February 7, 2002
Section: Local News
Edition: Schenectady Albany; Final
Church owner's lawsuit against Albany is dismissed
ALBANY - A lawsuit filed against the city and Public Safety Commissioner John Nielsen by the owner of St. Joseph's Church was dismissed on Wednesday. In her suit, local restaurateur Elda Abate claimed Nielsen had no justification for signing an emergency order condemning the historic Arbor Hill church as structurally unsound. After engineering reports described the building as being in a "dynamic mode of failure," the city in December ordered Abate to vacate St. Joseph's Church. In his ruling, state Supreme Court Justice Thomas Keegan wrote that Nielsen's decision was justified by the "need to protect public health and safety. . . . Contrary to the petitioner's contention, such exercise was not arbitrary, or capricious, or irrational." Keegan's ruling allows the city to continue making structural repairs to St. Joseph's Church. Abate's attorney, Randall Kehoe, said his client will probably appeal Keegan's decision. Whether an appeal is filed, he said, depends on the outcome of another lawsuit related to St. Joseph's Church. In this lawsuit, the city is suing Abate over alleged building code violations at the former church. The city claims Abate ignored a Sept. 26 notice ordering her to apply for a building permit within 15 days and make necessary repairs to the building within 30 days. The city did not give Abate enough time to fix St. Joseph's Church, Kehoe said. "She's done everything she possibly can," he said. Kehoe said he's optimistic that City Court Judge Cheryl Coleman will rule that Abate was not in willful violation of the city's order. If she does, Kehoe said he will not need to appeal Keegan's decision. "At some point, we're going to prevail," he said. Abate said she was not surprised by the judge's decision. "What else is new," she said. "The city wants something that does not belong to them." After St. Joseph's was condemned, the city assembled a team of engineers and architects to put together an emergency stabilization plan for the church. Structural steel shoring towers designed to support the church's columns are currently being installed inside the church. The arches and ceiling will be dealt with next, and roof work will follow. Abate will be billed for the stabilization work, which the city estimates will be between $150,000 to $200,000. The bill will then be placed as a lien against the property if she doesn't pay, said Gary Stiglmeier, Albany corporation counsel. Abate already owes the city about $90,000 for fines related to building code violations at the church. Located on Ten Broeck Street, St. Joseph's is a Gothic-style church that was closed in 1994 because of a shrinking number of parishioners. In 2000, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany sold Abate the church for $1. She angered neighborhood residents when she announced that she wanted to See JUDGE, Page B3 Judge dismisses lawsuit Continued form Page B1 transform the building into a restaurant and nightclub. Abate owns several other establishments, including Elda's on Lark in Albany and Elda's Restaurant & Pizza in Troy. This isn't Abate's first run-in with municipal officials. In December, the city of Troy closed Elda's, a popular bar, claiming it violated the city's nuisance abatement ordinance, which is intended to cut crime in the city and improve the quality of life by putting pressure on property owners to ensure that no illegal activity occurs on the property. According to the city of Troy, minors were observed being served alcohol at Elda's. In a statement, Mayor Jerry Jennings said he was pleased with Keegan's decision. He has said he hopes a committee charged with developing a long-range plan for St. Joseph's will eventually be formed. Eventually, if the fines and liens are not paid, the city could foreclose on the church. "St. Joseph's Church is a national treasure and an important part of the heritage of the Arbor Hill neighborhood and of the entire city," Jennings said. "I believe the court's decision is an important step in what will be a long but necessary journey to save this landmark." Although Abate is forbidden from entering St. Joseph's Church, she remains the building's owner. City officials expressed hope that a plan for the church will eventually be developed. "We'd love to see a productive use for that property," Stiglmeier said. So would Abate, Kehoe said. "She does not want that building to be wasted," he said.
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