O.D. Heck Center’s future still undecided

Gazette Photographer: Marc Schultz / Gazette Photographer
Exterior of Capital District Developmental Disabilities Services Office, Oswald D. Heck Developmental Center, on Sept. 14.Gazette Photographer: Marc Schultz / Gazette Photographer Exterior of Capital District Developmental Disabilities Services Office, Oswald D. Heck Developmental Center, on Sept. 14.

— For decades, the sprawling O.D. Heck campus on Balltown Road was home for hundreds of the area’s residents with developmental disabilities. But as care of the disabled shifted away from institutional living to a more integrated-care focus, the Center and several others across New York were shut down.

The last resident of the O.D. Heck Developmental Center left in the spring of 2015, yet cars line the parking lot and employees are frequently heading in and out. Over 300 state employees still work at the location.

That scene alone is enough to make one wonder what’s in store for the sprawling New York state facility.

Aerial view of the O.D. Heck site in Niskayuna.

Aerial view of the O.D. Heck site in Niskayuna.

The town of Niskayuna, which has been considering rezoning a portion of Consaul Road that includes the center since 2014, will hold a public hearing on that rezoning Monday.

Niskayuna Supervisor Joe Landry plans to work with the town and the state to develop plans for any portion of the campus that becomes available in the future.

“As some portion of the O.D. Heck complex may become available for new uses in the future, we will work together to develop plans for that portion of the property so that any development on the site is done in a manner that is beneficial to the town and town residents,” Landry said.

In 2013, the Office for People With Developmental Disabilities announced it would close the campus to residents by March 31, 2015. This was done as a part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s efforts to deinstitutionalize people with developmental disabilities and place them into community-focused homes.

The center is being used by state employees for administrative purposes, according to Jennifer O’Sullivan of the OPWDD. The agency has no long-term plans for the site, other than working with Empire State Development.

Over 300 state employees from the OPWDD and Office of Information Technology Services are still working at the center, along with a not-for-profit day care center that is still in operation (called Pooh’s Corner Day Care Center).

Seven of the 12 buildings on 44-acre campus are still in use.

The property is valued at $66.5 million, according to Schenectady County records.

State Sen. Hugh Farley, R-Niskayuna, said that the long-term future of the O.D. Heck site remains a concern.

“I am glad that state employees continue to work out of this facility, and that much of it is still being used for administrative purposes,” Farley said. “Of course, I would like to see the site fully utilized. We continue to seek any opportunities to bring in some additional state jobs to the area. Otherwise, it would be appropriate to consider whether any vacant buildings can be repurposed for use by private businesses and professional offices.”

The O.D. Heck campus was built in 1975, on the Stanford Golf Course and from the same parcel the Mohawk Mall was constructed five years earlier.

The campus was named after Schenectady’s Oswald D. Heck, the longest-tenured speaker of the state Assembly. He was an assemblyman from 1932 until 1959. Although he was a Republican, Heck was known for being one of the more liberal members of the party. Heck is also remembered for his willingness to cross party lines and compromise to come up with common-sense solutions.

The state has no plan yet for the empty buildings. “While OPWDD does not have a definitive date set for handover to Empire State Development, we are working with them on alternate uses of the vacant buildings,” O’Sullivan said.

When O.D. Heck closed its doors to residents in 2015, it was one of four similar facilities in New York state to do so.

According to Jason Conwall of Empire State Development, several state-operated institutions have also closed in the New York City area.

On Long Island, for instance, what was previously a jail is now a studio set for filming television shows and movies.

The O.D. Heck property isn’t yet an active project with Empire State Development, Conwall said.

Ray Gillen of the Schenectady County Metroplex Development Authority is excited about the possibilities of the five buildings on the O.D. Heck campus.

Gillen said Metroplex has a strong working relationship with ESD and would work closely with the state and town to find new uses for any part of the campus that becomes available for reuse.

Assemblyman Phil Steck, D-Colonie, said that he — along with Niskayuna town officials — is eager to see what the state has in store for the property.

“We want to see those jobs preserved. However, there are five of the O.D. Heck buildings vacant and the town wants to see those open for private development as soon as possible. The town of Niskayuna does not have a very strong commercial tax base,” Steck said.

The O.D. Heck Center is in one part of Niskayuna that has seen development in recent years with the Mohawk Commons and the Hannaford Plaza.

Well before the campus closed to residents, the Niskayuna Town Planning Board began looking into the zoning district of the property and the surrounding area.

At a Planning Board meeting in early 2014, board members discussed rezoning the area, which includes the O.D. Heck campus, from a medium-density residential area to a neighborhood mixed-use zone, which would have allowed for a blend of business and residential use.

According to Town Planner Laura Robertson, further discussion of the zoning change stalled while the town was unsure of what the center’s future would be.

Town officials are still unsure of what’s in store for the center, but the Planning Board is going ahead with the change regardless.

“More recently, the town has revived the new zoning district and potential rezone so that if there ever were any changes to the O.D. Heck Development Center, the town would be ready for a development that worked as a great connection between Mohawk Commons and the single-family residences to the north,” Robertson said.

One resident of that part of town already has an idea for the center’s future.

“I think it would be great if there could be senior housing there. It’s right where the bus line is and there are all those shops that seniors can walk to. I know there’s the Eddy, but this could be a low-cost housing option,” resident Scott Morehouse said.

There will be a public hearing about the rezoning before the Town Board meeting on Monday.

Should the Town Board agree with the change, it could be ratified by December.

“Once the Zoning District is in place, the town can pursue potentially rezoning the O.D. Heck Development Center,” Robertson said.

The zoning change would also allow for a buffer between the Hannaford Plaza and Mohawk Commons.

According to Robertson, it would allow for service- and community-oriented businesses to move in — like banks and coffee shops — along with other residential buildings.

“It would almost be like some areas of Saratoga, where there are businesses on the first floor and apartments on the second,” Robertson said.

However, even if the zoning district is changed in December, current use of the O.D. Heck campus wouldn’t be affected. According to Robertson, it will be grandfathered into the zoning code.

“Depending on the zoning, it could be a very valuable piece of property. . . . It could be great for condominiums, it could be great for anything,” said John DiGesualdo, a Niskayuna-based licensed associate real estate broker.

“If these buildings have been sitting vacant for a year and a half, is it really the best use of state resources?” said Tim Hoefer of the Empire Center for Public Policy. In his view, the state needs to reassess the most efficient way to use the campus.

While the center is still bustling with administrative activity, Niskayuna town officials and residents will be holding their breath to see what’s in store for the five vacant buildings on the campus.

Reach Gazette reporter Indiana Nash at 417-9362, inash@dailygazette.net or @indijnash on Twitter.