Some 80 people – bankers, Realtors, nonprofit leaders, city and state employees – gathered for lunch at the University Club last week to kick off the 41st season of the Albany Roundtable Civic Luncheon Series.
The Albany Roundtable is an all-volunteer, not-for-profit group that presents a monthly opportunity for people from around the region and from all backgrounds to gather to hear speakers with diverse viewpoints on timely subjects.
Redburn Development’s Jeff Buell was the featured speaker for the first luncheon of the 2019-20 season. Along with his partners John Blackburn and Tom Rossi, Buell is rehabilitating nearly 500,000 square feet of space in downtown Albany.
Their portfolio includes:
– The former Kenmore Hotel and Steuben Club on North Pearl Street;
– The former Knickerbocker News building at 16 Sheridan Avenue;
– The former Kennedy Garage at 43-47 Columbia Street;
– The former Cap Rep and parking garage with spiral ramp at 111 North Pearl Street; and
– 39 Columbia Street on Tricentennial Park.
The firm has developed more than $100 million worth of properties in mostly urban areas over the last five years. That’s a pretty significant undertaking, and Buell was invited to the Roundtable to discuss not how this is all occurring, but why.
It costs significantly more to rehab a building than to build a new one in the middle of what was once a cornfield, of which he is not a fan, Buell said. In his eyes, rehabilitation of existing structures is far more environmentally friendly than building someone on empty land – sort of like structural recycling.
“There is no greener development than taking something that exists and has been there for 100 years and reusing it,” he explained.
With a degree in Communications and History from the College of St. Rose, Buell is clearly a proponent of historic preservation. But his decisions are driven by data.
He mentioned trends that indicate Millennials and Generation Z workers prefer cities to the suburbs and favor walkable neighborhoods over what he called “car culture.”
In fact, several years ago, Buell said, the demand for parking at new apartment complexes ran at about 110 percent. In other words, more spots were desired than were available. But for his current developments, demand for parking runs at about 65 percent.
Want some more impressive math?
According to Buell, a recent study showed that the average Millennial worker in NYC will spend $1,000/month of his or her disposable income within a 1-mile radius of where they live. Redburn is developing some 350 apartments for this target audience. New residents – some 425 to 450 people – could pump more than $5 million into downtown Albany in a year.
Even at $500 a month, that’s still a significant influx of cash for local businesses.
“Is there an apartment bubble?” was one of the questions asked during the Q+A that ends each Roundtable lunch.
“There is no apartment bubble, but here’s the thing, there is a luxury apartment bubble…We haven’t built enough apartments for everyday people who have everyday jobs.”
Responding to a question about green and sustainable development, he noted the various state agencies that oversee energy efficiency and historic preservation don’t always see eye to eye, and their disputes can hinder the firm’s ability to use the state and federal tax credits that make rehab projects possible.
Further, the antiquated electrical infrastructure in downtown Albany doesn’t allow for net-metering – where energy generated with solar panels or other means could flow back to the grid. He said that Redburn will commit to doing a net-zero building at some point, “but we will just have to pick our spot.”
Buell dropped some tantalizing hints about plans for some of the spaces under development – including a hydroponic farm to grow greens for local consumption and mitigate the downtown “food desert.”
He also offered praise to Soul Fire Farm of Grafton, which was presented with the Roundtable’s New Patroon Award at the luncheon for its efforts to end racism and injustice in our local food system.
James Beard, the dean of American cookery once said, “Food is our common ground, a universal experience.” While signs all around us may point to the death of civility, the Albany Roundtable will carry on its longstanding tradition of offering everyone a chance to share a meal with, listen to and to ask questions of civic leaders.
The Roundtable meets on the second Wednesday of most months, visit www.albanyroundtable.com to sign up for announcements.
Colleen M. Ryan has always been a storyteller. An innovative communications professional with experience in government, nonprofit and business sectors, she recently launched CMR Communications.