In all their dealings with Schenectady casino applicants Galesi Group and Rush Street Gaming, Mayor Gary McCarthy, City Council, the Planning Office, and indeed all of City Hall, have acted as if “Schenectady” is the old Mohawk language word for “Second-rate-City.” That supine posture was particularly noteworthy and blameworthy, last February, when our municipal leaders ripped the guarantee of public access to and enjoyment of the riverbank from our Zoning Code’s C-3 Waterfront District requirements, at the request of the Casino Applicants.
This posting argues that, as soon as possible, before construction makes alterations impracticable, our City Council must restore the right to public access to the riverfront. That is not only because riverfront access is the acknowledged best practice for all urban riverside development, and because Rush Street Gaming allows generous public access at both its Pittsburgh and Philadelphia casino locations, but because to fail to restore that right leaves Schenectady in the status of a second-rate City with second-rate citizens. The next two collages tell an important part of the story: 1) the preferential treatment Rush Street has given to two Pennsylvania riparian casino cities compared to the step-child treatment for Schenectadians, and 2) the total lack of rational and persuasive explanation from our City Hall.
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– click on each collage for a larger, more revealing and legible version –
When our Schenectady Comprehensive Plan 2020 was written, and the C-3 Waterfront Mixed-Use zoning district was created, back in 2008, our leaders understood the importance of public access to the riverfront and acted according. Then City Council President Gary McCarthy was proud of both the Plan and the forwarding-looking requirements of the Waterfront District, which mandated a recorded easement granting permanent public access. For more than half a year, therefore, I’ve been wondering just what the Casino Gang could have said, promised, threatened to change City Hall’s attitude toward riverfront access. Or, was the mere request to strike the access guarantee enough to persuade our timid, starstruck, supplicant “leaders” to forfeit the rights of the people they represent and are obligated to serve?
Three documents show the practices of modern, responsible city and State governments when treating the revitalization of their urban riverfronts, and demonstrate that the “right” to pass through on a bike-ped path does not fulfill a public access requirement:
- An excerpt from the City of Newark, NJ, “Newark’s River: Public Access and Development Plan” (April 2013), which has detailed requirement for access areas, with seating, lighting, grading, planting and other minimum criteria
- The State of New Jersey Model Municipalities Riverfront Access Guide, detail.
- New York City regulations for waterfront development and access. All such sites “are required to be improved with landscaping and trees, seating and other amenities.“
The overly credulous regulatory policy suggested by City Councilwoman Leesa Perazzo is, at best, silly. Perazzo trusts the Casino Gang so much that she stated at the City Council meeting where she voted for the C-3 amendments, that the Public Access Guarantee was not needed, because “they’re going to do it anyway.” The response to an applicant who says, “We’re going to do it anyway,” is “Good, then you shouldn’t mind that we keep the law on the books for those tempted to ignore the rules.”
The Mayor, as mouthpiece and enforcer for the Casino Gang, was somehow so mesmerizing that even the educated, experienced Director of Development, Jaclyn Mancini, forgot all she knew about the meaning of the words “public access”, and insisted, “They will have access to the retail shops.” “Customer access” is not what is meant by “public access,” and the main purpose of public access is for the people who comprise the public to enjoy the riverfront, not to bring in more shoppers for the retail establishments or gamblers for the casino. When told the access guarantee would be stricken from the Code, Mancini’s zoning and planning staff were apparently too astounded to inform the public of what we were losing, or to quit in protest.
While Schenectady revoked the public access guarantee on the rather small piece of riverfront that was available in our City, even Cities with miles and miles of riverfront have strict riverfront public access requirements for all new development or redevelopment. Philadelphia, where Rush Street has its SugarHouse casino is a prime example. A Pennsylvania State tourist site tells us that Rush Street’s SugarHouse “casino . . . allows the public access to a luxurious promenade along the river.” As suggested in the first (green) collage above, in June 2014, while Rush Street was maneuvering in Schenectady for the repeal of riverfront access, it broke ground on an expansion project that would further enlarge its grand public access promenade, which was already almost 2000 feet long, and the biggest in a city with a dozen miles of riverfront. (See, this 2011 article and this 2013 article in Philly.com). As discussed in our prior post “Mayor McCarthy left millions on the casino table“:
Public Access to the Riverfront: Philadelphia has miles of usable waterfront accessible to the public (along two major rivers, as well as creeks, lakes, and ponds), but it nonetheless continues to demand significant public waterfront access to its riverbanks, even from gaming facilities that it hopes will produce major tax revenues. In contrast, Schenectady has virtually no private waterfront beyond Mohawk Harbor that could offer the public increased access to the Mohawk River, but it has revoked the public access guarantees just when they would be applied for the first time.
Philadelphia Public Access: Under the Philadelphia Zoning Code for its SP-ENT District (which includes gaming facilities as a permitted use):
§14-405(9) Design Standards
“(c) Siting and Access: (.2) A permitted use developed on a waterfront site must provide dedicated public access to the waterfront, open to and connected from a public street. Public access will be provided along the site’s waterfront length at a width of at least 12 ft.” . . .
Setback: “[A]ll lots must provide an unencumbered waterfront setback [of 50 feet] from the top of the bank of any river to allow for unrestricted public access to the river’s edge,” in addition to a public pedestrian-bicycle path. Specifically,
•This waterfront access must include open space that is accessible to the public at a width of at least 30 ft., plus a right-of-way dedicated for pedestrian and bicycle traffic at a width of at least 20 ft.
•If the Commission reduces the waterfront setback requirement due to site-specific conditions, the setback may not be less than 30′ in width and must include the bike-ped right-of-way that is a minimum of 20′ in width. [See §14-405(3)(e), which is a portion of the “Yards” section of Area Regulations for the SP-ENT casino district.
Is there something about the residents of Schenectady and our County, or about our visitors, that makes us less worthy of full public access to the Mohawk riverbank than the people of Philadelphia are to their rivers? Or, less worthy than the people who get to use the lovely park and amphitheater along the River at Rush Street’s Pittsburgh casino? (click on the image to the right)
. . There is no indication in the latest, limited rendering of the riverfront view of the casino complex from Rush Street (see above), that there will be any public access “amenities” other than the pedestrian-cyclist path along the River.
There appear to be no spots for anyone other than casino patio customers to sit down, and no space for picnicking or similar waterfront activities. Whether you are a senior citizen, a tired runner, a family with children, or a couple on a date, “keep moving” and “stay on the path” will apparently be the message from Rivers Casino at Mohawk Harbor, compliments of Mayor McCarthy.
The steep drop-off from the pathway shown in the June 10, 2015 Gazette photo (see Left) of the construction site may not be indicative of the final grading along the riverbank, but in combination with the benchless, treeless, rendering, it surely suggests that the public is invited to use the path that takes them through Mohawk Harbor, but not to dawdle along the Mohawk.
follow-up (May 29, 2018): My prediction above that the grading would prevent public access to the Riverbank, sadly, proved true. The rocks and drop-off may also be hazardous to cyclists and pedestrians who need to quickly exit the path. This image shows the path along the casino hotel and patios on Memorial Day, 2018:
And, here’s another view of the stretch behind the Casino complex on Nov. 4, 2017:
We are 18 months or more from the opening of a casino at Mohawk Harbor. Quick action by City Council and the Mayor to restore the public right to riverfront “access and enjoyment” can fairly re-impose this obligation, which existed long before Mr. Galesi purchased the old ALCO site for future development of Mohawk Harbor, and for the entire time Rush Street Gaming was applying for its casino facility operating license before the NYS Gaming Facility Location Board. Indeed, nowhere did Rush Street inform the Location Board that it planned to ask that riverfront access be ripped from the existing Schenectady Zoning Code. Is there no City Council member who is interested enough in restoring the riverfront public access promised in the City’s Comprehensive Plan to come forward with a proposal to restore that right? Is the Mayor finally willing to declare his independence from the Casino-Galesi Gang and Metroplex and come to the defense of his public and their riparian rights? Or, am I about to be knocked off my quixotic horse one more time?