Pylon Directory: Here is a list of our posts and Comments discussing the proposed 80′ x 38′ Schenectady casino pylon and its digital display:
– “phony pylon excuse“: uses photos, maps, and other images to explain why the excuse that the STS Steel Building blocks the view of the casino is simply untrue
– “shrink that Casino pylon“: explains why the proposed pylon is the wrong size at the wrong location; looks at the Des Plaines Rivers Casino, which is too large and too bright at night although “only” 68 ft. tall; worries the Schenectady pylon would become an inappropriate symbol of Schenectady
– “how big is 80 feet by 38 feet?” (July 12, 2015), which points out that the proposed pylon sign is both taller and wider than Schenectady’s former Masonic Temple, at 302 State Street.
If you are an East Coast Baby Boomer like myself, it was classic images of the Las Vegas Freemont Street district and The Strip from the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s that created the vision of what a casino “should” look like. Many Americans back then apparently did consider Las Vegas to be classy. One thing for sure (especially for inhabitants of relatively low-rise Upstate New York cities), we thought of all those casino signs, competing for attention among the many gaming and recreation options, as very big and very bright. That’s why I was surprised to discover this past week how relatively modest in size iconic Las Vegas casino signs were compared to the monumental pylon proposed by Rush Street for Schenectady. For example, see the tale told by this Schenectady-Sands comparison:
By the way, as explained at the Classic Las Vegas website, “The Sands Hotel, probably more than any other, came to symbolize the Las Vegas of our collective memory. It was here that the color line was finally broken, . . . It was where glamour and glitz met in the Desert and it helped propel tourism in the small desert mecca like no other. . . The result according to author Alan Hess was the ‘most elegant piece of architecture the Strip had ever seen’.”
In fact, the Classic Las Vegas piece continues:
The crowning glory though was the roadside sign. It was a departure from the usual sheet metal and neon displays that beckoned road-weary travelers to stop and stay. [Architect Wayne] McAllister designed a 56-foot (the S alone was 36-feet) tall sign, by far the tallest on the highway at that time. With its elegant modern script, the sign blended with the building to create a mid-century modern paradise. The sign and the building had motifs common to both. The sign was fabricated by YESCO. With its egg crate grill, cantilevered from a solid pylon, it played with desert light and shadow. In bold free script, it proclaimed “Sands” in neon across the face. At night, it glowed red when the neon spelled out the name.
The sign Mssrs. Bluhm and Buicko want to plop down in Schenectady will never be mistaken for elegance. There will be no playing with light and reflections off our lovely Mohawk River. Instead, a solid wall 38′ wide will call to mind supersized versions of monument signs straddling huge shopping center parking lots, or maybe a gaudy mausoleum.
The proposed Schenectady pylon casino sign also dwarfs other iconic Las Vegas signage, from the friendly 40′ cowboy Vegas Vic waving from atop the one-story Pioneer Club, to the imposing 35′ Sultan on the similarly one-story Dunes Casino, to the famous and much slimmer pylon sign of The Mint, which (without counting the star on top) was no taller than the Rush Street pylon proposal for Schenectady. The next two collages compare the classic Las Vegas signage to the aberration that our Mayor, City Council and Planning Commission so blithely told Galesi and Rush Street they were welcome to erect in Schenectady. [click on each comparison collage for a much larger version]
. . . .
One particularly worrisome aspect of the comparisons above is that the 32-foot-tall electronic display screen on the Schenectady casino pylon monument, with its intense LCD lighting, is itself about the same size as the behemoth Dunes Sultan, giant Vegas Vic cowboy, and elegant Sands “S”, which were all created to be impressive giants.
What kind of corporate or personal narcissism seeks to impose a massive, obtrusive and uninteresting monument on the City of Schenectady that is so much larger than the classic giants of Las Vegas’ classic era? What kind of civic insecurity would allow such a structure to mar a city’s streetscape and skyline?
A Modern Comparison. A contemporary casino sign of massive size in Cincinnati should also give our Planning Commissioners a lot to contemplate as they decide on the appropriateness of the proposed Rivers Casino pylon for Schenectady and consider the kind of design that might fit in with and enhance the Schenectady scene. Richard Unger, a city planner who recently moved to the Stockade from Florida, set out to find large casino signs in existence that might offer Schenectady some useful ideas on the design and dimensions of the main freestanding sign for Rivers Casino at Mohawk Harbor. In his search, he located only one casino sign that was a large as 80′ tall. It is the massive marquee sign for the Horseshoe Casino in Cincinnati, Ohio, which is also 80′ tall.
The 80′ Horseshoe sign was endorsed by community groups in Cincinnati. (e.g., see “Cincinnati casino goes all-in with giant sign“, Cincinnati.com/Gannett, Oct. 26, 2012). It should not be surprising that prior to persuading community leaders to embrace its massive marquee, the casino developer engaged in a dialogue with the community. Even less surprising, the casino-community dialog was nurtured because City Government commissioned a large study and set up a nonprofit organization, Bridging Broadway, “whose mission is to maximize the new casino’s positive effect on Greater Cincinnati . . . as a catalyst for improving the quality of life for downtown Cincinnati, its businesses, and neighborhoods.” As a result, the 150-page “Broadway Commons District Plan” was created. Click here for a half-dozen select pages from the Executive Summary and Introduction to the Study, and from the Plan’s Primary Implementation Recommendation: A Community Benefit Agreement.
A brief Aside: The Broadway Commons Plan has this to say about local official and CBAs (at 69):
As stewards of the community trust in accountable development, local officials play a critical role in developing these agreements. . . . When a local authority has leverage to approve requests from the developer, these officials should represent the community’s interest. In recent years, many local officials have used this leverage to require that the developer negotiate and sign a CBA.
Beyond the process for achieving community backing for a large casino sign, here are practical reasons why the 80′ Horseshoe Marquee was far more appropriate than the huge pylon proposed for Schenectady:
- Cincinnati is a “high-rise” City. Its highest building is 660 feet, and it has 25 buildings taller than 250 feet. (See Wikipedia) In contrast, Schenectady’s tallest building is Summit Towers, at 148′, which architects would call “low-rise” residential. The next two tallest are The Lottery Building at One Broadway Center [111′] and the Parker Building next to Proctors at 99′).
- Three other building that Schenectadians consider to be quite tall are in the same ballpark as the proposed Mohawk Harbor Casino pylon: Both Golub Headquarters and MVP Health Headquarters are 86′ tall, and the Wedgeway at Erie Blvd. and State Street is 76 feet tall. Because they are not quite as tarted up as the Schenectady Pylon will be, they all would seem quite demure in comparison. [follow-up: the sign is taller and wider than the old Masonic Temple at 302 State St., corner of Erie Blvd.]
- No Digital Message Board. The Horseshoe Marquee has no digital message board with text and images to distract drivers. It merely has a 3D animated horseshoe rotating on its top, far above street level. [For a discussion of the safety hazards and factors to be considered when digital signs are displayed near roadways, see our commentary at http://tinyurl.com/electronicdisplayfactors]
- A slender shape. The Cincinnati Horseshoe sign is not at all shaped like the proposed giant hulk at Mohawk Harbor, which is 38′ wide for the first 60 feet above the ground, and 30′ wide for the next 14.5 feet. The Horseshoe marquee is about 33′ wide in a narrow strip near the top that names the casino. At the base, it is about 12 feet wide and stays that size for more than a dozen feet up the column. This slender silhouette greatly reduces the bulkiness of the Horseshoe sign.
- Lower Profile. According to Cincinnati.com, “The sign would be placed on Gilbert Avenue, away from the sprawling casino’s front door along Reading Road. Although the sign is tall – nearly twice the height of the Genius of Water sculpture at Fountain Square – its placement will be on the lowest point of the casino site, about 55 feet below the street level of Reading Road.”
- The Cincinnati sign looks like a casino sign, not a wall with a big LCD screen.
In case our local officials are afraid to say no to the Rush Street pylon request because they fear the casino really does need the colossal sign to succeed, we note that Rush Street claims to be doing just fine in both Pittsburgh and in Philadelphia, and have no giant pylon at either location.
Exempted from the “normal” Signage Rules. Another way to look at the appropriateness of the proposed Schenectady Casino pylon is to compare it with the rules that govern every other location and business in the City of Schenectady.
Rules for Everybody Else. Click for the Signage section of the Schenectady Zoning Code, with its the §264-61 Permitted Signs and Specifications, including the §264-61(k) Schedule 1 – Signage Regulations, as compared to the Amended §264-14, C-3 Waterfront Mixed-Use District zoning law (Local Law 2015-01, adopted February 9, 2015), and revised Art. IX CEVMS rules.
Last week, a Capital Region reporter seemed to brush off this story by asking whether there was anything illegal about the proposed pylon signage. My reply was that is difficult for the Casino Gang to violate a Schenectady signage law on its face when last February’s amendments to our Waterfront C-3 zoning specifically exempted “a casino gaming facility and accessory uses” from Article IX, which is the signage section of the Schenectady Zoning Code. [§264-14(H)]
That is indeed a major aspect of this story, as Schenectady appears to once again be a Company Town, but this time under the thumb of a Casino Owner and developer, rather than renowned industrial giants such as GE and Alco. (see our posting on that topic) With no apparent consideration of the consequences, and no written explanation of the reasons for the changes submitted to the Planning Commission or City Council, the Schenectady Zoning Code treatment of signs for a casino and its accessory uses in the C-3 waterfront district went from:
- Limiting the base of a pylon sign to 5 feet in width and the message portion to a width of 8 feet, to stating no limits on the width of a pylon sign’s base or message display area.
- Allowing one 7′ tall freestanding sign per lot (see Schedule 1 Sign Regulations), to permitting 80-foot tall pylon signs. Section 264-14(H)(1) states: “Multi sided pylon signs shall be permitted, with a height not to exceed 80 feet.”
- Allowing a maximum freestanding sign square footage of 25 sq. ft per lot (75 sq. ft. if in a shopping center), to merely stating how to measure the square footage of a casino pylon sign, apparently to use in calculating consistency of total casino signage with the 19,000 square foot maximum:
“Square footage for a multi sided pylon sign shall be the square footage of its single largest side. Signage on any one side of a pylon sign may not exceed 70% of the face of the pylon sign on that same side.”
- Requiring a showing at a public hearing that an electronic message display would have no negative effect on traffic or pedestrian safety or public health, to requiring no showing at all. (For a comprehensive discussion of the serious safety issues raised by variable message signs along urban streets with busy vehicle and pedestrian traffic, see our discussion of the Proctors Marquee CVEMS)
- Defining any off-premises, freestanding sign greater than 50 square feet as a Billboard, and permitting no new billboards other than replacement billboards (with maximum new billboard size of 325 sq. ft.), to permitting a pylon sign without regard to whether it is located on the lot where the advertised business or service is located. [As seen on the site plan detail image at the right of this item, the proposed pylon would be “off-premises” from the casino compound at Mohawk Harbor on a separate lot across Front St. and Nott St. The electronic display will be 600 sq. ft. Clarification: Although not explained in the above site plan detail or its larger plat, Front St. will be redrawn so that the Street cuts into the casino compound, intersecting with Nott St. north of the STS Steel Building.]
As a result of the regulations under which every other business must operate in Schenectady, there is only one large pylon sign in Schenectady, and it is the “grandfathered” 50′ tall tower of signs at Crosstown Plaza, Watt St. and Rte. 7. (Click the image at the right of this paragraph to see a 50′ giant that seems more than tall enough for Schenectady, and at 11′ across, wide enough, too.) In your driving around the Capital Region, note the height and width of pylon or monument signs at our largest commercial, retail and industrial developments and compare them to the proposed Schenectady casino pylon.
Note, for example, that the recently refurbished, classic pylon giant at Westgate Plaza on Central Avenue at the west end of Albany, is a mere 65′ tall, and flares from a width of about 14′ at its base to a svelte 24′ at its top, with its oval Westgate “branding” sign perhaps 27′ wide. Also, note that there is a lot of open space, between its two steel pylons, and no distracting LCD screen with changing messages or blinding glare.
With a flood of changes to the zoning law that in effect gave no meaningful warning to the public (or to the Planning Commissioners), signage rules to protect traffic and pedestrian safety, and the aesthetics of the streetview and impact on neighboring areas, were thrown out, allowing a monster streetside pylon that may be unprecedented on this planet for a casino with no skyscrapers or competitors in sight, and an intact, extant zoning and planning office.
Nonetheless, as noted in “shrink that casino pylon“, the fact that the proposed pylon is consistent with the dimensions permitted in the amended C-3 zoning district is not sufficient reason for the Planning Commission to approve the portion of the site plan. Although exempted from Article IX regulations, the current version of C-3 states that:
“Signage for a casino gaming facility and related uses within the C-3 District shall be reviewed and approved by the Planning Commission as part of the Site Plan Approval process.” [§264-14(H)(1)] [see our 9-page comments to the Planning Commission re the Pylon, dated June 17, 2015]
With our traditional signage regulation no longer applicable directly, the Commission’s Site Plan review becomes all the more important. The relevant factors are set forth in Zoning Code §264-89 et seq., and make it clear that the Planning Commission has the authority and responsibility when performing a site plan review to assure:
- assure proper vehicle and pedestrian traffic flow and safety, including impact on intersections and traffic control devices;
- the proper location, arrangement, size, design and general site compatibility of lighting and signs;
- the maximum retention of existing vegetation (including the lovely tree that would be supplanted at the proposed pylon location); and
- the protection of adjacent or neighboring properties against glare or unsightliness or other objectionable features.
Is it Pylon Envy that makes Rush Street executives like Jeff Carlin and Neil Bluhm, or Dave Buicko of the Galesi Group, want to erect a giant monument to their Rivers Casino and themselves here in Schenectady and usurp the landmark GE sign as symbol of our City. Although money could not compensate us for making the casino pylon-monument the unofficial new symbol of Schenectady, Mayor McCarthy, Council President Peggy King, Planning Commission Chair Copolla, Corporation Counsel Falotico, Metroplex Czar Gillen, County Attorney Gardner, and other community leaders, granted the Casino Gang their grandiose wish without even asking for millions of dollars in community benefit and development funding, and impact mitigation payments, as is industry practice for self-respecting host communities. (see our Money on the Table series)
If we deserve the leaders we get, Schenectady appears to be one sorry city. Let’s hope the Planning Commission regains its self-esteem, common sense and sense of responsibility as it engages in the crucial Casino Site Plan Review.
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