For nearly a century, the Tobin’s First Prize plant has dominated the West Albany neighborhood – at one time employing some 1,600, and now a hulking, largely vacant crumbling eyesore sitting on one of the most logistically attractive properties in the Capital District.
There have been a number of ideas for the 32-acre site located within 15 minutes of nearly everything of import. Walmart wanted to build a distribution center. One developer wanted to build a hotel. Another eyed it for a Casino and another had visions of sporting goods giant Cabela’s. Others saw a Whole Foods, a county nursing home, a Lowe’s …
All fell by the wayside for one reason or another, not in the least being the cost to demolish the existing structure, which one report pinned at $1.5 million.
This time around, though, the neighborhood, once full of proud, mostly Italian immigrants making a decent buck at the plant, has high hopes.
“West Albany is a diverse community,” said the owner of Recycled Salon, David Belschwinder, who started the group West Albany Strong. “But neighbors of Tobin’s First Prize have this in common: We all want to see something happen at the site. It’s been an eyesore for decades. This time I’m giving it an 80 percent chance.”
Technically, West Albany is a Town of Colonie hamlet, but for all practical purposes, including the most recent plan to develop Tobin’s, it straddles the Albany city line. As such, Richbell Capital is looking to take advantage of a little used state law that’s been on the books since at least 1993 allowing the creation of an overlay district – or a quasi-governmental body to oversee and shepherd through projects that straddle more than one municipality.
The concept reeks of common sense, but to establish an overlay district is still, at best, three months out, said Bill Hoblock, executive vice president at the Saratoga-based Richbell.
While it is unchartered territory in the Capital District, Hoblock said the most likely scenario is the Albany Common Council and the Colonie Town Board will refer the request to create the “Frist Prize Overlay District” to their respective Planning Boards.
If they like it, the Planning Boards will kick it back to the legislative bodies to formally approve the zoning district and appoint a five-member Planning Board specifically and exclusively for the project. Each municipality will appoint two members, with the fifth seat an agreed upon choice.
That process could start as soon as this month or early March, Hoblock said.
“Once the overlay is in place, we know we have a viable project,” he said. “Right now we don’t have a project.”
What sets it apart from the others is two-fold. One, it’s the first time a mixed use idea of commercial and residential has been proposed; and two, it’s the first time an overlay district between two municipalities has been tried in the Capital District.
“Everyone who has ever looked at it knew they would have to go through two municipalities, and everyone knows it’s tough enough in this state with just one municipality,” Hoblock said.
As it stands right now, on paper, there will be residential housing constructed over commercial businesses like restaurants, shops and entertainment venues to make a “pedestrian friendly, walkable community that incorporates all elements of a live/work/play atmosphere.”
Since it’s in its infancy, what the final product will look like – and even the size – is still very much up in the air but it will likely be built in phases. Once the overlay district is approved, Hoblock said, then Richbell will hire architects and engineers and figure out the nuts and bolts.
The second step is to get a PILOT agreement with Albany County Industrial Development Authority. Hoblock makes no qualms about needing public assistance to compliment private investment and Albany County, he said, makes more sense than going through the IDA of either municipality because the county is the only entity that controls the entire parcel of land.
“The project only happens with government assistance. The (brownfield) cleanup and demolition costs are massive. Just to get the site shovel ready means a tremendous amount of resources,” he said. “Basically, we are looking at all the different avenues available to get local, state and federal funding for the project.”
An encouraging note to securing funding for Richbell, he said, is the Tobin redevelopment was labeled a “catalyst project” as part of the Capital District’s application to the state’s Upstate Revitalization Initiative – a pot of money handed out to different regions around the state on a competitive basis. It’s also known, ironically in this case considering what Tobin’s made at the plant, as “The Hunger Games.”
The best case scenario is to get the overlay district approved this spring. That kick starts funding, which kick starts the brownfield cleanup and demolition and then on to site plan review and, ultimately, construction.
“Nothing is going to get built there overnight,” Hoblock said.
Tobin’s and West Albany
Larry Spinosa used to shop at Tobin’s in the 70s, picking up meat for his family, and remembers a good number of people in the neighborhood working at Tobin’s back in the day.
He has seen other projects coming and going over the years, but this one, he said, just feels different.
“I think the joint project with Albany and Colonie is the the best way to go about it,” he said while shoveling his Exchange Street front porch. “I also think everyone wants to see something happen. Officials, the people who live around here and even people who drive by on the highway want so see something done with it. It’s been an eyesore way too long. It’s been there way to long.”
The city has already renovated the I-90 Everett Road exit and other business – a medical arts building, professional office buildings, a thriving industrial park and a smattering of unique boutique businesses like Recycled Salon have too set up shop in the area that is 15 minutes from downtown Albany, the NanoTech complex, the train station, the airport and a host of colleges and universities.
Tobin’s though is the big enchilada, and could again define the entire neighborhood, just as it did when it opened 1924 until It closed 57 years later.
The parcel, from Everett Road to the Colonie Pocket Park, has since sat largely vacant, with a few tenants still using the east side of the building. In 1984, the Albany County IDA purchased the property from the federal government for $150,000, and four years later began leasing it to a group of local businessmen called Exchange Street Associates for about $108,000 a year. In 2015, the limited liability company took ownership of the property and, if everything goes as planned, will sell it to Richbell.
Hoblock said Richbell has done all the types of development planned for the site, – residential, business and hospitality – just in different pieces. The company boasts on its website “affiliate companies” like The Greenwich Group with $30 billion in capital transactions, and Terra Capital Partners, which says it has invested $9 billion in 22 million square feet of property.
“When you work with the company that has the wherewithal this company does, and see the projects that have brought to fruition, you believe in them, you see them and you say ‘these guys have the capacity of pulling it off,’” said Joe LaCavita, director of planning and economic development for the Town of Colonie. “It really could change the whole look and feel of that area.”
Chris Spencer, the planning director in the City of Albany, said a number of details will have to be worked out such as what school
district children living in the new development will attend, and who will answer emergency calls. But, he is confident all will be worked out.
“This is a great project, it’s a great fit for both Albany and Colonie,” he said. “It’s a good reuse of the site and blends well into the neighborhood.”
While it is going to take some time, neighbors are, by and large, being patient.
Walt Brown has lived on Exchange Street for 43 years and waged a successful war to stop the storage of recreational vehicles across the street from his house on vacant land between the Tobin’s building and the pocket park’s ball fields.
“They never really announced anything before,” he said, giving this latest attempt a 50-50 chance. “They were saying a Walmart wanted to come in but, of course, everyone fought that tooth and nail. It would be fantastic for the neighborhood. Get rid of that derelict building and get something decent in there. It would be fantastic.”
Belschwinder, while cutting hair in his Sand Creek Road shop about two blocks North of the Tobin’s plant, said the neighborhood is more receptive to smaller businesses that take a more personable approach to commerce and give a neighborhood some character.
“This is a problem I’ve had with West Albany Strong. We aren’t Colonie and we aren’t Albany,” he said. “We are still looking for our identity and I’m hoping this thing will put us on the map. Some unique places where people can go to a deli and get a good sandwich or get a haircut or open a cool business other than Latham or Wolf Road.”