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CENTER SQUARE: Living history
First published: Sunday, February 29, 2004


Albany's Center Square is a product of the people who live there and the amenities it has to offer.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Center Square is a tree-lined neighborhood bounded by Lark, State, Swan and Jay streets, and taking in the upper portion of Lancaster Street between Lark and Willett streets.

A short walk from restaurants, museums, boutiques, groceries, parks, the library, schools and public transportation, the area appeals to people of all ages.

"Center Square is like a small town in many ways and the property values continue to go up," said Claire Yates, a 12-year resident. "I love living here and can walk to work."

Row houses in the neighborhood, originally built as single-family residences between 1850 and 1900, include facades of clapboard, brick and brownstone. Today, many of the homes have been divided into studio, basement and duplex apartments, yet the neighborhood still boasts a few five-story brownstone mansions.

Unlike the grand houses on State, Lancaster and Jay streets, most of the houses on Dove and Swan are modest brick or wood row houses originally built for the working-class families who congregated around employment in the neighborhood's breweries. There were more than four breweries in Center Square at the end of the 19th century. The building that housed the Amsdell Brothers Brewery, at the corner of Dove and Jay streets, is now the Knickerbocker Apartments.

The closure of the Coleman Brothers Brewery at the turn of the century made way for the matching Brides Row Houses on Chestnut Street between Lark and Dove.

John G. Myers, owner of a department store by the same name, built the identical brownstones (intended as homes for the offspring of the neighborhood's well-to-do) across from the carriage houses that served the grander homes on State Street. Over the years, many of the carriage houses in this neighborhood have been renovated or torn down.

Because it's contiguous with the Empire State Plaza and businesses along Washington Avenue and Lark Street, the streets in Center Square are valued as free parking spaces, which can cause headaches for residents.

"If you walk down the street with a key in your hand, a car will be following you," said Harold Rubin, who moved to the neighborhood 40 years ago.

"We, like many people who live here, have learned to use the system," Rubin said. By that he means using the time when streets are cleaned to do errands, returning just in time to get a spot when it's legal to park again.

"However, if you come back late at night, you're in big trouble," laughed Rubin. "Then you may have to park two or more blocks away from your building."

The lack of available parking is one of the biggest reasons many young families with children or very active lifestyles move out of the neighborhood, said Yates, a past president of the neighborhood association.

Center Square has the oldest neighborhood association in the city and although the cobblestones have been paved with macadam and the slate sidewalks covered with concrete, members strive to protect the area's historic character.

Founded in 1958, the association tries to maintain the residential integrity of the neighborhood by dealing with everything from approving paint colors to pushing the city government to establish a resident parking permit system.

"Our (membership) has almost doubled in the past few years," said its newly elected president, Judith Place, who is retired as the Latin American librarian from the University at Albany library. "We have 55 household members and continue to encourage more renters to join as well. People who live or move to Center Square are very energetic and organized. They are very committed to the neighborhood."

Like many urban neighborhoods, Center Square struggled in the 1960s and '70s. But it experienced a resurgence in the 1980s, as the federal government offered grant money and tax breaks to people who bought and restored urban properties.

Thirty-somethings Elise Van Allen and her husband, Justin, moved to Center Square from New Jersey in 2002.

"We fell in love with the architecture the first time we saw it," said Elise Van Allen, vice president of the center's association. "Everything that I am interested in is within walking distance. I don't have to worry about getting into my car."

At a glance

Real estate values: Recent sales have ranged from $80,000 to $525,000.

Rentals: Approximately $450 for a small studio to more than $1,000 for a two bedroom in excellent condition.

Schools: Children attend Philip Schuyler or Giffen for grades K-6; Hackett for 7-8 (and some sections of grade 6); and Albany High School 9-12.

According to the 2003 State Report Card on Schools, the district spends $10,992 per pupil and the student/teacher ratio is 13:1. Thirty-seven percent of the high school graduates receive Regents diplomas.

Taxes: Properties are assessed a full value. Taxes include $14.75 per $1,000 for city and county; $21.84 per $1,000 for school. Taxes for a $200,000 house would be $7,318 a year.

Frances Ingraham Heins can be reached at 454-5502 or