Mr. Blum, tear down this eyesore!

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

“That festering asbestos fiesta,” Albany’s Central Warehouse, dwarfs the Alfred E. Smith State Office Building at left.

“Eyesore.” That’s how Albany’s journalistic community has referenced the century-old Central Warehouse in each and every depiction of it, in any form and every medium, over the last decade and a half. For good reason; take a gander at this Art Deco homage to structural decay and you’ll agree that “eyesore” epitomizes honesty in reporting.   

But bizarrely — and despite decades’ worth of developers proving relentlessly incapable of manifesting their visions — virtually every outlet in Albany County’s rich media landscape remains united in the persistent fantasy that there’s some solution to The Eyesore other than wholesale demolition.

There isn’t. No matter how many ideas abound, The Eyesore’s interminable dilapidation compels only one practical course of action: It’s time to knock down the old Central Warehouse. 

Constructed in 1927 and inimitable at 143 Montgomery Street, Albany’s 11-story, 508,000-square-foot Central Warehouse originally served as a refrigerated food-storage facility — ironically perfect for the post-apocalyptic world its current state suggests has already arrived.

Four years ago — after it had become abundantly clear that no one else was going to address the infected pus-filled pimple in the middle of Albany’s face — I took matters into my own hands, initiating a quixotic citizen’s campaign to rescue our city’s horizon from the repugnant atrocity holding it hostage.   

Over the course of several weeks, I contacted (and was politely dismissed by) a legion of both city and county officials, cold-calling every conceivably-applicable municipal agency until I was finally introduced to Albany-based Sunmark Federal Credit Union.

Before I get to Sunmark, it’s worth consolidating a record of the building’s owners. Concurrent with my forays through local government’s phone-tree labyrinths, I also began piecing together the puzzle of past proprietors in a gambit to figure out who deserved blame for the appalling hulk of concrete polluting our I-787 corridor.

Relying on dated local media and calls to former owners, I discovered that the building had changed hands four times in the preceding 12 years alone, and that each purchase had been plagued by plummeting asking prices in a cascading series of increasingly ludicrous transactions.   

In the early 1980s, it was owned by the eccentric Richard Gerrity, whom the City sued for ordinance violations posed by the massive biblical messaging with which he’d adorned The Eyesore’s walls. 

It stood vacant and disintegrating throughout the 1990s until, in 2002, a company known as Albany Assets bought it for $800,000. Northeast Realty Holdings owned it for a time, and then, in 2007, it was sold to CW Montgomery LLC for $1.4 million

I spoke with the owner of CW Montgomery back then; his ill-fated mixed-use ambitions were particularly awkward, in that they were so plainly impracticable. In a video business pitch he’d assembled, soaring drone footage of the building is interspersed with computer-rendered modeling evoking a lush and window-lit mall, complete with towering ceilings, an amphitheater, and even rooftop vegetation.

Reference to photos from a successful renovation of a dissimilar sister-building in Toronto was somehow designed to make the pipedream seem reasonable.

Inexplicably, the video boasts of the building’s acquisition for only $175,000 — substantially less than the reported $1.4 million. But — spoiler alert — that’s still $174,999 more than the current buyer deemed it worth.

Back to Sunmark Federal Credit Union, which purchased the property in September 2011 for $500K — a tenth of CW Montgomery’s original asking price — only to then turn around and re-list it for a still-too-inflated $199,000. 

When I spoke with Sunmark representative Glen Stacey in July 2016, he confirmed that the bank had finally executed an agreement in December 2015 to unload the property. But he dutifully refused to reveal the prospective buyer’s name. (That supposed transaction fell through, anyway.)

And that was it; I’d reached the end of the line. The trail went cold in the face of Sunmark’s intransigent unwillingness to disclose the buyer’s identity. Like so many before me, I, too, had failed to rid Albany of its preeminent physical disgrace. And thus did the Central Warehouse continue its plodding limp through history, sullying Albany’s opinion pages with all manner of unfeasible fiction as to its possible use.

But hark! There yet cometh news! 

In August 2017, a New York City-based artist operating an “architectural salvage business” purchased The Eyesore from Sunmark. Albany’s business and political classes were instantly seduced by Evan Blum’s flourishing promise “to do something for the community as opposed to counting beans,” by his depiction of the Central Warehouse as both “a blank canvas” and “a diamond in the rough,” and by his intended beautification of the building’s exterior and interior (which Enterprise readers accessing this column online can examine for themselves courtesy of a 2018 video tour filmed by an adventurous trespasser).

 

 

Unfortunately, though, Mr. Blum’s innovative approach to implementing his grand designs took the form of doing absolutely nothing. At all. For 30 months. And counting

Aside from repeatedly pledging to commence renovation, Mr. Blum’s only tangible momentum has been the mounting debt (over $400,000) he owes in unpaid city and county taxes dating back to at least 2011.      

Mr. Blum reportedly bought the long-vacant, long-crumbling warehouse for $1.  For $1, I, too, could have failed to register its address, failed to invest any money in its interior renovation or structural integrity, failed to file any applications for work permits or repairs, constantly misrepresented my intentions to government officials, and run up a half-million dollar tax bill. Indeed, I would’ve done all that for free.

Now, in a vicious cycle of rot, “Blum’s Blight” (please can we make that a thing?) drags down the neighborhood’s potential as it renders unrealistic any commercially viable use of the structure. Impressively, his proposed innovation of wrapping the building in banner advertisements would actually make the building even less attractive — a feat in its own right, I’ll concede — and I thus preemptively call for a boycott of any business that enables such lunacy.

This state of affairs isn’t new. In October 2010, Blum’s Blight caught fire and proceeded to burn for six days. Six days, ladies and gentlemen. The response?  TO LET IT BURN. Because even prior to the fire, the building looked as though it had spent most of the 20th Century consumed by a blazing inferno. 

But lest you deem indestructible an edifice capable of surviving a weeklong uncontrolled conflagration, take heart: Demolition of the building has been projected to cost a mere $1.5 million. And if that sounds like a lot to you, consider that Albany County will soon spend $1.9 million to replace a footbridge on the Albany Rail Trail in deference to the powerful “nature jogging” lobby. 

I support that decision, just as I support assembling community stakeholders to confront the challenges inherent to Blum’s Blighted Eyesore. What about a #KnockItDown GoFund me page? Or a community bake-sale carwash telethon dance-off?  Or maybe we could contact Miley Cyrus’s people? A public-private partnership committed to “KnockItDown” and the reimagination of 143 Montgomery Street would enhance both the value of the undeveloped parcel and our city vistas. 

At the very least, the status quo demands a feasibility study addressing detonation and remediation.  Surely there exist sources of financing (city, county, state, federal) or institutional grants we could apply towards demolishing that festering asbestos fiesta.

“Well since you mention it,” the chorus of contrarian devil’s advocates will no doubt righteously snort, “what’s your plan for environmental contamination? Blowing up that building could be dangerous.”

Got ya covered. In August 2016, Toni Galluzzo — Freedom of Information Law Coordinator at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation for Region 4 — responded to my languishing FOIL request. The responsive records suggest that, as determined pursuant to a DEC inspection in 2008, environmental remediation in the aftermath of demolition might not be all that problematic or cost prohibitive, thanks to Clean Harbors Environmental Services, Inc., a local hazardous waste management firm that cleared the building of its major toxic concerns in 2008 pursuant to a $52,000 contract. 

As Mr. Blum is presumably discovering in tandem with his long line of predecessors, there’s nothing to be redeemed from this irredeemable property; those who fail to acknowledge such are complicit in preventing local government from imposing the warranted tax liens and coming to terms with what needs to be done. 

Yes, knocking down the old Central Warehouse will be challenging, it will be expensive, it will present environmental hazards that we will have to address. But for how much longer will we endure the alternative? Another decade? A century? 

Let’s stop talking about the obstacles posed by reinforced concrete walls and toxic insulation. Such concerns are the day-to-day purview of engineers and regulators who stand ready to assist as soon as we amass the social will necessary to make honest use of that property. 

Accept it, Albanites: The Central Warehouse has no retrofitted future. Forty years of catastrophically failed commercial prospects is enough.   

Nostalgia?  Knock it off. Then knock it down. For it’ll never be condos. It’ll never be mixed-use housing.  It’ll never be a mall, art gallery, skate park, or antiques showroom. It’ll never sport a rooftop bar, or make use of the bottom two floors, or be a rock-climbing gym, or serve as a breathtakingly beautiful graffiti canvas welcoming tourists to the Capital District.

Indeed, it’ll never again even be a warehouse. It will persist only as a malignant eyesore until we convert it into the only thing it was ever destined to be: a crater. 

In closing, contemplate the possibility that Mr. Blum is trolling us. He owns the Central Warehouse through the auspices of a New York limited liability company operating as “The Phoenix of Albany LLC” — and a phoenix first needs ashes from which to rise. 

He’s daring us to do it. It’s time we dispense with delusion and knock down the old Central Warehouse.

Captain Jesse Sommer is a lifelong resident of Albany County, currently deployed to Afghanistan with the U.S. Army’s 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne).  He welcomes your thoughts at jesse@altamontenterprise.com.

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