It’s hard to avoid being discouraged after the January 26th public hearing on the Schenectady City Council’s proposed amendments to our waterfront zoning ordinance (the C-3 District). Rather than actually addressing any of the amendments’ provisions, the so-called supporters of the proposals merely told how exciting the casino project was and how necessary it is to have C-3 waterfront zoning (which we already have: click for Current C-3 Zoning Ordinance). As someone who witnessed the four-hour Planning Commission Special Meeting on January 14th, it was especially disconcerting to hear speaker after speaker use the 8-0 vote of the Planning Commission approving the set of amendments as an important reason for adopting the proposal. [In this posting, the Planning Commission is at times referred to as “Commission” or “PC”.]
We believe the four-hour Special Meeting of the Planning Commission on Jan. 14 was yet another demonstration that Schenectady has become once again a Company Town, where City Hall acts as a rubber stamp wielded to fulfill the wishes of Schenectady’s new Bosses, Galesi Group, the owner and developer of Mohawk Harbor, and Rush Street Gaming, the operator of the casino itself [collectively known around this website as the Galesi-Casino Gang, or simply “the Gang”]
As a result, the customary (non-casino-related) interests of Schenectady’s current and future residents, businesses and organizations, are ignored, with shortsighted decisions being made and Schenectady’s future and heritage being shortchanged.
In the zoning context, therefore, we see a set of proposed amendments that only make sense if traditional zoning and planning goals and processes are forgotten and the only goal is to make the Gang’s wishes and hopes for Mohawk Harbor into law. But, you ask, can’t we be reassured by the 8-0 vote of our City’s Planning Commission recommending the proposed amendments with only a couple of minor tweaks? In a word, as explained below, No.
Many supporters of a Schenectady Casino (especially those who live in Schenectady and won’t be its business partners) simply want Schenectady to be a City with a Casino, and not a Casino City, known elsewhere mostly for its regional gaming facility. More worrisome than becoming a Casino Town is becoming a Company Town again. Ironically, the new Company Town has its ruling Gang symbolically ensconced at the very spot where the American Locomotive Company and General Electric built useful things that helped win wars and modernize our homes and lives. It is also ironic that so many of the people who helped write Schenectady’s Comprehensive Plan 2020 are now undoing its boast that Schenectady was working successfully in an ongoing process to make “the transition from a company town” into something much more vibrant and diverse.
The suspicion that Schenectady has transformed into a Company Town run by the Gang from Mohawk Harbor was strengthened a lot at the Special Meeting of the Planning Commission. The City’s Development and Legal Staff and the City Council had requested a review of the proposed amendments by the Planning Commission. It was, however, not the Staff who presented the proposed amendments to the Commission. Instead, Galesi Group Chief Operating Officer Dave Buicko began the Meeting with a slide show, after being asked by the Commission Chair to “put the changes in context”; COO Buicko reassured the Commissioners and public that this is really just “cleanup and clarification” of the current provisions of C-3. (That was the first of many “exaggerations” that were not remarked upon by the Commissioners or staff.)
A lawyer was next to address the Commissioners, but not one from the City’s Law Department. PC Chair Sharron Copolla casually transitioned from Buicko by inviting Andrew Brick, an attorney for casino operator Rush Street Gaming, to take a chair at the table. Mr. Brick then went line for line through the 8 pages of the proposal and explained how they relate to their new development. Brick, lawyer for the Gang with the most to lose or win, was the only person presenting the provisions to the Commissioners. He offered only the “pros” of the new amendments, not the questions or “cons.” And, the only reasons given for the changes were the advantages for Mohawk Harbor and its casino.
Corporation Counsel Carl Falotico was watching the Meeting from his office on a live feed, but felt the need to come down and interrupt the Meeting to proclaim that this really isn’t the developer’s set of amendments, and is from the law and planning staff, adding “we did a lot of work on it.” That’s a little different than it being the City’s plan, and it was amusing that one supporter of the proposals told the public hearing our Corporation Counsel proved it was his plan by saying so at the PC meeting.
In the next, public comment segment of the meeting, seven Schenectady residents voiced specific, well-articulated opposition to several of the proposals and especially called for adjournment before voting on the proposal, to allow for much-needed fact-finding and research. Although admitting often to ignorance or confusion, the Planning Commission went ahead, voting that night as if the public comments had never been uttered and their only real job was to get the proposals approved in time for the Council’s Jan. 26 public hearing.
After the public comments were made, the PC Chair invited Mr. Buicko to respond to the public comments, and then allowed Michael Levin, a principal in the firm that will be overseeing construction, to present his version of the reasons Mohawk Harbor needs these changes, now. The City’s staff were never offered the opportunity to explain any of the provisions, and never tried to do so.
Only after the Galesi and Rush Street Gaming representatives were finished, did the Commissioners begin their discussion of the Amendments, stopping often to ask Mr. Buicko or someone from his group to explain a provision. Although that discussion was very long, it amounted to a slow-motion rubber stamping, as can be seen below in their treatment of the various issues that arose.
Adequately Prepared for Novel Issues?
This set of amendments raises zoning and factual issues that this City and planning board have never before seen, as well as specific problems never explained by staff. For instance:
- How much and what kinds of signage do urban casinos that are not on a strip with similar establishments typically use and need? What does Rush Street do at its other casinos, and to what effect? Why does it only use 12,500 sq. ft. of signage in Des Plaines, not the 15,000 sq. ft. it told Metroplex would be the maximum in Schenectady, nor the 19,000 sq. ft. in the proposed amendments?
- How are scenic river views and public access to a riverbank best preserved or achieved when zoning for a large new development along a rare stretch of river? How do the proposed amendments jibe with the goals of the C-3 waterfront district and the Schenectady Comprehensive Plan 2020 (adopted 2008), which call for the preservation of waterfront views and public access?
- Is a bulky hotel building as tall as 110′ high too intrusive 40′ away from a riverbank? Why does the rendering of the Casino hotel along the riverbank that was first submitted to the public and the Location Board last Spring and continues to be circulated, show only a 5-floor hotel, perhaps 65′ high?
- What would a fully illuminated urban casino look like at night and how will its illumination affect neighbors and the way our City is perceived?
- Aren’t embayments and other bodies of water usually left out in calculating allowable aggregate footprint on a parcel? Why should the Casino compound be allowed an extra 2.5 acres of footprint because of the size of the Marina’s embayment? Also, why would a project that wants to go so high also want more footprint? What would that do to the view of the riverfront within or outside Mohawk Harbor, from ground level or from nearby buildings?
- How would the requested 90′ high pylon affect the City’s skyline, nearby and distant traffic, and neighborhoods? Aren’t such tall pylons used primarily near freeways to alert fast-moving drivers to get off at the next exit for a service not visible from the freeway, or used outside of cities to attract distant traffic?
With 7′ the current limit for a C-3 free-standing sign, why wouldn’t a 50′ pylon suffice for you, like the one grandfathered at Crosstown Plaza? If their Des Plaines casino’s pylon is 68′ tall, why is 90′ needed here? How could the 49′ tall STS plant be the justification for such a tall pylon? Will the pylon come down when Galesi gets STS to move and razes its building?
- What happens when the City’s existing signage provisions applicable tpo every zoning district, Article IX, are made inapplicable to one large parcel with has a novel use, with no provisions substituted for the existing rules?
- Would a proposed 8-second interval for electronic message boards be appropriate at a location with many signs and much illumination, where many drivers will be new to the City, and to roundabouts, and many senior drivers are expected? (Click to read the Standards and discussion in the NYS DOT’s “Criteria for Regulating CEVM signs“.)
- And, many more questions that will come to the surface while answering the questions above?
Despite a grueling, often embarrassing four- hour-long Special Meeting, there are a number of convincing clues that the Planning Commissioners were meant to merely rubber-stamp this set of amendments that will greatly impact the appearance, ambiance, reputation, economy, and social future of our City far past the foreseeable future. For example, the Planning Commissioners:
- Were not supplied by the Staff with even one page of materials containing explanations for the proposed changes, pros and cons, alternatives, the results of research comparing practices elsewhere, etc., as the basis for informed preparation, questions and decision-making
- Had no new submissions by Mohawk Harbor, nor from the Casino, with much more-detailed renderings of plans that coincide with the provisions they had negotiated for with the Legal and Development staff
- Did not demand a full briefing from staff before the Special Meeting, nor during it, nor ask for new plans and renderings from the Casino Gang at any time
- Were entreated in person by Leesa Perazzo to approve the proposed recommendation, although Ms. Perazzo is a member of the very City Council that had asked for the Planning Commission’s recommendation
- Made their recommendation that the amendments be passed by City Council that night, despite reasonable requests from the public (including a retired city planner and a retired lawyer familiar with local zoning law) for an adjournment that might allow them to become adequately prepared for an intelligent evaluation of the proposed amendments
Immediately below is the only staff material I’ve located that mentions evaluation or analysis of the proposed amendments. It is from the 31Dec2014 Memo from Jaclyn Mancini, Director of Development, to the City Council asking that the amendments be sent to the Planning Commission for their recommendation and that a Public Hearing be authorized:
Planning and Law Department staff has drafted amendments to Chapter 264, Zoning, for the casino and its associated parking to be permitted uses. Changes to allowable building height and allowable signage are also included in the amendments.
That’s it for background materials to aid the Commissioners. In addition to their being willing to fly blind, there were many failures of the Commissioners to show adequate curiosity, research, or backbone. Here are a few instances:
First [punting difficult issues], as discussed fully in the earlier posting “City Hall is giving bad legal advice to get Council votes“, Planning Commission Chair Sharron Copolla voiced at least three times the excuse that the Commissioners can go ahead and approve of the seemingly extreme provisions in the Amendments, because they could reduce the numbers during Site Plan review of the Casino plans. That appears to be bad advice on the Chair’s part, and the last time she made the assertion Commissioner Wallinger immediately told Ms. Copolla, “No we don’t.” That did not stop the Commissioners from all voting for the big numbers (nor the smaller 40 foot setback).
– Sidenote: If the Commission does have the authority to make major changes during the Site Plan process, as the Mayor and Council President have asserted, the Mohawk Harbor Gang would not have the certainty it claims to need right now. It is better to take a close look at the numbers in the Amendments and approve changes Schenectady can proudly live with.
Second [taller buildings], not only did no Commissioner object when Galesi Group President David Buicko opened the Special Meeting by stating these major, unprecedented changes are “only clean-up and clarification” of what is in the current C-3 law, they remained silent to the repeated assertion that it is appropriate to have 110′ buildings now at Mohawk Harbor, because the old ALCO site had buildings 130′ high that blocked out the view of the River. Commissioners who have lived here more than a few years surely had seen the ALCO site, and knew that the factory plants consisted of very long buildings (some 1000 yards), that were about 50′ high, and that a few of them had a taller portion (apparently to accommodate a crane or similar device to lift heavy items from the assembly line) that took up a tiny fraction of the length of the building and the skyline. See the photo at the head of the paragraph (by Howard Olhous at Historic Marker Database) for a typical ALCO site image; and, see the following photo with an aerial view from the River side (by Nick Skinner, also hmdb.org), which has a white asterisk on one of the tall sections:
The Photo also shows how dominant the Price Chopper Building is despite it being significantly shorter than 110 feet. (Mr. Buicko says 103′, Golub Headquarters told me 86′ tall.)
Third [Article IX inapplicable to Casino], no one on the Commission ever mentioned that the amendments were making the entire Schenectady Zoning ordinance on signs, Article. IX, inapplicable to the casino and its accessory uses (but still applicable to the rest of C-3, apparently). This has never been done before, but there was no discussion of what was going to fill the regulatory vacuum or why Schenectady’s customary size, number, or type rules were not needed.
Fourth [public access guarantee], only Commissioners Cuevas and Wallinger voiced concern over the removal from the C-3 ordinance of the current requirement of a permanent easement guaranteeing public access to the waterfront and another provision requiring public access to 10% of the dock space. No one asked Mr. Buicko why he needed the easement requirement removed, nor why he stated a number of times “it’s private property” in the content of public access.
When one Commissioner did ask City planner and ex officio member Christine Primiano why there would no longer be an access guarantee at the waterfront, she said the City could not afford the maintenance; she gave no further explanation and there was no follow-up question. No one reminded her that the current law requires maintenance by the owner; that the City is expecting millions of dollars a year from this very parcel and has promised public access to the waterfront; or that it is odd that staff already knew a few years in advance that the City could not afford the maintenance on a project that so nicely fulfills goals set out in the Comprehensive Plan.
Loss of required dock and riverfront access by the public surely should 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). For a full discussion of the loss of guaranteed public access, see our prior posting.
Fifth [maximum signage]: During the public comment period of the PC meeting, the Commissioners were asked if any of them knew what 20,000 sq. ft. of signage looks like. As expected, several heads shook the response “no.” [Schenectady resident John Kolwaite told the Commissioners a few minutes later that he had measured the front dimensions of our City Hall, and 20,000 sq. ft. was more than twice the size of the City’s Hall’s façade (as is 19,000 sq. ft.). Click here to see the photo mock-up he tried to submit to the Commission, showing the front of two City Halls, and also stating it was equal to 20 large (18′ x40′) billboards.]
Despite their inability to comprehend how much signage the amendments would allow in the Casino compound portion of Mohawk Harbor, the Commissioners asked for few additional details. When Commissioner Matt Cuevas stated that 20,000 sounded like too much and he would feel more comfortable with 15,00o sq. ft., Corporation Counsel Carl Falotico stood, approached the table, and in a stern voice stated (closely paraphrased):
“You can’t go from 20,000 to 15,000 without a rational basis. If you do, we will be overturned in court. I have negotiated with the Casino representatives and am convinced that 20,000 is the minimum they must have.”
This was an erroneous statement of the law (In legislating, the City has virtually total discretion choosing the amount of signage. Also, since the Casino told Metroplex it would use “a maximum of 15,000 sq. ft.”, it is difficult to say there would be no basis for that number.) What Falotico’s assertion accomplished, however, was a virtually end to discussion of a smaller number. No one on the Commission said, “Carl, if you have seen enough detail to know that 20,000 is the correct number, why can’t we see what you saw, or have you explain your conclusion?”
Another telling moment unveiling the need for more information and giving us a glimpse of Company Town control, came when Commissioners were discussing pylons, specifically the 68′ pylon used at Rush Street’s Des Plaines casino. As a Commissioner was telling Rush Street’s representative how we would measure the square footage of signage on the pylon, it was Rush Street’s man, not Corporation Counsel or Development staff, who said Rush Street made a mistake and had overestimated the signage ascribed to its proposed pylon, by 1000 sq. ft. Rush Street counted both sides of the pylon, whereas Schenectady only counts one side of a freestanding sign in measuring square footage. The Rush Street rep then said, “then we can live with 19,000 sq. ft.” That is where the current 19,000 number came from.
Note, however, that no one on the Commission nor on legal or planning staff asked if they might have made other overestimation calculations, perhaps with other two-sided signs. Corporation Counsel did not explain how they could have made this mistake if City staff had looked closely at Rush Street’s signage needs. Nor did he offer to go back and look for additional mistakes. He merely amended the proposal to 19,000 sq. ft.
And, Sixth [Electronic Signs], Chair Copolla brusquely stated they would not deal with the question of reducing the minimum interval for changing electronic message boards and signs to 8 seconds, “because we just did this a couple weeks ago.” The only reason given by Development staff and the Planning Commission for the recent recommendation of the 8-second interval was to be “consistent with the State standard” announced by NYS Department of Transportation, in the 3-page document “Criteria for Regulating CEVM signs“. DOT set a minimum interval of 8 seconds for changing electronic signs, but allows municipalities to be more stringent, with commentary that suggests circumstances that might call for longer intervals.
Those circumstances seem more relevant to the streets near the Casino than to any other parts of the City (i.e., places with higher illumination and more than one message board seen at the same time by the driver, with many distractions; where drivers are unfamiliar with the roads or with a roundabout; and where there are likely to be many senior/elderly drivers, who are especially distracted by changing images and bright illumination). Nonetheless, the proposed amendments make Article IX inapplicable to the Casino, including the requirements for receiving a variable electronic sign permit. The Article IX requirements include issuance of a Special Use Permit after a public hearing, in which the applicant must demonstrate that “the electronic message board shall not substantially impact upon the nature and character of the surrounding neighborhood, upon traffic conditions and any other matters affecting the health, safety and general welfare of the public.” [§264-14(I)(2)] Neither Mr. Buicko nor the City Staff were asked by the Commissioners why requirements that seem especially relevant to the casino district were no long applicable, or why those requirements should not be added to the C-3 amendment provision allowing 8-second intervals.
Tight Deadline Excuse?: As we have explained previously, there is no tight deadline that could justify rushing to push through the C-3 amendments without full education and deliberation for the decision-makers, and with full information to the public.
The two-year deadline for completion of the project starts when the actual gaming license is granted, and no one knows how long the “vetting” process will take and the license be granted. Meanwhile, the developer still brags about how far along the site is (they had already spent $100 million there over a year ago and much more since), and how they already have their approved Environmental Impact Statement, with brownfield mitigation near to conclusion. Furthermore, Rush Street was chosen (and touted by the Mayor and Ms. King) because it has significant experience operating casinos, and has already designed casino facilities that are much like the one they will put in Schenectady. It goes without saying that the Galesi Group, the Capital Region’s largest developer and manager of commercial property, has the experience to get the job done as quickly as possible. In addition, if any hotel chain can get a hotel designed, constructed and launched within a two-year window, Sheraton can. Moreover, Mohawk Harbor faces none of the sort of local opposition that can tie the project up in court or administrative proceedings for long periods.
In conclusion, one can’t help but wonder if individual members of the Planning Commission winced when they heard people pointing to their thorough deliberation and analysis as a reason for City Council to approve the package of amendments to C-3. With all due respect, we strongly dissent. There appears to be no explanation for the Planning Commissioners’ dereliction of duty other than its working in a City Hall where rubber stamping is expected of them in order to please the new bosses in our resurrected Company Town.
– share this post with this short link: http://tinyurl.com/CasinoTown
– for another voice asking for more information before the Council votes on the amendments, see the Gazette editorial “Public needs to see the impact of zoning” (Jan. 29, 2015).
follow-up (Feb. 9, 2016): See “McCarthy only wants snowmen on his Planning Commission“, regarding Mayor McCarthy’s failure to re-appoint Matthew Cuevas.