State grants Harriman development rights, won't release details
By CHRIS CHURCHILL AND JORDAN CARLEO-EVANGELIST, Staff writers
First published: Wednesday, December 2, 2009
ALBANY -- The state and a private developer are proceeding with a plan for the large-scale redevelopment of Harriman State Office Campus -- but few people have seen it.
A state panel on Monday granted the right to redevelop Harriman to Columbia Development Cos. based on a proposal submitted last year by the Albany business.
But Empire State Development, the state's economic development arm, refused to release the development plan Monday -- and did so again Tuesday, citing ongoing negotiations.
That leaves some neighbors of the campus -- a 330-acre parcel near the University at Albany -- wondering just what is coming.
"Whatever was in that proposal should be public knowledge," said Joe Cunniff, president of Upper Washington Avenue Neighborhood Association, a piece of which borders the sprawling campus. "I'd like to know if they're going to build a 300-bed hotel. Is a dorm included in all this? What exactly is in the package that was proposed?"
The board of Harriman Research and Technology Development Corp. on Monday chose the Columbia plan over a proposal submitted by a rival developer. That developer, Howard Carr of The Howard Group, then released his plan, saying both proposals should be subjected to public scrutiny.
Carr repeated that assertion on Tuesday: "The public is never going to have a chance to give its input on this thing," he said. "I think the public is entitled to speak."
In February, the Times Union submitted a Freedom of Information Law request for access to the Columbia and Howard Group proposals. ESD denied that request because the process is active.
The Times Union submitted a second FOIL request Tuesday. The newspaper is waiting for an official response, although an ESD spokeswoman said the Columbia proposal will not be released until negotiations with the company are complete.
"We look forward to releasing the development plan when a specific agreement has been reached and has been approved by the Board," Jola Szubielski said in an e-mail.
In prior years, the public has weighed in on Harriman. The state held a series of public meetings, building consensus and gathering information used to compile a 2006 master plan for the campus.
That plan eliminated the wide road that rings the campus, emphasizing new connections to surrounding neighborhoods. It also called for moving state office workers from the campus, demolishing existing buildings, and building 3.6 million square feet of office, retail, hotel and residential space.
That plan, though, was largely abandoned by the administration of Gov. Eliot Spitzer.
In fact, the request for proposals, or RFP, issued last year made no mention of the master plan. And it put the center of the campus, home to 7,500 employees, largely off limits to development -- scrapping the plan to move workers or knock down buildings.
In reality, the state is bolstering its presence there, saying last year that it would build a $40 million laboratory for the Department of Agriculture and Markets on the campus.
It is now no longer clear that ring road would be eliminated, which could make it harder to connect to nearby neighborhoods or the University at Albany campus.
"The ring road is 1950s design, and it's exclusive in its nature," Carr said. "Harriman is an island and the ring road is a moat."
On Monday, Mayor Jerry Jennings, a member of the board, repeatedly made clear he wants the ring road gone entirely, in no small part because it would free up more acres for development that could go on the city's tax rolls.
Recently, residents around the campus have been battling their other massive neighbor, the University at Albany, and its attempt to build a new dorm on UAlbany's southeastern corner near Tudor Road.
Ironically, those same residents have pointed to the sense of inclusion they initially felt in the Harriman master plan to highlight what they believe was the university's failure to include their input on the dorm.
UAlbany's plan for the 500-bed, apartment-style dorms are inextricably linked to the future of the Harriman campus because the university has already moved to take 3.3 acres of Harriman land to accommodate the new student housing.
On Monday -- the same day that the board backed Columbia's proposal -- university officials briefed the board on a new plan that would require the transfer of roughly seven more acres of the state office campus, worth an estimated $3 million, to UAlbany in order to move the dorm farther north and pacify neighbors.
That proposal, which university President George Philip stressed is only preliminary, would require the southwest corner of Harriman's ring road to be moved.
Neighbors of both campuses have unequivocally said they would rather see UAlbany expand into Harriman than any closer to their homes. But some city officials are anxiously watching the university's expansion and fretting it will gradually eat up land that Albany deserves.
Councilman Michael O'Brien, who represents the 12th Ward north of the state office campus, expressed concern when the state seemed to abandon the master plan it so painstakingly crafted. O'Brien has not been privy to the Columbia plan and said he's eager to know just what the company wants to build.
"I'm happy in the sense that it looks like something is going to happen," O'Brien said. "My big concern is always the best use of the land for the city of Albany."