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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, Ocotober 27, 2011

Crossgates boards up houses, raising concerns for residents

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Houses owned by Pyramid Companies in a neighborhood between Crossgates Mall and Route 20 are being quietly boarded up, causing concern for homeowners.

“It looks like holy hell here,” said Stephen Cadalso, who owns a home on Rielton Court.  “The plywood went up and the ‘Keep Out’ signs with no explanation. There’s no rhyme or reason. It looks like the Love Canal.”

Joseph Castaldo, the general manager of Crossgates Mall, said that Pyramid, which owns the mall, owns 14 properties in the residential neighborhood fronting the mall, which it had been leasing to tenants.

“We’ve discovered that some of the houses require significant work,” he said this week, “and, in the interest of safety, we opted to terminate the leases of the tenants that were in there. I put them up in hotels because safety is our first concern. The houses are boarded up to keep them secure.”

The houses are likely to stay that way through the winter as Pyramid evaluates what to do with them, Castaldo said; the tenants had their hotel bills paid for 30 days.

In 1998, when Pyramid had plans to build an eight-story hotel and a recreation facility at Crossgates, more than doubling the mall to about 3.6 million square feet, it bought up the residential properties at twice or even three times their assessed values. Massive citizen protest of the expansion project led the town not to approve the required zoning changes.

At the time, the transactions were secret; the properties were purchased in the name of Warp Enterprises and Westville Associates, and residents who sold signed non-disclosure statements that one said stipulated, “We’re not even supposed to tell we have a contract.”

The $100 million plan proposed in 1998 showed the expanded mall staying within the bounds of its perimeter road. That raised the question of why more land was being purchased. “We’ve been buying property between Crossgates and Route 20 for the last 20 years,” said John Safe in 1998; he was the director of development for Pyramid at the time. “It’s good investment; it’s good buffer; it’s good real estate.”

Of the land in the strip between Route 20 and the mall, Safe said, “We’re making an English couplet,” describing the entrance and exit to the mall from Route 20. “It takes one neighborhood in its entirety.”

The mall opened in 1983 with about 875,000 square feet. In 1994, it added 650,000 square feet, and, in 1997, an 18-screen cinema opened, increasing the number of screens to 30. Currently, Crossgates has no plans for expansion before any town boards.

Rehab or demolish?

Asked this week if Pyramid had any plans for development in the neighborhood between the mall and Route 20, Castaldo said, “Not right now. The only reason we’re in the situation we’re in is because we found an issue and we inspected all the properties and we found other issues and we took action to address those issues.”

Castaldo, who has managed Crossgates for a year and a half, said that about half of Pyramid’s rental properties were empty when the problem was discovered in one of the houses at the end of the summer.

Rodger Stone, Guilderland’s zoning enforcement officer, said that a tenant living in a single-story brick house at 5 Gabriel Terrace complained that the basement walls had cracks.

“We did investigate and come to find out, upon our investigation, Crossgates had their engineering firm in there and they were in the process of taking the residents out, and they put them up in hotels until they found other living space,” said Stone. “I talked to Joe Castaldo, the general manager of Crossgates, which is apparently what’s happening with several other properties over there. They’re boarded up because they checked with their engineering firm and found out there are maintenance issues that would prevent people from living in them.”

Stone said the town had no say in boarding up private properties. “We haven’t condemned any of those properties,” he said.

Thirteen years ago, when Pyramid was buying up houses, the neighborhood looked well tended. Stephen Cadalso and his wife, Joanne, point to specific houses, such as the one at the corner of Rielton Court and Gabriel Terrace that they said they knew was well cared for by the owner, the late Howard Beebe, and is now boarded up.

Asked if it is typical for buildings to deteriorate so much in 13 years that they can’t be inhabited, Stone said, “Most of those dwellings, based on what I’ve been able to find out, were built in the ’40s and ’50s and I don’t know what the maintenance was like prior to that.”

He also said, “Some of the tenants that were in there probably were not the finest tenants in the world. I don’t know any of them personally. I’m not saying that to insult anybody….Some renters don’t take care of the property. Some do, some don’t.”

Stone said that the town is waiting to see the engineering reports from Pyramid before deciding what should be done with the houses. “If they are unsafe and cause a threat to life safety of additional residents, then we would have to have them demolished, or rehabbed in some manner,” said Stone. “It just depends on what all the reports say. That’s something that we don’t have yet but we will have as soon as they finish their evaluations.”

Asked about his assessment of the one house he had been in, at 5 Gabriel Terrace, Stone said, “The basement walls are probably unreinforced concrete block and they have large cracks in them and they are bowed and it probably has to be abated in some manner whether demolition or repair, we don’t know until we actually have somebody go in and make an estimation of what it would cost to either rehab or demolish it.”

Asked if the town would have its own engineer evaluate the property, Stone said. “It’s possible.”

All of Pyramid’s properties in the residential neighborhood have been inspected, said Castaldo. “We have to make a determination from a cost perspective,” he said on what Pyramid will do next. “Depending on what the repairs are, the cost of repairs versus what you get in income, so we need to make a decision if we’re going to invest the money or do something else.”

Asked what the “something else” might be, Castaldo said, “I would expect we would demolish the structures if that’s what’s required.”

Asked when the cost analysis will be completed, Castaldo said, “I would think in the spring.”

Assessor’s view

John Macejka, Guilderland’s assessor, said it is unusual, without a natural disaster such as the recent flooding in parts of the state, to have so many houses in a single neighborhood vacant all at once.

“We haven’t seen anything like it in recent memory in Guilderland,” he said. “Usually you see it with natural disasters…You saw it with the Love Canal when hundreds of houses were condemned because of contamination,” he said referring to pollution buried by Hooker Chemical in western New York.

As far as the value of the privately-owned homes in the Crossgates neighborhood, Macejka said, “Just because a few houses have been boarded up, it doesn’t mean the value has gone down….I would have to look at the sales in the general proximity of that neighborhood… Maybe they’ll fix them up; maybe they’ll tear them down.”

Referring to Stone, he said, “I’ll be relying on Rodger’s recommendation to me” as far as demolition or reconstruction goes. Values will be set by March 1, which is the taxable status date, he said.

The two companies listed in the 1998 deeds as buyers for the properties were Warp Enterprises and Westville Associates, LLC.

Macejka looked at the current rolls and said there are eight properties for Warp Enterprises — one is on Lawton Terrace and seven are on Lehner Road; four on Lehner are one-family homes and three are vacant lots.

Nine properties, he said, are listed on the current rolls for Westville Associates, LLC: a one-family home on Lehner; two one-family homes and a multiple residence on Lawton; three vacant lots and a one-family home on Western Avenue; and a vacant commercial parcel on Crossgates Mall Road.

Living in limbo

Both of the Cadalsos were raised in Guilderland; Joanne Caldaso said that, in her youth, she used to “hang out” in the neighborhood where she lives now. She knew many of her friends’ houses intimately and is saddened now that the neighborhood has lost its closeness.

“More than half the neighborhood is rented now,” said Mrs. Cadalso.

The Cadalsos bought their house, a meticulously cared for one-story ranch, in 1985 from friends. It was built in 1950 by Otto Gabriel, said Mr. Cadalso.

The Caldalsos had planned to sell to Pyramid in 1998. Their next-door neighbor, an elderly woman, was a holdout; she wanted to live her last days in her Rielton Court home, they said.

The Cadalsos had agreed to sell their home to Pyramid for $325,000, Mr. Cadalso said, and had put down a deposit on a home to buy when Crossgates’ plans fell through. They lost their deposit and also had significant repair work to do, he said, as they had torn things out of their house, since they had a short time to move and it was to be demolished.

“These were real nice homes at one time” said Mr. Cadalso as he wistfully surveyed the neighborhood last week. “Everybody kept their houses up nice.”

“I find it hard to believe a house will go downhill in 13 years to the point where you kick people out,” said his wife.

Thirteen years ago, most of the residents The Enterprise talked to said they had had no intention of selling before being approached by Realtors. “They came in with a ton of money to uproot us all,” said one.

The McKownville United Methodist Church on Route 20 was also approached in 1998, but the congregation turned down the offer that June.  “The congregation felt there was no benefit to us or our ministry,” said Terrence O’Neill in 1998; he was the pastor at the time. He said that 35,000 cars a day went by the church, which still stands today, and it was a beacon of faith in the midst of commercialism.

Several residents in 1998 commented on how strange it was to live in a neighborhood — to have raised kids there and had longtime friendships there — that was now just “evaporating.”

Mr. Cadalso this week pointed to a house that, like his, was supposed to have been sold. But, when the deal felt through, that owner moved to her new house anyway and rented the old one.

Mr. Cadalso, who has retired after driving Guilderland school buses for 35 years, said last Friday, “We really had no intention of moving. The big concern is the condition of the neighborhood.”

He also theorized about Pyramid, “They’re killing the value of the houses here.”

“I’ve been keeping the lawns mowed. I have security going over two to four times a day,” said Castaldo of Crossgates patrol cars. “So long as we’re keeping the property neat, secure, and safe I think that’s what the neighbors should be concerned about.”

“There are no plans at this present juncture to do anything over there until the studies are completed,” said Stone this week. “I understand the neighbors’ concern but the other side of the coin is, if they’re unfit for human habitation, due to lack of structural integrity and maintenance, people can’t live there….”

Asked if he had ever seen so many houses in a single neighborhood boarded up or considered for demolition, Stone said, “no.”

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