Why Joe Nicolla's Prosecution Could Hurt an Entire Region

ALBANY, N.Y. — When Joseph Nicolla walked into City Court on Monday morning, he left his hefty political influence and enormous personal success at the door.

It is likely the first time in many, many years that those attributes have not factored in Nicolla's life. Since founding his Columbia Development company 25 years ago, Nicolla has been regularly involved in massive public and private construction projects.

He quickly became one of the most powerful builders in the Capital City, and his company's stamp is on buildings from the State Comptroller's Office to 677 Broadway, along with numerous local medical complexes, technology parks, dormitories, apartment buildings, grocery stores and hotels.

About half of Nicolla's ventures in the Capital Region fall within the three major cities; 18 are in Albany alone.

"When you look at Joe, he's done a lot of development in the cities when no one else would have," says John McDonald (D-Cohoes), a relatively new state assemblyman who represents downtown Albany and Troy.

Within McDonald's legislative footprint are some of Nicolla's most-famous endeavors. In 2014, he imploded the former Wellington Hotel to make way for Albany's new convention center; Nicolla also rehabbed the former Dewitt Clinton hotel and the adjoining Weillington Row apartments.

"Reducing blight and reducing expenses: that's the type of projects that Joe Nicolla took on," said McDonald, who had opined last Thursday upon learning of the arrests: "Whether you like [Nicolla] or not, he's done a lot of good in the Capital Region."

But now, every project that Nicolla's company has completed is likely to come under scrutiny. Last Thursday, the prominent developer was named in a state-level indictment and accused of colluding with SUNY Polytechnic leader Alain Kaloyeros to rig a lucrative construction bid on a new UAlbany apartment complex. The project never got off the ground.

On Friday, Kaloyeros pleaded 'not guilty' in Albany City Court. Nicolla entered the same plea Monday in a brief appearance.

"One would have to say that it's likely there were other projects, where this type of stuff was going on," said Assemblyman Phil Steck (D-Colonie) on Monday.

Steck took the weekend to absorb some of the charges and details of the case. While not directly acquainted with Columbia Development, Steck acknowledged that several of Nicolla's projects are within his assembly district, and that the developer has done "major" work.

Regardless, Steck sees a need for greater state oversight on public-private partnerships like the illegal one Nicolla stands accused of.

"There's no question that it might be time to modernize some of these laws and prohibit some of the contacts that were going on," Steck says.

Going forward, there is concern about the fallout from Nicolla's arrest and legal saga, primarily because he's been so successful in making deals on large projects.

"It concerns me about the ability to get things done," said Ron Canestrari, a former Democratic Majority Leader in the Assembly who still lives within his old Albany County district. Canestrari knows Nicolla personally and says he was shaken by the charges announced last week.

"It almost sends a signal out to people to stay away," Canestrari said, alluding to other potential developers in the Capital Region. 'It says, 'Don't bother touching this project or that, because you could be indicted. Your reputation could be at stake.' "

Former Albany mayor Jerry Jennings, another close friend of Nicolla's, sent a statement Monday about the developer's legal saga and his legacy:

"Joe Nicolla was one of many developers whom I worked with during my tenure. He helped make the City of Albany and our region a better place. I urge everyone to take a close look at what is going on, and to stay positive about where our region is headed going forward."

Current Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan and Capital Region Chamber President Mark Eagan were among those who declined to comment on Nicolla's legal case or his local legacy.

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