My closing argument

The Enterprise — Jesse Sommer

Redburn Principal Jeffrey Buell receives the deed to the old Central Warehouse from County Executive Dan McCoy. In the background are Assemblymembers Patricia Fahy and John McDonald, as well as Deputy County Executive Dan Lynch.

On the sixth of January, 2022, a correlated pair of articles appeared in Albany County’s leading periodicals.

In this newspaper, my annual shriek for the Central Warehouse’s demolition lambasted both the building’s then-owner and the local political establishment for their inaction. The Times Union, meanwhile, published a report on the death of Richard Garrity, one of the Central Warehouse’s many erstwhile owners.

This concurrent reporting accentuated what several successive generations of Albanites long ago accepted as twin inalienable truths: that the Central Warehouse is an unconquerable eyesore, and that it will outlast us all.

Yet there persist visionaries who rage against this sorry state of affairs from opposite sides of the same ideological camp. On the one side are those who dream of a rooftop bar atop a rehabilitated Central Warehouse o’er which the sun rises each morning to cast its fiery glow upon a downtown in the throes of renaissance.

On the other are those who dream of a rooftop bar atop some other building constructed in the cratered footprint of a demolished Central Warehouse, the rehabilitation of which would constitute an unconscionable taxpayer boondoggle were it even remotely feasible, which it isn’t.

As a proponent of that pessimistic latter perspective, I felt compelled to get my message out. Thus I’d included in last year’s column an antagonistic broadside calculated to bait upstate New York’s fastest-growing web media company into giving me access to its expansive audience.

Proving once more that The Media loves discussing nothing more than itself, three weeks later I was summoned to appear on Two Buttons Deep’s “Behind the Buttons” podcast to defend myself against the online retaliation I’d invited.

Ever the survivor renowned for my “strategic cowardice,” I immediately disavowed all prior criticism and passionately tongue-kissed the ring while nonetheless advancing my cause. Listeners later called my appearance “a cringeworthy display of opportunistic weakness”; I called it “Tuesday.”

Yet in the days that followed, I received dozens of gushing emails/texts/DMs thanking me for so rationally advocating the Eyesore’s demolition. My message had been sent; it was now upon Destiny to receive it.

But I wasn’t the only savvy partisan postured to manipulate the media that month. I’ll get to Jeffrey Buell in a second.

For posterity

Though out of fashion in contemporary journalism, taking a yearlong beat to opine on a topic allows for a more deliberative evaluation of trends. And in contemplating the jagged thorn that’s been side-stabbing Albany for generations, the “long view” is more instructive than the hysterical amnesia wrought by social media’s turbocharged 60/24/7 clickbait battlefield.

So with an eye towards the historical record, here’s an accounting of the last twelve months:

In early March, notorious Eyesore owner Evan Blum — illiterate to the writing on the wall — sought a judicial order to vacate a Feb. 15 foreclosure judgment against him. The action languished in state court for months.

Then, in April, Mr. Blum turned to the federal courts, filing for bankruptcy for the second time in a year to demand that he be allowed to sell the property — the one on which he paid zero taxes after purchasing it for a single dollar — at auction for a minimum of $500,000. The presiding judge dismissed the motion that same day.

In response — and forgetting that Mr. Blum moonlights as a neurotic terminator zombie immune to both compromise and exhaustion — the Times Union triumphantly announced that the Central Warehouse owner’s bankruptcy bid had ended. This prompted Mr. Blum to whisper “hold my beer” while repurposing his state court motion from March to initiate an identical federal lawsuit seeking $1.5 million in damages for Albany County’s alleged “failure to follow the proper steps” in seizing the Central Warehouse via tax foreclosure.

And so it was that on my 40th birthday — with the judicial system thoroughly tied in knots by the money Mr. Blum wasn’t using to pay his overdue school and property taxes — I decided to take matters into my own hands.

Turning to a more ancient arbiter of justice, to wit, God, I made a single birthday wish: that the Central Warehouse immediately implode. And in what initially seemed proof that the Almighty works faster than municipal government, just one day later, on July 28, 2022, a vertical portion of the Eyesore’s façade crumbled onto the railroad tracks.

I later learned this had less to do with prayer than with physics. Because the day prior — on my birthday — the city of Albany had received a structural engineering report warning that the Central Warehouse was in danger of imminent collapse. And though inexplicably caught off guard by the exact scenario of which I’d previously warned, Albany mobilized with a seriousness of purpose heretofore maddeningly absent.

Mayor Kathy Sheehan declared a 30-day state of emergency, County Executive Daniel McCoy ratcheted up the smack-talk with which he’d been lashing Mr. Blum for the better part of six months, and Albany Building Commissioner Rick LaJoy toiled through the weekend alongside work crews to stabilize the Eyesore’s rotting exterior.

Within four days, Amtrak had restored commuter rail service and the public servants who’d rallied in response to this latest of the Eyesore’s potentially lethal hazards were rightfully commended for their diligence.

But because I’m dispositionally prone to drown in the glass half full, I’m obliged to note that our municipal officials were reacting to a predictably avoidable threat. Indeed, this wasn’t even the first time that the Central Warehouse’s state of decay had compelled suspension of Amtrak rail service.

To adapt an old adage: Some leaders make the trains run on time; others arrange for buses when the trains can’t run at all.

Neither politician nor pundit could reasonably claim excuse for their surprise. But that didn’t stop Chris Churchill — the Times Union columnist who on at least three prior occasions has proposed “fixing” the Central Warehouse by painting murals on the very walls which now splattered across the tracks — from seizing the conch shell.

“[The] Central Warehouse is everyone’s problem now,” he declared, as though it hadn’t been everyone’s problem throughout the half-century that it economically condemned an entire urban quadrant while intermittently catching on fire.

And that was just the title. Within the column itself, Mr. Churchill — who’s practically turned unsourced reporting into an art form — derisively claimed that razing the building would cost more than $20 million. Whether this unsubstantiated figure was parroted or concocted, the investigative reporting Mr. Churchill didn’t do now confirms that there exists no agency-led assessment of competing demolition bids, no formal evaluation of environmental mitigation metrics, and no documented examination of deconstruction-and-removal feasibility.

Yes, there are lots of enablers whose gut-reflexive contrarianism has had a pernicious impact on the inertia surrounding this building. But Mr. Churchill is in a league of his own. The man is silent about the impact on Amtrak routing when Assemblymember Patricia Fahy trots out yet another call to dismantle Interstate 787, but when confronted with a four-day demonstration that there exists a successfully workable contingency with which to ameliorate the suspension of rail service, he declares that demolition “isn’t a realistic option.” Unlike wall murals.

Penetrating the cacophonous din of elected leaders spouting from both sides of their mouths should be easy for sophisticated columnists like Mr. Churchill. Yet he’s never once noted that the very same officials who refuse to even consider leveling the Eyesore because “its debris would overwhelm the capacity of area landfills” also just allocated $5 million to study the demolition of I-787, as if the rubble from that fancy could just be left curbside on trash day.

Whatever. For all but a single upstart/upstate web media company to clearly see, the fiasco of July 28 was the willful fault of one man:  Evan Blum, the tax-dodging charlatan hellbent on holding Albany’s skyline hostage.

In the crisis’s immediate aftermath, the city gave Mr. Blum ten days to implement all due repairs and then stuck him with a $225,000 bill. He busted that deadline (along with a half-dozen others) and added the invoice to the cancerous mass of unpaid debt he’s been flagrantly expanding since 2017. As of press time, Mr. Blum hasn’t paid a dime. His litigation continues, as does local media’s curious tendency to keep publishing the bullying emails sent by his attorney.

This historical accounting doesn’t intend solely to consolidate castigation of Mr. Blum. No, my principal objective is to remind municipal officials that the charming, visionary developer they’d once held in such high esteem (and to whom they gave inordinate tax advantages) ultimately betrayed them, weaponizing the judicial system in a costly multiyear campaign of obfuscation and delay.

You’d thus think that city, county, and state officials would require the next smooth-talker with big ideas about the Central Warehouse to agree to certain express conditions before receiving title thereto, like waiving procedural rights to contest foreclosure, agreeing to an automatic reversion of the deed if deadlines are missed, and reinstatement of forgiven back-taxes if deliverables go undelivered.

But that didn’t happen. Bear with me; I’m getting to Jeffrey Buell.  

Two Buttons Loose

In the midst of Mr. Blum’s self-immolating temper-tantrum, Two Buttons Deep (2BD) again inserted itself into the fray. Following an intrepid live-recorded Aug. 12 phone call with Mr. Blum, 2BD’s Jack Carpenter issued an out-of-the-blue demand to know what Mr. Blum intended to do with the building.

It was a jaw-dropping display of tabloid fortitude; Mr. Carpenter’s uncharacteristically aggressive tone was more than justified by a shameless Mr. Blum who displayed no compunction about making deranged excuses for his inaction. “I wanted to go into the building so I could start doing repairs,” Mr. Blum claimed, speciously, “but the city won’t let me in. If I [walk in] they’ll arrest me  ... that’s what they told me.”

Yeah OK, Evan. Roger that.

Mr. Carpenter’s call was rabidly entertaining, and he was clearly having fun. (“I’ll make you a deal:  I’ll pay you $2, you’ll double your investment, and I’ll take the building over.”) Then, flexing his innate business savvy, he extended Mr. Blum a chance to tell his side of the story — deftly slipping in a shoutout to one of 2BD’s commercial sponsors in so doing.

Lo and behold, on Aug. 26, 2022, having scored his exclusive interview on location in New York City, Mr. Carpenter again warranted instant praise for deploying the only journalism yet to determine how Mr. Blum’s last name is actually pronounced (rhymes with “slum” as in “slumlord”).

But the rest of the interview crumbled into a misguided approach to journalistic objectivity. Mr. Carpenter accepted without challenge Mr. Blum’s self-anointed victimhood, he credited Mr. Blum’s publicly verifiable misrepresentations, and then he went to great pains to show even-handed empathy towards a “misunderstood guy” ostensibly down-on-his-luck. 

“I want my audience to decide how they feel about the issue,” he said in behind-the-scenes comments before telling his audience how to feel about the issue.

More egregious was the propaganda 2BD released just days later in its “Behind the Buttons” treatment of the excursion. Now joined by his venture partner, Taylor Rao, the 2BD team went full Soviet.

“I’m sorry [the Central Warehouse] is not good to look at…. The entire issue citywide is a little bit blown out of proportion,” said the *checks notes* resident of Saratoga Springs.  “People care, seemingly, more about what the outside of it is than what the inside is, because they just don’t want to look at it on the highway.”

“This building isn’t hurting anybody,” Ms. Rao continued, either unaware of or unconcerned by the mortal peril to firefighters that the Eyesore has repeatedly posed in the past. Her comments were flippantly oblivious to the recent raft of Eyesore-inspired statewide legislation proposed “to better combat the property neglect and abandonment that inhibits healthy development and which costs taxpayers millions of dollars every year in lost property taxes and remediation expenses.”

In fact, the building is hurting anybody, which was something for which Mr. Carpenter allowed in a rare burst of self-awareness: “I have no problem with the building, except when it interrupts interstate commerce with Amtrak.”

“Yeah but that was a week ago,” Ms. Rao retorted, as if the interruption of a major arterial rail line were an irritant as forgettable as a Kanye tweet, as if the quarter-million-tax dollars that this ticking time bomb required to finance emergency repairs were just a rounding error in a 2BD merchandising report.

The podcast was reckless; 2BD had handed to Mr. Blum a megaphone through which he could softly articulate his persecution while fluttering his eyelids and wondering why the critics had been silent until now.

And this is why reading is important, folks, because the press record shows that people had been clamoring for the building’s restoration or demolition — for decades — roasting the many former owners whose neglect had blighted the area. That was why municipal officials had been so eager to offload the Eyesore to Mr. Blum when he rolled into town promising progress.

“Is Mr. Blum a freaking Jedi?” I wondered as the podcast approached its denouement. How could one man so deleteriously impact Albany’s skyline from a plush Manhattan residence while making a couple upstate influencers feel so sorry for him?

While the 2BD team could be forgiven for being seduced by the same congenial charm with which Evan Blum had manipulated the city of Albany, their commitment to propaganda was impossible to excuse. By the end of the podcast, the hosts were literally depicting Mr. Blum as the perfect suitor for their mothers. No, like, literally.

I’m not trying to invite the ire of the regionally powerful Buttonista army; trust — I have a monthly budget dedicated to 2BD merch. But it’s precisely because “Jack and Taylor” are so likable that their stamp of approval is so dangerous.

Their interview with Mr. Blum was their “Jimmy Fallon tousles Donald Trump’s hair moment,” humanizing a man who continues to commit measurable harm to New York’s capital city and its financial ecosystem.

Jimmy Fallon came to regret his moment, but 2BD never atoned for its own sins, despite the fact that just three weeks after the gang’s self-congratulatory exclusive, Mr. Blum blew his legally-obligatory deadline to make repairs to the derelict building. His justification?  “I didn’t see the point,” he said.

Oh, well, in that case.

The essential fallacy of the “fairness doctrine” — and the reason it was wisely abolished — is that while there may be two sides to a story, there’s one side to a building about to collapse on commuter rail. When does an advertiser-driven entertainment platform inherit the solemn mantle of journalistic integrity? It’s hard to say exactly, but it’s a Rubicon that 2BD crossed long ago.

This increasingly influential operation — run by a humble team of Millennials genuinely oblivious to their emerging power — has become a central part of the Central Warehouse.

If you’re not tracking 2BD, then you’re unaware of this company’s capacity to define Millennial and Gen Z perceptions within the Capital District. You’re missing out on entertaining, compelling, irreverent, authentic, and estimable original content. And you’re overlooking the extent to which 2BD directly, tangibly, and unaccountably influences local development.

And that, at long last, brings me to Jeffrey Buell.

Saved by the Buell

At a press event on Dec. 22, 2022, Jeffrey Buell — the most conspicuous principal of Redburn Development Partners — became the Eyesore’s latest hot-potato recipient of the Central Warehouse deed. A late October court ruling had cleared the way for the forcible transfer of property, and Mr. Buell was again poised to steal the limelight after trampling all over my call for demolition eleven months earlier.

He had meticulously laid the groundwork for this moment more than a year and a half prior, having assembled an impressive brain trust to submit a bid to develop the Eyesore in partnership with Columbia Development Companies. Though openly acknowledging that he wasn’t sure how the Central Warehouse would be salvaged, he’d remained committed to his cause throughout Mr. Blum’s yearlong litigation circus.

By all accounts, this charismatic 42-year-old is a wonderfully selfless man with a proven track record of bringing dreams to life and a beard sculpted to perfection in a secret government lab somewhere. No wonder local media tripped over itself to fawn over Mr. Buell’s swashbuckling bravado.

But almost immediately there were troubling indicia of déjà vu, the first instance of which was the tax holiday. Albany County wiped out $549,708 in back taxes in consideration for a single payment of $50,000, which, to be sure, was a better deal than the $1 giveaway Mr. Blum enjoyed in 2017, except that the “plans” Mr. Buell’s consortium articulated were just as riveting in their vagueness and disregard of basic accounting.

On Valentine’s Day, the Albany Business Review reported that Mr. Buell’s estimated cost of renovation had been revised upward from the initially-bid $68 million to $100 million — an increase of more than 47 percent. From where would that $100 million materialize? From “everybody and their brother who might have money to help us out,” Mr. Buell said.

If I’d known my own bid would be taken seriously despite misstating the projected cost by a third and documenting no discernible source of financing, I would’ve tossed a set of blueprints into the ring.

I wasn’t the only one to recognize the implication of Mr. Buell’s astronomical cost estimate. In a letter to the Times Union, Albany County resident William Cooney put a finer point on what CW Skyway — the subsidiary consortium owned by Redburn and Columbia — meant when it said the project “would rely heavily on public support.”

“[Y]ou and I will have to pay for this concrete cubical whimsey in this desolate location abutting Interstate 787,” Cooney complained. “The Albany County Legislature needs to let its voters know the cost of development or demolition of the Central Warehouse and let them vote their preference,” Cooney later wrote in this paper, echoing public comments he’d made at the March 14 meeting of the Albany County Legislature whereat legislators resoundingly ignored his sentiments.

Interestingly, Mr. Cooney’s underlying presumption that the $100 million restoration was defensible in the first place actually begged the question. Because a comprehensive and mathematically responsible report published last February by both the Albany Parking Authority and Capital District Transit Authority established a baseline as to what downtown money could do.

At a projected cost of $81 million, the report laid out a path to demolishing Albany’s perennially disintegrating bus station and replacing it with a seven story “transit center” megaplex complete with a parking garage amenable to nearly 900 vehicles.

So even granting Mr. Churchill his $20 million demolition price tag, Redburn and Columbia could raze the Eyesore and still have $80 million left over to construct a major hub of public transportation.

And if that doesn’t cock an eyebrow, consider Mr. Buell’s concession that it would be “some time” before the public would notice any improvements to the Central Warehouse. “Probably the first $20 million, you won’t even see,” he said.

A state grant of $9.75 million for the resurrection of the Eyesore was the impetus for the Dec. 22 news conference, which I attended for want of friends and a life. I was triggered from the jump.

“We’ve always known this building would require public dollars to bring it back into use,” Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan stated in opening remarks. “And that’s why we need to have an open mind. Let’s not take any idea off the table.”

That is Olympic-level obliviousness, friends. Because the idea of demolition has never even made it onto the table, which was a point I drove home by raising my hand to inquire of Mr. Buell what, as an alternative, the cost of demolition could be. He answered honestly: “I don’t know.”

All of Mr. Buell’s answers were refreshingly frank. Maybe too frank. For example, without batting an eye, he conceded that the cost of renovating the building would exceed the dollar value of the resultant outcome.

Then, after cavalierly acknowledging that the $9.75 million grant would be just enough to let him “figure out what to do with the building,” he invited the public to submit ideas as to what could be done with the very structure he’d had an extra year to plan out and finance.

Pro tip: A project assessed to be underwater before ground is even broken should not inspire confidence. It should, however, inspire tough questions. Especially when even the Times Union is noting the Groundhog Day parallels.

That paper might’ve misspelled “Punxsutawney” in its March 2022 editorial about the Eyesore, but at least it got the gist right this past August in summarizing the perpetual musical chairs: “A new owner takes over only to run into trouble. A bank takes control, sells it for a dollar. A new owner, new promises, new dreams, only to be sold again.”

Even the Times Union editor got in on the action, satirically channeling the Central Warehouse in a first-person commentary that went entirely unheeded by the dignitaries at that Dec. 22 presser: “For decades, I’ve been handed off from one developer to another, each promising what quickly proves to be an even less viable scheme to spiff me up. And every time, local elected officials act like it’s the dawn of a new day.”

Yup. And so it was that I found myself up close and personally watching once again as Albany — county and city — stumbled headfirst into well-intentioned ambitions without a single iota of requisite due diligence. There was no indication that any of the state money — which has yet to be allocated towards specific uses — would be apportioned towards a formal and good faith “demolition feasibility study” the results of which could be published and scrutinized.

And by refusing to commission a competitively-bid demolition assessment with a portion of that “free” state grant, the officials in attendance were denying both reality and the will of their constituents.

Instead of devising a fail-safe kill-switch off-ramp, city and county officials evidently decided to accept as a matter of faith that this newest developer’s plans will work — no need for contingencies — and that Mr. Buell is somehow different than the dozen-plus contenders before him, all of whom are on public record screaming “Bingo!” with the same garbage heap of buzzwords: affordable mixed-use residential-commercial green space.

When it was her turn at the mic, Assemblymember Fahy turned to Buell with a plea: “Tell me this isn’t throwing good money after bad!” But I have it on good authority that she meant to ask the following:

“What is the total public financing you’re seeking, from what specific sources, and how will the project be impacted if you’re unable to secure that entire sum given emerging recessionary pressures? What is your timeline for assembling private financing, how much money are your investors intending to recoup and in what period, and what are the loan terms dictating your monetization of the property?”

Relatedly: “Given the regionally-unparalleled cost to rehabilitate this building, what are the projected lease and sale prices for the planned residential and commercial units? What socioeconomic demographic are you targeting for residential tenancy? What data indicates that this demo will be eager for high-end housing directly adjacent to both an interstate highway and active railroad tracks?”

Twenty years ago, my friend Lukas Snelling coined a maxim by which I’ve come to live: “If you say it can’t be done, you’re the problem.” Well, Luke, I’m not saying it can’t be done; I’m saying it won’t be done. And that’s because in the twenty years since you uttered those immortal words, I’ve cyclically borne witness to developers who overpromise just enough to keep baseless hopes alive.

Years after Mr. Blum purchased the Eyesore, this newspaper published the results of cursory Google searches which first brought to light Mr. Blum’s troubled past. So has Albany learned the right lesson when it comes to vetting?

A felony “bid-rigging” charge against the head of Columbia Development was dismissed pursuant to a prosecutorial cooperation agreement in 2018. And barely six weeks ago, a subsidiary of Redburn Development made headlines for allegations of racism and a toxic workplace culture. Even taking as false all of these past allegations, there remain legitimate questions — and if the honor system worked, we wouldn’t need the very public officials who should be asking them.

What happens if funding sources dry up, or a catastrophic structural defect is discovered, or retail lessees don’t materialize? How will Albany ensure that its tens of millions of dollars in public resourcing won’t amount to yet another giveaway if the developer walks?

Time and again have we foolishly taken at face value the representations of the Eyesore’s owners. Instead of praise and accolades, Mr. Buell needs timetables, oversight, and a wary demand that he prove himself every step of the way. As Albany once again kicks the can down the road — this time with $10 million stuffed in it — Albanites deserve assurances of accountability.

And, they deserve a local media apparatus that does its job.

When WAMC reports that Mr. Buell “sets an aggressive timeline for completing the project” and then quotes him saying “it would be really lovely to have everyone on the roof on New Year’s Eve ’24,” it’s seducing a city back to sleep with wildly unrealistic implications. That’s eleven months away. And who’s “everyone”?

When Mr. Churchill rightfully notes that “the context around the old cold-storage warehouse has changed, increasing the building’s value and making its redevelopment much more viable,” he should also emphasize that more modest development — composed of modern accouterments and requiring no reengineering — situated atop the former site of a demolished Central Warehouse is at least a plausible alternative.

When the Times Union editorial board spurs the public to “keep the pressure on, keep things moving forward,” it needs to take a hard look in the mirror and at its own Eyesore coverage over the last 15 years.  Whereas William Randolph Hearst once used his Morning Journal daily newspaper to foment the Spanish-American War, the daily rag his great-grandson inherited is more interested in uncritically publishing cool graffiti photos than in independently verifying any of the stated cost estimates.

And when 2BD turns toward the Central Warehouse the lens of a money-printing enterprise it’s built out of a genuine love for the Capital Region, it needs to remember that there’s still an imperative in advertiser-driven business models to be a dispassionate champion for truth.

Mr. Buell credited 2BD for inspiring the redevelopment of the Huck Finn’s Warehouse complex. He’s been a fixture in 2BD programming for years, and for good reason: He’s passionate about improving his communities, and he wields a résumé filled with accomplishment.

His inspirational exploits — such as buying a drink for every frazzled passenger on a chronically delayed flight home — give even Santa Claus a run for his money, and make for the exact type of content that 2BD has fashioned into a juggernaut entertainment platform.

But it’s our job as Albany residents, journalists, pundits, personalities, and politicians to make Jeff Buell be the hero we seek — not by following him blindly, but by testing his sense of direction.

Because exactly one year to the day before that correlated pair of articles appeared in Albany County’s leading periodicals, the horrific consequence of false narratives, delusion, and a skepticism unvoiced was on full display in our nation’s capital.

The sixth of January is a stark reminder that when superstition is allowed to occupy the space abandoned by rational inquiry, buildings crumble.

This will be my last column about the Eyesore until its centenary in 2027; a half-decade breath will allow for more measured conclusions. But if the Central Warehouse is to outlast us all, I hope it’s because Jeff Buell had the courage to manifest his vision, and that his far-off obituary commends him for the optimism that I lost the strength to muster.

Editor’s note: Jesse Sommer is a lifelong resident of Albany County. 
He welcomes your thoughts at