Page: B1
Date: Friday, March 15, 2002


ERIN DUGGAN Staff writer

Albany Restaurateur Elda Abate is facing more than $150,000 in fines and possibly jail time after a City Court judge found her guilty of code violations for not making mandated safety repairs to St. Joseph's Church.      The 159-year-old building on Ten Broeck Triangle cost Abate just $1 to buy from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, but will likely cost another $100,000 to $150,000 -- on top of her fines -- when the city bills her for the emergency repairs it began in December, before taking Abate to court. Abate could have avoided court by working with the city to make the repairs herself, several city officials said.

     ``If she had even attempted to comply, we certainly grant people extensions if there's a good cause and they try to comply with the order,'' said Corporation Counsel Gary Stiglmeier.      Abate, who said she's invested over $1 million in Albany by renovating and opening Elda's on Lark and other projects, said the city wants to take over her building and imposed impossible demands on her.      Public Safety Commissioner John C. Nielsen issued an order Dec. 20 declaring the building structurally unsound, after Abate's engineer told the city the building was in a ``dynamic mode of failure.''      Abate had been ordered Sept. 26 to vacate and secure the building, obtain a building permit within 15 days and complete the work under the permit within 30 days.      City officials said that even if the work couldn't be completed in the 30 days -- Nielsen said it took the city longer than a month to do it -- Abate should have started the process by getting a building permit.      Abate said she was promised an extension on the deadline to get the permit, which the city later denied.

     City Court Judge Cheryl Coleman agreed with the city in a decision dated Feb. 7 and released Thursday. Abate will be sentenced on March 21.      Neither Stiglmeier nor Nielsen would comment on what they expect to happen at the sentencing.      At one time, there was talk of Abate's turning the church into a nightclub. Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings then expressed his desire for the building to be put to a more community-minded use.      ``This is a historic structure in the city and we should be able to find a better use for it,'' he said.

     Abate's lawyer, Randall Kehoe, said he will likely appeal the decision, and questioned the city's motives. He said the city is trying to force Abate out.      ``Instead of just buying it from her, they're muscling in on her turf,'' Kehoe said. ``If that's their tactic, it's working.''      The city can take over the building if Abate doesn't repay the money spent on the repairs. Then her debt becomes a lien, and the city could foreclose on the building, said Stiglmeier.      ``It's taxpayer money, and the city has to recoup these costs one way or another,'' Stiglmeier said.      But, he added, the city isn't planning to take that action.

     Despite the legal struggles surrounding the building and the structural problems inside, there is a glimmer of good news for the building: Demolition isn't in its future.      ``We would not have gone in and taken the steps we have if it was going to be demolished,'' Stiglmeier said. ``It is an architectural and historic wonder, and we want to see it preserved.''

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