January 18, 2013

Albany NanoTech charges ahead with Kiernan Plaza tech hub

By: Michael DeMasi

Source: The Business Review

Albany NanoTech is moving fast to finalize contracts and get renovations started at historic Kiernan Plaza in downtown Albany, NY, now that the state has committed $4 million to the project.

“We’re moving aggressively to renovate the building and to locate companies there as quickly as possible,” said Michael Fancher, vice president for business development and economic outreach at Albany NanoTech, formally known as the University at Albany College of Nanoscale Science & Engineering. The nanocollege is a $14 billion research complex centered at UAlbany that conducts computer chip technology and other research with more than 260 businesses and organizations.

Albany NanoTech plans to convert the building into a business center for emerging technology companies. “The funding provided by Gov. Cuomo is serving as a lightning rod,” Fancher added. “The level of interest, not just from the potential tenant companies but the community, has been phenomenal.”

That’s no surprise, considering the building’s beauty and link to the past.

For most of its life, beginning in 1900, it was known as Union Station, where countless people boarded trains or waited anxiously for loved ones to arrive.

I’m sure I’m not alone in saying I wish I could have experienced what it was like, but the train station at 575 Broadway closed in 1968, a year before I was born, and replaced by an uninspired rectangular box across the river in Rensselaer (thankfully, that box has since been replaced by something much nicer).

In 1986, Union Station was resurrected by Peter Kiernan, president of what was then Norstar Bank, and converted into the bank’s headquarters. Architecture firm EYP — then known as Einhorn Yaffee Prescott — won heaps of praise for the interior redesign.

Fast forward to three years ago.

The tenant, Bank of America, pulled all its employees out as part of a massive cost-cutting move. Kiernan Plaza sat empty, another vacancy downtown.

That will change in the coming months, and Fancher sees an historical symmetry in the plans.

Union Station’s name was inspired by the decision of competing 19th-century railroad titans to share resources by building one station to serve Albany, he said, as they did in other cities.

“Train stations were icons for technology in the last industrial revolution,” he said.

He likened it to the innovations in nanoscience being researched at UAlbany in the 21st century.

The college is taking the lead on the Kiernan Plaza renovations, and hired EYP to redesign the interior again, this time to accommodate multiple tenants instead of one bank. The state’s $4 million grant will pay for the work.

Separately, the college is negotiating to buy the property for an undisclosed sum from the current owner, a real estate investment trust.

The first tenant will be CHA, the largest engineering firm in the region, which will move its corporate headquarters there from Colonie.

“There’s a great deal of technological innovation going in the architecture and engineering field,” Fancher said. “What is driving a lot of that innovation is the very technologies we’re developing here at the NanoTech complex, for example ‘smart grids’ and ‘smart buildings.’ We’ve been working with the city to use it as a test bed.”

Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings will no doubt be talking that up during his upcoming State of the City speech which will be delivered in — where else — Kiernan Plaza on Jan. 29 at 5:30 p.m.