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An update on the sale of the Saratoga Sites complex in Cohoes

The Saratoga Sites public housing neighborhood in Cohoes.
Jackie Orchard
The Saratoga Sites public housing neighborhood in Cohoes.

The initial path has been cleared for the city of Cohoes to purchase the Saratoga Sites public housing complex. But there is still a long journey ahead.

Saratoga Sites sits next to the Norlite plant, which for years has been targeted by environmental activists concerned over toxic emissions from its smokestack.

Last month, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation gave Norlite 60 days to submit a plan to control fugitive dust leaving its property, install and operate new off-site air monitoring and increase recording, reporting and training requirements regarding fugitive dust. Norlite disputes the criticism and says it has been in compliance with regulations.

Monday night the Cohoes Housing Authority voted 4 to 1 to allow the city to purchase the land after residents of Saratoga Sites are moved out. Cohoes Housing Authority board chairman Mark Pascale says for two years the authority has been pursuing an application with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"So last night didn't represent a completion of the sale or a completion of the contract, but our question of intent to work with the city on a sale to the city, and that's it at this point," said Pascale, "That's all HUD wants from us, is to see that we have a buyer that we're interested in working with. So that was a vote last night to choose between Norlite and the city. We chose the city."

On February 1st, Democratic Mayor Bill Keeler sent the authority a letter offering to purchase the site for $35,000 and spend about $600,000 to demolish it. Norlite then offered to buy the property for $45,000 and bear the cost of demolition. Former EPA Regional Administrator and WAMC commentator Judith Enck has been a vocal critic of Norlite.

"It really is quite audacious that Norlite thought they could buy up this property after their pollution is the reason why 70 families are being dislocated and having to leave this public housing complex," Enck said. "I have a much higher level of confidence that the city of Cohoes will handle this property more responsibly. Now, of course, it does not make the problem go away for the people in the businesses who live just across the street from Saratoga Sites."

The Common Council will vote on whether to approve the Housing Authority decision when it meets March 22nd.

Councilor Bill Smith represents the 1st Ward in the Albany County city.

"I don't believe the city is in the retail business. Not only does Norlite affects Saratoga Sites, it also affects the businesses and the other residents around there," said Smith. "And if we're not going to, you know, buy other properties, I don't think this is a good investment for for the city or the taxpayers, because at the end of the day, it's $35,000. Plus, according to the mayor, another $600,000 to demolish and probably another $400,000 to find out what dirty materials, if there are any dirty materials, are in the ground. So he, the Mayor Keeler wants to put it down as industrial use. But if we're demolishing buildings to get rid of good people, why would you want to put other businesses on that site, is my contention right now. But I'm just one vote on the city council. We'll probably end up voting for that at our next business meeting. But I'm a firm no," said Smith.

City Planner Joe Seman Graves says Cohoes is exploring several funding avenues.

"We've already started those conversations at the local, state and federal levels," Graves said. "But there's a lot of a lot of nuances that are going to allow us to ultimately make decisions on where the different parts of funding are going to come from. And I think it's premature to say at this point exactly where, but you know, we are laying the groundwork now so we are ready when we have that information.”

Graves says Mayor Keeler has made it clear that taxpayers will not be stuck with the bill to purchase and remediate Saratoga Sites. Norlite did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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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