BETHLEHEM —It’s been 20 years since a series of landslides swept more than 100,000 cubic feet of hillside land, several properties and half a parking lot along a stretch of Delaware Avenue in Delmar into the Normans Kill ravine.
The first major landslide happened on Tuesday, May 16, 2000 at around 2:30 p.m. between Delaware Plaza and the bridge between Bethlehem and Albany. The first signs of the landslide began at 11 a.m. that morning. A series of landslides occurred again between May 18 and June 10.
State Department of Transportation engineers attributed the landslides’ cause to “a massive soil failure.” Then-Bethlehem Town Supervisor Sheila Fuller declared a state of emergency two days after the first landslide and said, “Tuesday afternoon at 2:30 [p.m.], our lives changed.”
The landslides forced commuters to take alternative routes temporarily, especially Route 9W, as the four-lane stretch of Delaware Avenue was reduced to two lanes only. This caused traffic congestion along Route 9W in the evening rush hour between 4 and 7 p.m. Delaware Avenue reopened to four lanes again on November 8.
Police also patrolled the site immediately until November 12 and by October 20, the constant patrol’s overtime costs totaled more than $291,000.
It took six months to stabilize and clean up the area at a cost of more than $25 million.
The landslides also affected more than 250 businesses along that Delaware Avenue stretch. In the May 31, 2000 Spotlight News article on the landslides, then-Bethlehem Chamber President Marty Delaney said that the member businesses were deprived of 16,000 to 20,000 cars a day of drive-by traffic due to the road’s partial closure.
“My lunch crowd has dropped down dramatically,” said Delaware Plaza’s Subway manager Haim Ben Eliezer in that article too. “About 40 percent of my business [came from Albany]. Now I know it’s a lot of people. The moment they closed the road, I might as well have closed my doors.”
Hoffman’s Car Wash, Jiffy Lube and an Albany Medical Center finance department office building closed due to being just yards away from the most critical erosion — the latter lost about half of its parking lot too.
Resident Maria Buono-Dominitz wrote on Facebook last week that she remembered the California Produce Marketplace, a fruit and vegetable market owned by resident Anthony Battaglia at 65 Delaware Ave. that opened a week before the landslide.
“[It] was once there and was swept down with the landslide,” she wrote. “It was there one day, then gone the next.”
Before the California Produce Marketplace’s short life, the property used to be where Bob’s Produce was located, which sold fruits, vegetables, fruit baskets and Christmas trees.
Resident Sherri Shafer wrote on Facebook that her grandfather, Charles Shafer, originally opened Bob’s Produce in 1952 in Albany and sold the business to her father, Robert Shafer, in 1979. It eventually moved to Delmar and was renamed Tri-Village Fruit Market.
However, it closed in 1998.
“The week prior to the landslide, I drove past with my boyfriend and said as a joke, ‘there’s my dad’s old store, it’ll be down the bank someday, don’t [you] know,’” she wrote. “One of those moments that I just couldn’t make up. I knew the bank would drop a little each year. I never would have imagined my joke would have become a reality.”
A special business information meeting was hosted by Fuller and Delaney on May 25, 2000 at Town Hall, nine days after the first major landslide. Business owners expressed concerns about the lack of easy access via Delaware Avenue which discouraged customers from patronizing their businesses and affected their bottom lines.
About 35 businesses applied for emergency grants totaling $290,000 under the Bethlehem Landslide Recovery Program that was announced by then-Gov. George Pataki.
The topic of local businesses worried about lane closures, less customer traffic and natural phenomena continues to this day, like with the Delaware Avenue Complete Streets Project and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dozens of local business owners met with town officials during a town meeting at the Normanside Country Club earlier this March. Many were concerned about the Delaware Avenue Complete Streets Project, the road’s upcoming construction, traffic rerouting, the road’s restriping, road safety and the potential negative impact on their businesses.
Later in early April, the Bethlehem Chamber revealed that due to COVID-19, a survey found that 40 of 90 surveyed businesses were at risk of closing, 86 reported a negative economic impact, 40 had laid off employees and 31 were experiencing supply chain issues.
Despite the passage of time, it shows how important Delaware Avenue and local businesses, regardless of location, remain to the town and its residents.