A month before Gov. Kathy Hochul set aside $29 million for a Syracuse development site, cousins who run the firm chosen by the city to build housing on it donated $25,000 to Hochul’s campaign.
Christopher and Russell Albanese, who lead the Albanese Organization, each gave $12,500 to Hochul’s campaign. They donated to Hochul at a Dec. 14 fundraiser on Long Island.
The Albanese Organization has been selected to develop housing on the Syracuse Development Center site, after the funds from the state are used to clean up the property.
City officials on Dec. 2 submitted a request to the state for funds to clean up the site, as they were negotiating a letter of intent with Albanese. The firm and the city signed the letter of intent Jan. 7.
Hochul included the $29 million in her proposed state budget on Jan. 18.
Tom Speaker, a policy analyst at Reinvent Albany, a good government organization that advocates for an open and transparent government, said it is “almost always impossible” to prove whether a political donation constitutes pay for play.
“The thing is that it looks bad and it undermines the public’s trust that the state is working for New Yorkers, not special interests,” Speaker said.
Hochul’s office and campaign declined requests for interviews about the donations. Representatives instead provided written statements.
A spokesperson from Hochul’s office said the state was not involved in choosing the developer or tenants for the property.
“Consistent with Governor Hochul’s commitment to maintain high ethical standards, campaign contributions have no influence on government decisions,” campaign spokesman Jerrel Harvey said in an emailed statement.
Christopher and Russell Albanese’s donations to Hochul are the largest one-time donations either has made in state or local politics, according to a Central Current review of campaign finance data.
In an email, Christopher Albanese said they made the donations at a fundraiser for Hochul at the Garden City Hotel on Long Island. The Albanese Organization is headquartered in Garden City.
“There is absolutely no connection between the Long Island fundraising event and the Syracuse Development Center,” Christopher Albanese wrote.
More of Hochul’s campaign contributions have come under scrutiny.
In July, the Albany Times-Union published stories about a Syracuse-based company landing a multi-billion dollar contract after donating heavily to Hochul, a downstate family being paid $637 million by the state after donating $300,000 to her campaign and a Hochul donor’s tenant having their liquor license denial quickly reversed.
“When you raise the vast majority of your campaign money from large donors, it appears you’re sending a signal to other donors that the state is for sale,” Speaker said. “Especially when a lot of those large donors are getting huge contracts.”
The city seized the Syracuse Developmental Center in 2019 because the owner owed back taxes. It has since been looking for a developer for the property.
The 628,000 square foot building sits on 48 acres of land. It has been vacant since the building closed in 1998 and has become a hotspot for vandalism. The building’s owners owed nearly $900,000 in back taxes.
The Common Council must still approve the proposed contract between the city and Albanese. Albanese would pay the city $20,000 per unit it develops on the site.
Finding funding to clean the site and develop basic infrastructure has been key to getting a project at the developmental center.
Councilor Pat Hogan, chair of the Council’s economic development committee, has so far held up the project from moving forward. The site is in Hogan’s district.
He said he opposes it for a host of reasons: It doesn’t follow enough tenets of new urbanism, he said, and he worries Albanese could get large tax breaks. Hogan said he believes now that the city has secured the funds to clean the site, it should seek additional proposals.
But representatives for the city have said in public meetings the clean-up money from the state is contingent on the mixed-use project proposed.
The city chose the Albanese Organization for the project after a bidding process that took more than a year.
The city did not use a request for proposal process, which would require a committee to choose from a number of bids. Instead, Syracuse hired a brokerage firm.
The city arranged a site review committee to mimic the request for proposal process. It included three city lawmakers, a neighborhood representative, city administration officials and the Empire State Development Corporation’s regional director James Fayle. Hogan was one of the councilors on the site review committee.
Albanese submitted a proposal to redevelop the Syracuse Developmental Center in Spring 2021. The site review committee asked Albanese to find a local partner for the project, said the city’s Chief Policy Officer Greg Loh.
Albanese teamed with CenterState CEO, Syracuse’s chamber of commerce and business leadership organization. CenterState proposed putting a manufacturing center in the development for Fotokite, a company that makes tethered drones and has space at CenterState’s Tech Garden.
In November, Hochul, with the state’s economic development corporation, awarded CenterState and Fotokite $2.5 million in tax credits and a $2.5 million grant in November if it becomes the first tenant at the Syracuse Developmental Center.
On Dec. 2, the city submitted its proposal requesting the $29 million from the state to clean the site and make way for its development. The city proposed building three new advanced manufacturing buildings and three new mixed-income residential buildings on the 48-acre property, according to Loh.
The initial proposal did not mention Albanese, but the state later asked if the city was working with a developer and for a copy of the letter of intent between Albanese, the city and CenterState, officials said at a public meeting.
The Albaneses donated to Hochul 12 days after the city submitted the proposal.
Hochul committed $29 million to clean up the Syracuse Developmental Center by putting it in her proposed budget on Jan. 18. The money designated for the center passed in the State Legislature along with the 2023 budget in April.
That timeline raises concerns, the good government advocate said.
“We’re seeing again and again cases where contractors who don’t have a robust history of making political donations are suddenly making huge donations to the governor,” Speaker said. “And then, in many cases shortly after, they get big contracts.”