Page: B1
Date: Tuesday, January 14, 2003



Prospects brightened considerably on Friday for weary St. Joseph's Church in Arbor Hill, one of the most architecturally significant structures in Albany.      St. Joseph's got a new owner, and will soon have yet another. Supreme Court Justice Tom Keegan gave the city title to the church as the last step in an eminent domain proceeding. Attorney Randall Kehoe, representing the former owner, Lark Street restaurateur Elda Abate, says she will appeal. But for now, the city finally owns what it could have gotten from the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese for $1 several years ago but declined at the time. The diocese then sold the deconsecrated church for $1 in 2000 to Abate, who at one point said she would use it as a banquet house. Times change, and so do attitudes. Mayor Jerry Jennings has since taken a passionate interest in saving this landmark, while Elda Abate has done little to improve or even preserve the giant stone edifice. Russ Reeves, an engineer who specializes in these matters and who looked at St. Joseph's for both Abate and the city, says the building has deteriorated to an alarming degree in recent years.      Reeves stated that because of water damage, key support columns were ``in a dynamic state of failure.'' That concerned city officials enough a year ago to begin pouring in $240,000 in city money to stabilize it. That's ongoing.      The serious matter of public safety, plus the city's financial commitment, served as the basis for pressing for eminent domain after negotiations to buy the building from Abate broke down.      So at long last there seems to be a clear path for redeeming this grand, historic church that looms like a skyline signature over downtown Albany.

     With any luck, the wheel-spinning days of trying to save St. Joseph's in slow motion are behind us. On Jan. 23, the Albany Common Council will take up the issue and is expected to transfer ownership to the Historic Albany Foundation. The foundation can then target grant money and tap into other resources.      Albany philanthropist Matthew Bender, who has stepped up to the plate for the city so many times that it ought to design a special uniform for him, has agreed to head a blue-ribbon commission to find the most suitable use for St. Joseph's and aid in fund-raising.      Many suggestions already have popped up for its use as a public building, including a performing hall with exhibit space, a museum about the Underground Railroad and a museum of New York politics. An appropriate private sector owner also is possible. But nothing happens before the building is deemed in a dynamic state of success rather than failure, and we're on the way. There yet remains the potential glitch of Elda Abate's appeal of Keegan's decision. Her lawyer says his Appellate Division brief will focus on two issues -- that the city declared the situation an emergency when Abate insists there isn't one but wasn't allowed to prove it, and that the court ordered a transfer of title without a public hearing.      But attorney Kehoe made it clear his client is far less interested in having ownership of St. Joseph's returned to her than she is in obtaining ``reasonable market value'' for it.      ``Elda wants Sotheby's, the auction house, as the appraiser. She may have paid only a buck for it, but the bells alone are worth millions,'' Kehoe asserts.

     But a city official close to the situation says the bells can't be removed. St. Joseph's is a historic structure in a historic district and can't be dismantled for parts. Typically, appraisers in the city are putting a price tag of a dollar a square foot on structures in similar situations, he said.      St. Joseph's has a usable interior of about 17,000 square feet. The city already has liens against Abate for more than $300,000. Contact Fred LeBrun at 454-5453.

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