Albany restaurant owners say crime is ruining businesses

ALBANY – Joe Abbruzzese and Jim Rua said they’re tired of the gunshots, watching hand-to-hand drug deals and having customers tell them they don’t feel safe outside at their restaurants at night. They’ve built restaurants and reputations that have become cornerstones in the Mansion neighborhood. When Gov. Kathy Hochul was […]

ALBANY – Joe Abbruzzese and Jim Rua said they’re tired of the gunshots, watching hand-to-hand drug deals and having customers tell them they don’t feel safe outside at their restaurants at night.

They’ve built restaurants and reputations that have become cornerstones in the Mansion neighborhood. When Gov. Kathy Hochul was sworn in last month, she celebrated with dinner at Rua’s Café Capriccio on Grand Street.

The area that includes the two restaurants, Abbruzzese’s Hill Street Café and Rua’s Café Capriccio, sits just a few hundred feet from the governor’s mansion and the Empire State Plaza, with easy access to highways and the rest of downtown Albany.

And over the past few decades, though the neighborhood had its ups and downs, crime has never been as bad as it is now, the two men said.

In interviews with the Times Union, the two men laid out what they believe the city needs to do to help keep their businesses afloat and the neighborhood safe.

Rua emphasized the two weren’t looking for a fight with the city. They just want help.

“We’re saying how can you do business in the community when this kind of stuff occurs?” he said. “We haven’t seen the kind of crime we’ve experienced in recent years.”

The pair say they’re not asking for much: more streetlights in the area, cameras at key intersections and a heavier police presence, especially on weekend nights. They’re hoping the city can possibly use some of the $80.7 million in American Rescue Plan funds to meet their requests.

As of now, customers are telling them they’re afraid to come to the restaurants at night, said Abbruzzese, whose café sits at the corner of Madison Avenue and Philip Street.

“Madison Avenue should be lit up, it’s the entrance to the city off of the highway,” he said. “I used to make the walk down to Jim’s all the time at night. I won’t do that now.”

Between the two of them, they own 10 properties in the area. Rua bought most of the properties near his, in part to expand his business but also to ensure that good tenants live nearby.

The men aren’t alone in their concerns.

Anastasia Cholakis, who lives on a side street near Café Cappriccio, said for the last year as she studied at Albany Law School she’d experienced the best downtown had to offer. As a young woman, she was fortunate enough to have neighbors who checked in on her as a newcomer to the area, she said in an email.

But in her opinion, the neighborhood is being ignored.

At night, she said it seems like many city streetlights don’t work or are blocked by trees, causing some streets to be nearly completely dark, she said. Meanwhile, a nearby small state-owned parking lot, which is typically only used during the day, has bright, motion-sensing lights every 30 feet.

The city said in an email to the Times Union that it checked and all the LED street lights in that cooridor are functioning properly.

“Myself and my neighbors deserve to have a space that is as well maintained as that used to store vehicles,” she wrote.

On nice days people set up music in parking lots to dance to. But at the same time, her four-year-old neighbor asks Cholakis if she heard the gunshots overnight and tells her of the nightmares the gunfire gave her.

“This neighborhood doesn’t have incredible potential – the incredible part is already here, and it would flourish if our local government provided adequate support and safety,” she wrote. “I deserve to feel safe when I walk at night and my neighbors deserve a safe place to raise their kids. This is such a simple request – we should be entitled to feel safe stepping out our front door, and to be proud of where we live.”

Hours after the Times Union contacted Mayor Kathy Sheehan’s office about the concerns in the neighborhood, the city reached out to set up a meeting with them, Rau said.

Brian Shea, Sheehan’s director of operations, said the city would work to enhance the lighting in the area, which could mean increasing the existing lights intensity, installing more lights or a combination of the two.

“I can assure that the area of Madison and Grand, along with the adjacent areas have the full attention of both the Albany Police Department and City Hall,” he said in an email.

The city appears to be aware of some of the issues in the neighborhood. Assemblyman John T. McDonald, who represents the area, said he recently walked the neighborhood with Sheehan and Councilman Derek Johnson after hearing complaints.

McDonald said the city had already taken some steps to fix the problems in the neighborhood.

“And I’m confident that more are on the way,” he said.

On Thursday evening, city police executed a narcotics raid on a South Pearl Street address just two blocks away from Café Capriccio.

Three men were charged with a number of crimes, including weapons possession and possession of crack cocaine and fentanyl.

Police spokesman Steve Smith said that since early August the department has assigned additional officers, including some in squad cars and others on foot, to address quality of life issues in the neighborhood.

Smith said the department had additional ongoing investigations in the neighborhood but declined to go into specifics.

“We’re confident there will be more arrests in the future,” he said.

The area has seen a rise in violence over the past few years, according to city police statistics. The number of shots fired in that neighborhood went from four in 2019 to seven in 2020 and 11 so far this year. Over that same time period, the number of people shot went from three, to 13, to four so far this year.

Councilman Johnson said he was frustrated by the rising crime but encouraged by the recent police actions.

“I’m fed up as well, I share their frustrations. I hear the gunshots, I see the speeding cars,” he said. “It looks like the city has a plan.”

Rua noted that in recent weeks a city patrol car had been parked near his restaurant, scaring off the hand-to-hand drug deals that pervaded the neighborhood.

The two men see that as proof that what they’re asking for will work.


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