Brighter mood for convention center plan revamp
Backers of scaled-down version hopeful about pending appointments
Published on 7/26/2013 by the Times Union written by Jordan Carleo-Evangelist
Albany - As the new scaled-back downtown convention center plan met cautious praise Thursday even from some longtime critics, Gov. Andrew Cuomo provided boosters of the long-stalled project perhaps the most compelling reason for hope.
Along with the revamped vision for an 80,000-square-foot facility off Eagle Street, the Albany Convention Center Authority announced that Cuomo plans to fill two long-vacant appointments on the authority's board.
More than ministerial, the continued presence of the vacancies for more than two years were interpreted by some as evidence of Cuomo's substantial ambivalence, or worse, about the then-$220 million project.
Neither the authority nor Cuomo's office disclosed whom the governor will tap. Cuomo's office did not return a call for comment.
Assemblyman John T. McDonald III, the authority's newest member as the appointee of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, called the development positive.
"It's a sign that they are committed," McDonald, a Cohoes Democrat who represents parts of Albany, said.
He said he believed Cuomo "has been supportive since Day 1" but also acknowledged "there's been a growing chorus of people, starting at the local level and working its way up, who have been a little disenchanted that the process has been taking so long."
Two of the three seats appointed by the governor on the nine-member panel have been empty virtually since Cuomo took office. The last occupants, former city development Commissioner Lori Harris and former Deputy County Executive Joseph Pennisi, were appointed by Gov. Eliot Spitzer. Pennisi resigned in October 2009 and Harris left in early 2011.
Cuomo's third spot is filled by board Chairman Gavin Donohue, who was first named by Gov. George Pataki in 2006.
The state's major objection to the earlier plan, a 300,000-square-foot complex proposed for mostly vacant land between Broadway and the South Mall Arterial, was the "significant funding gap" — the euphemism used by state budget officials to describe the annual multi-million-dollar state subsidy required to pay the debt.
The new plan — which includes underground parking beneath the roughly one-acre footprint between Eagle, Howard and Wendell streets — would slash the cost to within the $63 million remaining of the original $75 million state seed money first set aside by Pataki.
To make up for the smaller size, the new facility — a stone's throw from the Capitol behind the vacant DeWitt Clinton Hotel and State Street's Wellington Row — would tie into the Times Union Center arena and existing meeting space at Empire State Plaza, boosting the total available space to about 175,000 square feet, said Times Union Center General Manager Bob Belber.
Mayor Jerry Jennings, who last fall led the charge to downsize the project he long championed or face losing it entirely, voiced optimism that the reduced scope would finally get the convention center off the ground after more than a decade.
"I think it's realistic," Jennings said. "We've been talking about it too long. It's time for us to do something. Either do it or don't do it."
Michele Vennard, president of the Albany County Convention & Visitors Bureau and a member of the authority's board, said she was eager to see the results of a market study commissioned by the board Thursday, which is expected to show if the proposed facility could meet the demand for meeting space in the city.
City Treasurer Kathy Sheehan, a Democratic candidate for mayor, echoed that sentiment, cautioning that any decision about what to build needs to be based on data to avoid building too large or too small.
"I want a market-driven approach," Sheehan said. "There needs to be an analysis of the numbers.
Still, even some of the project's past critics expressed some measure of optimism about it.
Councilman Dominick Calsolaro, who has pushed for the convention center authority's resources to be diverted to address the city's deteriorating neighborhoods, again called on the authority Thursday to pay the city money in lieu of taxes for the roughly 4.4 acres it has purchased for about $10 million since 2009 at the previous site off Broadway.
But, he added, "It's good to see that finally something is coming together."
The Historic Albany Foundation has closely watched the convention center project for years in fear that its rise would inevitably claim some of the city's centuries-old architecture. But with the new site occupied largely by parking lots, garages and a long-vacant, brick hotel annex, Executive Director Susan Holland said she was encouraged.
"I actually love the design," Holland told board members.
Former Councilman Corey Ellis, also a Democratic mayoral candidate, long opposed the old convention center plan and instead supported building something like a community college on the site. In a statement issued through a campaign spokeswoman, however, Ellis seemed open to the new proposal.
"It fulfills a need without incurring debts the city can't afford," he said, "and now there needs to be an open discussion on the use of the expanse of property the authority has amassed."
Donohue said the fate of that land — most recently pitched as the site of an aquarium by Omni Development Cos. despite resistance from convention center officials — is a discussion for another day.
"I'm not in a position today to say what development plans will occur on the property we own," he said.