elementary school, but has not yet found “anything right for us.” They currently have four bedrooms, she said, and they would need at least three.

She understands from a business perspective Stewart’s desire to expand. She said that she also would understand if village residents support an expanded Stewart’s, even if that should mean that she has to move and have at least one of her children change schools.

Cruz, who works at Ellis Hospital, was drawn to the area almost five years ago by its quaint village atmosphere, she said. She has been in the house on Helderberg Avenue for one-and-a-half years.

Before that, she lived in an apartment on Maple Avenue in the village, but she and her family had to leave when the owner decided to sell the property. She told Baumann about this before renting the apartment, and he never mentioned anything about the idea of possibly selling to Stewart’s at some point.

“But that’s all right,” she added. Baumann has been a good landlord, she said; in the two cases when she needed something repaired, the work was done within a week-and-a-half or two weeks.

She has not attended any village board meetings, and may not attend any, because she doesn’t want to worry her children.

The Enterprise asked Baumann about what Cruz said, and he replied that, when he rented the apartment to her, he had no intention of selling to Stewart’s.

The family downstairs

Spencer and Beth Tyson spoke at length with The Enterprise on their front porch, as their three younger children played in the background. Beth Tyson works at CVS as a lead tech and her husband is the homemaker.

The Tysons have four children. The oldest is Beth’s daughter, Justine Polonski, who is now studying journalism at the State University of New York College at Oswego. The three who are living at home are eighth-grader Nickolas, fourth-grader Abigayle, and second-grader Chloe.

Spencer Tyson said that they have been trying to “shield them from this a little bit, so they don’t worry too much about it.” But recently, one of their daughter’s friends said to her, “They’re tearing down your house.’” And their daughter’s first question to her parents was, “Do we have to move to a different school?”

Their school experience at Altamont has been so great, he said, that “that’s the first thing they think of.”

Their youngest, Chloe, is about to move next year into the intermediate student wing, which houses the school’s third- through fifth-graders. She has been looking forward to this milestone in her growth, her father said. Both Tysons said that the school’s teachers have been “wonderful,” and Beth Tyson noted that Chloe has followed in Abigayle’s footsteps, having all of the same teachers that her older sister did.

The Tysons have loved going on field trips to the Altamont firehouse and to Indian Ladder Farms with each of their children

The couple relishes being able to take part in the “walking school bus,” when the principal, teachers, parents, and children all meet once a week in good weather and walk together to school. “I don’t think any other school does that,” Spencer Tyson said. “I don’t think any other school can do that,” he continued, “because they’re either on Western Avenue or Route 146 or something, so it’s not possible.”

The couple also attended a number of meetings on saving Altamont Elementary, so they consider themselves part of the groundswell of support that kept the school open.

As they mentioned in their letter to The Enterprise, Spencer Tyson has been volunteering two days a week at the school library. He helps children with whatever they need, including computer research or helping out with science projects. “It’s really rewarding,” he said, “when you walk through town and kids say, ‘Hey Mr. Tyson!’” It makes him feel like thoroughly a part of the community, he said.

Their children do many activities organized by the free library during the summer. Last summer, Beth Tyson said, “Both our youngest girls became what’s called ‘Super Readers,’ so we got the sign to put on our lawn that says ‘Super Readers Live Here.’ They love it. And we still have our sign up!”

For Beth Tyson, another great point about village life is being able to walk with the kids in the evening and run into other families that they know in Orsini Park, which provides an instant opportunity for a play date.

Spencer Tyson’s view was well balanced. He said, “Stewart’s, they’re a business. They have a right to look into expansion opportunities. We can’t control that. And our landlord, he has the right to explore his opportunity as well.”           

He added that he has no hard feelings towards Stewart’s whatsoever. “We love Stewart’s,” he said. “They let us park in their parking lot. We get ice cream there. We just wanted the board and everyone who’s coming and looking to make decisions knowing that there are families here. We’ve been here a long time. And if that’s what they decide, so be it, but we feel we still have more to contribute to this village. We still have more to give, and we don’t want to go.”

Voices in support of change

At both the April and May village board meetings, many residents spoke out against the zoning change, from residential to central business district. But, in May, several also spoke in favor of it.

Altamont’s retired police chief, George Pratt, made comments that concluded: “Does anybody realize that Stewart’s, which I may or may not be fond of, puts the village in a better overall tax base, which has been losing for many years, and I’ve been here for 40. Businesses have gradually disappeared. I am not promoting Stewart’s, I am promoting the idea of progress. If Altamont does not want progress, so be it.”

 

Nearly every day: Harold Chadderdon sits eating a bag of chips beside a sunny window at Stewart’s Friday afternoon. He rents a garage across the street in Altamont, where he works on his racing car, and, at least five days a week, Chadderdon said, he takes a seat. In favor of an expansion, he said the remodeled Stewart’s shops have better sandwiches and pizza. “The same people are in here, friendly people,” he said. The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

 

Jack Pollard, owner, with his wife, of the Home Front Café at 192 Main Street, spoke next, saying that he was neither for nor against Stewart’s; he was for the expansion of business in Altamont. He said that he has been a businessman in the village since 1958, and that his parents were in business there since 1945.

Pollard spoke of an era in which the center of the village was a very different, more vital, place: loud with coal trucks and lumber trucks rumbling through town and a business that used an “old flathead Ford engine with no mufflers” to grind feed and mix molasses, and smelly, with a chicken barn whose owner burned the chicken excrement once a week.

Pollard remembers when Paisano’s was a garage with gas pumps out in front and trucks and tractors for sale, and when “we used to build racecars”—“Boy, they were noisy”—at Charlie Weaver’s Garage across Main Street.

He said that progress necessarily involves change, and stated, “Everybody comes here and they want to stop progress.”

He argued against the idea of making the village into “a total bedroom community.” Now, he said, “We’re working on having almost no businesses in Altamont.”

A few other thoughts

The Enterprise asked Marshall if Stewart’s would consider doing what several different residents have suggested at recent board meetings: Buy the property at 127 Main St. where Ron’s Service Center was located until it burned to the ground in 2013. Currently that lot is unoccupied.

Marshall replied, “That’s easy to say, but it’s not for sale.”

According to Village Clerk Patty Blackwood, 127 Main St. is actually zoned R10, or residential single-family under 10,000 square feet. Originally the site was a gas station, built just after World War I. Blackwood said that the gas station probably predated the zoning designation. She said that it would not be possible to build a gas station there now without a zoning change.

At the village board meeting, Mayor James Gaughan listed all of the painstaking procedures that the village undertook several years ago, during the process of reviewing the village’s zoning to come up with a comprehensive plan, before changing the zoning of 107-109 Helderberg Ave. to residential. Gaughan noted that, in reviewing Stewart’s application, he plans to “emulate that same open and transparent process.”            

He assured those in the gallery on May 5, “Your input now and in the future will be taken seriously” and promised that “we will not do anything in secret.”

Finally, various residents at the meeting questioned the wisdom of prompting elementary-school-aged children to move out of the village at a time when officials are closely scrutinizing the need for an elementary school in the village.

Marshall said at the meeting that Stewart’s did not want to displace children during the school year, and, if the zoning change were to be approved, he could promise that no construction would begin until after June 2016, in an effort to allow families time to make other arrangements.

Asked what the company thought was its strongest argument for a zoning change, Marshall said, “The strongest argument for approval is that we're already in the community and want to meet their growing needs. This is also an attempt to provide what we took from the planning board as a recommendation to improve the overall project.

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