Episode IV: A New Hope for the Central Warehouse

On Sept. 23, 2021, the Honorable Andrew Joyce — Chairman of the Albany County Legislature — took to Facebook with a particularly galling sentiment. “Many of us see the Central Warehouse property as an eyesore,” he wrote, his finger momentarily on the pulse of his community. But then, he just couldn’t help himself.

“What I see are opportunities,” he said, ticking away an outlandish series of proposed uses that will never come to fruition. “This site is ready for development right now.”

So it was that, on Sept. 23, 2021, Chairman Joyce succumbed to the tired and dissonant siren song that has seduced three generations of Albany developers, journalists, and politicians into pummeling common sense to a bloody pulp against the Eyesore’s colossal cement walls. And this perpetual Groundhog Day paralysis will persist like long-haul COVID until what must be done is done:

Knock it down.

This is my fourth installment in what has become an annual chronicle of whatever psychological trauma stymies honest consideration of “the terminal option.” Since last I spouted off in these pages, there’s been a lot of what the untrained observer might confuse with “activity” down at Albany’s old Central Warehouse.

But my fool-me-twenty-times-shame-on-me complex counsels caution; if there really are plans to rehabilitate the Big Ugly Eyesore, they need to be specific — I’m talking budgets, blueprints, receipts — and the community deserves to know what they are. Now.

It was The Altamont Enterprise that prompted last year’s overdue display of intestinal fortitude. As I confirmed in interviews the autumn before, the prevailing wisdom among local officials and columnists was that there existed no lawful process by which to seize the Eyesore from its interloping slumlord.

But just a few short months after this paper published a step-by-step tutorial of the legal mechanism by which the government could conduct a tax sale, Albany County did so. Score one for the Fourth Estate.

And lo, the cavalry cometh, parachuting in to inject a new hope for the Central Warehouse. The white knight with the shiniest armor is a coalition composed of a who’s-who-slew of notables, to include Columbia Development Cos. and Redburn Development Partners — the latter of whom has already made commendable headway on a $65 million plan to redevelop the nearby Warehouse at Huck Finn into a complex consisting of 260 residential apartments, a gym, a pool, a beach volleyball court, gardens, a dog park, and a smaller furniture warehouse, thereby finally fulfilling a prophecy foretold in song for the better part of 40 years: “Huck Finn’s Warehouse, and more!

But these developers have declined to disclose with any specificity their visions for the Eyesore. One of the potential buyers won’t even disclose his/her/their/hir/zir/eirs identity. And just as I postured to deliver a tongue-lashing indictment of such opacity, current building owner and professional hoarder Evan Blum stepped back into the line of fire, adorning himself in 2021’s hottest fashion statement: victimhood.

“It’s unfortunate that [officials] say they want to work with you but stab you in the back at the same time,” Mr. Blum told Times Union columnist Chris Churchill, omitting that officials tried in vain to work with him throughout the half decade that he paid precisely zero taxes on the building. “I’m not the bad guy,” he said, further omitting that the only aesthetic contribution he’s made to the property since his purchase — and I swear I’m not making this up — is the petulant installation of a porcelain toilet atop the building’s second-floor overhang.

Yup: We’re being trolled. But at least this time the media wasn’t buying it. Even Mr. Churchill — who for fifteen years peddled all manner of farcical garbage as to what could be done with the building — changed his tune, publishing a column that exhaustively detailed Mr. Blum’s abject failures in rehabilitating an array of crumbling edifices over the past quarter century.

I forgive Mr. Churchill’s non-attributive reliance on the exact source material to which I’d linked in my own prior article on Mr. Blum, since it’s entirely possible to replicate my research with the most routine of Google searches. Indeed, the laziest due diligence would’ve revealed what a disaster Mr. Blum would be for the city when he bought the building back in 2017.

Mr. Blum — whose name rhymes with “boom,” as in *cough* the sound dynamite makes — told Mr. Churchill that he wanted to create an arts venue for hundreds of artists, as though oblivious to the vast expanse of graffiti which already leaves nary a square inch of the building’s interior untagged. His wildly impractical 3D-rendered designs were proof positive that he hadn’t the basic grip on reality necessary to manifest a responsible restoration.

But the more salient deficiency in his conceit of what to do inside the building was that it completely ignored the rotting exterior. Read the room, Blum: Albanites are ashamed of the Eyesore because, from the outside, it looks like something Nipper excreted after getting into the Halloween candy. An antiques showroom in the atrium? Whatever. Until your building doesn’t look like dog feces, I really don’t give a buck.

A buck, incidentally, is what Mr. Blum paid for the building. That’s $1 more than what he’s invested in it since, and the reason his bankruptcy filing to thwart the county’s lawful seizure was so maddeningly disingenuous. It would take several dozen million dollars to make a dent in fixing up the Eyesore, but Mr. Blum elected to waste his money (and ours, as taxpayers) by persisting in frivolous litigation.

Mr. Blum’s petition pledged only $318,500 in building upgrades while bizarrely disregarding both the $520,823 he owes in delinquent taxes and a $78,000 penalty resulting from his flagrant code violations. I’ll spare you the suspense: On Dec. 20, 2021, a federal bankruptcy court judge rejected Mr. Blum’s fanciful Chapter 11 petition. Foreclosure can finally proceed to the only logical Step 2:

Knock it down.

Demolishing the Central Warehouse would be a massive undertaking, but it’s a course of action at least as realistic as the blithering nonsense that’s been bandied about since the Reagan Administration.

Yet, rather than commission a study on the economics, environmental impact, and logistics of leveling Albany’s Eyesore, municipal officials remain slaves to the cult of blind optimism, hysterically chanting incoherent babble like “wall mural!” and “mixed-use!” and “food market!” and “rooftop bar!”

For decades have they impotently genuflected before an endless parade of successive developers while concurrently entertaining far grander ambitions like razing Interstate 787. (Time was that local planners would test out the C-4 supply on decrepit abandoned buildings within city limits before taking on the federal interstate highway system. Sigh.)

But if government has enabled the private sector’s neglect, it’s only fair that voters take brief stock of our own culpability. Because the Central Warehouse has served as the backdrop to nearly a century of incestuous nepotism, as if deliberately constructed to accentuate Albany’s Stockholm-style commitment to family dynasties and interminable political tenures.

It was there during the ascent of Congresswoman-cum-Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, whose grandmother was a de facto leader in a Democratic political machine that just last year celebrated a century of uninterrupted viselike dominion over Albany politics — a feat unrivaled in any other self-respecting American city.

It was an eyesore during the 41-year administration of Erastus Corning II, throughout each of Gerald Jennings’s five mayoral terms, and over the course of the two terms to which Mayor Kathy Sheehan pledged to limit herself, plus the bonus one.

It was there for both Governors Cuomo, as back-to-back Frank Commissos plodded through local government, and during the administration of an earlier Honorable Joyce for whom the Albany County Office Building is named.

Dedicating buildings is easier than detonating them. That’s why — no matter what you may read to the contrary — the “Big Ugly” will still be just as Big and just as Ugly in 2025 when Albany Common Council President Corey Ellis mounts his third-time’s-the-charm campaign for mayor. Unless, of course, we:

Knock it down.

With “Blum’s Blight” on the verge of a 10th title transfer in two decades, sanguinity abounds. The most recent entrant into the cottage industry of rehashing wearied delusions about the Eyesore’s potential is Albany’s upstart new media company Two Buttons Deep. Last November, 2BD’s co-founding gonzo journalist trespassed about the (negligently unsecured) Central Warehouse and puked all over the internet a toxic sludge of unoriginal fantasy. But even blog reporters who go by the name “Cap’n Jack” have enough journalistic integrity to concede in a Dec. 10 podcast that the building is “too far gone” to be salvaged.

Ladies and gentlemen, on my knees will I thank the Almighty if someone shoves my pessimism directly back in my face, just as I’ll gladly buy the entire city its first round of whiskey in that elegant rooftop bar atop a former eyesore. But whom are we kidding?

By square footage, this is the largest warehouse in all of Albany County — a hulking tumor murder-sucking the commercial potential out of what can’t straight-facedly be called a neighborhood. The lack of self-awareness our municipal leadership displays in again kicking this can down the road while expecting a different outcome is the definition of (govern)mental illness.

How do we know that razing the building is too expensive, too dangerous, or too whatever-you’re-about-to-tweet-like-you’re-the-first-person-to-think-it? The only thing we know is that, for the past four decades, not a single developer has undertaken his promised remodeling, renovation, or reconstruction. And not a single elected representative has been held accountable therefor.

Until we have a projected cost of demolition and a sense of how the resultant debris would be removed, we have nothing against which to contrast any “plans.” We need a tangible sense of the contingencies — an explication of how and when we’ll execute the terminal option if new hopes never blum (I mean bloom). After all, the Empire State Plaza wasn’t rehabbed into existence; first there were bulldozers and a mayor’s tyrannical zeal to use them.

I therefore call on the Albany Common Council, the Albany County Legislature, State Assemblyman John T. McDonald III, State Senator Neil D. Breslin, Mayor Katherine M. Sheehan, and County Executive Daniel P. McCoy to jointly facilitate the financing and publication of a strategic evaluation of the costs, challenges, and efficacies of wholesale demolition.

I call on the New York State Department of State, the Capitalize Albany Corporation, and National Grid to pledge as much financial support towards the objective of leveling the Central Warehouse as they invested in redeveloping 11 Clinton Street.

I call on municipal managers at the city, county, and state levels to assemble a “Plan Omega” backstop to assure Albanites that, if inaction yet awaits us five years in the future, there exist preparations for demolition fireworks so astounding that Price Chopper tries to sponsor them.

And if those bidding would-be developers oppose demolition, then I call on them to immediately release their projected plans for public review and comment. In this, their silence will sound like a scream.

On Dec. 20, 2021, Chairman Joyce was at it again, performatively on-site at the Eyesore to declare to ABC-affiliate WTEN that “I don’t see … an old broken down warehouse. I see it for what it can be.” His comments come as Mr. Blum’s stage-left exit from this sordid half-century saga is imminent, rendering the moniker “Blum’s Blight” no longer apropos. So perhaps the Big Ugly Eyesore is due for rededication.

To ensure that the chairman personally dedicates himself to manifesting a skyline about which Albanites can be proud — to incentivize him to make as his top priority the refurbishment of an eyesore about which he so frequently opines — I propose that the Central Warehouse henceforth be known as “The Joyce.”

Branding like that will no doubt help spur municipal action, resulting either in a testament to visionary leadership, or in additional incentive to — say it with me — knock it down.

Prove me wrong, chattering classes. Extract from this noxious behemoth the splendor you foretell on social media, and lay rightful claim to the Key to the City! Until then, I’ll be standing by with the T-handle and blasting caps. Because we’ll need more than hope and Instagram posts to rid our city of its festering disgrace. See you next January.

Knock it down.

Jesse Sommer is a lifelong resident of Albany County. He welcomes your thoughts at .