The Land Reutilization Corporation of the Capital Region (otherwise known as the “land bank”) is an organization whose goal is to reverse the blight infecting so many of our region’s neighborhoods by taking ownership of affected properties, restoring them to viability, and finally selling them to new owners and returning them to the tax rolls. Based in Schenectady, this intergovernmental agency includes the City of Schenectady, Schenectady County and the City of Amsterdam. The effort in Amsterdam is supported and assisted by the volunteers on the Land Bank Board, the Advisory Board as well as elected officials. I recently had the opportunity to talk with three people who are actively involved with the land bank initiative: Mayor Ann Thane, Bob Martin and Robert Purtell.
Mayor Ann Thane
“It was one of my campaign goals to establish a land bank, or to be a part of one,” began Thane. “But, in doing the job I do I am always going online. I’m always doing research. For several years back, land banking was identified in Flint, Michigan and Detroit and down south as being an effective tool for redevelopment. And so what I’ve learned is that the New York Conference of Mayors have always been big proponents of land banking and helped bring it to New York state…so I’m really happy about it,” she added.
I asked her how the land bank came into existence, to which she replied “the City of Schenectady wrote the proposed legislation to have us become this nascent entity, and we are one of, I think, five that were initially given the blessing by the governor and the state legislature to come into being… So, we’ve been working for the past year getting our bylaws together and the bank account set up. Staffing has been primarily to do the day to day grunt work…[and] has been done by Steve Strichman, who is in the Planning Department for the city of Schenectady. He wrote the original legislation and he has been guiding a lot of what’s been going on. He is the director of the organization.”
According to Thane, the advisory board for the land bank has determined that the best way to begin to deal with the problem is to start with a distressed property within a relatively stable neighborhood. Starting with the proverbial “low lying fruit” will serve to stem the spread of blight in these otherwise well maintained areas. As the land bank acquires more resources from the sale of these properties, they can then look at harder hit areas which require many more properties to be fixed in order to be stabilized.
Finally I asked her if the land bank works with Urban Renewal. She said “I think that’s why Bob [Martin] was chosen, because he has a connection to Urban Renewal, and Nick at Urban Renewal is responsible for writing grants for the Home Program, which is for funding facade improvements like roofs and for infrastructure for homes like boilers and hvac systems. So I feel [that] a connection is important, so you don’t segregate these things…we want them to work together.”
Bob Martin is the Chairman of the Urban Renewal of Amsterdam Board and serves on the Land Reutilization Corporation of the Capital Region board. He has over four decades of experience as a painting contractor in the Mohawk Valley and has served on the board of the Walter Elwood Museum.
I asked him how the land bank obtains properties. He responded by saying “primarily our purpose is to acquire properties and then figure out what to do with them after we acquire them. We acquire properties in a number of different ways. One of the first properties that [we] acquired was [when] a bank donated a piece of property to us…this was on Strong St. in Schenectady. I think Wells Fargo Bank had the mortgage on this piece of property and they gave us that property along with some money to help us defer those costs. No matter, even if somebody gives us a piece of property it still costs money. There are maintenance costs, insurance costs. There’s no such thing as free property. The bank recognized that and gave us, I think it was $15,000, along with the deed to that piece of property. Since then, I don’t know if it’s closed yet, but we have a good offer on the table and we think that property will be sold to an individual and they will rehab that property and get it back on the tax rolls.”
I asked him if the land bank sub-contracted any of the rehabilitation work, to which he replied “we haven’t done that yet, but certainly, that’s something that’s possible. The piece of property that is in Amsterdam that the land bank owns is on Julia St. [and] we are negotiating to have that property rehabbed. We will be hiring contractors to rehab it. But every piece of property is going to be different. Some properties may be in such a dilapidated state they may have to be torn down. In Schenectady there is a piece of property that’s been given to us and that’s what will happen to that piece of property, it’s just not salvageable; it’s beyond repair.”
He said there might be a number of uses for that property, including an urban garden, or off-street parking. He mentioned “we may not have a purpose for it today but tomorrow there may be some development use. If we get enough pieces of property, a block for example, then a developer may be interested in that, then they can come in…and build something there.”
I asked where the land bank’s funding comes from. He explained that they are currently working on a very small budget, and that they are funded by the City of Schenectady, Schenectady County, and the City of Amsterdam as well. He also mentioned they hope to benefit from a grant from the New York State Attorney General.
When asked if they had applied for the grant yet, he said “yes, we have. There was one round of grants, and we haven’t received the grant yet, but, we’re hopeful- it would be a $150,000 grant to help us with administration.”
Robert Purtell is a member of the Amsterdam Land Bank Advisory Board, as well as the owner of Purtell Realty, Inc. of Amsterdam, NY.
I asked him when the rehab of the Julia St. property began, to which he replied “the Julia St. property we started on Saturday (Jan. 25th). We are doing it with volunteers, Bob Martin, Bob DiCaprio, his son, my nephew Steven, my nephew Jeremy, both Purtells, and we went in and did what we refer to in the foreclosure business in real estate as doing a “trash-out”. That’s where we empty everything out of the house, all it’s contents. So, basically it’s a clean slate. We took two full garbage trucks that Mayor Thane had arranged for us to have at the site. On Saturday we took five hours and emptied everything from the basement to the first floor to the attic…everything you might imagine someone might keep in their house.”
He went on the explain that the next stage is to inspect the electrical system so that it can be turned off. Then they want to gut the kitchen and bath, cut the vegetation, and take measurements so that a plan of action can be drawn up. In the interim, a list will be made so they can prioritize certain projects and make a budget.
When asked if will they be soliciting contractors to do the work, he replied “at some point we will probably have to hire contractors. On this first job we are going to try to use volunteers and the board members that we have. Will we have contractors working there? Yes. Have we even talked with anybody about estimates? No. So, we’ll want to formulate a plan, now that we have a clean slate.”
I asked who has oversight for these projects. He said “there are two forms of oversight. The Land Reutilization Corporation has total oversight, but since this is in the City of Amsterdam and finances are going to separate in Amsterdam, we (the advisory board) are pretty much the driving force behind the process in providing oversight.”
I mentioned that the mayor said he was “on fire” for urban renewal, and asked if this was true and why. He said, “First and foremost, I don’t live in the city, but I grew up here in the community and I believe that if you are not part of the solution you a part of the problem. I really believe in Amsterdam and that I can help. I also have a business…I’m in the real estate business, and part of my job should be to stabilize my real estate industry in my community. I think that is a responsibility of mine.”
Finally, I asked what the land bank needed most to achieve its goal.
“Right now, we don’t have any money to work with. I’m working with the city to try to correct that problem, and we are also applying for another round of attorney general grants for land banks throughout New York state. We can continue to move forward using volunteers and donations in the future, but it would drastically slow us down. If we have some capital to work with, we can complete projects quicker and complete more than one project at a time. So for the land bank to function more productively we really need funding. That’s our biggest challenge,” he said.
The Land Bank has regularly scheduled meetings on the third Thursday of each month. Meetings are held at Schenectady City Hall, room 110, or at Amsterdam City Hall. For the next location call: (518) 382-5147.