hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues May 2021


Urban density vs. open space

In Glens Falls, a plan for downtown apartments meets a push for parkland




Above, the empty lot at the corner of Glen and Bay streets in downtown Glens Falls has been the focus of controversy since a developer proposed in August to fill it with a five-story apartment building. Joan K. Lentini photo Second: the Glens Falls Insurance Co. building occupied the corner from 1912 until 1976.Courtesy of Chapman Museum


Contributing writer


When developer Chris Patten proposed last summer to put up a new 64-unit apartment building on a prominent corner in downtown Glens Falls, he offered to fill an urban gap that has persisted for 45 years.

For much of the 20th century, the corner of Glen and Bay streets was the site of the Glens Falls Insurance Co., whose five-story, marble-columned edifice dominated the intersection known as Monument Square. The landmark building, whose front door faced the Civil War monument at the center of the intersection, was razed in 1976. Though its loss was long mourned by architecture and local history buffs, the lot has remained vacant ever since.

Outlining his plans to the city’s Common Council in August, Patten said he wanted to restore what Glens Falls had lost. He proposed a five-story structure that would mostly fill the footprint of the old insurance building. It would provide lots of new living space in the center of downtown, generating more pedestrian traffic – and more customers for downtown businesses.

Reaction to the plan was swift and negative. Opponents objected to the size of Patten’s proposed building, the idea of adding more apartments downtown, and to Patten’s preliminary renderings of the facade, which were modeled on the old insurance company building.

Members of the Church of the Messiah, an Episcopal congregation just northwest of the site, were especially upset. The Glens Falls Insurance building had been erected mere feet from the church in 1912, leaving it shaded for 64 years. The church’s members said an apartment building on that corner would detract from their historic structure and blight the neighborhood.

Opponents called for the lot to be preserved as urban green space, and Glens Falls Mayor Dan Hall embraced that idea, saying the city should find a way to take possession of the lot and protect it from development.

“The property has been part of the public realm for 45 years,” Hall said in an interview last month. “It’s privately owned, but people think of it as a park.”

Patten, who has responded to the opposition by offering a series of scaled-down proposals over the past eight months, declined to discuss the project in detail for this story. Both he and Hall indicated that he is involved in legal negotiations with the city over the property’s future.
“We’ve been denied. We’ve been beaten up,” Patten said in a brief interview. “The city will try to take the property by eminent domain. We have lawyers working on it.”


Filling a void
The old Glens Falls Insurance Co. building was demolished in 1976 after the company merged with Continental Insurance (later absorbed by Travelers) and built a new high-rise office tower and a parking garage just to the north in the triangular block bounded by Glen, Bay and Washington streets. The owners of the complex graded the site of the old building and planted it with a lawn and a few trees.

The half-acre lot was briefly the focus of a redevelopment effort in 2008 when, at the urging of then-Mayor Roy Akins, developer Bruce Levinsky proposed putting up a 120-unit hotel on the site, according to reports in the local daily newspaper, The Post-Star. But the project never went forward.

In the proposal he outlined in August, Patten told the city’s Common Council that he wanted to buy the corner from its owner, 333 Glen Street Associates (which also owns the Travelers office tower), and put up a five-story building with 64 apartments, a few shops on the ground floor, and a parking garage.

Patten had mostly done residential development in the surrounding town of Queensbury but had also renovated a building across Glen Street for apartments and retail space.

Patten had a contract to buy the corner, pending city Planning Board approval for a subdivision that would carve out the corner parcel from the rest of the 333 Glen property. His initial proposal also depended on the city changing the zoning for the parcel to allow higher density development.

The site is in the city’s Three Squares Historic District, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. The district is noteworthy for its architecturally distinctive buildings, mostly erected between a devastating fire in 1902 and the onset of the Great Depression in 1930.

The Planning Board gave the go-ahead to the subdivision in January. Hall, who made it clear he’d like to keep the site open, asked for the subdivision approval to be conditional on the current owners giving the city the first option to buy the parcel. But the Planning Board said it had no legal authority to make such a stipulation.

Hall has since suggested the city could acquire the property by eminent domain.
In February, Patten trimmed the proposed development to a four-story structure with 43 apartments and one retail space, with tenant parking at the neighboring garage. He also offered to donate 10,000 square feet of the 23,000-square-foot parcel to the city, but the city didn’t pursue the offer. Hall said last month that Patten had withdrawn the offer.

At its March meeting, the Planning Board rejected Patten’s plans, saying the submitted information was inadequate.

Patten further pared his proposal to 21 apartments in a four-story building. But even that scaled-down plan was challenged at the board’s April 6 meeting by Judy Calogero, a former state housing commissioner who serves on several local economic development boards.

Calogero contended even the scaled-back plan would exceed the density limits set by the city zoning law. The law, she said, allows only one apartment unit per 2,500 square feet of land – a standard that would limit the site to no more than nine apartments.

Patten’s lawyer responded by pointing out instances in which he said the city had approved other projects that exceeded these limits.


Small lot, small building?
Calogero said in an interview that she’s not opposed to having more housing downtown.
“Apartments downtown are a great benefit,” she said, adding that a nearby apartment project on Bay Street “has really helped downtown.”

“There’s a need for more of it,” she said. “There are plenty of opportunities elsewhere in the city.”
But the site facing the Civil War monument “is very limited with square footage,” Calogero said.
Vehicular access to the site would also be difficult because of the complex traffic pattern at the intersection, she added.

“When the insurance office building was razed, Continental agreed to maintain the property as a park,” Calogero continued. “The old building detracted from the Church of the Messiah. That’s an important consideration.”

Responding to Patten’s claim that the city ignored the density restriction for other housing projects, Calogero said he was wrong about one project, which by her calculations falls within the limits. Even if the density restriction wasn’t enforced elsewhere, that doesn’t mean Patten’s project should be given a pass, she said.

Calogero used the example of two people speeding on the Northway. If only one is pulled over, that driver can’t get out of a ticket because the other one got away, she said.

“If he wants to build nine units, I’d support it,” Calogero said, though she added that the developer should also have to complete a traffic impact study.

Calogero has called for staff from the state historic preservation agency to visit the site. Given the location in the city’s historic district, “it’s appropriate for the city to engage them to do a review to see how a building could be done,” she said.

A review would include how a building should be placed on the site, appropriate styles and construction materials, and how to minimize the impact on the Church of the Messiah. The Planning Board should require a street elevation, to show how a building would look in its surroundings, and a shadow study, to see what effect the building’s shadow would have on the church and nearby traffic, she said.

The city also could require a full environmental impact statement, Calogero said. That might be mandatory if the city used federal funds when the office tower was built, she said.

Calogero said she’d rather see green space and a park at the corner of Glen and Bay. Having the lot available for outdoor activities and festivals, she said, “would do more to support other businesses in the area than adding apartments.”

Planning Board Chairman Daniel Bruno declined to discuss the project in detail last month.
Patten “needs to resubmit with additional information based on the preliminary review,” Bruno said. “That’s all I’m going to say.”

But board member Peter Accardi expressed support for redeveloping the site. The green space that now occupies the corner lot “isn’t used much,” he said.

“There’s a problem with occupancy,” Accardi said of Patten’s proposal. “I don’t know what the solution is. I was in favor of it. It seemed like a good thing.”

The city’s assessor’s office confirmed that as of late April, the property was still held by 333 Glen Street Associates.

The mayor said he didn’t want to discuss the property’s future in detail.
“We’re in negotiations with Mr. Patten,” Hall said. “I don’t want to say more about it.”
But if the city were to acquire the land, “we want to keep it as green space,” he added. “We’ve had some thoughts of a small play area, events, or a monument. If we end up with it, we’ll formulate some plans for it.”

Shaped by history

Local historian Joseph Cutshall-King, who was executive director of Glens Falls’ Chapman Historical Museum at the time the old insurance building was demolished in 1976, said he has “really mixed emotions” about Patten’s proposal. As the museum’s leader from 1975-85, he took a keen interest in the city’s history and development.

The effort to develop more downtown housing represents “a striking reversal of suburbanization,” he said.

But while “people would like to see more people come downtown, they don’t necessarily want to see people living downtown,” he added. “People love to have green space.”

Cutshall-King said the history of the corner of Glen and Bay streets is complex. The first building there was the home of Joseph Wing, the brother of settlement founder Abraham Wing. It was constructed when the Quakers returned to the area after the American Revolution, he explained.
That house was removed in 1888 to make way for the Glens Falls Insurance Co.’s second building, completed in 1890. According to old photographs in the Chapman’s collection, the brick building had a large tower that dwarfed the steeple of the Church of the Messiah, which was completed in 1866.

Around 1910, when the insurance company decided it needed more room, it moved into temporary quarters in City Hall and sold the brick building to the local Masons, who moved it across Glen Street for their temple. The tower was razed, but part of that building is still standing, Cutshall-King said.

The 1912 insurance company building, shaped like a truncated V, came right up to the sidewalk on both Glen and Bay streets. There were concerns at the time of the insurance company merger that it would be left to decay, although Cutshall-King remembers it as a very solid structure.

“There was a protest when it came down,” he said.
The insurance building “was a victim of a time when everything was moving out of town,” Cutshall-King said.

When Glens Falls Insurance was sold to Continental, the city helped to support development of a new office tower in an effort to keep the insurance company and its work force in the city center.
“The Glens Falls Insurance building was a sacrificial lamb,” Cutshall-King said.
Its demolition ended close to 200 years in which the corner was continuously occupied by buildings.

Although there has been some major construction in the city in the last few years, he pointed out, downtown Glens Falls is still losing old buildings and has a lot of empty or little-used spaces left from previous redevelopment efforts.

“When will things stop being flattened, and when will things be rebuilt?” Cutshall-King asked. “I think the city council has to think about what it wants to see down there. What do you intend to do around it? If you’re not going to build there, will the developer pull up stakes and move to Saratoga Springs or Hudson Falls?”

The nearby block bounded by Maple, Bay, Washington and Ridge streets “has some beautiful architecture, but the rest is empty,” Cutshall-King said.

Cities elsewhere in upstate New York are taking advantage of low interest rates and the trend of re-urbanization, he said.

“They’re seizing on what’s left and building around it,” he explained.
In contrast, he said, large chunks of downtown Glens Falls remain empty. He cited a stone and iron fence between the Church of the Messiah and the office building next door, vestiges of a mansion that once stood there.

“It’s symbolic of what’s not happening,” Cutshall-King said. “There’s a green lawn and a lovely fence with nothing behind it. You want to ask, ‘Is that all there is?’”