Banking on History

by Colleen M. Ryan

On Monday, June 14, the National Trust for Historic Preservation announced its annual list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, and a location in Albany topped the list.

Actually, this location can be found in many cities. It's the corner of "Main and Main," a symbolic representation for the bustling downtown crossroads of years gone by -- and an important component of most urban revitalization plans.

In Albany, the corner of Main and Main can be found where Central Avenue meets North Lake Avenue. Standing proudly on the southeast corner of the intersection, the former School 10 was built to serve the population of Albany as it pushed westward.

School 10 was designed by Albert Fuller (1854-1934), who at the turn of the century had a hand in developing many of Albany's landmark buildings. Fuller contributed to the design of several structures on Washington Avenue, including the Fort Orange Club, the Key Bank Park Branch, the University Club and the Harmanus Bleecker Library, as well as the Steamer 10 firehouse, now a theater, at the junction of Madison and Western Avenues in Pine Hills.

Now, in the name of progress, the Eckerd drugstore chain has proposed demolishing this school -- one of some five designed by Fuller between 1890 and 1917 -- and constructing a single-story drugstore, with a large parking lot at the front and a drive-through pharmacy window.

And unfortunately, as the National Trust for Historic Preservation points out, this is the trend around the country. To accommodate free-standing,"cookie-cutter" stores, significant historic buildings are being razed. According to the Trust, "Last year in New York State alone, sixteen communities lost important structures -- even, in some cases, entire commercial blocks -- to chain drugstores. While promising discussions are underway with CVS and Rite Aid, unless executives of all chain drugstores make a commitment to adapt their shortsighted strategies, America's Main Streets could be turned into cut-rate versions of suburban strip malls."

This type of construction would fly in the face of the Avenue 2000 plan currently being developed for the Central Avenue Business Improvement District (BID). While the plan will not be released to the public for several months, the location of School 10 falls into the Main Street Mile portion of Central Avenue. The goal is make this commercial district convenient for pedestrians, featuring shops and eateries that are built to the sidewalk, with parking in the back.

Main Street-style planning, while recalling the lively downtowns of years gone by, is also proving a popular business model for commercial zones of the future. It relies on the concept of downtown as a destination, rather than a place to drive to, run an errand, and drive home from. The introduction of car-oriented suburban strip development to this prominent intersection would break the momentum of the Main Street Mile before the plan ever gets off the ground.

The presence of historic properties in Albany sets our city apart from "everywhere else" -- they help to establish our sense of place and to define the very character of our communities. To demolish a structurally sound, architecturally relevant building to make room for a 11,000 square foot drugstore and a huge parking lot is a prime example of planning for the short-term, while sacrificing the past and limiting the future.

We should take a lesson from Buffalo's recent experience. In the early 1990's, the city lost several historic buildings for the construction of two Rite Aid drugstores. These drugstores closed within 5 years, at the whim of changing corporate strategies. Now, instead of historic properties with a multitude of possible uses, the city of Buffalo has two more vacant warehouses adrift in the middle of empty parking lots.

What are the potential uses for the School 10 building? A local ballet school was interested in using the building for rehearsal, instruction and performance space. With office space at a premium, several downtown firms have expressed an interest in converting the school to a professional building. And Equinox, an Albany-based not-for-profit which provides assistance to young people and victims of domestic violence, actually purchased the property for $1 late last year. They hired an architect to draw up plans for renovations and an addition. Yet when Eckerd began scouting for the location, the group was convinced to return the building to the City.

While School 10 would need a significant amount of work to be converted for any of these uses, the long-term interests of Central Avenue and surrounding community would be better served by preservation than demolition. And in fact, in the cities of Corning and Syracuse, drugstores actually built around or moved into existing historic buildings. Why not do the same in Albany?

The Board of Zoning Appeals is scheduled to consider a request for a variance from Eckerd management on Monday, July 26. The variance is required specifically for the inclusion of a drive-through window, and to install large free-standing signs at the perimeter of the lot. Later that week, the Eckerd team will make its preliminary presentation to Albany's planning commission. These bodies, charged with regulating the built environment of the city, will set a precedent for similar proposals on the drawing board.

One of these proposals, also offered by a big-box drugstore, would result in the demolition of almost an entire block of buildings, mostly residential, at the intersection of Delaware and Second Avenues. This plan presents a different set of concerns to neighborhood residents, including safety issues and access to pedestrians -- especially those who are elderly or disabled. Significant zoning changes would also be required, which could change the essentially residential character of Second Avenue.

Almost 100 years ago, five local architectural firms competed anonymously for the design of a downtown landmark that is currently undergoing extensive renovations, the Albany Institute of History and Art. The winning proposal was submitted by Albert Fuller and his frequent partner, William B. Pitcher, under the name of "Yesterday." Let's hope that Albany's decision-makers will honor Yesterday as they chart a course for tomorrow.

Colleen M. Ryan is a board member of the Historic Albany Foundation and president of the Hudson/Park Neighborhood Association.

Page last revised July 20, 1999