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High-end living: The Conservatory in downtown Troy.

You Can’t Come Here Any More

In Troy, the clash of old ways and new money is playing out in Barker Park

By Chet Hardin

Photos by Leif Zurmuhlen


Gazing through the northern windows on the newly remodeled fifth floor of the old Stanley’s building offers a privileged view of life in downtown Troy.

“This is the perfect place for your art collection,” Deane Pfeil says, motioning along a dramatic corridor.

The long-vacant structure, notable even in a town recognized for its impressive architecture, recently has undergone an attentive rehabilitation. Now dubbed the Conservatory, the building is the current project of Saratoga Springs-based developers Jeffrey and Deane Pfeil.

The Conservatory is a high-end, luxury apartment building, with 19 units on the top four floors. The rents range from $1,300 to $3,000 a month. Many of the apartments, including the three most expensive, have been rented or are spoken for. The first floor and mezzanine have been primed for retail.

Each apartment is appointed with the high-end fixtures that you would expect for $3,000 a month; the building itself boasts some impressive features, including heated sidewalks and a private parking garage retrofitted into the basement.

The Pfeils have invested millions of dollars into Troy; first, with Powers Park Lofts, an old factory in North Troy that the team renovated into high-end condos. Each of those condos sold for $160,000 to $280,000. And, as with the apartments in the Conservatory, the most expensive went first.

“There is not a whole lot of product for high-end living in downtown,” says Pfeil. “The people we are attracting are urban pioneers who like to live well. We have a niche clientele.”

Over the past seven years, out-of-town developers have scooped up Troy’s once-depressed stock of real estate, planning to turn the empty buildings into condos or flip them for healthy profits. Business owners have sunk millions of dollars into restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and other small operations. Listening as Deane Pfeil lists off downtown Troy’s numerous attributes, gazing out from the fifth floor of the posh Conservatory at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s EMPAC Center, one does get the feeling that the city has opened a new chapter.

“I think that the stars are all aligned,” Pfeil says. “There is so much private investment in the city—real people, who love Troy.”

Yet, if you peer down at the sidewalk across the street, you’ll see Barker Park (known to most old-time Trojans as Pigeon Park), a small nook of concrete and grass at the corner of Third and State streets. Here, the homeless, prostitutes, drug users and dealers, idlers, seniors, and pigeons congregate by the dozens. In good weather, there might be as many people gathered as scrounging birds. Little more than a glorified sidewalk and an alcove of grass tucked between two churches, Barker Park is an important landmark—important for what it means to so many people in Troy, and for what means for the future of the city.

‘Tell him how you’re the king!” Country Joe hollers above the bashing and clanging of pots and cans of green beans. “You’re the king!”

“Oh, alright,” Bill Spenard says to his friend. Spenard is a quiet man, red-faced and round.

“I am 40 years old, born and raised here in Troy.”

“He was crowned King of the Parks!” Country Joe says impatiently.

“It was a silly little contest,” Spenard says.

“No, it wasn’t silly,” someone gently scolds. “It was important to you.”

Troy’s new blood: Marc Coudert, president of the Friends of Barker Park.

It’s Tuesday, in the basement of the First Baptist Church on Third Street in Troy. Volunteers with Community Meal, the church’s weekly free dinner, are opening dozens of cans of vegetables, sorting hamburger buns, and cooking pounds and pounds of meat. It is a noisy, warm scene. Average nights, they will serve 80 to 90 people. Busy nights they will break 100. Dinner won’t be served for another hour, but the dining room is already half-filled with people.

“You were nine years old,” Country Joe pushes.

“I was nine years old,” Spenard continues, “and they chose me to represent all of Troy’s parks.” He lists the parks of his kingdom: Frear Park, Prospect Park, Beman Park, Powers Park, Pigeon Park . . .

“Barker Park,” he says, correcting himself.

His mother, he remembers, made him his royal gowns from old red curtains. His father shaped his crown from a piece of cardboard—like the old Burger King crowns—and glued poker chips to it. His scepter was a broom handle, adorned with an old-fashioned mother-of-pearl doorknob.

The crowning of the King of the Parks was an annual event in Troy, but after Spenard’s coronation, for whatever reason, it was never held again.

On page 5 of the Aug. 13, 1976, issue of the Troy Times Record, there is a picture of 9-year-old Spenard. A thicket of blond hair pokes out the front of his crown. He is smiling at someone beyond the camera’s sight. Now, 31 years later, Spenard lives with Country Joe in an abandoned building. He has lost all but the round face he had in the photo. A late-stage alcoholic, he survives on charity and the little cash he earns doing odds jobs for the sisters at nearby St. Anthony of Padua Church.

He and Country Joe are among the many people you might find in Barker Park.

And according to Spenard, Joe, the volunteers at the church, and practically every homeless person you ask, the city is making it unconditionally clear that Barker Park is no longer the place for them to hang out.

When asked, they will tell you that the reason is obvious: People who rent $3,000-a-month apartments don’t want to look down and see a bunch of homeless people whiling away their days. And, although many of the Pigeon Park-goers do drink and use the grassy alcove as a latrine, they say, it makes no difference what you are doing. If you look poor and a cop sees you, chances are you will be moved along.

“That’s what the moral of this story is,” Country Joe declares in his big, Texan way. “Bill is the reigning king, and now they want to kick the king out of the park.”

With Barker Park directly across the street from their investment, the Pfeils have taken an active interest in the diminutive urban park. They belong to the Friends of Barker Park association, which has tasked itself with the park’s care and restoration. The association has produced a blueprint for the park’s remodeling, raised money, and secured the support of an enthusiastic city administration.

“The administration has been fabulous,” Deane Pfeil says. It has never said no to any request. Whatever the Friends of Barker Park asks for, the city is happy to oblige, dispatching the Action Team to tear up concrete, plant grass, remove benches. Sometimes, the city even takes its own initiative, such as removing the old playground equipment from the grassy alcove.

The Friends of Barker Park are a group of dedicated young homeowners and professionals who have taken a leadership role in the life of a park. They have organized cleanup days, held a community meeting, and raised tens of thousands of dollars—roughly $20,000 came in from a brunch fundraiser, and a $10,000 donation from Troy Savings Bank Foundation recently was secured—and they expect to attract more. They have produced a site plan that calls for plenty of trees and 10 to 20 benches. The design segments the half-acre park into private sitting areas, with a large open space that could be used for various functions.

Which all sounds nice, but for Dan Schongar, co-owner of Troy Quick Shoe Repair a few doors down from the Conservatory on Third Street, Barker Park is little more than a nuisance.

The first Barker Park committee was formed about eight years ago, Schongar says, with the same goals of cleaning up and remodeling the park. At that time, the park was full of trees and benches. On any given day, dozens of people would be in the park drinking, dealing drugs, killing time. Customers would call him and ask if it was safe to come to his shop.

Schongar and others agitated to have the benches removed and trees felled.

“That kind of cleaned it up,” he says. But as a compromise with others in the committee, a few benches were left intact, and with them the idlers remained.

The Friends eventually disbanded and the work halted.

Now, with the Conservatory nearing completion, a few of those remaining benches, which were right across the street from the building’s entrance, have been removed, and a triangular patch of grass laid.

“The Pfeils didn’t want them sitting there,” he says. And he agrees. He would like to see all of the benches gone.

“Don’t replace until a year from now. Force those people to go somewhere else to hang out, and then put the benches back. If they come back, rip the benches out again,” he says. “Why give them a place to sit?”

The first phase of the redesign called for the removal of those three benches on the northwest side of the park to install sod, a fence and six new trees, says Marc Coudert, president of the Friends of Barker Park, but it had nothing to do with who was sitting there.

“We wanted to show that things were happening and get people excited about it,” he says.

Coudert lives across from the park on Third Street. He and his wife, Melissa, have been rehabbing their 19th-century apartment building for years. He knows that the homeless use the park to hang out. He sees them drinking and using the park as a restroom.

“Even the women,” he chuckles.

Although it isn’t ideal, and the Friends don’t condone illegal activity in the park, Coudert accepts certain behavior as a reality of living in an urban setting. Like so many of the young, middle-class professionals moving into Troy, Coudert enjoys the multifarious collection of people.

“The ideal city is a city with a lot of diversity,” Coudert says. “The city is at its best when it is really diversified. Once you start to segregate the poor people over here, away from the rich people, you get slums and really shitty neighborhoods. And you don’t want that. The ideal situation is to diversify.”

With Barker Park, Coudert says, he has a simple goal: “to make a beautiful park that is open to everybody.” Homeless and pigeons included.

And although Schongar can appreciate Coudert’s idealism, after 20 years of watching the same guys hang out in the park, drinking day after day, year after year, he is more than tired of this aspect of urban living.

“They are harmless,” Schongar says, “but they are bad for business.”

Although it would be hard to find a Trojan who thinks that the business interest and excitement surrounding Troy aren’t a good thing, what has gone unnoticed, say many in Troy’s nonprofit world, is that the working poor and homeless are being forgotten, or worse, injured. They are slowly and incrementally being pushed further into the margins.

“We have actually had to add a new category to our statistics,” says Tracy Neitzel, executive director of Joseph’s House. The center keeps track of what precipitated “the homeless event.”

“One of the causes of homelessness that has recently emerged, and occurs enough so that we are keeping track of it, is speculation,” she says. “People buying buildings and forcing tenants out so that they can charge much higher rents. So we are getting people—renting tenants—who have been forced out by changes in ownership. And it is driven by out-of-town speculation.”

It is not affecting large numbers of people, Neitzel says, but her agency sees new people every month who have lost their apartments for this exact reason.

“It is happening enough,” she says, “that we have to categorize it and note it.”

Sara Spies, director of housing for YWCA, and Cayla Cahoon, the apartment program coordinator, agree with Neitzel. Along with housing people in its building on Second Street, the Y also maintains seven apartments. Both women note that the steep increase in Troy rents has placed extra pressure on their clients and on the Y’s ability to place them in affordable, decent housing. Couple the increasing rents with the stagnating federal subsidies that the Y depends on, and many times, Cahoon says, she is forced to place clients in some pretty sketchy apartments. These apartments might even be in violation of building codes. If the code department shuts down the building, she says, her clients are back on the streets.

“Some of my clients have been affected by their housing being condemned,” she says. But with the affordable-housing stock dwindling, the Y is left with very few options.

“We get grants from HUD to subsidize the apartments our clients live in,” Spies explains. “But they only get a small amount. As rental prices increase, the subsidies don’t.”

To a large extent, Neitzel says, this is a national trend. Federal funding dollars for housing have stagnated or decreased. The budget for the Troy Housing Authority, as an example, is smaller this year than last.

When you consider that roughly a third of those people seeking shelter at Joseph’s House are employed, you get the real sense for the desperate situation the increasing rents is causing, she says. “They just don’t make enough money to pay for housing in this current market.”

Sister Linda O’Rourke, the director of the Roarke Center, a nonprofit charity, says that she sees people struggling with this new economic environment, too.

“We are seeing more and more people with food insecurity,” O’Rourke says. “They just don’t have enough funds. I think we are in a particularly bad time,” she says. “This is the first time in eight years that we have run out of food.”

Food drives that would have stocked the center’s pantry for months in the past have, this year, provided for only a week’s worth of food.

“We’ve even limited our geographic area for the food pantry, but it hasn’t lowered our numbers any,” she says. They used to serve anyone in Rensselaer County; now they serve only the geographical area from Green Island bridge to the Menands bridge.

There are roughly 6,000 families in the city of Troy who cannot afford their rent, says Chris Burke, CEO of Unity House. “They are on the verge of homelessness. They are on the borderline.”

“Most people living in Troy are cost- burdened in terms of their rental expense,” says Neitzel. “You look at a person’s rental cost as part of their overall expense, and if someone is paying a 30 percent on their housing, that is considered reasonable. Most of the families we see are paying roughly 60 percent. So it doesn’t take much to knock them out. People always say, ‘What did they do to become homeless? What did they do wrong?’ ”

Sometimes, she says, it is what they did right. Sometimes mothers make very good decisions about where their resources will go in a given month. And unfortunately, that might be the month that rent doesn’t get paid because she has to put food on the table or buy winter coats.

‘I think that when the Barker Park issue came up, a lot of people assumed that this was going to be an attack on the poorest of the poor,” says Neitzel. “Because this is where they go to spend leisure time, because they can’t afford to go to Grafton, or go to the mall, or to see a play. They spend their leisure time in parks. I think there is a fear that this will be a concerted effort to dismantle that community.”

Many of the people who depend on Joseph’s House hang out in Barker Park. In fact, many of Troy’s vital services necessary for people living on low incomes or no incomes are within a few blocks of downtown. The Roarke Center offers housing and food assistance, as well as outreach programs. The Bethany Center is a day shelter that serves daily breakfast and lunch and makes available toiletries and other sundries. The YWCA serves as an emergency shelter for roughly 95 women, offering domestic-violence survivors’ education, shelter and support, as well as helping place families in low-income housing. The Baptist Church offers weekly dinners, organizes food and blanket drives, and maintains a free clothes closet. Unity House employs hundreds of people for its myriad programs aimed at helping the income-vulnerable and abused.

All of these are within a few blocks of each other, and at their approximate center sits Barker Park. For Neitzel, the controversy over the men and women in Barker Park is much like the controversy surrounding the nonprofits who exist to serve them.

“There is a perception” in Troy’s current environment, Neitzel says, “that the nonprofit community adds no value.”

There are those people in the community and the city administration who seem to think that if the nonprofits that serve the poor and homeless would just go away, she says, that the poor and the homeless would simply follow—a belief that Troy can be made into a city that doesn’t have to worry about poverty. Just sweep the homeless out of Barker Park, out of the eyes of the Conservatory’s “urban pioneers,” and all the attendant problems of homelessness, alcoholism, substance abuse and domestic violence would go away, too.

As an example of a reluctant community and city government, she points to Joseph’s House’s battle to rehabilitate a former pool hall on Fourth Street in Troy’s Little Italy neighborhood.

“We wanted to create 16 studio apartments,” she says, and it was blocked by the planning board. Citing a “significant environmental impact,” the board required a full environmental impact statement. “Nobody does full environmental impact statements. They are only required for huge projects.”

It takes at least a year and costs quite a bit of money, she says, and even once it is done, the city can still turn down the plans. “It was obviously a stalling tactic.”

The opposition came from the Little Italy community itself, with business owners, such as Rocco DeFazio of DeFazio’s Pizzeria and Jean Krueger, decrying the effects of a nonprofit removing yet another commercial property from the tax rolls.

“The building is falling down. Nobody can afford to fix up the building besides us,” Neitzel says. “Private money can’t touch these buildings after a certain point. I develop housing, and if I can save a building in Troy, why not?”

Joseph’s House, she points out, employs 50 people in the city of Troy, and services a hundred times more yearly. Unity House employs 350 people in Troy. The YWCA, Salvation Army, and so on, all bring jobs to Troy. More important, there is the harder-to-quantify profit of saving people from the streets. If Unity House were a for-profit business, Burke says, it would be lauded for bringing so many jobs to the city.

“We are providing services,” he says, “and we are an economic engine.”

“I run a program that provides housing for nine people,” Neitzel adds, referring to the long-term residents housed in Joseph’s House. Before they were housed, they were living in hospitals, jails, on the streets, costing tax payers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“That saves the county of Rensselaer $200,000 a year in tax levy,” she says. “So it is much more cost-effective to put homeless people into housing.”

Plus, 60 percent of Joseph’s House’s staff were one-time consumers, further reducing the strain on the tax payer.

There is a perception, Burke agrees, that if Unity House weren’t in Troy, the people who rely on them would go somewhere else.

“It’s as though we are drawing people here,” Burke says. “And that is completely the opposite. The only reason we are here is because there are people who are here who are living in poverty, who are victims of domestic violence.”

“Once I accepted my job at Joseph’s House, I didn’t get to pick and choose my constituency,” Neitzel says, in a pointed comment seemingly meant for the city administration.

For the 22 years that she has worked in the city of Troy, she says, she has always at least felt welcome to the table with whatever administration was in power.

“Even if what I had to say didn’t carry the weight I thought it deserved,” she says, “at least I could put it out there. It was asked for. And that is not true now.”

“I think that when you choose to represent a city . . . you are accepting the responsibility to represent everyone’s interests. I think the mayor loves Troy. I think he has a genuine belief that Troy can be revitalized. But I think he has a simple . . .”

Neitzel stops, looking for the right wording. “Not simple: I don’t think he has a complete vision of what it is going to take. And because he doesn’t get a lot of input from other stakeholders and constituencies, that vision is not expanding as his time goes on.”

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