– click this link for Comments to the Planning Commission on the Waterfront C-3 Amendments by David Giacalone (editor of this website), on Wednesday, January 14, 2015.
update: The pleas of over half a dozen Schenectady residents that the Planning Commission not recommend such provisions as 110′ buildings, 40′ setbacks, giant pylons, and 20,000 sq. ft. of signage, and take more time to research materials and have staff and the developer submit more specific plans, below making its recommendations. Such comments made no difference at all in the final results.
Is there anything Schenectady’s Mayor and City Council won’t do for their Casino Cronies? The gifts to the future Casino Owners in the proposed amendments to the City’s waterfront zoning regulations could scarcely fit on a river barge, much less under a Christmas Tree. In changing the C-3 Waterfront Mixed-Use ordinance, City Hall proposes to give the Rivers Casino group significantly more leeway in designing their facilities than the Applicant ever asked for, or said was needed, in its public statements. As a result, the Mohawk Harbor Riverfront and Erie Boulevard “front yard” could be more crowded, gaudy and tacky than the proponents of this “modest” project have ever given us to believe. In reviewing the proposed changes, you might want to ask yourself just when the Mayor, Council President, and Metroplex Chairman knew of these changes.
Thanks to the Daily Gazette, we have online access to the proposed amendments to the City’s C-3 Waterfront Mixed-Use District; click for the Proposed “C-3/Casino” Amendments. Neither the City Council agenda for Monday January 12, 2015, nor the Planning Commission’s agenda for its meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 14, included the proposed casino zoning amendments, despite the topic being on the agenda of each body. Click the following link for the Current C-3 Zoning Ordinance, which was last amended in 2009.
More Crowded and Tacky?
Bigger Hotel – Closer to the Shore: One proposed amendment to the Casino District Zoning rules would allow its hotel to be 110′ tall. Yes, the Applicant did mention an 110′ height limit in its environmental impact statement, but it never warned us that the omni-present rendering of its casino hotel (the one with all the cherry blossoms) was not representative of its actual goal. The rendering shows a casino hotel of about 5 floors, which might be 65′ high. A hotel 110′ high would probably have about 9 floors above the ground. For your comparison, here is the Applicant’s widely-used hotel rendering on the Left, with my best estimate on the Right of how high a 110′ version might be:
– visual bait and switch? –
How tall is 110 feet? Proctor’s nextdoor neighbor, the Parker Inn was historically Schenectady’s tallest building. (see photo to the right of this paragraph) The Parker Inn is 98.56 ft. with 8 floors. The former St. Clare’s Hospital, now called Ellis Hospital McClellan Campus, is a mere 69 ft. tall, with 5 floors above ground. Even the Wedgeway Building at State and Erie is only 72 feet, with 6 floors. (Those three “tall” Schenectady buildings average about 12’5″ per floor.) Imagine a building many times larger in bulk and 11 feet higher than the Parker Inn, with far less grace, enhancing our scarce Schenectady River frontage.
The Hampton Inn, at State and Clinton Streets, is right down the block from the Parker Inn. The Hampton Inn is 4 floors and appears to be a bit more than half the height of the Parker Inn; it has 93 rooms, which is half the 185-room figure the Casino has given in its impact statements. If you stacked another Hampton Inn on top of the current one, you would probably come fairly close to 110′. The following collage compares the Hampton-Parker end of the State Street block, with both the actual Hampton Inn and a bulked-up-casino-style version:
Important economic question: If Rivers Casino wants a hotel this big, how much will its promotions to fill the Casino Hotel cannibalize other quality hotels in Schenectady? The sly Applicant never stated how many floors it hotels was likely to be, while indicating consistently that the separate, Galesi marina hotel would be 5-6 floors, and that the casino hotel would have 50% more rooms: 185 “+/-“, compared to 124 rooms.
One more height comparison: The Schenectady Casino Applicants’ environmental impact Statement compares its proposed 110′ hotel with the 103-foot Golub/Price Chopper Building, stating that it is less than a quarter-mile from the casino location. Of course, the Price Chopper headquarters is situated alongside the rather unlovely Maxon Rd. and Nott Street, not our scarce waterfront. [Note: it is not clear that the building is in fact 103′ tall; it appears to be shorter than that. update: Dave Buicko, Galesi Group CEO, continued to state at the Jan. 14, 2015 Planning Commission Meeting, that the Golub building, which is owned by Galesi, is 103′ tall. On Jan. 15, 2015, I received a response from a Price Chopper staffer to a question I asked on Jan. 13; she phoned to say that the Golub Corp. Headquarters is 86′ high.]
Here is a photo of the building at dusk on January 12, 2015, to help you decide whether a building that tall should be located along the riverfront (as opposed to further back on the large parcel) at Mohawk Harbor:
- By the way, directly across the street from the Price Chopper headquarters is the largest Union College residency hall, which was once a hotel. It is merely 7 floors, but not exactly river-bank svelte:
A Setback Setback. Another City Hall concession would make the Casino Hotel loom even more ominously along the shore: The Casino Applicant said all waterfront setbacks would be at least 50 feet; nonetheless, the amendments reduce the setback along the River to an even slimmer 40 feet. Forty feet is awfully close to the river bank. [approximately the length of two Ford Expedition SUVs bumper to bumper] Here are two 40-foot examples from Riverside Park:
– click on a picture for a much larger version –
Note: The bike-hike trail could be 18 feet from the hotel.
Even Gaudier than Expected?
A Signage Tsunami. No one can call the Galesi Group or Rush Street Gambling shy about asking for special rules. The Amendments to C-3 state specifically that signage rules applicable to all other zoning districts [Article IX-Signs, §264-61(k)] do not apply at the C-3 casino compound. So, the Casino Guys modestly said they would use no more than aggregate of 15,000 square feet of advertising. [click for their statement on signage] That is 100 times more (not a mere 100% more) than permitted under Article IX. Nonetheless, the Mayor et al. never said, “Now you guys are pushing it a bit.” They said, “How about one-third more, 20,000 sq. ft.”
Freestanding at 80 feet. The maximum height of a free-standign sign in any other zoning district is 10 feet. The amendments do not state a maximum, only that Art. IX does not apply [update: the final version released for the Public Hearing before City Council calls for a 90′ limit on pylon signs.]. The Casino has told us it wants a free-standing pylon sign at the intersection of Front Street and the access point to the casino from the anticipated roundabout (near Front and Nott Sts.), to allow persons to easily locate the facility from Erie Boulevard. But, don’t worry, “The height of the sign will not exceed 80 feet.” (Recall that the Wedgeway Building down at Erie Blvd. and State St. is only 72 feet high; also, GE’s giant, famous lighted logo has a diameter of only 36 feet; so stack one on top of another and you’re still 8 feet lower than the Casino Pylon’s apex.)
Pylon signage in the 80-foot-range is traditionally used by a business near a highway in order to give drivers traveling at 70 mph information about the service offered in time to allow them to safely get off at the next exit. The sign industry calls such structures “freeway pylons.” For reasons too numerous to list, there is no analogous need in the situation of the Schenectady Casino. By merely suggesting the possibility of an 80-foot pylon, Rush Street and Galesi Group demonstrate a brutish lack of sensitivity to aesthetics, safety, neighborhood traditions, and the image and reputation of the City of Schenectady — not to mention the truth.
– the 72-foot-high Wedgeway Building, Erie at State –
A few months ago, the Applicant based its claim of having no negative impact on cultural resources and sensitivities (and fuddy-duddies worried about their viewscape) on the fact that you could not see their facility from the Stockade. They even said the RR underpass trestle on Front St. would block our view. Back then, we did not agree, and a casino facility with a much taller hotel and a monster pylon, is most probably even easier to see.
Also, those who have long sought attractive entryways into the Stockade might not be pleased with that pylon, even if it had a Stockade sign with directional arrow.
[sample pylon] Changing Electronic Messages. It is the giant pylon that will have, in addition to lettering and a logo for Rivers Casino, “electronic message boards.” The safety-minded Casino assured us in its impact statement that “Messaging upon the electronic message boards will not change more frequently than 6 times a minute so as not to be distracting.” Once again, rather than point out in amazement that current law only allows messages to change once per minute, and not even Proctor’s new marquee exceeds that pace, City Hall apparently said, “Heck, why wait 10 seconds to change a message, we’ll let you do it every 8 seconds,” which is 7.5 times a minute.
– update: “grandfathered -in” pylon at Crosstown Plaza [shown above] is 50′ high; the Planning Commission voted to recommend a maximum of 90 feet on Jan. 14, 2015, but limited the portion of the pylon that could be signage to 70% –
Good highway safety practice does not allow giant pylons with changing messages at places where drivers need to be paying close attention and have other distractions. Our search online has produced no images of Rush Street having such giant pylons at its other, successful casinos — not even in Pittsburgh, where it might be a bit more difficult to find a low-rise casino than in Schenectady. It will be interesting to see if City Hall changes its practice of Never Explaining, to justify such a drastic change in policy for electronic signs (other than, “it makes the Casino Cash-Cow content”). [followup: See the NYS DOT’s “Criteria for Regulating CEVM signs“, which set a minimum interval of 8 seconds for changing electronic signs, but allows municipalities to be more stringent and suggests circumstances that might call for longer intervals.]
In addition to having narrower setbacks along the River, which will surely increase the sense of being less spacious, the proposed amendments have a stealth provision that will increase the allowable footprint, and thus the width and length of buildings in the casino compound. The Casino appeared to be content with the allowable footprint for buildings; however, the amendments in effect increase the footprint size permitted by counting the embayment area in calculating the size of the project lot. Building footprints may not exceed 50% of the project site, but “the project site is defined to include any embayment.”
Hairy Arm Proposals?
Finally, it is difficult not to be suspicious of the statements and tactics of the Casino Collaborators after seeing them in action since the Spring. The generous give-aways to the Casino owners and developer are perhaps part of a version of a “hairy arm” ruse: That is, City Hall is making outlandish proposals, so that it or the Planning Commission can look magnanimous and reasonable when they pull back a bit on an outrageous proposal or two. That may make it harder for dissenters to vote no, allowing the members to pass pared-down but still extreme concessions to their Casino Cronies.
We have not had a chance to study the proposals in depth, to see how other municipalities and planners have dealt with problems presented, and to uncover — much less examine — the reasoning behind each major proposal in the C-3 zoning ordinance. Now that they have their casino victory, it is time for our local leaders to start asking tough questions and doing their homework before passing major zoning changes.