Friday, March 30, 2007

Demolition Man

Whining developer Bruce Levinsky finally got his way, as he always does. The city’s Design Review Commission finally signed a demolition order for Captain Arrogance to rip down the rotted brick and beam west wing of the Rip Van Dam Hotel, which has stood over Washington Street for nearly two centuries.

By his comments, DRC Chairman Patrick Kane seemed a bit perturbed by having to ring the death knell for the 187-year-old building, as well he should. In fact, he should feel an unabashed sense of embarrassment for presiding over the commission while the demolition procession sadly marched forward through the city's bureaucracy like the Nazis did through Paris during Word War II.

Some would argue the wing isn’t worth the litigation hassle needed to save it, given its architectural design and so-called historical significance. By today’s standards, the structure isn’t much more than an unspectacular stack of crumbling 19th century bricks and warped wooden timbers. In fact, give anyone of the strip developers in this city a couple hundred grand, and they could probably replicate the wing with a fair degree of accuracy, even without a set of blue prints.

“In the period it was built, the plainness of the building would have been offensive,” said James Kettlewell, a professor emeritus at Skidmore College and member of the Saratoga Spring Preservation Society. “Considering all the factors, the argument is not sufficiently strong to save the building.”

Unless, of course, one considers the span of history this building weathered, including 32 U.S. presidents, no less than 10 national wars and the admittance of 23 new states into the union. The wing stood despite conflagrations that collapsed many of the adjacent behemoth hotels once dotting the Broadway streetscape; it also endured the urban renewal efforts of the 1950s, which consumed those grand hotels not consumed by flames. Then, perhaps, this so-called plainness is brought into context.

It’s a sad commentary when a building that stood without fail from 1840 until last year is deemed so far gone that a wrecking ball is the only viable solution. It’s even sadder to consider that Levinsky could have invested a few thousand dollars to rectify the building in its entirety when he first took over the Rip Van Dam 10 years ago.

But for the egotistical developer, preservation efforts would have meant scrapping plans to create luxury suites at the location, a project city leaders sent back to the drawing board years ago because it didn’t fit the character of the street corner. And now, thanks to Levinsky's stuborness, city patrons will have a nice block of asphalt to stare at for the next few summers, as he retools his plans for the building.

More importantly, however, the DRC has now set a dangerous precedent for other developers to tinker with and malign the city’s historical structures as they see fit. As Levinsky has demonstrated, provide a developer has deep pockets, they can simply out wait the bleating preservationists until the blustering city officials capitualate. In the end, Levinsky simply needed to pony up a paltry $90,000 –$20,000 in fines and $70,000 he'll get back once the demolition is completed to the city’s satisfaction –to smite a piece of living history into the past.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

So you’re saying there’s a chance

Rumors are nothing to get excited over, unless you happen to be the executive director of the Glens Falls Civic Center or a local hockey fan starved for good action since the Adirondack Red Wings left the region eight years ago. Sources in the American Hockey League –the same NHL-feeder organization the Wings once belonged to –claim the Hartford Wolf Pack’s management could be in the running for a new city, now that Connecticut officials have stripped Madison Square Garden of their contract with the Hartford Civic Center.

Granted, this is just a rumor. And true, there’s nothing even remotely official at this point. But there is a plausible chance if the moons are in alignment that the New York Rangers farm club –a team that has won one championship and made the playoffs in eight consecutive seasons –could be lacing them up in Glens Falls next year.

For those who don’t closely follow Hartford politics – and shame on you for not –here’s how everything has shaken out thus far. The Connecticut Development Authority recently awarded a six-year contract to the partnership of Northland Investment Corporation and AEG Worldwide, shunning a lower bid pitched by Madison Square Garden, the owner of both the Ranger and Wolf Pack franchises.

At the center of everything is Lawrence R. Gottesdiener, the chief executive Northland, who for years has toiled among the streets of the Connecticut capital in search of failing areas of the city where he could lend his own personal Midas touch. No doubt, one of those areas is the Hartford Civic Center, which has struggled to maintain fiscal viability ever since the NHL’s Whalers departed for the Carolinas nearly a decade ago.

Despite Hartford’s deep and endearing love for hockey, Gottesdiener apparently hasn’t show much interest in keeping the Rangers’ farm team as part of his plans for the arena. Perhaps that’s because the real estate mogul is more interested in attracting a team from the world professional sports –perhaps even one of hockey’s many teams.

See, minor league hockey has the ability to draw people to an arena, but lacks any such flare to draw people to a city. And with millions of dollars invested in real estate throughout city, Gottesdiener certainly isn’t interested in simply filling seats at the Hartford Civic Center.

So where does the other civic center come in? Well, faced with the possibility of a forced departure within several months, the Garden brass put out feelers this week for hockey towns within driving distance of Manhattan. The two cities that turned up were Danbury, Conn., and Glens Falls, both which have had the misfortune of losing their major draws this past year when their respective UHL teams bit the dust –not that the UHL was really much of a draw to begin with.

When comparing the two locations, Glens Falls seems like the ideal choice for MSG. First, the city has not only a history, but a tradition of hockey, which has been sorely missed by fans throughout the northern corridor of New York. Now, the closest thing to professional hockey is the new-look Albany River Rats, who now are ironically the farm team of the Carolina Hurricanes. Having the Wolf Pack would not only tap local fans, but also local Ranger fans, which resoundingly supported the club when they visited Lake George last fall.

Glens Falls also has the leg up on Danbury with regards to seating. While it’s a far stretch to bank on the civic center selling out for Pack games, it does boast nearly 2,000 more seats than Danbury, which incidentally, has already secured a new tenant for the departed Trashers. Not to mention, the Civic Center has remained darkened for more days this year than in the previous 30 years or so, meaning Garden officials would likely get a sweet deal on rent with little more than a promise to pay a bit of the aging facility’s upkeep.

Everything will be a bit clearer after Connecticut officials meet with Gottesdiener today and discuss the future for the southeasterly civic center. But were Glens Falls Mayor Roy Atkins even a bit savvy, he’d be on the horn with MSG as fast as his chubby little fingers could dial their number.

Glens Falls isn’t a sure thing for the Wolf Pack, but it could be the best thing in wake of the uncertainty swirling around Hartford right now. At least up north, they’d have a loyal fan base that would unwaveringly support the Ranger rookies as they work their way south to the big city. And best of all, a sucessful professional hockey team back in the region could make Barry Melrose, the mindless walking mullet, eat a bit of crow for his moronic comments about hockey in Glens Falls.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Cop calls

Dishing out justice is an expensive endeavor. Whether it’s putting cops on the beat, judges in the courtroom, or criminals in prison, it isn’t cheap to keep the streets clean these days, as the Spa City’s City Council learned Monday, when a private engineering firm estimated a new station, courthouse and facility will run more than $21 million to construct.

As anyone with a cursory knowledge of building costs could have attested long before the city shelled out $30,000 for the study, a new public safety office ain’t going to cost a piddling $8- to $9 million. Now, with the results from the so-called feasibility study in hand, even the most myopic of city councilors couldn’t possibly say this new facility won’t cost the taxpayers dearly, even including a $7 million slush fund promised by a freshman congresswoman.

But you can’t put a price tag on public safety, the justice machine bellows. Both the city police and courts are growing in tandem with the population, so without a new station, everyone could be at risk, they claim; buck up, suck it up and pony up the cash, Saratoga. Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and build, build, build, right?

Not exactly. First, let’s ask the question why the number of city court cases has doubled in from 5,000 to 10,000 in just one decade. While the city population has certainly increased –some estimates have it ballooning from about 26,000 to 31,000 over the past decade –it’s hard to see how this increase would have caused such an overwhelming burden on the court system. Given these rudimentary figures, the 6,000 new inhabitants would need to generate almost two new court cases a year to cause this sudden spike.

And then there is the issue about the size of the department itself. There’s no doubt that Saratoga Springs is one of the safer, if not the safest city among those in the Capital Region. No doubt, this is in part a result of the often omnipresent 73-officer strong police force patrolling the streets. There does, however, come a point when having cops on the street waiting for crime becomes a bid redundant and expensive.

Then there’s the issue of where in the city to put the aforementioned station, a 20,000- to 30,000-square-foot monstrosity. Some have suggested in the city-owned lot off Putnam Street near Lillian’s Restaurant or Woodlawn Avenue by Adirondack Trust Co. Then again, someone might want to ask Ray Morris or Charlie Wait their thoughts on a jailhouse opening up near their back entrances.

Perhaps instead of hammering home a new station, it’s time to evaluate exactly where crime is occurring in the city, how frequently it is occurring, and what has been burdening the court system so much as of late. Another question to ask would be why, after 119 years, fund the construction of a huge conglomerate office now?

Yes, the police station looks cramped even to the casual onlooker. But there have got to be better solutions that doling out tens of millions of dollars for a facility that will allow the courts and police to expand at will, rather than thinking out with rationality any augmentation to either; if you give them the space, they will use it and the city government will grow just a bit more each year. Not to mention, what happens to the 8,700-square-foot hole in City Hall? Chances are pretty good that something will expand into that as well.

Here’s a better idea: research ways to make the police force leaner and more efficient, while looking into ways to modernize and expand the facility they have now. There is always more than one way to skin a cat. Just when it comes to public servants, they usually want to choose the more expensive way that will gain them the most bells and whistles.

Editor’s note: for some reason, this post has encountered technical difficulties beyond my abilities or desire to rectify. As some may have noticed, the comments section has been curiously removed from only this post. But fear not, i-Saratoga's undaunted tech guys are on the matter. The following is copied verbatim from what was once posted.

Les Clutter said: Cutting cops is not the answer especially when the population is growing in a city that is busy all year long with tourism. According to the Department of Justice Uniform Crime Report for 2002 the national average is 2.3 officers per thousand residents. I don’t know what they recommend today.

Friday, March 23, 2007


People make mistakes. That’s why they put erasers on pencils. But when you’re getting paid the big bucks to be the managing editor of a daily newspaper and you’re still making the same bonehead mistakes a first-year reporter might make, it’s time to re-evaluate your position in journalism.

This is especially the case if you happen to be the head steward and guiding light of The Saratogian while making those mistakes. Such was the case in Barbara Lombardo’s slip-shod advertorial “localizing” the television shoot of ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” in neighboring Albany County.

It’s no secret that Lombardo is a nine-to-fiver, who relies heavily on Microsoft Word and her crew of copy editors to clean up the prose that is routinely published with glaring typos and grammatical errors. But when a news veteran of nearly three decades of editorial experience confuses the word “to” with “two” in a repetitious and verbose 43-word lead to a non-story, she also provides her critics with unequivocal proof of why her paper is such an abysmal publication.

Pushing all this aside, however, it’s a bit curious that Lombardo bothered to jump on the media circus bandwagon bound for Colonie. With the home located more than 30 miles away from the newsroom on Lake Avenue, it almost seems as if Lombardo can’t find enough news in the city or Saratoga County to fill the flimsy paper each day.

Lombardo did manage to get in a good shout-out for all the local businesses expected to contribute to the project, something which might pay dividends for The Saratogian’s ad department later down the road. After all, as long as the advertising dough keeps rolling in, the Journal Register Company’s bean counters shouldn’t be too concerned over small things like news content and the local paper serving as a vital information source for the local community.

Neither should Lombardo, who hasn’t shown an interest in changing the paper or challenging her newsroom since it was jettisoned by Gannett nearly a decade ago. In Lombardo’s extremely limited defense, the profit-hungry ad-pandering whores at JRC have never given much credence to improving the quality of their product; in essence, Lombardo is their perfect shill, an editor who has no problem cutting news content if it will make the corporate overlords a bit happier.

As some may recall, chief executive Robert Jelenic insisted JRC planned to increase the paper's size by as much as 50 percent, to at least 24 pages daily at the time of the sale in Februarys 1998. He also pledged not to layoff a single Saratogian worker. Less than a month later, JRC canned more than two dozen full- and part-time workers. These departures were followed a year later by Monte Trammer, the paper’s publisher of 13 years, who inconspicuously left for a new job with Gannett in lovely Elmira of all places. Meanwhile, Lombardo donned her best Sunday suit and smiled for her chiseling corporate overlords.

Since that time, the corner office on Lake Avenue has seen no less than six JRC publishers, including one on an interim basis and another recently transplanted from the Troy Record. The Saratogian continues to hang around 10,000 daily subscribers, making it the smallest daily publication in the region to report circulation numbers, despite being located in a city with a population of 31,000 and a rapidly growing county of more than 265,000 residents.

But the penny-pinching JRC swindlers seem very content with the increasingly recalcitrant Lombardo, who seems equally smug with doing virtually nothing to improve the quality of the newspaper. Of course, “to succeed in this market, you have to believe in evolution,” a veteran news editor was once quoted saying.

"You don't have to be the big guy to survive, but you have to be able to adapt," Lombardo told the Times Union during a journalism seminar in 1991.

Well, it’s high time for a true news organization to pluck The Saratogian from the corporate clutches of JRC and “adapt” Lombardo into an early retirement –or at least out of her job. Maybe then, some good community journalism can return to the Spa City

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Leave those kids alone

In a random survey of 170 parents across the Saratoga Springs middle and high school parents, a solid 86 percent likened themselves to an ostrich with its head in the sand and don’t think their kids booze. An even greater number of these parents –89 percent –also happened to forget in its entirety, their adolescence and the teenage predilection for boozing. Shocking numbers were the recent poll of alcohol and substance abuse conducted by the Saratoga Partnership for Prevention amounted to anything more than a hill of beans.

Unfortunately, the survey, like many of its ilk, is remarkably misleading when taking into consideration the district as a whole. Although the article published Thursday in The Saratogian doesn’t bother with piddling details such as how many students were polled –there are roughly 3,700 teens attending the middle and high school –it does give us one detail: 170 parents filled out the anonymous questionnaire.

Even if every parent in the district was single, this means about 4 percent of them were used in the survey, which is hardly scientific by any standards. In other words, the survey is a good scare tactic to raise some ignorant eyebrows, but is just about useless as a barometer of the alcohol and drug rates in the district. And at least the hill of beans can be used for a nice chili con carne, something the aforementioned survey just doesn’t have in its capacity.

To form the hypothesis that alcohol and drugs aren't used among the student population is just sheer ignorance. But gauging how prevalent they are is something that is very tricky, if not impossible to do –especially using an anonymous survey. Perhaps the only true measure is studying the age and grade level of teens seeking treatment at alcohol and drug rehabilitation centers, such as the well-known Four Winds; or maybe by correlating the number of teenage alcohol and drug related arrests made in the city.

Then again, the survey itself seems almost as a plea from the partnership for prevention to justify its own existence. It’s not that this coalition of community leaders is ill-willed or misguided; just that their mission is one of herculean difficulty, when one considers the task of preventing alcohol use among later adolescents.

Drinking is something that is deeply ingrained in American Culture, as is binging and excess. These are elements that promulgated freely throughout the ages, including this modern one. Whether it’s on the silver screen with Bogart-esque character saddling up to the bar for a mid-afternoon cocktail or a bunch of bikini clad women bouncing around a beer bash on television, kids learn pretty damn quickly that getting hammered is both pleasurable and popular. And now that the drinking age is 21, it’s also the solid denominator of adulthood.

So even if kids are taught from the cradle to puberty that booze is bad and getting drunk is worse, there’s a good chance they’ll do it anyway once their later teen years set in. After all, these are the years they strive to be adults; growing facial hair, even if it looks ridiculous, wearing makeup even it looks out of place –taking a pull or five off dad’s vodka, just to feel a bit more adult. There’s no survey or prevention program that will stop that from happening.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel, but it takes one giant step for parents. Understand that eventually, junior is going to go out for beers with the boys and make sure he understands fully the implications of that decision. And rather than preaching prevention, cultivate awareness; point to the effects and results of hard boozing. Ask them to realize their limits and to be aware in advance of the very precarious situations they can suddenly be thrust into when crossing those limits. It’s not foolproof, but it’s the only way until the nation as a whole takes a far-less puritanical –and hypocritical –approach to alcohol.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007


It’s remarkable how resilient adolescents are of adults who want to take their drugs away. It’s equally mindboggling how many different ways these young adults can find to get themselves a nice buzz; huffing gasoline, eating jimson weed or in today’s world, popping over-the-counter meds at a rate that some counterculture icons once popped acid in the sixties.

Following a bit of pioneering from Generation X, Generation Next has fully embraced the pill popping culture fomented by powerful and reckless pharmaceutical companies while the federal government turns a blind eye. Instead of fiddling around in the world of pills, the feds in tandem with state and local law enforcement agencies instead focus on the “dirty drugs” more prevalent in back allies and poor ghettos; clean out the crack houses, lock up the heroine junkies, and while you’re at it, sweep the potheads into the mix as well.

At the same time, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration continues to wear out the rubber on their pharmaceutical approval stamp, allowing drugs to pump onto the streets at a pace that would have made even Pablo Escobar jealous. The result has been an entire generation that has learned pills are a lot easier to come by and more acceptable to use than the hackneyed substances of the by-gone era.

True, drugs like amphetamines and barbiturates receive a bit of the “hardcore drug” stigma. But in general, the practice of popping an array of perfectly legal over-the-counter and prescription pills has become quite acceptable among the younger generation. Many kids these days scoff at the idea of smoking a joint, but don’t think twice about washing down a hydrocodone with their curly fries at lunch.

As usual, the onus of this burgeoning problem has been shoveled over to local law enforcements officers and the various courts they represent. And while they can bust kids for having drugs that weren’t prescribed to them, they face a difficult quandary when dealing with teens that have medication most families routinely give to them each time flu season hits.

Such was the case in Warrensburg this week, when a 17-year-old high school student was busted by the Warren County Sheriff’s Department for endangering the welfare of a child after he allegedly giving a 15-year-old girl some Coricidin pills. Though the drug is commonly sold just about anywhere aspirin is available, stores often keep the pills are behind the counter and sell them only to people 18 years or older because of its Dextromethorphan content.

Known on the “street” as DXM, this drug causes what is called the dissociative effect or more commonly what imbibers call tripping. In lingo terms, one pops a few “triple C’s,” “Skittles,” or “angry red trolls” in order to “dex out” or perhaps “robotrip.” Unfortunately, the pills when taken in large dosages cause some pretty serious problems, including acute anticholinergic syndrome. This nasty little condition can sometimes cause one to experience such pleasures as bleeding from the eyes, seizures, hypertension, and in rare cases, death.

Yes, Coricidin is nothing to take recreationally. But at the same time, it seems a bit reactionary for a school resource officer to arrest a teenager for handing one of his classmates a box of cold medicine. This is especially the case when many parents are more than willing to put their children on a whole host of anti-psychotic and performance enhancing drugs prescribed by the family quack for everything from sleeping problems to the so-called attention deficit disorder.

The truth is, schools, parents and even society in general need to take a hard look at why people are getting high, rather than what they’re getting high off of and where that substance originated. The time for loading the courts with these bull-shit cases passed when Rockefeller left his drug laws behind more than three decades ago. Instead, it’s time for society to take a progressive look at the reasons so many teens find the unabashed urge to tune out of their surroundings and into a drug haze.

Monday, March 19, 2007

So long and thanks for all the fish

When the doors to downtown’s Professor Moriarity’s close after last-call tonight, so will more than two decades worth of the business. Owner Dale Easter will sign the business over on Tuesday morning, closing the book on a storied history at the well-known Sherlock Holmes-themed beer-and-burger joint at the mouth of Caroline Street.

Although there’s no word yet on the new owners –and for superstitious reasons Easter is being fairly quiet about the deal –they’re apparently planning to open a Mexican restaurant at the location, returning Latino fare to the Spa City's downtown for the first time since Margarita’s closed down the street more than four years ago.

For Easter, the wiry 10-gallon-hat-wearing man readily identified by his handlebar mustache, the end is bittersweet. Just a few years away from collecting social security, the soon-to-be-former restaurateur is faced with starting a new career, which is likely an indication that the prospective owners purchased his joint for little more than a song and dance.

Easter is among the few remaining heavyweights from a by-gone era in the Spa City, when the worries were about how to kick-start the stalling business on Broadway before the wrecking ball started taking down the centuries old buildings they inhabited. Though his business hasn’t had success in many years, he’s been a veritable fixture at the cherry-wood bar, often staying there from the crack of dawn until the close of business in the evening.

Easter teamed with fellow bar owner Tom Malone and migrated out of the cavernous Tin N’ Lint, grabbing the former location of Lillian’s Restaurant on Broadway to establish Moriarity’s in the early 1980s. With a central location –perhaps the best in the city –and with a robust drug trade at the bar, the early years were quite good for the team. Often times, on a bustling Friday night, it wasn’t uncommon to see the bar packed beyond capacity, or as the lingo goes in the business, “stacked four deep.”

Easter ended up buying Malone’s share of the restaurant in the early 1990s and became the sole proprietor. No one knew for certain why Malone disappeared from the scene, only that he had a great propensity for hard-living and that Easter, while having the same predilections, had made the decision to at least jettison the ebb and flow of cocaine through the restaurant. Needless to say, business continued to boom at Moriarity’s, which plodded forth into the new millennium totalling more than $1 million in annual sales at one point.

But from there, the descent was swift and bitter. After launching the business with a fairly static staff of dedicated workers, Moriarity’s began to have a high-turnover of its workers. Many pointed to the uncommonly low wages being offered there, often hovering close to or at the minimum wage level. As the revolving door of cooks, bartenders and waitresses began to spin at a furious pace, so did the revolving door of disgruntled customers.

By last spring, the restaurant was in dire need of a makeover and Easter was self-admittedly in dire need of a new line of work. Frustrated with the tolls of the business –thieving bartenders, drunken cooks and inconsistent food purveyors –he put the restaurant on the market, asking roughly $500,000 for the location and everything in it.

The building, however, belonged to Bill Walbridge, the owner of the aged and eponymous structure. So after Easter finally found a buyer in Laura LaPoint, the estranged wife of former Yankees’ southpaw Dave LaPoint, Walbridge wanted a stipulation placed in the lease that she’d essentially move out after about a decade, so that he could turn the location into something other than a restaurant. Not surprisingly, the stipulation in essence quashed the deal.

Moriarty’s then limped through what most restaurant owners considered a dismal summer season, as the vultures circled overhead. At times, Easter’s business looked and even was rumored to be closing for good, making a sale even less probably. Most restaurant proprietors with any business acumen will tell you, it’s a lot cheaper to just wait for a failing eatery to fold than to bother with a sale; in the high-stakes game of restaurants, it only takes a spate of bad luck to shutter the windows. And for Easter, the spate was long and pronounced.

Sometime after sundown today, Broadway’s last cowboy will grab his hat and head into the horizon. There’s a chance he might be back, Easter candidly admits; who knows, maybe the new owners will need an afternoon barkeep. But for the business that served him more as home for than his Victorian on the west side of the city, the last chapter has been sealed and sent to the publisher. Happy trails, cowboy and keep on riding toward that sunset. There's a cold beer with your name on it somewhere out there.

Editor’s note: Here’s a bit of irony for you. Rumor on the street is that another long-time restaurant owner is similarly backing out of the business. Sources say Bobby Mitchell, the longtime owner of The Wheatfields Restaurant and the short-time owner of Doc’s Steakhouse, is also backing out of the business. Apparently, Doc’s has been or is in the process of being sold. The sale was apparently prompted by personal problems Mitchell was having. As many who frequented either Wheatfields or Moriarity’s, Bobby and Dale were very close friends.

Prior to becoming Doc’s under Mitchell’s ownership, Putnam Street restaurant was owned by Patrick Graham, who basically gambled and snorted his way out of business. When Graham’s finally closed its doors, the employees didn’t bother to clean up anything except the top-shelf liquor behind the bar. One prospective chef-owner who inspected the place four months later said there was still food left in the fry baskets.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

My way or the highway

Get your trusty wrecking ball out, because it’s throwback demolition day at City Hall. Tonight, the Saratoga Springs Design Review Commission will contemplate a pair of long-standing plans –pun quite intended –to level a pair of structures that have long been fixtures of the Spa City’s landscape for better or for worse.

And ironically, the two deep-pocketed developers –Stewart’s Shops and Bruce Levinsky –proposing to level them have spent the better part of this century sparring bitterly with the city over building plans and ways to bring their respective structures down.

First on the agenda is the 50-something-year-old service station on Union Avenue, immediately across from the main entrance to the Saratoga Race Course. For more than four years, developers from the omnipresent Stewart’s Shops have had their sites on the property, itself a throwback to the by-gone era of independent service stations featuring the corner mechanic.

Located just a stone’s throw away from the toweringly expensive mansions on Union Street, the property is on the edge of a very rich residential zone, meaning that technically the gas station isn’t even an appropriate use for the land. But during the 1950s, the city was in a pronounced downward spiral and city officials weren’t really that concerned about petty little things like zoning; hey, that’s what variances are for.

With the station built, service station operators pumped gas and fixed cars off Union Avenue on what is perhaps the most formidable quarter-acre of land in the city for nearly five decades. Then, the Dake family got an idea: throw a half million ducats at the property owner to get the land, then shower the city with love and affection so they change the zoning once again to allow a lovely brown-and-brick Stewart’s Shop on the popular corner.

See, the Dakes can sniff out a money-maker like a hog can sniff out truffles. And if there was ever a place in the world to have a beer-selling double-large coffee-pushing hot-dog-special moving convenient store, it would be right in front of the race course in “an upscale” Stewart’s Shop.

Aside from knowing the shop would pawn off more gut-bomb egg sandwiches and scratch-off lottery tickets than any convenient store in the state, the Dakes also realized the invaluable amount of advertising they’d get for eight weeks out of the year. With hundreds of thousands of people passing by the shop each season, Stewart’s would suddenly might able to bust the mold of being just a quirky little upstate lard-and-lottery dealer.

Then came along the pesky city zoning board. Residents in the area argued a Stewart’s wouldn’t fit the “character” of the neighborhood. Although it should be noted, the character of the neighborhood isn’t exactly enhanced by the present Citgo Station. After wrangling through three years of contentious public hearings and court proceedings, Stewart’s was sent to the high road, after a state Supreme Court Judge ruled they hadn’t proved station couldn’t be profitable by just selling gas.

Stunned by this defeat, the Dakes went back to sniffing. And they didn’t need to sniff long until coming up with a new plan: level the damn thing and pave over it. Yes, there’s money in that there asphalt –especially during the summer. What self-respecting touron wouldn’t pay dearly to cruise into a parking space just feet away from the track entrance? And with no existing buildings on the land, the tax assessment on the property would be negligible at best meaning the Dakes can simply wait for the proper political climate to retool their ultimate plan.

But even more conniving is the fork-to Levinsky, the owner of the former Rip Van Dam Motel. Nearly a year after his building began belching bricks on the adjacent Adelphi courtyard, the thorny developer has yet to do much of anything to the historic 40,000-square-foot wing of the hotel, despite threats from the city.

Now the building has aged one more year, with little or no attention and Levinsky will make yet another case before the commission as to why it should be torn down. Clearly for him, the only reason is that preserving it would cost money and force him to rework his dusty plan to build an upscale Ramada Plaza Suite hotel –as if the city really needs another hotel.

To date, the city has fined Levinsky more than $22,000 for his insolence, which is more cash than some people see over the course of a year. But for the stubborn and ineffectual developer, this is chump change, especially when he appears just a few snowfalls away from having unequivocal proof of the building’s deteriorating condition.

What the DRC should do is tell Levinsky to go stand helmetless in the Adelphi courtyard until a brick falls off his building and lands on his head. Then assure the developer –if he survives the massive head wound –he’s free to demolish the building at his leisure.

So folks, turn off that episode of Survivor tonight and head on down to city hall for some good old-fashion barn-burner. Who knows, maybe the DRC will have Levinsky duke it out with whatever shill the Dakes hire to spit lies; the winner gets the golden wrecking ball.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Let the sunshine in

Were the freedom of information sunshine,New York would probably be in the Dark Ages. While just a few miles east over the state border, the peace-loving woodchucks of the Green Mountain state bask in the warmth of the proverbial Information Age of Aquarius, a dark cloud of smog hangs in the stratosphere over the Empire State, often clogging the ebb and flow of public knowledge.

As news agencies around the nation laud the value of the federal Freedom of Information Act this week, significant gains remain to be made in New York’s various public offices, which sometimes use the law to slow or even obfuscate investigative journalism. Other times, reporting is stymied simply because the state government’s laws of what does and does not constitute public information are not up to snuff with the sunnier states of the union.

Take for instance the recently ruled homicide of a wayward teen lodged at the state-run detention center called the Tryon School for Boys in Fulton County, after he fought with a pair of orderlies. For months, reporters from various news agencies from around the state tried to learn the boy’s identity, only to be met by a local prosecutor who said his name was being withheld “at the request of the family.”

In many other states, reporters would have been able to track down a death certificate for the boy at the clerk’s office in whatever municipality he was pronounced dead. But in New York, death certificates are not considered public information and therefore are witheld.

Some may argue this is proper, as the grieving family members of the recently deceased might not want to contend with news cameras staked out at their home. But in this case, when the prosecutor identified 15-year-old Darryl Thompson of the Bronx as being the corpse plucked from Tryon four months earlier, it didn’t take much longer than a week for his mother to very publically lash out at the state.

Last week, she told the New York Times that her son was “murdered” by the Tyron staffers and demanded justice; which are not the words of a mother unwilling to talk with reporters. She not only gave a face to the killed boy, who previously was nothing more than a grim statistic in the records of untimely deaths at state-operated detention centers, but also told the Times the most tragic part of the story: her son was less than two short months away from being released from the facility.

True, there are reasonable arguments for withholding information in this case, as with many investigations. Most law enforcement officers will attest that investigating a case is a hell of a lot easier when the media circus isn’t in tow. And after all, Thompson's death was eventually divulged to the media without as much as a FOIL request.

In many other cases, however, information is withheld simply for the reason that these police agencies don’t feel like giving it out. The same goes for other governmental agencies, such as planning departments and zoning boards, which sometimes find it a lot easier to demand a “FOIL request” rather than simply forking over something as simple as a project file. If they demand a FOIL, they have 10 days to review the request and then either fulfill it or deny it; if the request is granted, the requesting news agency can end up paying a hefty sum for volumes of document copies they may not have even needed. If it's denied, then the request is headed for weeks of appeals before eventually landing in state Supreme Court.

But a more increasing trend among public offices is a sheer ignorance to the state’s Sunshine Laws. Often times, the part-time clerks and government workers in smaller municipalities simply don’t know what can and cannot be release, so therefore everything requires a FOIL request. Of course this can be contested and reversed, if a news editor with particularly colorful language fires back at the aforementioned government worker. Still, this takes time and effort. And when looming deadlines hang precariously overhead, time is a valuable commodity.

Even more alarming is how the general public contends with the FOIL-happy governmental entities of New York. While large news agencies can readily afford to fire off swarms of requests and then fight them in court, the general public isn’t nearly as likely to jump through as many hoops. When asked to submit a FOIL, some of the less-media savvy folk would probably return with a roll of Reynolds Wrap rather than the appropriate request. Although this might help one protect themselves from alien mind-control devices, aluminum foil is rather useless in prying information from the county clerk's office.

The bottom line is that information produced through the use of taxpayer dollars should be readily accessible to the public; hence the age-old phrase, “for the people and by the people.” Unfortunately, as the media grows stingier with their allocations in the news room and as the public become increasingly acquiescent to information refusals by governmental entities, that lingering cloud of smog grows a bit thicker and darker each day.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

All washed up?

With every market downtrend on Wall Street, Saratoga County’s plan to tap the Hudson seems a bit more like an attempt to slice a sliver off that pie in the sky. As has been reported for the past two months or so, chipmaker Advanced Micro Devices Inc. looks to be in a bit of a corporate boondoggle, thanks to their ambitious flying-by-the-seat-of-the-pants business practices.

AMD has less than two years to get a shovel in the ground for their chip plant in Malta before the more than $1.1 billion worth of funding and tax credits from the state vanishes into thin air. And if that funding does evaporate, so does the county’s most thirsty customer. Were this to happen, the result would be a burdensome water pipeline that would be too expensive to tap into.

True, the county NEEDS water to push development any further up the Northway. And the city’s plan to tap Saratoga Lake won’t produce nearly the volume the county Legislature envisions the area needing to push Wilton’s urban sprawl northward. And true, the plan to extend a virtual aorta through the county won’t get any cheaper in the future.

But when the whole plan is based on another plan that seems to be teetering on a market whim, it seems as though there’s a horse-before-the-cart situation at hand. No county water would mean there can’t be a county chip plant; but no county chip plant would mean a county water plan that will need to be bailed out by either Clifton Park or Saratoga Springs or both. There are also other issues that could face the plan to tap the Hudson, such as how to best get the miles of land easments needed to put a pipe in the ground.

As lucrative as AMD’s plan may seem from the outset, the language being used by market analysts is anything but definitive and far from encouraging. As AMD prepares to pitch the plan this year to its corporate Board of Directors, the company’s stock has lost nearly 60 percent of its share value –an estimated $10 billion worth of shareholder wealth.

Some blue chip investors might see this as a pittance for a company that has recently made a significant dent in a chip market dominated by Intel. Most would agree, however, the sharp decline as of late does not bode well for AMD’s almost perpetual expansion. The true test will come later this year, when AMD releases its new products; as noted in a recent Associated Press report, Intel has already released its four-core chip, meaning AMD’s product must be cheaper and better to right some of the company’s recent downtrend.

In the mean time, the county should really consider alternate and more market-safe methods to bringing AMD the water they thirst at a cheaper cost than $2.05 per 1,000 gallons. Were tapping Schenectady’s Great Flats aquifer a significantly less costly endeavor, it might be investigating for the county.

But with more than a billion ducats on the line, AMD’s board probably won’t take it much into consideration in their decision to build the new chip plant. What they will take into consideration is whether or not the market is robust enough to support a $3.2 billion plant, even if the state is picking up nearly a third of the tab. That same plant might be just as cheap to build in the more tax-friendly south or perhaps Malaysia.

Unfortunately, the time for investigating alternatives has long since passed, and now the county must fly by the seat of its pants, just like AMD has been prone to do on the market. So until the first chip moves off the production line, there should be a fair number of supervisors preparing a mitigation plan to explain how a $67 million water plant with no users won’t have a dreadful impact on the county’s finances.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

I called the which doctor

David Soares caught a glimpse of the limelight very early on in his tenure as Albany County’s top prosecutor. Just seven months after taking office, the relatively unknown district attorney found himself thrust the center of attention when a story broke about a trio of horny Christian Brothers Academy students and their steamy love tryst with an equally obscure writing lab instructor named Geisel.

Very quickly, the no-name long-shot candidate found himself staring dead into the eye of the national media. And since that time, he’s seemed to develop quite the palate for the attention. So much, in fact, that it’s hard to fathom that Soares’ ambitions lie solely within the boundaries of Albany County.

Less than a year after the CBA scandal broke, Soares, a former communications major from Cornell University, played the role of information broker in the trial of the silver spoon-sucking underachiever-turned-ax wielding sociopath. Then before the dust could settle, he was working out plea deals with the state’s top accountant.

Yes, very quickly has Soares climbed the socio-political ladder and kept his name in the national spotlight, while simultaneously rubbing elbows with many of the state’s top democrats. Now, he’s set his sights on the proliferation of steroids from a generally lawless state more than 2,000 miles away.

Basking in the warming rays of Florida last week –and with the Times Union’s ace reporter in tow –Soares plucked a network of quack doctors who have allegedly pushed their wares through cyberspace and into New York. While publically declining to identify the users of the juice, someone from the investigation managed to leak a whole host of sexy names to both give the story legs and propel it deep into the heart of national coverage; Major League Baseball players, National Football League players, U.S. Olympic athletes.

The resonate bong from the case suddenly had all the gusto of the red-eyed testimony of shammed slugger Jose Canseco on Capitol Hill or the leaked name of Yankee start Jason Giambi in a doppelganger investigation and subsequent trial in California. Soares suddenly had his name thrust into national news and sports headlines, courtesy of one round-trip ticket to Disneyworld purchased with drug money seized in Albany.

Of course, Soares’ investigation has its critics, many who argue the DA has enough on his plate to be making prosecutorial sojourns to the Sunshine state. But once back in Albany, he fired back at these notions, offering the theory that steroids are every bit as dangerous and omnipresent as other drugs moving through the Capital Region.

But there are a host of questions he hasn’t bothered answering or has provided vague, noncommittal responses at best. For instance, after budgeting more than $260,000 worth of county money to prosecute Christopher Porco in Orange County, how he intends to fund what is bound to be an astronomical case against two dozen defendants that largely committed crimes in Florida. Just ferrying witnesses to Albany could more than double the cost of the Porco case.

Better yet, why prey tell is Soares going after a case that clearly crosses many jurisdictions, when there’s a perfectly serviceable network of authorities who specialize in such investigations. True, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency “assisted” in the case. Still, Soares remains at the head of the investigation, which means one of three disturbing things, namely that the federal agencies lacked the resources to bust the ring, didn’t care about busting the ring, or that Soares has grown arrogant enough that he feels it appropriate to edge into busting crime nationwide.

Equally disturbing is that the Times Union had a reporter with boots on the ground in Florida, long before any other paper had as much as an inkling of Soares’ whereabouts. Coming to their own defense, the paper reported last week that it conducted its “own months-long investigation into steroid trafficking” and just coincidentally caught up with the showboating DA in Orlando. And when names Soares is brazenly withholding from the media percolate into the TU the same day, this response holds about as much water as a household colander.

Meanwhile, just a few short blocks from Soares’ office on Lodge Street, an urban battle wages on. Albany’s West Hill and Arbor Hill neighborhoods continue to be magnets for serious crime. There is a tangible uneasiness that flows down the dilapidated blocks once one crosses over Central Avenue on Henry Johnson Boulevard, and it’s not too hard to find bullet holes or blood stains. Rapidly joining this rag-tag group of neighborhoods is the student ghetto in nearby Pine Hills, which each day seem to look just a bit seedier than the last.

True, a lot of the onus of blame lies with Albany’s embittered police chief and longtime mayor, both of whom are quite publically at odds with Soares. But by scampering off to Florida when there are clear and present dangers visible in nearly every direction in Albany, the DA is making a very bold statement –and one that is less than endearing –of his role in protecting the county from crime.

Perhaps Soares should do a bit of background research on himself, such as when he griped in January about his office’s paltry $6 million worth of county funding to prosecute cases from 15 different agencies. Or back in 2004, when he pledged to reform the aged Rockefeller Drug Laws. Better yet, maybe he should simply announce the higher office he intends to seek in a few short years when his term is up.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Good Eats

Were there a Midas of haute cuisine in Saratoga Springs, it would probably be Max London, the prodigy chef and heir-apparent to the nationally-renowned Mrs. London’s Bakery on Broadway. Since first entering the Spa City’s restaurant business in 1999, the young chef quickly grew a reputation for turning whatever dish he touches into culinary gold.

And after a prolonged hiatus from professionally cooking, it appears as though he’ll be back on the restaurant scene shortly as the owner-chef of what is sure to be a hotspot eatery at the former storeroom of Mabou on Broadway.

The city council has stepped in to afford London a $75,000 economic development loan to help get his business off the ground. While it might sound like a risky endeavor for the city to finance a restaurant in downtown that’s already supersaturated with them –studies show something like one in three fail within the first three years of opening –funding in London is a sound investment in both small community business and the city’s culinary arts.

In just a short time, London –the son of longtime business owners Michael and Wendy London –hit the bustling downtown scene at the former Eartha’s Restaurant quickly carved out a name as one of the city’s elite epicureans. The small Court Street bistro’s hearty reputation for high-quality cuisine became synonymous with the hard toil of London, who fortified his title as head chef shortly before reaching the legal drinking age.

Given his lineage, London’s reputation preceded his ability. But for every bit of hype that might have been heaped on the young chef’s shoulders, he fired back with dishes that both caught the eye, dazzled the taste buds and left diners with a satiated feeling few are accustomed to in this trans-fat fast-eating culture.

Then after three seasons, he disappeared from the scene; less than a year later, so did Eartha’s.

Although London never spoke candidly about his plans in the press, it was widely known among restaurant circles that he had every intention of opening a tapas bar on Saratoga’s main drag. But the proper financing always seemed to elude London, who has wrangled for nearly four years with gathering enough scratch to make a go at his dream.

Hopefully, the infusion of funding will help pluck London out of culinary hibernation. His business would inevitably raising the bar for downtown’s eateries and provide a necessary replacement for the recent dissolution of the popular 43 Phila Bistro in November.

London's ability is a known quality, as is his parents’ business savvy. And when he finally brings his extraordinary talent out into the restaurant business, food lovers across the Capital Region will be in for a treat. Good luck, Max. Downtown starves for a chef of your talent.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Watching a glacier move

Breaking news from Lake Avenue: Saratoga Springs City Center officials claim the aging convention facility needs to expand, or face the possibility of turning away future bookings.

“There's a growing understanding that unless we make the convention center larger, we won't be able to accommodate the groups that have been coming here,” City Center Authority member Gordon Boyd told The Saratogian recently.

Keep in mind, in the aloof realm of Barbara Lombardo’s newsroom, the term “breaking news” is often synonymous with “old news” or in this case, news that was reported more than five years ago. In fact, without looking at dates and bylines, it’s often difficult to differentiate between the various new reports on the glacial pace at which the city center expansion project is moving forward. Putting this in perspective, The Saratogian has plowed through no less than six business reporters and countless other novice journalists who have tried in vain to trump the expansion effort.

City center expansion was first brought to the forefront of the news in 1998, following some creative refinancing by the city and a $3.9 million budget windfall. One year later, the convention center was given a nice tax break after officials from the city council and the authority convinced administrators from the school district’s board of education to accept a stupendous payment in lieu of taxes.

City center officials argued they needed the PILOT to get their budgets in the black. So rather than fork over an annual sum of $266,000, the center was allowed to a lump sum of $325,000 in school taxes between 2003 and 2007. Doing some fairly rudimentary math, that’s as pretty darn big tax break they’ve received for almost a decade.

But since this tax break was granted, the city center authority has done a fairly good job in ratcheting up business on Broadway. In 2004, they attracted the U.S. Submarine Veterans Association convention, which drew nearly 2,000 veterans to the area. Many officials lauded as a sign of that facility’s robust ability to attract heavy-hitting conventions. For this heads-up work, the authority received another nice gift in 2006 at the behest of Hollywood Joe and his merry band of senate Republicans, which pledging $12 million in state funds to offset some of the expansion costs.

Of course, the architectural study alone will run the city roughly $17 million, which is just shy of four times the original $4.9 million it took to build the structure in 1984. HNTB Architecture Inc. of Kansas City, Mo., the design firm selected last fall to design the expansion, was also the group that conducted a $79,000 study exploring different expansion possibilities, which is more than twice the $30,000 the authority allocated for a study three years earlier.

What is the lesson to be garnered from all this? The longer the city center expansion project drags out, the more expensive it gets and the more it’s going to burden both state and city tax payers. Had the authority, the city and state leaders hashed out a plan for expansion in 1999, when the center’s limitations first brought to light, perhaps they wouldn’t be facing a project that is bound to cost a pretty penny.

And with the district’s tax agreement set to expire in less than nine months, the time for expansion may have come and gone, unless the authority has squirreled away a nice nest egg. Keep in mind; the district wanted $266,000 per year before the PILOT was extended eight years ago. There’s a good chance they’ll want more this time around, now that property assessments have gone through the roof.

Once the final count for the expansion comes in, there’s a good chance the authority will again seek out a PILOT, using many of the same arguments they made in 1999 while pointing an aging facility that’s approaching its silver jubilee. The question they should be asking is if the city’s property owning populace will again be able to overlook a massive tax cut for the booming center's expansion while they watch their own rates soar through the roof.

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