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Proposed Bioswale Rankles Albany Neighborhood

Residents of one Albany neighborhood are trying to scuttle plans to build a bioswale on their street.

A bioswale is essentially a ditch with an assortment of plants designed to capture and convey water, while allowing it to slowly seep into the ground slowly over a 24 to 48 hour period.

Albany's Hackett Boulevard is notorious for flooding after heavy rain. Officials have been searching for ways to mitigate the problem.  City Water Commissioner Joe Coffey lives on a street that intersects with Hackett.  "Hackett Boulevard floods as far up as where St. Peter's Hospital and the Center For Disabilities is at Manning Boulevard.  And the issue is that what used to be a tributary of the Beaver Creek at Hackett Boulevard is now a contained pipe. And a contained pipe is only gonna hold so much water coming off the side streets. So Hackett Boulevard floods dramatically at the base, but also floods at most of the major intersections that we've experienced a couple of times here, even in 2018."

Edward Vining lives a few blocks away on Ramsey Place, where residents are up in arms over a city plan to install a bioswale on their street.   "Back in the summer the city sent two engineers around to talk to people, to explain what their plans were in terms of the street construction that was gonna happen this coming spring. Part of that construction is separating the sewers. Right now our sewers are combined, so any water drainage from storms and any sewage goes into the same sewers system and runs down to Hackett Boulevard and then on, and then eventually ends up in the Hudson River. The state and federal government had mandated they can't do that anymore, they have to separate the sewers. So that was part of the reason for the construction, which is fine. We understand that it needs to be done. They also were putting in new gas lines, because the street was scheduled to be milled and paved next spring."

Vining says the water department stepped forward to fund the project provided they could add green infrastructure — the bioswale. That would entail narrowing the street three and a half feet on each side...  3 "...and in that three and a half feet, after they remove the curbs, they wanna put a greenspace they call a bioswale, which basically is a ditch. And at the bottom of the ditch there's stone and a large pipe that has holes in it so the water can drain very slowly down to Hackett Boulevard. There's been flooding problems on Hackett for quite some time now, and they're trying to minimize the flow of water down to Hackett Boulevard."

According to Vining, and a lawn signs in front of nearly every house on two long blocks of Ramsey Place that runs from Hackett to New Scotland Avenue, residents do not want their street narrowed and worry about the city's ability to maintain the bioswale as well as possibly seeing taxes or water rates raised in the future.

Commissioner Coffey sees no reason not to narrow Ramsey:    "It's wider than Delaware Avenue. At one point it probably had a median in it, so when you look at the street, it's probably 12 to 14 feet wider than the average street in the Heldeberg Neighborhood. So while there may be many  signs, there's a lot of people who are vocally against it, a lot of people have also expressed some desire for some form of traffic calming."

Vining argues there are 39 other streets in the watershed feeding Hackett Boulevard and none of them are under consideration for the installation of anything like a bioswale. He says he has researched bioswales and finds they have ahigh failure rate.

Coffey notes the goal is to eventually perform detention work on Hackett Boulevard.   "...which we put a consolidated funding application together for, but that's $8 million dollars. And some of that's gonna be a function of grant funding."

Coffey points to successful storm management projects throughout the city, like the permeability project done on Quail Street a few years back. "So now we wanna focus also on the Hackett corridor. Ramsey Place is kinda low hanging fruit, because it is scheduled to be repaved. It's a wide street and it's got a variety of opportunities for storm-water management. Bioswale is one."

Vining sent a letter outlining neighbors’ concerns to the mayor and a standing-room only public meeting was held November 7th. He contends officials have no formal plan for the bioswale project and not even a ballpark figure as to how much it will cost, let alone its ability to meet requirements expected of a water mitigation project.

The residents suggest an alternative:  using porous asphalt to repave Ramsey. Coffey says the undersurface in that neighborhood is clay, so porous asphalt would be ineffective. Coffey emphasizes the bioswale is just one possible solution to helping reduce water run-off.

Resident Dan Smith hopes for a second meeting with the water department.   "I didn't realize until the meeting that they would have to extend our driveways three and a half feet out, which for me, being old and having to shovel my own driveway, this is an aging-in-place neighborhood, and that three and a half feet, for some of us, is a big deal."

Smith says all homeowners want is to have the street paved. Period. Vining adds that while city officials claim that motorists speed up and down Ramsey because of its width, they have no interest in the neighbors' idea to install relatively inexpensive removable rubber-compound speed bumps to calm traffic. Coffey says his people will continue communicating with neighbors as they work to find solutions nearly everyone can agree on.

Several blocks uptown, Joe Sullivan is president of the Buckingham Pond/Crestwood Neighborhood Association. The frequent critic of the Sheehan Administration argues the Ramsey Place residents should have the final say when it comes to what they want for their neighborhood.   "Things are very inequitable in the city and the people that are on the short end of the stick are those of us who live uptown who pay the lion’s share of the property taxes that support city schools and city government because our homes are valued higher and are taxed higher.  The people that have kids in school come largely from midtown and downtown, and if they own a home at all it's very minimal tax that they pay. So let's have some equity for the uptown Albany people. The Rezone Albany plan that the mayor pushed through in June of last year is a disaster for this area."

Sullivan hopes the turn of events on Ramsey will spur the residents to form their own neighborhood association.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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