The oldest, continuously operating neighborhood association in the City of Albany
By Harold Rubin and Clare Yates
The Center Square Association was officially organized on April 16, 1958, when 35 residents and guests met at the Westminster Presbyterian Church and agreed to organize to maintain their neighborhood as a desirable residential area.
The group was led by Elinor “Ellie” Posner (then Hemstead) of Lancaster Street, joined by John Holden, George Morgan and Townsend Rich of Chestnut Street and John C. Rice of the Greater Albany Chamber of Commerce. The invitation to the founding meeting was addressed to “property owners” on parts of Chestnut, Lancaster and Dove Streets.
The early by-laws reflect this tilt toward property ownership. While all residents of the defined area were eligible for membership, so too were property owners who did not live in the area. Tenants, however, could not hold office — President, Vice President, Recording Secretary, Corresponding Secretary and Treasurer. The Association’s board, its governing body, included five officers, the past president and the heads of three standing committees.
The Early Years
The original efforts of the Association were directed to beautification, such as planting trees at $10 a tree, which became an annual event, and encouraging flower planting by promoting the sale of window boxes, at prices ranging from $1 to $6.50, depending on size and whether they were painted or made of wood or metal.
By 1963, Center Square had expanded to an area bounded by State Street on the north, South Swan Street on the east, Jay Street on the south and Lark Street on the west, plus Lancaster Street from Lark Street to Willett Street. Since then, the boundaries have expanded to include Spring Street between Dove and Lark. The great majority of the buildings in Center Square are row houses, originally built as one family homes. Over the years, many had been converted into two or more units, particularly the larger buildings along State Street and in the lower block of Lancaster Street. Yet, to this day there are many one family homes in the neighborhood. The area is diverse, including six churches, retail and service businesses, professional offices and apartment buildings, including the 91 unit Knickerbocker Apartments at 175 Jay Street.
With most Center Square buildings erected before 1900, the Association made a strong effort to provide protection for its “special” district. Its efforts were successful when the City established the Historic Sites Commission in 1964 (with very limited powers). Ellie Posner was one of the five initial Commission members. The boundaries covered under the Commission’s jurisdiction included all of Center Square, except for the south side of Jay Street, which was scheduled for demolition to provide a western highway exit from the EmpireStatePlaza, then under construction. When plans for that highway ended in 1972, the Commission’s jurisdiction was extended for all of Jay Street. Since that time, the City has appointed a Historic Resources Commission with great power and jurisdiction over all the City’s Historic Districts.
The Empire State Plaza
With the completion of the Empire State Plaza next to Center Square in view, the Association recognized the potential pressure to commercialize the neighborhood for offices, to service the growing governmental center. Accordingly, when Albany held public hearings in 1967 on a draft zoning ordinance, to replace the existing 1922 ordinance, the Association organized a turnout of its membership to oppose the proposed commercial zoning which would have covered the fifth of Center Square bordering the Plaza. The Association’s concerns were recognized, and most of Center Square was zoned for one and two family row houses under the ordinance enacted in 1968.
In 1971, the Association was successful in opposing the demolition of 312, 314, 316 and 318 State Street to make a two-level parking garage for the office building at 324 State Street that is now the home of the Art Department of the College of St. Rose. One of the leaders in this effort was Richard Randles, a State Street tenant, who objected to Center Square’s exclusion of tenants from holding office. The by-laws were amended in 1972 to exclude non-resident property owners from membership and to enable all members, home owners and tenants alike, to hold office.
Subsequent amendments to the by-laws expanded the size of Center Square’s board by increasing the number of standing committees and adding chairs of special committees and block captains to the board. With these changes, any resident of Center Square has ample opportunity to participate fully in the work of the Association.
In May 1970, the Association conducted a neighborhood clean up with the City providing a truck to remove the debris. Due to the successful mobilization of the residents to clean up their neighborhood, this became an annual event, which peaked in 1973 as 76 truckloads, including hundreds of aged appliances, were hauled off. The annual cleaning has been adopted by many neighborhood associations, coordinated by the City over a five week period every spring.
Historic Albany Foundation, First House Tour and CANA
The Historic Albany Foundation (HAF), a dream of Elm Street resident Louise Merritt, was organized in 1974 in the Chestnut Street home of Bob and Dottie Meyer, by Hudson/Park and Center Square residents.
Center Square and HAF held its first house tour in 1975 to raise funds and to encourage the purchase of homes in the neighborhood. In later years, the annual house tour was also sponsored by Hudson/Park.
Judith and Neil discuss the history of the house & garden tour
The funds raised by Center Square were put to good use in 1979 when the Association prevailed upon HAF to purchase 48-A Dove Street, a building in poor condition due to an earlier fire. Center Square helped finance the required stabilization of the building by making a $5,000 interest free loan to HAF. Hudson/Park also loaned $1,000, as did several neighborhood residents. When the building was finally sold at a loss several years later, Center Square converted its loan to a gift. The new owners completed the rehabilitation and the building has been fully occupied since then.
Center Square joined with Hudson/Park and Mansion neighborhood associations in 1975 to form the Capitol Hill Improvement Corporation in order to use federal funds for neighborhood improvement. Art Rheingold, a lawyer in Center Square, led the group in preparing the incorporation and organizational papers. This corporation is no longer in existence.
Harold Rubin of Center Square joined with Tom Mayer, Director of the Neighborhood Resource Center (NRC) in 1976 to form the Council of Albany Neighborhood Associations (CANA), which has become a major community force in Albany. CANA deals with citywide issues and those that cross neighborhood boundaries.
In December 1976, NRC and CANA, along with nine neighborhood associations, held the first of nine “Love Thy Neighborhood” conventions at the Westminster Presbyterian Church on Chestnut Street, where work shops were held and neighborhood issues discussed. Most subsequent conventions were held in churches located in Center Square — Westminster Presbyterian, Trinity United Methodist on Lancaster Street and Emanuel Baptist on State Street.
CANA’s housing program, developed at the 1977 convention, supported at the community development public hearings by many neighborhood associations, led the City to increase housing rehabilitation funding from the first draft of $675,000 to the $1,045,000 final allocation.
CSA Works to Improve Neighborhood Quality of Life
Over the years, the Association has worked with the City on specific projects to improve the physical character and quality of living in Center Square. In 1967, Mayor Erastus Corning agreed to replace a Chestnut Street sidewalk damaged from a water main break with a new brick and concrete sidewalk. Annually thereafter for many years, one block of sidewalk was similarly replaced on the major residential streets in Center Square.
The parking regulations in Center Square worked to the disadvantage of residents. Overnight parking was limited to one side of each street, every night, presumably for street cleaning, which rarely occurred. At Center Square’s request, Mayor Corning had the parking regulations changed in the neighborhood to prohibit parking for just three hours a week on each side of the major residential streets (9AM to 12 noon), doubling the amount of overnight parking space available to residents. Parking space on Dove Street was also doubled when it was no longer declared a “fire lane.”
When Lancaster Street residents were confronted with up to 800 cars an hour exiting the Empire State Plaza, the Association got the City to convert traffic on lower Lancaster Street from one-way going west to one-way going east, thus limiting entry to Center Square.
Throughout its history, the Association’s efforts to maintain and to improve the quality of residential living involved: opposing demolitions of buildings to make parking lots for non-residents; opposing housing conversions above those authorized under the zoning ordinance; opposing use of the neighborhood for a day time parking lot for non-residents; supporting efforts to bring all structures up to safety code. Often, Center Square found it necessary to obtain relief by going to court.
Court “Standing” and National Register of Historic Places
A major obstacle facing neighborhood associations seeking court relief was the challenge that they did not have “standing” to sue. In Albany, this issue was finally resolved in 1980 when CANA and the Association went to court to prevent the Fort Orange Club from demolishing the historic building at 116 Washington Avenue to add eight parking spaces to its existing parking lot. While the suit was successful in requiring the City to conduct a full environmental impact study, the battle was lost as the building was ultimately demolished, but the court did specifically grant “standing” to Center Square as a neighborhood association. This decision serves as precedent for all neighborhood associations.
Through the efforts of Catherine Bacon, historian, Paul Steinkamp as photographer, and many others, the required information and pictures were obtained to place Center Square on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
The Association has continued the work begun in the early years to enhance the quality of life for those living in Center Square, including seeking City support to enforce the zoning ordinance, an ongoing battle. Center Square works with the Historic Albany Foundation and the City to see that the historic building requirements are met, and that proposed “improvements” are those appropriate for a Historic District.
The Association worked with the Hudson/Park Neighborhood Association, the NYS Office of General Services (OGS) and the Albany Parks Department to develop a new Hudson-Jay Park at the turnaround at the Plaza. Leslie Moran and Pat Nelson spearheaded this proposal and worked with OGS to plan the park. Later Julia Cadbury, Kathleen Kearney and Clare Yates worked to weed and water the new grass during the first two years. Since then Jenny Quinn has organized volunteers and worked tirelessly on the park.
The Association worked with OGS and Hudson/Park on plans to improve the turnaround at the Plaza to make it safer and quieter for the residents who live nearby. The goal was to have OGS build a sound and light barrier between the roadway and the park. During the summer of 2013, OGS did major work on the turnaround and the screening was damaged. This will need to be a new project for the neighborhoods to work on with OGS to replace the plantings in the spring of 2014.
Since 1991, Center Square and Hudson/Park have hosted the “Hidden City Garden Tour” in the neighborhood each June. Upward of 650 people have attended the event, which features gardens of many sorts, lovingly tended to by their owners. This tour is Center Square’s main fundraiser. Money raised is used to fund neighborhood beautification projects and for donations to worthy causes.
The Association became a 501 (C) (3) charitable organization in 2003.
The Red Bookshelf, which began in 2009 as a Center Square Association community program called the Bright Red Bookshelf, re-circulates gently-used children’s books back into the community where they are made available free for families to own. The program has grown since its inception, thanks to community volunteers and organizations supporting the project, and incorporated as an independent nonprofit in 2016.
Updated by Clare Yates, 2013. Further updates 2018.
Jackaline Ring tells the story of FDR’s visits to the garden on Chestnut Street, Center Square, Albany, NY