By ALISSA SCOTT
The Amsterdam sector of the Land Reutilization Corporation of the Capital Region has officially added the first two blighted properties to the Land Bank.
The city of Amsterdam Land Bank Advisory Board formed about a year ago as a branch of the Land Bank -- colloquially known as "the mothership" -- which is made up of the city and county of Schenectady, Albany and Amsterdam.
"The whole purpose of a land bank, and it's been a very successful tool elsewhere in the country, is to help fight decay," board member Robert von Hasseln, also director of community and economic development, said. "It's one very powerful tool."
The advisory board meets to identify deteriorating properties that can help spruce up streets if rehabilitated or destroyed. So far, they've worked to create a detailed plan of attack and specific procedures for choosing properties to accept. Now the board has added its first two properties.
"We're going to be able to stabilize neighborhoods," Bob Purtell, chairman of Amsterdam's Land Bank Advisory Board, said. "And accumulate parcels of land. The problem is if the city accumulates parcels of land [without adding them to the Land Bank,] they still have to pay county taxes and school taxes to those entities. Since the Land Bank is a non-profit organization, we can be exempt from the city having to pay school and county taxes on those properties."
This week, the Common Council authorized the transfer of 35 Julia St. to the Land Bank, because it was previously owned by the city. The Land Bank also gained 124-126 Grand St., which used to be a tavern, after it was donated by a private organization.
Because it's so soon after the properties have been added, Purtell said, the board hasn't decided what it will do with them yet.
"This is all new, so one stop at a time," Purtell said.
There are several ideas, however, von Hasseln said, and the local advisory will be discussing them soon.
"It might be, do we want to reopen it?" von Hasseln proposed of the Grand Street property. "Do we find someone to reopen it as a tavern? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe a commercial storefront with apartments overhead. We can tie it to other parcels and see what else we can create."
He said there are several avenues they can take with the acquired properties -- one being rehabilitation, but also demolition and parceling.
If they choose to parcel a property, they would take a couple of pieces of adjacent land and create a space for a larger development.
At a previous meeting, the advisory board created a specific system for choosing properties to add to the Land Bank. They don't just choose any property that's blighted and they don't just throw clusters of homes into the Land Bank either, von Hasseln said.
"If you were to throw them all into one of our bad neighborhoods all at once, it'd be like water on the sand, it'll just drain away, you wouldn't see it," von Hasseln said. "At the same time you're doing that, your urban blight is continuing to spread. Like the neighborhood on Julia Street, they're all nice houses except for one and now two. If we don't block it there, then it'll be three, then it'll be four."
The board uses a strategy unlike Schenectady's and uncommon elsewhere.
"Our policy is to work from the outside in as a general rule," von Hasseln said. "Keep good neighborhoods from going back and block blight from moving further out."
If not, he said, and they'll be left with no funding.
The Land Bank received a $150,000 grant from the attorney general for administrative costs, but the city advisory board currently doesn't have funding to purchase properties just yet.
Purtell said the challenge now is getting money to rehabilitate the properties. They'll be applying for grants, but von Hasseln said they also will be working with the incoming Common Council.
"We've already started to talk to the incoming council members about the concept of Amsterdam has to throw not only properties, but some operating money into the pool to prime the pump," von Hasseln said. "They're worried about the state of the city's accounting, but they understand the concept that A) this is important, B) the money is the fuel that makes the engine work and C) that the Land Bank will be able to pay the city back, so it's not a loss to the city."
For example, he said, if it costs $50,000 to rehabilitate a building, once it's fixed up the land bank may be able to sell it for $80,000. That's a $30,000 profit, in essence, that can be paid back to the city overtime. Von Hasseln said part of the profit will also be used to purchase another property to "keep the ball rolling."
"Your pot keeps growing until it exceeds what the city put in the first place and the city is paid off," von Hasseln said. "It's an investment. In essence, it's a loan. It's a loan, but the city not only gets all its money back, the city gets all the benefit of having an improved tax base, more people living here, more businesses willing to relocate here."
Moving forward, von Hasseln and Purtell said the board has eyes on between 10 and 20 city properties they would like to add to the Land Bank.
"I'm proud of the land bank initiative. It was a goal I set in my campaign," said Amsterdam Mayor Ann Thane. "More importantly, it represents a growing relationship with our neighbor, Schenectady, and the greater Capital Region. We have everything to gain from this effort."