Friday, November 5, 2010

Trying to make sense of $3.5 million in area real estate purchases by Buddhist group

 Interior of the Chuang Yen Temple in Carmel, NY  
One of many Buddhist religious centers in the Hudson Valley

According to tradition, Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha, the awakened one, after rejecting his luxurious life as a prince and engaging in many years of self-denial and meditation.  The monks who followed in his footsteps over the centuries took vows of poverty and kept only the most meager possessions: their sandals, a robe, a bowl for begging alms. Only last year seven Buddhist monks were denied visas to enter Canada because of their self-chosen poverty.  Canada's visa forms ask each applicant to declare any money and possessions back in his homeland, and when the monks indicated they had renounced property and possessions, the reply bounced back:  “Visa denied ... applicant has not provided relevant information.”

But the Buddhists who have come to Amsterdam are spending lavishly , and in cash, for real estate of all kinds.  Since 2005 the group had been residing at the former Jesuit Retreat House in Auriesville as the American Sports Committee, Inc., attracting little to no public notice locally. Ziguang had been sponsoring healing sessions at hotel ballrooms in major American cities, such as New York and Philadelphia,  since moving to Auriesville from California, but these were aimed at a Chinese-speaking audience and were not visible to English-speaking people in our region.

Jesuit Retreat House, purchased in 2005
But beginning in June, 2010 the World Peace and Health Organization, Inc, as the group now called itself, purchased two closed Catholic churches in Amsterdam, St. Michael’s and St. Casimir’s for a total of $250,000 under the name of  the non-profit entity, Guang Huan Mi Zong, Inc. 
For another religious denomination  to buy closed Catholic churches is not unusual in the Albany diocese where 33 churches were marked for closing as of 2009, and in April a third Catholic church, St. John the Baptist, was sold to a Pentecostal congregation.

 St. Michael the Archangel Church, price $100,000

St. Casimir's Church,, price $150,000

The Buddhist congregation, however, broke new ground in real estate purchases with a strong presence at an auction of foreclosed properties in August. The Amsterdam Recorder reported that the group’s bids ranged from $100 for a one family house on Voorhees Street to $16,500 for a commercial two-story apartment building on Park Street. "Their vision is to bring people to reside here and work here, so hopefully this is wonderful for the city of Amsterdam," Mayor Ann Thane is quoted as saying. She is also reported to have estimated that there were bids on 131 properties from all parties, bringing a total of $325,000 into the city treasury.
WPHO's leader, Master Ziguang Shang Shi, as Lucas Wang prefers to be called, spoke in Chinese through an interpreter to promise:  "We're going to convert all this old property into something good to ... beautify the city."  The question of whether the properties would be moved off the tax rolls, which was a major concern in August, has still not been answered.

The numbers shifted by October 17 when the Albany Times Union reported that the Buddhists acquired 48 properties at a foreclosure auction in August, paying as little as $100 to as much as $16,500, for a total of almost $100,000 on foreclosures. 

Neither newspaper report turns out to be completely accurate.  According to records obtained from Amsterdam City Assessor Calvin Cline, a total of 41 properties costing $1,234,000 are now under the name of Lucas Wang, with prices ranging from $700 to $65,000. According to Cline, none of the foreclosed properties are listed under the names of the World Peace and Health Organization or Guang Huan Mi Zong.

Pat Baia, a developer in Amsterdam who specializes in renovating neglected houses, expressed surprise at the quality and extent of the purchases.  It was his impression that the WPHO people had not examined the properties which they bought, and might not be aware of how much additional investment many of them needed.

Citing the example of a house on Strong Street he bought at auction for $9000, Baia said that the building would require at  least another $30,000 to bring it up to code, and suitable for habitation. “Houses like this have to be renovated within a year or face code violations. And if renovation cannot be completed prior to winter, they must be secured and sealed to avoid water damage.”  But, he pointed out, the city has only one official in charge of housing code violations, and he has a large backload.

13 Voorhees Street, price $700

11 Voorhees Street, price $10,000

A visit on October 27 to  properties listed under the name of Lucas Wang confirmed Baia’s concerns.  Five houses on Voorhees Street vary in the degree of deterioration and, more significantly, there is no sign that renovation work has begun.  Large bags of trash fill the porch of 13 Voorhees, which was sold at $700, and a neighbor believed that the city has already issued a citation.

A Spanish-speaking resident of the street said that some people had started to clean out one house, but that he saw no one with the tools needed for serious work. He said that he offered to work for the group, but had not yet received a response. He mentioned one acquaintance who did work three days for the WPHO as an unpaid volunteer, but he maintained that skilled people would not work without pay.

319 East Main Street, price $32,000 

Houses listed under the name of Lucas Wang at other locations showed the same pattern: badly neglected buildings, deteriorated roofs, open or broken windows.  Neighbors of the partly boarded-up 319 East Main Street had seen no sign of anyone working on the house or cleaning debris from the property.

 4 Bell  Street, price $20,000
Tree growing from the roof of 4 Bell Street

A huge building at 4 Bell Street, probably once a boarding house, and sold for $20,000, has been vacant so long that a tree has taken root on the deteriorated roof.  166 Guy Park Avenue, at $25,000, is situated amid successful businesses, but exhibits roof damage and open windows.

 Broken windows at 166 Guy Park Avenue, price $25,000

Despite the failure, thus far, to address the immediate needs of such deteriorated buildings, the WPHO continues to look for more real estate opportunities.  Efforts to purchase the old Chalmers mill on the Mohawk River stalled when the city insisted that the unsafe structure be demolished as a condition for buying the prime riverfront property.

 74 Mechanic Street, price $30,000

77 Mechanic Street, price $33,000

The WPHO is also eager to finalize purchase, for $460,000, of the Clara S. Bacon Elementary School.  The 240 acre Adirondack Center Camp in Ephratah was bought in August for $400, 000. Jenny Wang, spokesperson for the WPHO, confirmed that discussions are underway for the purchase of the YWCA building in Gloversville, which has an asking price of $400,000.

 Clara S. Bacon School, price $460,000

All of the recent sales, completed or in progress, would exceed $3.5 million, not including renovation costs which could easily double or triple that number.

The real estate spending spree, initially welcomed by many local officials and residents, is evoking concern.   The failure to renovate or secure the houses , in particular, has not gone unnoticed.  Richard Leggiero, alderman for the fifth ward, participated in a recent meeting at which city officials met with Jenny Wang and Lucas Wang. “They didn’t seem to know how we do things here, so we sat them down and told them they needed licensed contractors and building permits. We told them the city will not pick up construction materials like sheet rock and lumber, and they need to rent dumpsters.”

The Moshers, a retired couple who live next door to 49 Mechanic Street, one of Wang's properties, said that the house, built in the 1830s and sold for $29,000 in August, was in desperate need of a new roof.  “Why are they buying all these old houses?”  Harold Mosher asked.

I posed the same question to Lucas Wang,  through his translator Jenny Wang, and he responded by describing his dream of preparing places for the thousands of people he expected to flock to this city to share in his teachings about health and serenity.

 Ziguang Shang Shi (Lucas Wang)

And perhaps this religious leader's faith in his own vision of Buddhism really is the only explanation behind the seemingly irrational bout of acquisition.

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