Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Harriman choice criticized

Panel's vote for Columbia Development is politically motivated, rival says

CHRIS CHURCHILL, Business writer
First published: Tuesday,December 1, 2009

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ALBANY -- An Albany firm closely tied to Mayor Jerry Jennings on Monday won the right to develop one of the city's most significant and potentially lucrative parcels of land -- leading a rival developer to charge that the decision was politically motivated. The board of the Harriman Research and Technology Development Corp., which includes Jennings as a member, chose Columbia Development to lead the transformation of the Harriman State Office Campus, a 330-acre parcel where the state has long wanted a dense new neighborhood of offices, stores and homes.

Those plans had seemed stalled -- until Monday's surprise vote.
"They (Columbia) have a well-assembled team, and it looks to us like they can do a good job," said John Egan, Office of General Services commissioner and one of nine Harriman board members.

Harriman officials and the Empire State Development Corp., the state's economic development agency, have refused to release Columbia's construction proposal or a rival plan by The Howard Group of Colonie.

They did so again Monday -- citing ongoing negotiations.

But Howard Carr, president of the The Howard Group, released his company's plan after learning of the board's decision. The proposal calls for $2 billion of retail, office and residential construction over a 15-year period.

Carr also noted that Columbia, which is affiliated with BBL Construction Cos., has built nearly every project of consequence in Albany in recent years, charging that "political considerations" and ties to Jennings help BBL win work.

"If Columbia and BBL are going to get every project in the city, just let us all know so we don't have to waste the effort," Carr said, estimating that his firm spent $250,000 developing its Harriman proposal.

Jennings and Joe Nicolla, president of Columbia Development, could not be reached for comment Monday.

A Times Union report in July explored the relationship between Jennings and BBL/Columbia, disclosing that BBL President Don Led Duke had hosted Jennings in his VIP suite at Giants Stadium and that Nicolla had hosted a lavish fundraiser for Jennings at his Guilderland home.

BBL/Columbia projects include the office park at Patroon Creek -- across from the Harriman campus -- and the tower at 677 Broadway. The firm is now building the Wellington Row development on State Street; redeveloping the Park South neighborhood; and has been chosen to play a major role in the construction of the Albany Convention Center.

Jennings, in prior interviews, has insisted that his relationship with BBL and Columbia does not help either company, an opinion echoed by Led Duke.
"What we do, we earn," Led Duke said in July.

On Monday, Carr asked that Harriman officials release the Columbia plan so the public could assess both proposals. Noting that both plans were submitted more than a year ago, he also said he was "completely taken by surprise" by the timing of Monday's decision.

Carr said he has contributed to past Jennings election campaigns, but not the most recent one.

The Harriman campus consists of state office buildings set amid parking lots and large lawns. The state built the campus in the 1960s, but it is now considered underused and an example of outdated urban planning theories.

In 1998, the Office of General Services, the agency that oversees the state's real estate, suggested selling the campus and moving its 7,000 workers downtown.

In 2003, Gov. George Pataki proposed a $300 million plan to move workers, raze most of the campus' buildings and transform the site into a new neighborhood.

Four years later, Gov. Eliot Spitzer scrapped that plan, insisting the development occur with state workers and existing buildings in place.

Harriman officials said current plans for development, along with the Columbia proposal, are in line with Spitzer's model, and residential and retail construction has been de-emphasized in favor of office and high-tech development.

"There are no plans right now for any demolition," said Peter Wohl, who heads the Harriman Corp.

The board vote awarding development rights to Harriman was unanimous and came after a brief executive session. Board members did not discuss the Columbia plan in public.

Egan and Peter Wohl both said the state and Columbia will enter into negotiations designed to hammer out design and construction specifics.

Staff writer Jordan Carleo-Evangelist contributed to this story.

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