The Central Warehouse, set for auction, is still an eyesore that must come down

Original Central Warehouse blueprints.

The news yesterday spread faster than the fires that twice engulfed Albany’s Eyesore in the last 11 years: Albany County has listed the Central Warehouse for auction.

Within an hour of the Times Union’s bombshell report that the county had seized the initiative to auction off the Central Warehouse, News 10 had picked up the story. The Albany Business Review wasn’t far behind.

By 9 p.m., reactions on social media had exploded, which, as a description, conveniently segues into yet another plea for this wretched structure’s detonation.

“They never contacted me,” building owner Evan Blum told a reporter for the Albany Business Review, vowing to fight the county’s planned auction. “I don’t even know how they have the right to do it. You would think there would be a process to do that.”

As it turns out, there is a process “to do that,” and Mr. Blum would’ve known the county had the right “to do it” had he been an Altamont Enterprise subscriber. Because this past January, the Enterprise followed up on my inaugural call to demolish the Big Ugly Eyesore by urging Albany County to enforce the half-million-dollar tax lien.

Citing applicable provisions of New York’s Real Property Tax Law, the Enterprise meticulously detailed Mr. Blum’s reprehensible inaction throughout the four years since he’d purchased the building, and demanded that local officials do something.  

That is the real story here.

Albany County’s dramatic maneuver to auction the building (check the listing available on its website) is the first salvo of what will be an arduous process. Yet it already reflects the efficacy of community mobilization through the auspices of local media. In affording a forum within which to advocate for action, the Enterprise’s continuous Central Warehouse coverage helped raise awareness and mobilize a response.

But it couldn’t have done it alone. In a seeming “high five” from the opinion pages on opposite sides of Albany’s weekly vs. daily print media divide, last month I penned a letter to the Times Union editor commending the “apparent turnabout by one of Albany’s most visible commentators,” who had a month prior finally acknowledged the wisdom of knocking down the “ongoing safety problem.” In this case, the nexus between government action and a hometown’s media echo chamber is hard to refute.

That’s because local newspapers are uniquely suited to identify long-standing controversies and involve the public in their resolution. They focus attention and, thereby, resources to improve communities. Citizen involvement matters; the Enterprise and her sister publications continue to channel it. Sure enough, local officials listened, considered, researched, and finally took action.  

And that’s the other facet to this story. It’s easy to forget that our municipal officers are themselves members of our community, selected to advance the constituent interests they reflect. Their jobs are thankless, contentious, and — once the campaigns are over — unglamorous.

So it’s important to recognize our elected, appointed, and otherwise dedicated public servants for jobs well done. Indeed: in this and so many other ways, the McCoy and Sheehan administrations are a credit to our county and city interests.   

Except that now it’s time for more whining, because that’s the sound “pursuit of happiness” makes.

“I got no due process,” Mr. Blum told the Albany Business Review, conveniently forgetting the three-day trial in Albany City Court earlier this year wherein Judge Helena Heath fined him $78,800 for a slew of code violations. Resorting to a novel tactic he’d most recently used to address his overdue tax bill, Mr. Blum — drumroll please — didn’t pay the fine.  

“I’m not the bad guy,” Mr. Blum declared to the Times Union, sounding very much like the bad guy. He warned that, if the county sold the building, the new owner would be “some slob who doesn’t do much for the city,” in what neutral observers are describing as the most self-unaware pronouncement of 2021.   

But if Mr. Blum’s latest proposal — to wit, that the building’s massive blank exteriors be adorned with a “continually changing ‘mural show’” — sounds delusional, it pales in comparison to our local government’s bated-breath expectation of a knight-in-shining-billions.

Because right on schedule, Albany County spokeswoman Mary Rozak announced that Albany hadn’t “given up hope” for “a person who will be the right fit, who has a plan that will put the building back on the tax rolls.” Meanwhile, over at City Hall, Chief of Staff David Galin heralded Mayor Kathy Sheehan’s confidence that “the private sector will step up and make a compelling proposal for the site.”

An aside: One of the limitations to the written word is that it doesn’t satisfactorily convey furiously desperate shrieking. So readers will just have to use their imagination when I reiterate that DEMOLITION. IS. THE. ONLY. FEASIBLE. OPTION.

Deep breath. Calm. Let’s take a beat; walk with me here.

History repeats itself

Thanks to gracious research assistance by Carl Johnson, longtime publisher of Hoxsie — an online magazine that celebrates Capital District history — I was able to ascertain that the Central Warehouse was constructed by a company known as the Central Railway Terminal & Cold Storage Co. Inc. (An advertisement in the Knickerbocker Press on May 4, 1927 announces the offer of securitized equity in the building.)

But just shy of seven years ago, a gentleman by the name of Eugene B. O’Brien advanced a slightly different origin story in a comment to an article about the Central Warehouse on the once beloved but now defunct “All Over Albany” blog.

“I believe the Central Warehouse may originally have been built by what was, in 1916, the Albany Terminal Warehouse Company,” he wrote. “My great-grandfather, John F. O’Brien, who was also a New York Secretary of State in the early years of the last century, was its President. By 1930, the organization’s name had changed slightly, to the Albany Terminal and Security Warehouse Co. My grandfather, John L. O’Brien, Sr., who died in 1980, was its President.”

I was unable to corroborate the Albany Terminal Warehouse Company’s authorship of the Eyesore. But John F. O’Brien was indeed once New York’s secretary of state, and an advertisement published on a dusty old page of this very newspaper on Jan. 31, 1969 identifies John L. O’Brien as the president of the Central Warehouse Corporation, which New York State records reflect as having an initial Department of State filing date of July 23, 1935 and a dissolution effective Sept. 29, 1993.

Regardless of how these marginally conflicting accounts ultimately reconcile, the reason this history is important — the reason I remain so obsessively insistent on consolidating the Central Warehouse’s record in easily recallable columns — is that resolutely documenting the Central Warehouse’s trajectory is the most effective way of illustrating how hopeless is the promise for its supposed modern-day potential.  

Yes, there was once a use for that building, ladies and gentlemen, just as there was once a use for the telegraph, kerosene lamps, and phones produced prior to 2013.  

But that’s all behind us now. Each time we try to envision or reinvent a use for this disintegrating structure, we confront the Eyesore’s history — and specifically, the one that incessantly keeps repeating itself. Just look at what Matt Baumgartner, Albany’s most defining Gen X serial entrepreneur, wrote on his Times Union blog back in June 2009:

“[R]ecently I have heard that some big development company bought [the Central Warehouse] and is planning on turning it into apartments or condos or whatever, with storefronts at the bottom. Every night before I go to bed, I ... pray to Jerry Jennings that this rumor is true. Wouldn’t that be FANTASTIC for Albany?! To have beautiful, modern, riverfront, sustainable condos in that building?”

Different mayor, same pipe dream.  

Please: Re-read my past columns about the warehouse. I’ve documented each and every one of the failed endeavors that have successively burdened us with false hopes that delay the inevitable.

Just for sport, here’s another entry in the sordid tumble of developers thwarted by the Big Ugly’s uncompromising intransigence: After Trustco Bank acquired the Central Warehouse at a foreclosure auction in 1996, it sold the building to Frank Crisafulli, a retired owner of a food-distribution company, for $1 and approximately $120,000 in back taxes.

Add that to the other ten transactions I’ve previously detailed. Fellow Albanites, for the sake of whatever sanity has yet to slip through our fingers, I’m throwing down the gauntlet. I dare you to make something of this sinister slab of concrete.

Promise me

For readers accessing this column online — here:  

Take both sets of blueprints to the building I’ve collected!  

Take the architect’s original building designs!  

Take Albany County’s complete summary of the building’s recent transactions, property description, contaminant profile, and tax maps!

The only thing I plead with you not to take — you intrepid pie-in-the-sky property developer heaven-sent to answer Matt Baumgartner’s prayers from over 10 years ago — is time.  

Look, you win: I’ll do it, guys. I’ll take the plunge. I’ll cross my fingers and join everyone for a 60th instance of believing something practical, meaningful, wonderful can be done with an edifice that has blighted Albany’s backdrop since before the grandparents of those county and city spokespeople were born.  

I’ll give you six more years of faith that we can finally rehabilitate the historical relic that now threatens to mutilate the views of our new skyway park. But in return, you give me your word:  


If we still haven’t found a developer to manifest our hopes and dreams by May of 2027 — 100 years after the Knickerbocker Press announced the arrival of that brand new Central Warehouse — let’s jointly commit to dropping the Big Ugly Eyesore like the bad habit it’s become.

That means lining up the C-4 now, folks. Because the next smooth-talking out-of-towner is right around the corner, peddling lofty promises and fuzzy math, ready to do nothing with that building but give me something to kvetch about.

Captain Jesse Sommer is an active duty Army paratrooper and lifelong resident of Albany County. He welcomes your thoughts at [email protected].