AMSTERDAM, NY – “When we got off of active duty we moved back home – the Amsterdam we moved back home to was not the Amsterdam we remembered when we left,” recalled retired U.S. Navy Commander David Mendez during a recent interview.
Mendez’s navy career, which began after his graduation from Amsterdam High School in 1987, carried him to college, and then to deployments all over the world. After retiring from the service in 2016, he returned to his home city and a civilian career along with his wife Tanya, who is also a native of Amsterdam.
Although it was difficult for him to describe exactly what he felt had changed, Mendez finally summarized it this way: “We let other people and other communities write our narrative and put Amsterdam down, and the people in Amsterdam started believing it.”
Spurred by the sight of auction signs on dilapidated properties around the city, Mendez started thinking of ways he could address the problem of urban blight. He also had a desire to help veterans, military families, and first responders. These two desires led him to purchase and clean up several adjacent vacant lots on Forbes Street and develop a plan to construct a new 18-unit residential apartment building that will allow families to develop a mutually supportive community. He believes that community will help stabilize and strengthen the entire neighborhood.
“We have the greatest military on earth because of the people. We support each other and we make each other stronger and that’s how we’re great,” said Mendez.
While support for military families and veterans from the general public can be helpful, Mendez said the unique challenges of military service can t be understood best by other military families who have had the same experience.
“When you start putting veterans together, they’ll start helping each other and become stronger,” he said.
To help facilitate that sense of community, the building’s first floor plan includes a shared kitchen, meeting spaces, and a computer lab.
His wife Tanya said the location of the proposed project has special meaning to her, as it is close to where she grew up on Grove Street after moving there from New York City when she was 11.
“We know that area was neglected and suffering for a while,” she said. “My cousins are there, that’s where we have all our summer memories – it’s near and dear to my heart.”
Citing the pattern of absentee landlords neglecting their properties, she added, “We’re just trying to stop this cycle.”
To help with his plan, Mendez called on another Amsterdam native, Architect Tom Politi, who also has a personal connection with the project. Politi’s grandfather, an immigrant from Cuba, once owned one of the properties now owned by Mendez on Forbes.
Politi created the initial design of the building, and said he is hoping to present details to city planning commission in about nine months. Once funding is secured and contractors selected, he expects construction to last 13-16 months.
Sustainability and a connection to Amsterdam’s industrial past are two important considerations in the design of the building. Politi said that cross-laminated timbers will be used for the construction in order to lighten the building, given that compaction of land that has previously been built on can sometimes cause problems for later construction. He said the exposed timbers will also lend to the factory aesthetic of the interior.
Solar panels mounted on the roof will provide power directly to the communal areas and hallways of the building. Recapturing rainwater to irrigate the surrounding land and reduce flow to the city’s drainage and sewer system is also part of the plan.
Mendez said he also hopes to serve as a role model for people of Hispanic heritage. He tackled the use of the term “Amsterico” which he said can be a positive or negative term depending how it’s used.
“We know that Amsterdam is called Amsterico. You know that. You know what, I don’t really have a problem with it. I’ll embrace it. I’m Puerto Rican and I’m from Amsterdam, if you want to say that go ahead. I’ve served my country and I’m doing fine.”
However, he recalled an incident in 2013 when Amsterdam High School football players were taunted with the term at a football game against Burnt Hills.
Mendez, who was a coach on the sidelines for the game said, “What really upset me is how it does affect other kids.”
“We want to be an example,” he said. “Hey, we’re Hispanic, we’re from Amsterdam, you can do what we’re doing. Why can’t you?”
Mendez said he is looking to involve the community as much as possible in the next stages of the project. He has plans for at least one upcoming fundraising event which he hopes to announce soon.