COLONIE — Six years after Richbell Capital eyeballed one of the Capital District’s largest and longest standing eyesores and half the building is down.
And most in the West End neighbors could not be more thrilled.
“We have been waiting for a long time to see it happen and now that it is finally happening people are pretty excited about it,” said owner of Recycled Salon on Sand Creek Road, David Belschwinder, who started the group West Albany Strong. “It is going to be a nice shot in the arm around here. We are going to get some new blood. Possibly a few new places to eat, or some other types of shops and some new people in here.”
He said residents are already seeing their property values going up and he has talked to professional people who work in the neighborhood who come in for a haircut already talking about moving into the new apartments Richbell has planned for the 32-acre site.
“I’m a pretty patient guy. It took them a lot to get through all the red tape but I knew it would happen. Some people wanted it to happen right away but the town wants it, the neighborhood wants it so I was pretty confident it would be coming down.”
There are two downsides, he said. One is that the meat packing plant that opened in 1924 and in its heyday employed some 1,600 people is such a huge part of the West Albany history. And secondly, he said, if new people start moving in he expects new customers which will force him to work harder.
“It is a big part of our history that is coming down but they (Richbell) have been supportive of West Albany Strong and I think that is pretty cool they are already promoting the neighborhood,” he said. “It’s the end of an era but we all want to be proud of this area and we are pumped. I know I’m excited. I may have to work a little harder, but that’s OK. It’s going to be cool.”
At first glance, the six-year timeline might not seem that impressive, but this is the furthest anyone has come to knocking down the massive, 500,000-square-foot building and redeveloping the 32 acres located in a prime location with access to the highway and in the center of about everything. Over three decades there has been a consistent, but as best a lukewarm interest.
“We took a very conservative and systematic approach to it and we always knew it was going to come down,” said Richbell President Bill Hoblock. “We are fortunate to have gotten a lot further than other developers who have looked at this site over the last 30 years.”
After months of asbestos and other forms of abatement, Jackson Demolition has been methodically reducing the massive structure to rubble, which Hoblock said will be used in some form as the site is re-developed rather than carted away.
The company, one of the largest demolition outfits in the Capital District based out of Schenectady, began with the smaller buildings that were scattered around the Exchange Street site and then moved to what is known as the “low rise,” or the one-story half of the building on the east side. That half of the overall footprint was used for offices and storage and was not as solidly built as what is known as the “high rise,” or the west half of the building.
“That is where the structure is built with five feet of reinforced concrete. Basically, it’s one big freezer,” he said.
That portion of the building might take a little longer, but Hoblock still expects Jackson to start on it by next month and have it down by the end of January with cleanup and crushing going on probably until spring.
The high rise is three stories, with the extra thick, reinforced walls, but Jackson will still use conventional methods of demolition, which means ripping and tearing at the building with large machinery rather than rather than use explosives.
How they bring down the 200-foot high smokestack is still being worked out, Hoblock said.
The east side of the site, where the low rise once stood, is now littered with piles of rubble and last week, operators of heavy machinery were pulling foundations out of the ground while others were using huge jackhammers attached to track hoes to bust everything up into manageable pieces.
Richbell, based in Saratoga, developed the plan in 2015 and purchased the site from a limited liability company, called Exchange Street Associates, a year later. That Saratoga based company purchased it from the Albany County Industrial Development Agency, which bought it from the federal government for $150,000 in 1984 with high hopes of re-developing the site.
Earlier this year, Hoblock said he secured a $14.4 million loan that does three things: refinances the purchase of the site and the building, pays for the abatement of hazardous materials inside and around the plant and pays to knock the building down.
The Town of Colonie also received $1 million in Restore NY funds from the state to help pay for the demolition costs.
What Richbell had initially planned for the site — a mix of residential, retail and entertainment to create a “pedestrian friendly, walkable community that incorporates all elements of a live/work/play atmosphere” — was changed by COVID-19 along with the rest of the world.
It will still likely have a mix of residential, retail, entertainment and hospitality but the configuration and schedule for each stage will likely shift.
“Right now the focus is on Phase I, which is primarily residential. Market rate, upscale apartments which is what we do for a living,” Hoblock said. “There may be a non-residential component to Phase I, a co-working space, some wellness and fitness space and some light food and beverage geared towards those two uses, but Phase I is primarily residential because we know residential works.”
Retail continues to take a hit thanks to COVID-19 and there has been an acceleration of the shift to online shopping that was already gaining in popularity before people were afraid to walk into a crowded store. Hotels and the hospitality industry — as well as bars and restaurants — also continue to feel the effects of COVID-19, even though most restrictions have been relaxed.
Hoblock said he hopes to submit preliminary plans to the joint Planning Board, in the near future.
“There is a parallel path going on. We will be getting the demo finished and will begin going through the site plan review process at the same time,” he said. “We are almost ready to move forward with the plans in front of the consolidated Planning Boards but we are cautions and conservative, that is how we operate and this is how we are going to succeed.”
As per a little used state law, since the project straddles the City of Albany and the Town of Colonie line, there is a joint five-member Planning Board with two from Colonie, two from Albany and one agreed upon appointment. A joint Zoning Board of Appeals was established following the same format should it become necessary to appeal any zoning or land use regulations.
The location is perfect and has drawn interest over the decades including a Walmart, a Cabela’s outdoor sportsmen’s supply warehouse, a casino, a hotel, a nursing home and a Lowe’s. Those projects never got past a news cycle or two and the building still stood in part, because of the prohibitive demolition costs.
Hoblock, though, never doubted that the building would come down this time around.
“We were able to purchase the property and we were able to get a commitment of public funds for the demo, which is necessary because it is a massive building and taking it down is very expensive,” he said. “We have been conservative and systematic and if you live near there it is a big deal to see one of the biggest, grimmest eyesores in the Capital District finally come down. The monstrosity has sat there for far too long.”
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