Neither Schenectady’s Mayor nor the Daily Gazette has let the public know that its existing right to permanent access to the scarce riverfront being developed at Mohawk Harbor has been deleted in the City’s proposed C-3 district zoning amendments [which were adopted on February 9, 2015]. This is one of the many significant changes that City Hall development and legal staff “negotiated” with the future casino’s developer and owner. The amendments are the subject of a Public Hearing before City Council on Monday, January 26, 2015. Click here for the Final version of the City’s proposed Schenectady C-3 Waterfront-Casino zoning amendments. Currently, there is a requirement in the C-3 Waterfront Multi-Use District zoning ordinance that an owner of C-3 waterfront property file a permanent easement granting the public access to the riverfront, with the owner responsible for upkeep; there is also a requirement that a minimum of 10% of linear dock space be available for the public. Both those sections have been completely eliminated from the version of proposed amendments that will be addressed at the City Council’s public hearing on January 26. The public version does not even show the sections with the traditional strikethrough type to highlight their proposed deletion.
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Here are the two provisions that the City-Casino Coalition wants to eliminate, with the strikethroughs City Hall apparently did not want you to see:
(2) Public access and recreation features. (a) Waterfront surface easement. Public access shall be dedicated in the form of a perpetual surface easement, duly executed and in a proper form for recording in the Schenectady County Clerk’s Office and satisfactory to the City Corporation Counsel, for the purpose of assuring public access to and public enjoyment of the waterfront. (1) Residential: A minimum of 10% of linear dock footage must be made available for public, day use. (2) Commercial: Docking requirements are flexible based upon the following considerations: parking adequacy, river width, navigation channel width, and water surface use.
Loss of required dock and riverfront access by the public surely will shock and surprise individuals and families throughout the County. It is inconsistent with both the spirit and the text of the Schenectady Comprehensive Plan 2020 (adopted 2008). On page 48, in the section enumerating Goals and related Action, the Plan says:
Goal Seven: Promote Waterfront Planning, Access and Redevelopment.
Action 2: Expand Public Access to the Waterfront
Tasks: Expand public access to the Mohawk River and create opportunities for recreational boating.
Action 4: Protect Waterfront Resources and Views
Tasks: Implement view protections and provisions to ensure that new development encourages public access to the water.
The Comprehensive Plan’s Environmental Impact Statement also addresses the creation of a waterfront zoning district, and notes the two goals for that district (at 15):
“Created waterfront district:
- Mixed use, walkable, live/work/shop community
- Preserve public areas.” (emphasis added)
The Gazette has not yet mentioned that the C-3 amendments remove the public access elements of the ordinance. In fact, on Jan 15, in reporting on the January 14 Planning Commission special meeting, Haley Vicarro wrote for the Gazette that “The site . . . would allow for public access to the river with biking and walking paths and a proposed harbor with 50 boat slips.” Well, with §§264-14(f) & (H) eliminated, the “site” would allow for public access as long as the Owner allows it.
Should we just trust these casino guys? Galesi Group COO David Buicko (and not the City’s Development or Legal staff) led the presentation at the Planning Committee on January 12, and was careful not to mention granting public access as of right when mentioning the riverfront and docks. He made remarks more than once reminding the Commission that “it’s private property” and that Galesi and Rush Street Gaming want people to come who will use their facilities. (An appropriate desire, but not one that bodes well for permanent public access.)
Note: It would be very bad public relations for Mohawk Harbor to open with a riverbank that is only available to persons who are “customers”, or to have absolutely no amenities near the riverbank for people who might want to just sit and enjoy the view. However, the lack of mandated access for the public means the area might be closed for special events; or, problems along the riverbank (e.g., excessive rowdiness, litter, noise) could cause management to start restricting access based on age, time of day, adult supervision, etc., or to “cut their losses” and close Mohawk Harbor’s riverbank completely.
Note, also, that a pedestrian-bicycle path that followed the River and circled the condo and office marina buildings, as planned by Galesi, would make a very nice amenity and attraction for people who live, work, or stay at the hotels, of Mohawk Harbor. Thus, putting in the path would not be a totally undesirable expense for the developer/owner of Mohawk Harbor, nor useless if public access is not allowed.
It is true that under the amendments the owner must put in a ped-bike path and there was a lot of talk before the Planning Commission about the meaning of the word “esplanade” in the text of C-3. But, there would no longer be a requirement that the owner permanently allow the public to use the riverfront, and also no requirement that the owner install an esplanade or add any amenities beyond the barebones bicycle-pedestrian walkway. If they do put in public access facilities, they would be allowed an even bigger footprint for the buildings at Mohawk Harbor. This is perhaps why Commissioner Matt Cuevas lamented at the Planning Commission Meeting last week that (paraphrasing): “This is not at all the kind of public access we were thinking about when we drafted the C-3 provisions 6 years ago.” Nevertheless, despite the fact that five of the nine current Commissioners were on the Commission when the Comprehensive Plan was written and the C-3 Waterfront district was created, they voted to recommend adoption of the proposed amendments (with only a couple of very minor tweaks).
The Planning Commission voted in a rush, without having any materials from their staff or the Mayor or Corporate Counsel explaining the meaning of the proposed changes, or discussing the pros and cons — and, visibly (often admittedly) without basic knowledge or understanding of zoning for something as complicated and exotic as a casino, especially one on a scarce riverfront. Nevertheless, by recommending that the proposed amendments be adopted, the Planning Commission handed the Mayor and City Council president, as well as the Galesi Group and Rush Street Gaming, a fig leaf for concealing the open secret that this set of zoning proposals gives the casino partners virtually everything they wanted, and in fact more than they have said they needed in past public statements. [update: At the Jan. 26. City Council meeting, several of the supporters of the amendments stressed the significance of an 8-0 vote of approval by the Planning Commission.]
This zoning calamity cannot even be slowed down, much less prevented, without the vocal and public opposition of people from throughout Schenectady County, even those who favor the casino and marina at Mohawk Harbor. Please come to the Public Hearing on January 26 and tell the City Counsel that you want the principle and the promise of public access fulfilled.
For the convenience of those who have not seen our prior posting that contains a summary of the proposed changes, here is an encore:
Highlights of Changes:
- public access to riverfront: the requirement of a permanent easement granting a right to public access to the riverfront has been deleted; developer must build a bike-ped path (which it might have wanted anyway for those living in its condos and apartments), but there is no longer guaranteed public access
- the right to 10% of dock space reserved for public use in the daytime is deleted
- maximum building height would be 110′ with no special use permit needed; the exception is a 56′ height limit within 100′ of a residential district (current law is 56′ permitted in C-3, with special use permit needed for higher)
- setbacks are a minimum of 50′ from the river’s mean high water mark (had been 40′ from the high water mark)
- Article IX – Signs, which contains rules, limitations, sizes, etc. for signage of all types, no longer applies to the casino and attached uses, but continues to apply to all other zoning districts and outside the casino compound in C-3 (Art. IX does apply to the district under the current C-3 ordinance)
- 19,000 sq. ft. of signage is permitted, with review Site Plan review, which looks at colors, style, location (currently, Art IX limits aggregate square footage to 150 sq. ft., with 25% more if owner has a single lot with more than one principle building).
- directional signs do not count as part of the signage limitations and may have the logo of the establishment (Art. IX does not allow logos on directional signs)
- Multi-sided pylon signs are permitted, with a height not to exceed 90 feet. (Article IX now allows one freestanding sign with a maximum height of 7′ in C-3)
- electronic message board may change every 8 seconds; Planning Commission may reduce the minimum interval (currently, a CEVMS may only change every 60 seconds, and a special use permit is needed, with a public hearing and demonstration that there is no significant impact on surrounding neighborhoods, traffic conditions, health and safety; 8 seconds is the minimum standard now at NYS DOT; a City may increase the interval, but contrary to the provision in the Amendment, it may not reduce it).
- the embayment (man-made bay) may now be included in calculating how big the aggregate footprint of the casino compound may be, with 50% of the size of the embayment added to the total allowable footprint of the buildings (the subject not in current version of C-3; if the embayment is 5 acres in size, 2.5 more acres of footprint allowed; many, perhaps most, jurisdictions would not allow a body of water on a site to count toward the footprint allowance)