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Barbara Lombardo of Saratoga Springs, NY, is a journalism adjunct at University at Albany and retired executive editor of The Saratogian, The Record and the Community News. Follow her on Twitter @Barb_Lombardo.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Your turn to speak up on vacant eyesores in Saratoga

I’m not the only one fed up with vacant, neglected residential property in their neighborhood. More than a dozen of you responded to my piece about vacant homes and the apparent lack of city pressure on owners. I’ll share some of your stories and comments today. But first, an update on communication with Public Safety Commissioner Christian Mathiesen, a member of the City Council.

The owner of this disaster at 32 Park Place
told me this is their next project. Sorry,
Phila Street residents.
I get the sense that regardless of good intentions, the doubling of the staff to two code enforcers and the addition of clerical support have barely made a dent in their feeling of being overwhelmed, documentation is not a strong suit, and the year-old law regarding vacant properties is not getting it done.

Mathiesen emailed to tell me that the law was sparked not by the regrettable deterioration of 66 Franklin St., but “to provide a dis-incentive for people to hang on to vacant properties for many years while they gradually deteriorate and continue to adversely affect surrounding homes and neighborhoods.”

However, Mathiesen noted, “I agree that more needs to be done as far as follow-up for the Vacant Properties Ordinance. The operations of our office have been compromised while in our temporary space. We will be doing much more on this when we are back in our City Hall offices. I will have more information on your other concerns once I have spoken to our staff. I will get back to you soon.”

We can be reasonably patient without letting the city off the hook. I’ve asked for documents showing to when and to whom letters about vacant property were sent, whether they were received, and what has happened since. While we’re waiting, here are excerpts from some of your emails. (I didn’t ask whether I could use writers' names, so I won’t. But I do thank everyone for their encouraging comments. And I will use photos if you can send them as jpegs, please.)

Wild animal kingdom: We have, more than once, reported rodents, feral cats, possum and other wildlife. The large addition in the upper rear half of 32 Park Place, makes it more than a residential building, almost like a bed and breakfast. It's just dry timber. … Thanks for the helpful information and bringing/keeping this issue in the public eye.

Wish it were mine: I’ve been following Helen Simpson's vacant properties for years. Tried to buy the white house on Phila, but she had just purchased it before I could follow up. Count me in on anything I can do to help in the future.

Dangerous and disgusting: As a Phila Street resident, I am thoroughly fed up with the lack of any upkeep effort whatsoever on the part of the owners. Indeed I worry that 63 Phila will collapse onto my house! I am in the process of writing up a petition in order to more firmly bring this issue to the attention of our elected officials. Pigeon crap is not only ugly but can pose a very real health risk (it is friable and can, when dry, take to the air), especially to the very young and very old.

Owner MIA: Oh how I related to your article regarding vacant homes. The house across the street from me (67 Monroe Street) has been vacant for eight years. My understanding is that the owner is "missing" and she abandoned the home. Code Enforcer Dan Cogan has been supportive and did have the two-foot lawn mown this past week. Several people want to buy the house, but without contact information that task is impossible.

Another mystery owner: We would like to know the status or any pertinent information regarding the vacant house at 5 Gick Road. It is a terrible eyesore on the neighborhood. Small animals abound around the property. Heaven knows what is in the house! I believe the property is in the hands of a lawyer but nothing seems to be happening.

Birds, squirrels, who knows what: I have another address for you. The main house at 200 Caroline St. has been vacant a long time. Occasionally the owner cuts the grass but there is absolutely no maintenance to this very attractive house. There are large holes in the columns and eaves with squirrels and birds going in and out. The east side of the house is deteriorating badly on the exterior. Who knows what’s going on inside? Behind the house is a very nice cottage that has been vacant for years and is also overgrown. And at the far south end of the property is a barn/garage, the roof of which fell in about five years ago and the city made the owner fix it. But that building is a leaner anyway. The property has been on the Preservation Foundation’s Ten-to-Save list for several years.

Heartbreaking decay: The Brackett cottage on Excelsior and the former Ash Grove Inn out Church Street -- passing each makes me weep. 

Junk to boot: I live near another vacant eye sore in Saratoga. It is on the corner of Jefferson Terrace and East Broadway, near the racino. Not only is the house in shambles, there is junk and an old van in the yard for over a year. Can't believe this is allowed for such a long time.

Those of you who have dealt with the code enforcers typically describe them as polite, responsive and concerned. That's been my experience, too. So what's actually being done to cite and follow-up on violators of the vacant property law (which I describe in my previous post)? Stay tuned.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Vacant eyesores mar Saratoga neighborhoods

The fence keeps people off 69 Phila St., but not pigeons, who
obviously do their business on the porch.  
Living in walking distance to downtown Saratoga Springs evokes images of neighborhoods where people nod to passersby from the porches of lovely hundred-year-old homes.

And then there are houses like the one across the street from mine: vacant for decades (except for occasional street people and wildlife), with once-beautiful woodwork hopelessly decayed, long stretches of weeds poking through the rotted porch, and a shrubbery-shrouded side serving as an impromptu toilet for people headed home from the bars.

A law to discourage property from going to pot was adopted in February 2013. I’m trying to find out who it applies to and how it’s being enforced. Soon as I do, I’ll let you know.

The owners of 32 Park Place, uninhabited
for decades, said this will be their next project.

The monstrosity on my street is one of an estimated 50 vacant properties in Saratoga Springs – less than 1 percent of the parcels in the city, but eyesores that have been ignored with impunity for too long.

The owners of the house near mine, Helen and Harold Simpson, own other downtown properties. Two are vacant buildings on Phila Street that they hoped to split into three lots instead of two. The zoning board in 2005 reasonably rejected their request. Almost a decade later, the two boarded-up houses, with pigeon crap covering the porches, remain a disgusting reminder that nothing really prevents people from buying property and letting them go to seed.

Another reminder appeared in recent property transactions showing the same couple bought yet another empty downtown house, this one on High Rock Avenue, for $266,774. More property when other parcels are yet to be made habitable? I’ve complained to the city about the Park Place house as a private citizen, but the issue of property left to rot is really a public issue.

Last month, I sent the city a request for any records documenting complaints, city responses, inspections, violations, building permit requests – anything – related to the house on my street. A few days later, in what I was assured was strictly coincidence, the owner called me for the first time ever, with the news that they planned to pursue permits for renovations on Park Place this summer and suggesting I check out their latest completed projects on the West Side.

Then, about a week ago, I was bemoaning the presence of boarded-up houses with the head of the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation, who mentioned the city has a law requiring vacant properties to be registered. So I filed another request with the city, this time asking for all records pertaining to enforcement of the law. The city has acknowledged these requests and promises a response in accordance with the state Freedom of Information Law.

The city vacant property law, reportedly prompted by a fiasco on Franklin Street, in which a historically significant house deteriorated beyond repair, was adopted in February 2013. The law notes that vacant buildings “are likely to become both unsightly and unsafe (and) quickly develop a negative effect on their surrounding neighborhoods as well as on the entire city.” 

The law requires a $250 annual registration fee for each vacant residential structure (and $500 for non-residential), along with proof of safety inspections, a written intentions for the premises and other information. Owners are supposed to register on their own or within 30 days of getting a notice to do so from the city. Scofflaws face a penalty.

Is anyone registered? I’ll keep you posted on the city’s answers. And if you know of any vacant property that ought to be registered, please email me

Monday, June 2, 2014

Ingrid Michaelson comes to Clifton Park: I'll take her the way she is

You’ve heard Ingrid Michaelson’s songs even if you don’t know her, because her music has been in TV shows and commercials. She is a wonderful pop-singer/songwriter with a crisp, distinctive voice and music and lyrics that appeal to people of all ages – though the vast majority of the 800 or so people at Upstate Concert Hall May 27 were 25 or younger. I expected to be the oldest, at 60, though I think I was beat by a white-haired Williams College professor.
I figured that a 6:30 p.m. concert on a Tuesday night would have me home by 9. Ha! The doors opened close to 6:30 and there were two opening acts (Storyman and Sugar and the Hi Lows), so it was 9:20 before Michaelson and her five-person band appeared. 
She was worth the wait, and we stayed until the third encore at about 11 p.m., in time to catch the tail end of a torrential downpour.
This was my first time at Clifton Park’s Upstate Concert Hall – formerly known as Northern Lights – and only my second time at a standing-room-only indoor concert. The first was to see The Hold Steady at WAMC’s The Linda in downtown Albany. My husband and I were happy in the back, where we could lean against a wall.
My pal Peggy and I got luckier at Upstate Concert Hall. We waited in line for an hour for the doors to open (plenty of time to overhear college girls gripe about parents, boys and absent friends), and when the 50 or so people ahead of us staked out their space at the foot of the stage, we claimed two spaces on a padded bench toward the rear but still only thirty feet or so from the elevated stage.  Five or six other “old people” joined us. During Michaelson’s performance, we stood on the bench for a fairly unobstructed view.
She sang a mix of new and old songs, including my favorite “The Way I Am.” She was personable and just the right amount of chatty. She shared a funny story with the audience about her father telling her she was mentioned on TV by JayLo, who said an American Idol singer had taken one of Michaelson’s covers to a new level. Then she showed them a thing or two.
Peggy and her daughter Sophie and I had seen Michaelson two years ago in a sold-out concert at The Egg in Albany. Definitely an older crowd in the Egg than at Upstate Concert Hall, but both were enthusiastic and UCH may have the Egg crowd beat. I'm glad I was part of both.