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November 26, 2004

Venerable Hotel Becomes Symbol of Decay in Albany


ALBANY - The Hotel Wellington once was host to New York State's political elite. Now, the guests at the decaying hotel are more likely to be rats.

The Wellington, one of the city's most endangered historic buildings, has become symbolic of the state capital's struggle with its estimated 800 vacant and abandoned buildings, and may be the catalyst in resolving what to do with them.

The owner of the vacant 500-room hotel, built in 1923, has been charged with 17 code violations, including rat infestation, water damage, broken windows, crumbling masonry and floors that could easily give way. The hotel, which sits prominently above Albany's downtown business district and just below the state Capitol, has been cordoned off with concrete barriers, along with four other structures in similar shape and owned by the same company.

"I'm not going in that building," said the city's assistant corporation counsel, Terrence Gorman. "I wouldn't recommend anyone walk in there."

Last week, the city's Historic Resources Commission rejected a plan from the owner, Sebba Rockaway Ltd., to demolish the buildings. Sebba Rockaway, based on Britain's Channel Islands, faces a trial on the code citations in December if a settlement is not reached with the city. The site is under consideration for a convention center.

"Until there's a decision made on the convention center site, there won't be any development on that site," said Mark McCarthy, Sebba's Albany lawyer, who had said that razing the building would have resolved the problems.

"It's too early to tell what's going to happen," Mr. Gorman said. The city's chief goal at this point is public safety, he said, particularly after it had to take down a sagging copper cornice in August that threatened pedestrians.

"It really never should have gotten to that condition," Assemblyman John J. McEneny, a Democrat from Albany, said of the Wellington. "It was never the Cadillac, but always very respectful."

The Wellington was a favorite for legislators, who could walk out the front door and up State Street to the state Capitol. Mr. McEneny, also an Albany historian, said the Wellington was last occupied in the late 1980's, with politicians residing in the main structure and University of Albany students living in an annex. Mario M. Cuomo stayed there while serving as lieutenant governor and secretary of state, Mr. McEneny said.

Elizabeth Griffin, the executive director of the Historic Albany Foundation, called the Wellington "one of our most endangered buildings."

The city is hoping to prevent other buildings from becoming as desperate as the Wellington and has formed a special committee to deal with the vacant-building problem. "All of this should have been done years ago," Mr. McEneny said. "It's frustrating. The Wellington is probably the symbol."

The committee, made up of architects, preservation representatives and city officials, including Mr. Gorman, will take a look at vacant-building codes. One hope for the committee is to draft legislation requiring owners to meet certain maintenance standards, according to Ms. Griffin, who will also sit on the committee.

The committee will be most effective with buildings that have the least damage, particularly those vacated recently, she said. With Albany winters as severe as they are, it does not take much for abandoned structures to deteriorate.

"In the winter, we can lose as many as 20 buildings," Ms. Griffin said. "Maintenance means everything in a climate like ours."

Most of the time, the structures that the Historic Albany Foundation and the city deal with have been vacant for more than 20 years.

"If you don't have an active program to deal with the properties that have the code violations, those are the abandoned buildings of the future," said Joe Schilling, who helped create the National Vacant Properties Campaign, a group pushing to salvage vacant buildings across the country.

"You change it one block and one neighborhood at a time," said Mr. Schilling, a professor at the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech.

The new committee is the latest of several recent steps by the city to address vacant buildings.

The city released a report this fall by the Enterprise Foundation, a national community development organization, which said the problem in Albany is "part of a national phenomenon at work over at least five decades."

As people leave cities and fewer people move in, abandoned properties proliferate, the report said. Albany's population slipped below 100,000 in the 2000 census.

The city's commissioner of development and planning, Lori Harris, said the city had started implementing the recommendations. "We're really going at it very aggressively," she said.

As for the Wellington, preservationists hope that it may yet be saved.

"Anything can be saved with enough money," Ms. Griffin said.