Why Does the Discovery Center Look Like a Bank?

By Lynne Jackson

ALBANY: The Pine Bush Discovery will have its grand opening on Saturday and Sunday, June 16 and June 17 from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM. After what seems like an eternity of planning, design and construction, the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission is pleased to invite the public to the grand opening.

As the gateway to the Pine Bush, the Discovery Center introduces people to everything that makes the Preserve rare and adventurous with hands-on and interactive exhibits.

The Discovery Center is in the former State Employees Federal Credit Union building (SEFCU). SEFCU is a credit union, a financial institution (or bank) owned by its members.

What won’t be answered in the Discovery Center is why the building looks like a bank and the essential role average citizens played in preservation of the Pine Bush. Since the Discovery Center won’t be answering the question, we at Save the Pine Bush will provide the answer as a public service.

In the late 1980’s, Save the Pine Bush learned that the State Employees Federal Credit Union (SEFCU) wanted to build in the center of the Pine Bush on Route 155. Our lawyer, Lewis B. Oliver, Jr., filed suit on our behalf. While the suit was in court, SEFCU built their credit union (or bank building) on Route 155.

We won the court case. Judge Robert Williams ruled in Save the Pine Bush’s favor citing the fact that the Generic Environmental Impact Statement prepared by the City of Albany failed to take a hard look at the minimum acreage required to ensure the survival of the Karner Blue butterfly and the Pine Bush ecology. SEFCU never received zoning approval for its office building located on Route 155 and is to this day, a non-conforming use since its construction in 1989. As of today, the land is still zoned residential.

One of Save the Pine Bush’s members who regularly attended the monthly lasagna dinners, was also a SEFCU member. At SEFCU meetings, he asked about our lawsuit and was told not to worry. Then, he would attend our meetings only to discover that we were winning.

After our win, our members would ask about bringing a lawsuit to have the SEFCU building torn down, since obviously it was built illegally. People were so angry at the construction of the building that some sent Save the Pine Bush donations asking to have the building torn down. Talk of Save the Pine Bush suing to tear the building down reached SEFCU. One day, Rezsin Adams and Lynne Jackson were invited to speak with SEFUC officials at a fancy law office in downtown Albany. The officials said that they would give Save the Pine Bush some of their land (less than an acre) if Save the Pine Bush would agree not to file a suit to tear SEFCU down. Rezsin and Lynne said no.

A few years went by. In the legislation that created the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission, a provision was made to allow the creation of a “museum” or “discovery center.” The original proposed location for this discovery center was on King’s Road, on land already under control of the Commission. On this site was a historic farmhouse. Members of Save the Pine Bush argued that the historic farmhouse should be preserved and used for the Discovery Center. The Commission did not agree, and the farmhouse was bulldozed.

Sometime after the historic farmhouse was destroyed, SEFCU wanted to expand their credit union facility. However, SEFCU had a problem. SEFCU could not sell their building on Route 155, because no one was going to pay millions of dollars for an office building that was zoned residential. SEFCU would have a very hard time going to the City of Albany and asking for an expansion, because such a request would open a whole can of worms, including questions about why the building was built in the first place.

The solution? SEFCU went to the State of New York and a land trade was worked out. NYS would give SEFCU land it owned north of the Harriman Office Campus in exchange for the credit union building and surrounding land. NYS would then give the SEFCU site over to the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission for its Discovery Center.

This story of citizen advocacy and litigation is not going to be told at the Discovery Center. The only reason the Discovery Center is located in the former SEFCU building is because Save the Pine Bush sued the City of Albany over approving the construction of SEFCU in the Pine Bush and won. If Save the Pine Bush had not brought this suit, the Discovery Center would probably have been built on Kings Road on the site of the historic farmhouse. This is an important example of citizens rising up against the government and using the courts to have environmental laws enforced.

Save the Pine Bush believes that it is extremely important to tell this story of citizen advocacy. There would be no Pine Bush left today if it were not for Save the Pine Bush’s lawsuits. What better place to educate people about the power of citizens than at the Discovery Center? And what a great story, a rag-tag bunch of people fighting the powerful government and institutions to save a unique ecosystem. Perhaps that is why this story will not be told at the Discovery Center — citizens fighting for justice are a powerful force that threatens governments and people in power; it is just better to erase that type of history so people don’t get ideas.