Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Harriman campus gets offer for redevelopment - Some concerned no plans have been released yet

By Bob Bennett

The eastern section of the Harriman Office Campus houses state Taxation and Finance, pictured, and other state offices. Columbia Development Companies is currently in negotiations for the right to redevelop the campus. So far, plans have not been released and several local and state leaders do not know how many, if any, private businesses will be located on the campus.
Photo by Bob Bennett.

December 14, 2009

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Columbia Development Companies has entered into negotiations for the right to redevelop the W. A. Harriman State Office Campus. But the company has not yet unveiled specific plans for the office park, which concerns some nearby residents and their City Council members.

The state-owned, 330-acre office campus is situated to the east side of the University at Albany and now houses state agency buildings, including one that houses the New York State Police headquarters. And although the property currently benefits from tax-exempt status, an influx of new development could generate a lot of tax revenue for the state, but several city residents still have expressed concern because they have yet to learn the details of Columbia's plan.

"To this day I've not seen the plan that Columbia has developed," said Albany City Councilman Mike O'Brien, who represents a district that includes part of the Harriman campus. "My hunch is that the plan is rather abstract," he said. "I suspect it's not super specific."

A directory of the office campus’s 330-acre layout, which houses several state office buildings and about 7,300 state employees. Those on the Harriman development board say state workers will not be moved under redevelopment plans. Photo by Bob Bennett.

Albany City Councilman Dan Herring said he has also not seen the plan, but he too has some concerns because the campus "butts up to" many people's homes, and because those people don't know what's going to be built there.

"People are just concerned because they want to know if it's going to be compatible with their neighborhood," Herring said. "One reason we want some more details is to address their concerns, but the city is very pleased that it is being developed."

Both councilmen said part of their constituents' apprehensions stem from a proposal from the University at Albany, which approached the Harriman board about building dorms near those people's homes.

Assemblyman Jack McEneny, D-Albany, said, "I have always had a problem with the way Harriman was done."

He said he has always thought the office campus should fall under UAlbany's control as a way to help facilitate its technology school.

He also said the state needs the tax base the campus could potentially generate, so he hopes the land will be leased to those in the private sector.

Peter Wohl, the president of the board of the Harriman Research and Technology Development Corp., a subsidiary of the Empire State Development Corp., confirmed that UAlbany has approached the board about building dorms on the Harriman campus. However, he said the university was simply expressing its interest, which will be taken into consideration.

"There's a possibility that could happen," Wohl said, "but it was much more of an FYI."

He also said that nanotechnology, which has been a part of the master plan for redevelopment since 2006, is a first priority, and the board would very much like to build upon the research at UAlbany.

Wohl said the board is in pursuit of some research and development companies but that no one yet knows which companies could occupy the land.

Those companies are "sort of the ideal tenants," Wohl said.

The plan the board envisions would also include some residential housing, but research and development are the priority, Wohl said. The board is currently trying to get input from all of the stakeholders in the project, including the state and local governments.

"Let me express my understanding in the public's interest in the plan," Wohl said. "This plan very much envisions the community."

Wohl also said the project would generate some much-needed tax revenue for the city as well as the state. The plan envisions transferring ownership from the state of New York to private companies. During the initial phase of the plan, the Harriman development team would market parcels to interested parties, incrementally and in sub-sections, but the state would reclaim those parcels in a year's time if those businesses failed to draw revenue for the state.

"Obviously the state is feeling the pinch right now," Wohl said of New York's dwindling tax base.

Wohl also said approximately half of Harriman's 330 acres would be used — the other half is mostly occupied by state agencies.

The board also still envisions using the existing buildings, as former Gov. Eliot Spitzer's administration had previously proposed, and keeping all 7,300 state employees in place, Wohl said.

Tom Comonzo, the vice president of the public employees federation, said he's anxious to see the plan because there have been many proposals over the years that called for moving state employees. He also said the currents set-up is self contained and includes parking, so he would prefer to keep the employees there as long as possible.

Spitzer's plan for the office campus came after a 1998 proposal by the Office of General Services, which called for selling the land and moving all state employees to downtown Albany. Spitzer's plan also came after a 2003 plan Gov. George E. Pataki backed to demolish the buildings and start construction of a new office and technology park from the ground up.

"Overall, [the plan] is a step in the right direction," said Mike Yevoli, the director of Planning and Development for the city of Albany. It takes nontaxable property and creates potential for new tax revenue from private businesses and new opportunities for residents … not only for jobs. It's ripe for development, as opposed to picking a green field somewhere else."

Yevoli said the plan calls for a more community-friendly layout, which could include housing, but he is unsure exactly what that layout will look like.

Other than housing and research and development facilities, the campus would also include commercial retail businesses and office space, Yezoli said.

But it's still unclear exactly what businesses will be built on the land because of the ongoing negotiations with Columbia.

Eight calls to the development company were not returned.

Bob VanAmburgh, the executive assistant to Albany Mayor Gerald Jennings, who is on the board, said the mayor has long been committed to finding someone to develop the land there.

"It's the last major track of contiguous land in the city, obviously he's concerned with development within the area," VanAmburgh said, referring to the mayor.

He said he has not seen Columbia's plan for re-development so he would not comment on what businesses might be located there in the future, though he did say nanotechnology could be a consideration, which both governors have proposed.

He also could not say whether the existing buildings will be re-used.

The park is currently occupied by the state police academy, a state police forensics lab and several other state agency buildings.

Wohl said it could still be a couple of months before any final decisions are made. But he added that he understands the public's impatience at this point — talk of the project has been going on for about 10 years now.

But Wohl added, "We're actually trying to get something done."

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