Jordan Carleo-Evangelist | Published: Monday May 7, 2012 07:29 a.m.
ALBANY — If you can’t fix what you can’t see, it’s easy then to understand why Sheridan Hollow is still a broken neighborhood.
Sitting at the bottom of a ravine originally cut by Fox Creek on the edge of Arbor Hill, the Hollow — as it’s often called — is within a quarter-mile of downtown as the crow flies but remains wholly invisible to it.
It was in fetid Fox Creek, flowing through the 19th-century Irish slum then known as Gander Bay, that the city’s elite dumped their horse manure. And it was on Sheridan Avenue, a century later, that the city and state built an a now-shuttered incinerator to burn trash to heat state offices — still considered by some to be one of the city’s most grievous environmental sins against some of its poorest residents.
The smokestacks still jut above the treeline and out of the ravine, arguably the neighborhood’s most remarkable architectural feature and, for the thousands who drive the Henry Johnson Boulevard viaduct daily, the only hint that there’s anything at all down below.
“What you have in Sheridan Hollow today is really just a continuation of what Sheridan Hollow was,” said Michael Jacobson, the executive director of Capital District Habitat for Humanity. “It’s a barren wasteland.”
It’s a harsh assessment that he repeats again and again.
But in the expanse of weed-smothered lots and rain-rotted buildings — still home to some 800 Albanians, mostly poor and mostly black — Jacobson and others see a unique opportunity: The chance to remake an entire neighborhood.
The plan, refined last month during an intensive four-day planning conference that included residents and other stakeholders, teams Habitat for Humanity with the Touhey Homeownership Foundation to begin construction later this year on at least 20 new one- and two-family homes on Sheridan Avenue and Orange Street.
Jacobson — who a year ago launched what until now was most ambitious project in the Habitat chapter’s history, the redevelopment of Alexander and Delaware streets in the South End with 16 new homes — speaks of the Sheridan plan in soaring terms and calls it the largest public-private partnership for low-income housing ever in Albany.
The intersection of Dove Street and Sheridan Avenue would be ground zero of the $4 million to $5 million first phase of the project, giving rise on vacant lots to buildings envisioned to house ground-floor businesses and professional suites or condos above. A Syracuse not-for-profit, Housing Visions, has also been recruited to build new rental apartments.
The partners are hopeful construction will begin in late summer or fall and that at least some of the financing will come from the second round of funding for Regional Economic Development Councils outlined by Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week.
Conceptual drawings depict rows of new homes running east from Dove on the north and south sides of Sheridan, currently vacant land, with backyards abutting an existing forlorn city water park that would be rebuilt.
Charles Touhey, who has spent three decades building affordable housing in the city, describes the goal simply: “To just create this giant blob of good housing and quality community.”
The Touhey Homeownership Partnership was formed in 2003 with a $1 million grant from his philanthropist father, Carl Touhey. The Touhey model, already employed elsewhere in the city, involves building owner-occupied two-family homes that give the owners a source of income and incentive to rent to quality tenants, who will be their neighbors.
Combined with the single-family Habitat homes and the rental apartments, the partners — including the city, which helped Habitat acquire about a quarter of the land needed, and 3t Architects — aim to attract a diverse mix of residents from different income strata to stitch together a more stable neighborhood.
Habitat will effectively act as Touhey’s developer, constructing the foundation’s homes at lower cost in return for Touhey investing some of the savings into a jointly managed land bank that will continue acquire property and fuel the project’s future phases.
The neighborhood’s homeownership rate is currently about 30 percent — a ratio Jacobson said needs to be reversed to attract retailers who will set up shop and sell groceries and other things that city residents deserve without having to hop in a car.
In a 2010 study that helped lay the backdrop for the ambitious project, a team of 14 University at Albany planning students highlighted two of the neighborhood’s key assets: Its proximity to Capitol Hill and the rest of downtown and, perversely, its desolation.
Sheridan Hollow may be as close as you get to a blank canvas inside the heart of a 400-year-old city. And the potential is evident in Habitat’s acquisitions: 39 of the 41 properties it now controls are vacant. On the south side of Orange Street, with no buildings to demarcate one empty lot from another, the building numbers are simply spray-painted in white on the broken sidewalk.
“You don’t usually get that type of opportunity,” said Corianne Scally, an assistant professor in UAlbany’s Department of Geography and Planning who oversaw the students’ work.
Others have taken notice. The neighborhood is flooded daily with state workers who park in a massive state-owned garage, or leave their gleaming minivans and hybrid sedans — many of them more costly than the neighborhoods’ annual median family income — on adjacent streets before ascending one of two steep staircases linking the neighborhood to the elegant All Saints Cathedral and government buildings looming above.
Around the same time the garage opened in 2006, a new Hampton Inn rose on the neighborhood’s eastern edge off North Pearl Street. A luxury condo complex at 17 Chapel St. is coming on line and the old William Boyd Printing Co. building at 47 Sheridan Ave. is being converted into 43 upscale rental units known as the Monroe Apartments.
Touhey said he believes those seeds of gentrification are germinating far enough east of the Habitat footprint that they should allow its partners to continue to assemble parcels at reasonable costs.
City Development Commissioner Michael Yevoli said he sees the beginnings of “a true mixed neighborhood that can be developed.”
Still, Scally said gentrification’s potential consequences are something to be wary of early in the process.
“There’s a certain responsibility to recognize the past of the neighborhood,” she said, and “make sure that development progresses in a way that is equitable and sustainable for the people who are already there.”
Habitat enters the Sheridan project buoyed by its success on Alexander Street, which Jacobson billed as a sea change in how the organization would approach its work in the city, moving from building two or three in-fill houses a year to neighborhood-transforming projects.
“People didn’t think Alexander Street was going to happen, but that’s out of the ground and families are living there,” Jacobson said. “We’re going to show people, like we did on Alexander Street, what’s possible.”
The most striking feature in the conceptual designs for Sheridan Hollow is the Sheridan Hollow Beacon, a roughly 100-foot tower on Dove Street rising several stories above the new rooftops that would contain a light beacon, an elevator lookout and pedestrian trestle connecting it to Elk Street at the top of the ravine.
It would also rival the smokestacks to define the neighborhood’s new skyline.
“It was very strong message that came from the residents themselves,” Jacobson said of the tower. “They really felt that having some sort of beacon that can be seen from the state Capitol and from downtown would be a rallying point, so to speak, to say that, ‘We’re here.’ “