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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, November 17, 2011

Don’t leave it to Beaver, the town should protect its citizens

Residents of the small suburban neighborhood between Crossgates Mall and Route 20 in Guilderland are upset, and we don’t blame them.

When we visited their neighborhood 13 years ago, we were reminded of the set for Leave It To Beaver — well-tended middle-class homes from the mid-20th-Century lined manicured streets. The grass was green; the bushes were pruned; the dogs were walked on leashes. Neighbors chatted amiably over pristine backyard fences.

This week, we’re publishing a letter written by 14 residents of the short four streets — Lawton and Gabriel terraces and Rielton and Tiernan courts — who describe the neighborhood as a “suburban slum.”

“It’s an abomination,” Judith England told us this week. She held a neighborhood meeting in her beautifully renovated home last week that led the group to send their letter this week to Michael Shanley of Pyramid Companies, which owns Crossgates. “In the last 10 years, I’ve put not only a lot of money into my house, but my heart and soul as well,” said England. “I don’t want to leave.”

The residents write about grass grown a foot high, debris uncollected; soaked mattresses left at curbside for months; junked cars in backyards; fences damaged from fallen limbs left in disrepair; deteriorating houses with hanging gutters and windows knocked out; and dogs roaming loose.

We were in the neighborhood in 1998 because at that time Crossgates Mall had plans to more than double its size to about 3.6 million square feet, and Pyramid was quietly buying up the neighborhood, which, according to Pyramid’s director of development at the time, was for an “English couplet” entrance to the mall.

Massive citizen protests of the expansion led the mall to abandon its plans. Pyramid still owns 14 properties between Crossgates and Route 20, according to Joseph Castaldo, the mall’s manager.

Late this summer, the situation for the small neighborhood got much worse when Pyramid started evicting its tenants in the neighborhood and boarding up homes. The plywood panels over windows and doors are posted with signs that say, in bright orange, “Keep Out” and “No Trespassing.”

Crossgates paid for month-long stays at local hotels for the evicted tenants, Castaldo said. He also told us the boarded-up houses are likely to stay that way through the winter as Pyramid evaluates what to do with them.

This is not acceptable to the residents who wrote to Shanley this week, asking that the boarded houses be demolished and attractive green spaces be maintained in their place.

“The high number of abandoned buildings represents a substantial threat to our health, safety, and quality of life,” they write. “The vacancies invite criminal activity.”

We were surprised and disturbed, when we broke the story last month about Crossgates evicting tenants and boarding up the houses, that town officials saw no problems with this. Rodger Stone, Guilderland’s zoning enforcement officer, said he thought it was generous of Crossgates to pay the hotel bills for displaced tenants. “Some of the tenants that were in there probably were not the finest tenants in the world,” said Stone.

We ask: Shouldn’t landlords be responsible for safe living conditions? And shouldn’t a town inspect rental properties to be sure they’re up to code?

Further, Stone wasn’t concerned or even curious about so many houses being boarded up at once. “They’re boarded up because they checked with their engineering firm and found out there are maintenance issues that would prevent people from living in them,” he said of Pyramid.

The town has no say in boarding up private properties, Stone said.

Over the years, we’ve covered many zoning issues — for example on size and placement of signs — where the town does have a say. We recall one zoning board discussion where members were distressed about the length of a skirt and the depth of cleavage shown on a cartoon character that was part of a sign for a soda shop.

Certainly, a neighborhood with many signs posted on boarded-up buildings should engender at least as much consideration.

Castaldo told us the tenants were evicted for safety reasons and, similarly, “The houses are boarded up to keep them secure.” The town has accepted this without question, or without its own investigation. The town’s decision on whether the houses should be demolished or rehabbed, Stone said, will depend on the reports from Pyramid.  “That’s something we don’t have yet but we will have as soon as they finish their evaluations,” he said.

Why should the town wait months to see engineering reports from Pyramid? Surely, after a cold and snowy winter, abandoned homes will be in worse shape. Why can’t the town hire its own engineer to see if the boarded houses have problems that make them unsafe for occupation?

Further, Castaldo asserted that Crossgates has been keeping its properties in good repair. “I’ve been keeping the lawns mowed. I have security going over two to four times a day,” he said of the Crossgates patrol cars. The residents find those patrols threatening. They write, “Mall security vehicles ‘patrol’ the neighborhood at night — lights flashing, without stopping, at 25 to 30 miles per hour, which does nothing to deter crime, but frightens homeowners.”

“So long as we’re keeping the property neat, secure, and safe,” Castaldo continued, “I think that’s what the neighbors should be concerned about.”

Here’s the central question: If the Crossgates houses were maintained, why are they suddenly unfit to be lived in? It can’t be both ways.

“I find it hard to believe a house will go downhill in 13 years to the point where you kick people out,” one long-time resident told us. We agree with her. There are plenty of mid-20th Century houses in Guilderland that are well maintained and will shelter people happily for generations to come.

The town has a responsibility to find out if the Crossgates houses are, indeed, uninhabitable. And it shouldn’t rely on the corporation that owns them for an answer.

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