SUMMARY: As has happened often in the last half dozen years, State, City and County officials in charge of development and planning appear to be putting the interests of the owners and developers of Mohawk Harbor and the Rivers Casino before sound planning principles and strategies and, more important, before the interests of the general public in Schenectady City and County. The ten million dollars available through Schenectady DRI [Downtown Revitalization Initiative] grant should be focused on further improving the handful of blocks that residents traditionally consider to be our Downtown, with more of the things that will enhance living, working, visiting, learning, playing, socializing, shopping and just strolling there. Schenectady DRI should refine our already revived Real Downtown, and not construct a fiction that stretches “Downtown” to Mohawk Harbor and invents a demand to walk to and spend money there.
. . share this post with this short URL: https://tinyurl.com/RealSchdyDowntown . .
After the following updates, you will find the Original Posting, which has images and discussion, including walking tours up Jay St. and Erie Blvd. to the Harbor.
UPDATE (July 29, 2020): As previewed in the Gazette, on Thursday, July 30, 2020, at 6 PM. the Schenectady DRI Local Planning Committee held its first meeting since February. Go to the Schenectady DRI webpage for a link to the meeting. As reporter Pete DeMola wrote:
“But the pandemic immediately evaporated millions in tax revenue for the city and attendees will now have to grapple with an dramatically altered economic landscape and weigh if projects considered high priorities before the pandemic should now be reconsidered.”
See “Decision-makers begin to winnow-down Schenectady’s $10m grant wishlist” (Daily Gazette, by Pete DeMola, July 31, 2020). From my perspective, the Leadership Planning Committee seemed to pay very little attention to how the COVID-19 pandemic might impact downtown businesses and visitors. And, the Committee did not appear to be prepared for the July 30 meeting. For example, a considerable amount of time was spent discussing the Highbridge proposal for an apartment mixed-use building on Lower State Street that would have a ramp and about 300 parking spaces. Despite this focus, no one bothered to find out whether a parking fee would be charged for the 150 public spaces.
Reporter DeMola noted favorable attention to two rather lightweight proposals, that might be meant to appease public voices while saving the big bucks for the favored developers:
“LPC members broadly agreed that lighting concepts along bridges and other visible landmarks, including the First United Methodist Church on State Street, were worth an ongoing look, as well as signage to direct people to attractions downtown and at Mohawk Harbor. . . .
“Lighting concepts and public art installations, including a statue of George Westinghouse, also appeared to receive a positive reception.
“Creating funky and buzzworthy places with art, said Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corporation Executive Director Jim Salengo, ‘is a good part of embracing all good things happening downtown’.”
Thank you, Daily Gazette, for publishing my letter to the editor, “City must protect its ‘real downtown'”, August 6, 2020, C6 (click on image for a larger version):
Especially in light of unfolding Pandemic complications, I hope members of the Leadership Committee are thoughtfully considering these issues raised in this posting, and that concerned citizens will voice their opinions.
. . Above: The map returned when I asked Google Maps for the walking directions from “Downtown Schenectady” to Mohawk Harbor . .
. . above: views east (R) and west from State and Jay Streets
Jay Street Pedestrian Mall
When was the last time you were enjoying a visit to Downtown Schenectady, on the Proctors Block, at the Jay Street Pedestrian Mall, or even Mill Lane’s Frog Alley, and suggested, “Let’s walk down to Mohawk Harbor”? Did you add, “We could walk back here to our car, with shopping bags and a full tummy.”? Did your companion enthusiastically reply, “Sure, it’s only a little over a mile, and it’s a charming walk”?
If such a conversation would seem as odd to you as it does to me, you might be surprised to know that the Schenectady Application for a DRI (Downtown Revitalization Initiative) grant begins:
DRI Schenectady links the Proctors Block and Lower State Street via a rejuvenated Erie Boulevard as well as other connections to Mohawk Harbor which will be adding attractions and more visitors.
Moreover, in a section titled New Retail and Entertainment Development at Mohawk Harbor, the Schenectady DRI Application also stresses (at 29; underscoring added):
DRI Schenectady is very focused on increasing visitations to Mohawk Harbor, already the leading tourist destination in the Capital Region. With support of DRI funding, the team behind development of the existing Harbor site – the Galesi Group, Metroplex and Rivers Casino & Resort are planning the next phase of the development project. The concept is a 100,000 square foot development to be located between the existing casino and marina on land that borders the riverfront. The development would feature a mix of retail and entertainment tenants. The project is research and data driven.
over a mile on foot from Proctors
After two decades of actual revitalization of our “real” Downtown, and with fill-in and refinement projects readily apparent and proposed for that part of our City, Metroplex and City Hall seem again to be abandoning sound planning principles and denying human nature to come to the aid of what I call the Galesi-Casino Gang.
Successful downtowns in small and medium-size cities are compact, with much to do and attract the eye within “walking distance”. As a Brookings Institute study states (at 13), “Walkable urbanism starts with urban entertainment venues and retail that are within walking distance of one another.” As a Wisconsin University article puts it: Communities with successful downtowns “have an expansive list of attractions and amenities that serve as pedestrian traffic generators. All are within walking distance of each other, creating tight and effective traffic generating zones.” They are, of course, echoing the advice of the legendary Jane Jacobs in her article “Downtown is for People.”
Despite this common sense approach to a successful Downtown, DRI Schenectady somehow equates “revitalization” of downtown with improved connection to Mohawk Harbor, while ignoring the Stockade neighborhood (and its Riverside Park, which already offers access for pedestrians to the Mohawk River and attractive green space). Instead, DRI Schenectady touts proposals to “Take advantage of existing opportunities to increase connectivity (Jay Connector, ALCO Tunnel)”. However, whether using Jay Street, the ALCO Tunnel, or the upgraded “Erie Corridor”, Mohawk Harbor is more than a mile away, with much of that distance having no shade and few “attractions”. [see the two Slideshows below of the Jay St. and Erie Blvd. routes] Sprinkling in “public art” and adding LED lights along the way won’t significantly change the appeal of such a long walk.
[Note: this posting was written prior to the 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic and its many effects on commerce, retail, restaurants, indoor and outdoor entertainment, etc., all of which further threaten the vitality of our core Downtown district.]
Mohawk Harbor is not “walking distance” from our newly revitalized Downtown!
No amount of wishful thinking will make Mohawk Harbor walking distance from our real Downtown for the vast majority of residents or tourists. For urban planning purposes, “Walkable” does not mean “capable of being walked”. As the expert author of the Brookings study linked above puts it: “Since the rise of cities 8,000 years ago, humans have only wanted to walk about 1500 feet [0.28 mi.]”, unless they are going to or from an alternative form of transportation (or engaging in an actual exercise routine).
. . Katie O’Byrnes, just north of State St., seen the day the Train Station got its new golden dome . .
- What About the Stockade? For some reason, the Stockade Historic District is not part of the “DRI Schenectady DRI Boundary”. [map above] The Van Dyck Lounge with Mad Jack’s Brewery on Union Street near N. College is 0.4 miles from Proctors. Riverside Park, at the other extreme of the Stockade, which does offer a true, up-close riverbank experience and open green space, is 0.7 miles from Proctors, and only 0.2 miles up Washington Avenue from Gateway/Liberty Plaza, and about 3/10th of a mile from Mill Lane.
Do the people of Schenectady really want to send business and foot-traffic from the Downtown core to Mohawk Harbor? By focusing on “increasing visitation to Mohawk Harbor”, the officials leading our local Government’s planning, development and policy efforts won’t simply be wasting dollars that could have genuinely improved our Downtown. They will be helping to generate the feared Substitution Effect: Substituting spending in and near a casino and surrounding development, for the leisure time and money that would have been spent by residents at other local establishments.
Can existing (surviving) downtown businesses — eateries, retail merchandise shops, specialty boutiques, art galleries, etc. — withstand losing any significant amount of business to Mohawk Harbor? [For a smile, see Good for the Plywood Business, a poster from the successful campaign No Casino in Downtown Hamilton]
. . click on the Schdy DRI Feb. Power Point for many of the finalist proposals . .
A DEMAND for MORE RETAIL at MOHAWK HARBOR?
Our DRI Leaders state there is a great excess demand for retail that justifies spending taxpayer funds to funnel people to the privately-owned Mohawk Harbor. They also note that Mohawk Harbor is already a “leading destination”, according to DRI leaders, in their Schenectady DRI Application:
The harbor is now home to Rivers Casino & Resort, two new hotels, a marina, over 200 new apartments, new condominiums, tech office buildings as well as greenspace and bike trails. The Harbor has clearly become a leading destination – an entertainment and tech center that is one of the largest and most successful waterfront developments in Upstate New York.
Indeed, we are constantly told of the tens of thousand of people who go to Mohawk Harbor and the Casino and Hotel. At the end of the Jan. 27, 2020 City Council Meeting, Council member Karen Zalewski-Wildzunas told us (at 54:20 of the OSM video linked above) that Rivers hosted over 200 conferences, meetings and special events in 2019, “bringing over 20,000 people to Schenectady County”; that Landing Hotel is ranked 7th in Capital Region for overnight stays; that Rivers was the first upstate casino to host sports wagering (bringing in a new demographic group to the County); plus, the Casino holds its annual summer Harbor Jam series with live performances and large crowds at the Marina.
Yes, all those people are indeed coming to Mohawk Harbor (of course, many of those visitors already live in the City or County of Schenectady). But, the numbers do not appear to be creating a major demand for retail at Mohawk Harbor. Rivers Casino opened three years ago, followed about 2.5 years ago by its Landing Hotel, the Marina and Amphitheater, and River House (which has over 200 apartments). It also has a free trolley service from Downtown (heavily-subsidized by Metroplex and CDTA); a CYCLE! bike-share station; the ALCO Heritage Bike and Pedestrian Trail; and the advantage of the constant promotion of the Casino, its Convention Center and Hotel by the well-and-publicly–funded Discover Schenectady. Nonetheless, the very visible and tangible evidence does not support the claim of a great excess of retail demand at Mohawk Harbor. There is, instead, a great excess of empty retail space.
The evidence strongly indicates that the folks who are in, or wish to be in, a retail business have not seen the potential for success at Mohawk Harbor, despite the efforts and promises of the Galesi Group, Rush Street Gaming, and Metroplex, and a large quantity of free media that repeats Galesi and Casino promises like scripture. The evidence is not just the empty spots and filler signs on the giant pylon that Galesi Group demanded be placed on Erie Boulevard for Mohawk Harbor to advertise its retail tenants (photo at left, taken Feb. 28, 2020). It is the actual list of arguably “retail” establishments at Mohawk Harbor that belies the claims of Schenectady DRI, despite the site being a “leading destination” in the Capital Region. Outside of the Casino itself, with its eateries, and the Dunkin’ Donuts and Capitol Bank over by the Rotary, this is the full list of “retail” at Mohawk Harbor: as of the first week of March 2020, three years after the Casino opened:
- Druther’s restaurant and brew pub
- Shaker & Vine restaurant
- Ellis Urgent Care and Medicine
Instead of bustling retail outlets in the “125,000 square feet of harborside retail/dining,” promised at the Mohawk Harbor website, and in Planning and Council meetings, we have an unbroken array of empty storefront windows like we have not seen since the worst days of downtown Schenectady. (Actually, the percentage of empty storefronts in downtown Schenectady was never this bad.) Only the dumpster-style bright yellow bollards that are ubiquitous around the Casino [180 of them], present a design scheme as predominant at Mohawk Harbor as its blue and white Retail Space Available signs. Click on the following collage, which shows Harbor retail as of the end of February 2020.
. . east of the Shaker & Vine Restaurant there is no retail, either on the harbor front [above] or along Harbor Way [below], but only those blue signs and the stretches of banner paper hiding the empty storefronts . .
- Also, I was surprised to learn this week, that the only non-food retail establishment inside the Casino, Splash Spa, closed in December 2018. In addition, not only has no spa or other retail establishment taken its place, the Casino’s Landing Hotel is also without a salon spa. Apparently, neither the Casino’s annual Luck Is a Lady event, nor other events aimed at women, has created a demand for time at the Spa before or after visiting the Casino, its Convention Center, or restaurants.
- Similarly, a large sign went up quite awhile ago for a Nail Salon on the Erie Boulevard side of Harbor Center, along its parking lot. But, earlier this week there was still no indication of any work being done to prepare the inside for a business.
. . DRI should consider helping to fill the empty storefronts on the 200 Block of State St., truly in the heart of Downtown Schenectady ..
. . . .
. above: [L & M] 236 State St.; [R] 200 State St. .
SKEPTICAL about DEMAND for PEDESTRIAN CONNECTORS
. . the Jay Street Pedestrian Mall looks and feels like a “downtown block”. .
A recent photoshoot stroll up both Jay Street and Erie Boulevard north of Liberty Street leaves me very skeptical that there exists any significant demand from the public to walk the mile from our Real Downtown to Mohawk Harbor. More important, perhaps, there appears to be no amount of sprucing up (façade improvement, arrays of LED bulbs, a sprinkling of “public art”), or the other options suggested to and by DRI Schenectady, that would create that demand. There may be places along the non-downtown sections of Jay Street and Erie Boulevard that could be stand-alone destinations for a meal, or a history lesson, for those driving, biking, or coming from a walking distance, but that is a separate issue from (1) how to “revitalize” downtown, and (2) funneling visitors to Mohawk Harbor to help the bottom-line of our largest developer and its casino tenant.
Jay Street to Little Italy to ALCO Tunnel
Is there likely to be a demand to walk from our real downtown, up Jay Street and then through a lighted and refurbished ALCO Tunnel on the way to Mohawk Harbor? A stroll up Jay Street from its Pedestrian Mall to the abandoned ALCO Tunnel did not leave me convinced. What do you think?
- The ALCO Tunnel is 0.5 miles up Jay Street from Proctors Theater (a ten or eleven-minute walk). As a “connector”, the ALCO Tunnel would bring you out near the 1400 block of Erie Blvd. (across from Madison Street), at the former location of the Grossman’s Bargain Outlet and the upcoming home of an AllTown Market. They are located an additional 0.5 miles from Mohawk Harbor Way (eleven minutes more). See image of Google Street Maps on the right of this blurb.
- Pet Peeve, but Relevant to Desirable Walking Conditions: Unless you happen, at the right time of day, to be momentarily in the shade of a building, there is virtually no shade the entire way on Jay Street, nor up Erie Boulevard.
update (March 20, 2020): The larger of the two Italian restaurants in Schenectady’s already-disappointing Little Italy closed for good this week, with the NY Pause declared by Gov. Cuomo due to the COVID-19 crisis the last straw. Per an article in the Gazette, “We just couldn’t afford to keep it open,” said co-owner Connie Hume on Wednesday. [And see, Times Union and WRGB News6 coverage.]
ERIE BOULEVARD NORTH OF LIBERTY STREET
. . above: elements of the “upgraded” Erie Blvd. touted by DRI: new sidewalks and crosswalks (some with talking-nagging walk signals); (too) many lamp-posts; and scrawny (often dead or dying) trees. .
the walk from Proctors to Mohawk Harbor, using Erie Boulevard
The Schenectady DRI Application gives this description of its vision for the Erie Boulevard connection to Mohawk Harbor [at 26; underscoring added]:
Erie Boulevard Updates
Erie Boulevard features new sidewalks, trees, LED lights, a new roundabout in front of Mohawk Harbor and many other upgrades. A new train station helps define the Erie corridor as a growing commercial area. Schenectady is grateful for the leadership of Governor Cuomo and NYS DOT in making the new train station a reality. As Erie is the main connecting road between Downtown and Mohawk Harbor, further upgrades need to happen as part of DRI Schenectady.
[The AMTRAK RAIL BRIDGE “Trestle”] There is a large Amtrak rail bridge that crosses Erie Boulevard and serves as a visual barrier between Downtown and the Harbor. Within the next few months Amtrak, NYSDOT and the City of Schenectady will be working together to light up this bridge creating a visual linkage where a barrier now exists. In addition, a new $4 million Alltown Market will begin construction on Erie providing healthy food choices to local residents. [Ed. Note: It will be a gas station and an upscale convenience store with tables. Update: see collage of the nearly-completed Alltown project after the next Slideshow.] This new market will be built on the site of a long vacant lumber yard.
Since its inception, Metroplex has successful[ly] administered a façade matching grant program. The program provides a 50/50 match to businesses that invest in improving their buildings with a special focus on the façade. To date, over 100 facades have been improved. If DRI Schenectady is funded Metroplex will place a special focus on completing facades along the Erie Boulevard corridor helping to improve the visual appeal and commercial viability of this corridor. The goal would be to complete 10 facades at a cost of $750,000 in matching funds.
[Editor’s Trestle-Bridge Dissent: It is hard to agree with the DRI notion that the Amtrak Trestle bridge over Erie Blvd., just north of Union Street, “serves as a visual barrier between Downtown and the Harbor“. The bridge itself is, in my opinion, about the only element of visual interest as you walk or drive from Liberty Street up Erie Blvd. The trestle camouflages the blandness of Erie Boulevard heading toward the Harbor. Immediately below is a view of the trestle when coming up Erie Blvd. [R], and the “streetscape” that you see when leaving the underpass — which basically would be the view without the trestle as you pass Union Street.
The problem is not that the trestle-bridge is a visual barrier. The trestle’s underpass is an aesthetic and safety barrier that few people would use if it can be avoided. The walls of the underpass are so dirty and ugly, and its sidewalks so narrow and unkempt (with leaves, debris and snow virtually never removed along the walls, and pigeon droppings), as speeding traffic swoops past the pedestrian. The failure to address these issues already, given the millions spent to upgrade the Boulevard, strongly suggests the lack of interest by residents or tourists in walking up Erie Boulevard any serious distance. Even if totally spruced up, of course, it cannot “funnel” people who do not want to walk the distance to Mohawk Harbor from Downtown. It might, however, make it more pleasant to get to Mike’s for a hotdog or bagel, Stewart’s for some ice cream (if it remains after the Alltown Market convenience store opens on the next block), or Morrette’s for a steak sandwich.
follow-up (Sept. 14, 2020): To celebrate the re-opening of Rivers Casino after its COVID-19 closing, the City has “accented blue LED lights” on the Erie Boulevard RR trestle. See screen shot below from the Gazette. This is the kind of lighting we are told will draw people to walk up Erie Boulevard. I bet they did not bother to scrub/scrape the various encrustations off the sidewalk.
Erie Boulevard, north of the busy State State intersection and the Schenectady Train Station at Liberty Street, seems far from a natural connector or bridge for pedestrians to Mohawk Harbor. Check out this Slideshow tour, and see what you think.
. . this Slideshow has photos from a walk north on Erie from Liberty to Rush St.
update (July 29, 2020): The following collage has photos taken July 24, 2020 of the nearly-completed ALLTOWN FRESH Market, on Erie Blvd. at Jefferson Street. It strains credulity for DRI or Metroplex to suggest that a convenience store (no matter how fresh its offerings) and multi-pump gas station will increase the demand for walking from downtown to Mohawk Harbor, or give tourists an impressive impression of Schenectady. As you can see, its overall effect is more Suburban than classic Revived Downtown. A major opportunity was lost at this site for the development of a true attraction or unique resource for the enjoyment of residents and visitors.
. . . IMHO: The new Rotary Centennial Clock (image at the right from Gazette, July 24, 2020)), like its neighbor ALLTOWN Market, lacks much visitor appeal, even if its (potentially annoying) seasonal music is somehow coordinated with choruses from the nearby talking pedestrian crossing devices. I hope the Mayor does a better job of keeping this clock telling the correct time.
This set of square tiles contains photos from my return stroll from the Rotary back to Liberty Street on February 28, 2020. It seems to be a long and uninteresting walk, because it is. Click on a tile for a larger, full version of the photo. Go left to right to follow the route.
– – heading back to Downtown
new Colonial Commons apts. on right
“are we there yet?”
Stewart’s seen from Green St.
view of east side from Stewart’s
walking south from Green St. on east sidewalk
water leaking on east sidewalk
view of Union St. underpass at Erie Blvd.
Burger King – NW corner Erie at Liberty St.
follow-up (Aug. 6, 2020): A lot of the “buzz’ at the DRI Local Planning Committee meeting on July 30, 2020, seemed to suggest that putting “canopy lighting” over the blocks north of Liberty Street, on Jay St. and Erie Boulevard, would add “excitement” (that was the Mayor’s word for it) along those stretches of sidewalk that would attract people to walk to Mohawk Harbor. That seems like, at best, wishful thinking, and perhaps a lame effort to brainwash the public. The current example of such Canopy Lighting is over the Jay Street Pedestrian Mall, which at least has buildings on each side from which lighting could be attached. See the next photo. It is hard to image how such lighting will make currently homely and uninteresting stretches an attractive lure to walk past non-attractions. The same can surely be said for “public art installations” along the way.
. . . . . . . .
GREEN-SPACE at MOHAWK HARBOR
. . remaining Harbor “green space” (Feb. 2020)
. . above: Google Satellite View of Mohawk Harbor, showing remaining green-space in the northeast section of the project.
. . below: DRI description of Mohawk Harbor Entertainment Development.
. . see p. 75 of the February DRI Power Point Presentation . .
Because the Casino Applicant demanded so much ground-level parking, Mohawk Harbor has far less green space than one would have expected at Schenectady’s only remaining location for waterfront development. The Casino also got concessions allowing bigger footprints for its buildings in exchange for adding amenities for the public. (The bike-ped trail mandated in our Code is indeed an amenity, but instead of fully providing funding for it, the developer allowed the State and County taxpayer to pay 85 or 90% of the cost.)
The authors of the Schenectady DRI Application seem to be proud of the Harbor’s green-space. Yet, they propose to allow and subsidize a giant Entertainment and Retail complex, 100,000 sq ft., that would take over much, if not most, of the remaining Mohawk Harbor green-space. To permanently remove such a large portion of the open space at Mohawk Harbor for a use that has no water-front value, and no unique contribution to the City, County, or Region, seems unwise. We should also ask whether, like the Harbor Center buildings and River House, Metroplex plans to give a PILOT or other property tax breaks on the new entertainment-retail complex.
Choosing the Galesi-Casino Harbor Entertainment Development proposal is inappropriate, for at least three other reasons of policy and equity:
1] The Galesi Group and Rush Street Gaming greatly reduced the amount of green-space at the Harbor, diminishing its attractiveness, and restricting the ability of the public to enjoy a riverbank experience: They did that damage by insisting that City Council remove from the then-existing Waterfront District Zoning Code, the requirement that any developer at the old ALCO plant location: File a permanent easement “for the purpose of assuring public access to and public enjoyment of the waterfront,” with the owner responsible for upkeep. [see screen image of former code provision on the right].
Did that change matter for the aesthetics and enjoyment of the waterfront? The first image below is the rendering submitted by the Rivers Casino applicants following the Waterfront District C-3 Code at the time of the application:
We did not receive an attractive, gently sloping, landscaped riverbank, suitable for picnics, frolicking and play, strolling, sitting and reclining, romance, etc.. Instead, Galesi Group, the Casino, Metroplex, our Planning Commission and Office, and Mayor McCarthy, removed the public access requirement, and ignored the Zoning Code mandates to preserve as much as possible of the natural features of the riverbank, and to place the Trail as close as reasonably possible to the riverbank. As a result, they allowed this to happen to our only potential spot for additional riverfront public access and enjoyment:
- In addition, City Hall and Metroplex allowed the developer to locate the bike-ped path closer to that steep riprap bank than was allowed under even the amended Code the Galesi Group and Casino dictated to City Council. Thus, Sec. 264-14(E)(4)(b) states: “There shall be an additional two feet of graded area on either side of the trail and an additional ten-foot buffer between the trail and the river.” (See our post, “Restore riverfront public access at Mohawk Harbor” (Aug. 10, 2015). The detail to the right, from documents submitted by the developer and casino in the planning process, clearly shows an added 10-foot-wide and landscaped buffer area on the riverside of the bike-ped trail. The public was deprived of that required “amenity”, allowing an attractive and comfortable viewing area, with no discussion or explanation during the permitting process and construction.
- Moreover, after pressure from the editor of this website for quick action to remedy the hazard caused by the steep slope, the County installed a fence for the safety of the public (on foot or bikes, or wheelchairs), but violated required standards for structures along a bike path — putting the fence only two feet away from the path (instead of 3 to 5 feet), leaving very little space for a cyclist needing to quickly avoid others users on the path, a pedestrian or wheelchair-user to “jump” off the path, or for the public to view the River safely and comfortably when standing along the fence, especially in a group or family. (See our post, “Poorly-planned safety fence going up along Mohawk Harbor Trail” (Oct. 15, 20,18).
- . . . As is also apparent from the results (see, e.g., images to the left), the Planning staff and Commission made woefully inadequate efforts to ensure that the Developer satisfy the §264-14(E)(4)(a) standard that the trail “shall endeavor to be located reasonably adjacent to the undeveloped shoreline wherever practicable.” They also failed the goal of §264-14(A)(2)(h), “To preserve, to the maximum extent practicable, the vegetation and natural features along the Mohawk River”. As a consequence of the developer’s demands and willfulness, and the indifference of Metroplex and our Planning Office, the aesthetic, recreational, and safety benefits to the public envisioned in the City’s waterfront zoning regulations for Schenectady’s last developable waterfront property, have been lost forever.
- This collage from 2015 OpEd asked why Rush Street would deny public access to the riverfront to the people of Schenectady, while doing so much for the public at its Philadelphia and Pittsburgh casinos, spending millions to improve and enlarge already impressive riverbank access.
The answer, from my perspective, is that the Mayor and Metroplex, and City Council, gave in to every demand of Rush Street Gaming and the Galesi Group, and failed to follow industry practice (and common sense) by demanding extra payments and protections for Schenectady and its citizens, when they approved the casino license Application and major zoning code changes. Despite all that Rush Street gives and offers to other host cities, they let the Casino Gang treat Schenectady like a Second-rate City. (See our posting, “Rush Streets giveaways“
- Here’s a telling (and ironic) bit of the McCarthy Administration’s developer-oriented urban planning: When I complained at a public meeting in 2015 that the amendments were taking away guaranteed public access to the riverfront, the then-Director of the Planning Office replied to me and the public that “they will have access to the retail” at the Harbor.
2] After supporting removal of the public access guarantee to the waterfront, Metroplex Chair Ray Gillen of Metroplex came up with the misleading argument that having a Large Vessel Dock would assure “total public access to the riverfront.” [2018 rendering below] Based on that bogus, and easily rebutted claim, City Hall and Metroplex originally proposed such a project for Schenectady DRI. However, other State funding has been secured for the project outside of DRI, meaning that $2 million of public funds from another source will be used to build a 680-foot long, 12-ft. wide, large vessel dock (with no railing, of course) along Mohawk Harbor. It will surely benefit Mohawk Harbor and owners of large vessel boats. For a partial list of the reasons why it is unlikely that a significant portion of the public will be able to enjoy the safe and secure use of such a dock, see our post “The large vessel dock at Mohawk Harbor” (July 24, 2018).
3] While seeking Schenectady DRI and other subsidies for a large entertainment center, Rush Street Gaming’s Pittsburgh Casino announced last October, that for the tenth straight year, it was contributing $7.5 million (in two $3.525 million donations each year, over and above taxes due) for Pittsburgh’s existing, grand sports and entertainment center, PPG Paints Arena, to help cover its original construction costs. The donations will continue for 25 more years. (Note: In case you wonder, Rush Street pays higher gaming tax rates on slots and table games in Pennsylvania than it does in New York on its Schenectady Casino revenues.) When it comes to making gifts and donations, Rush Street Gaming treats Schenectady like the proverbial redheaded stepchild. When, however, it comes to asking for and accepting money, Schenectady’s generous Mayor and Metroplex Chair seem to be Rush Street’s Daddy Warbucks.
Capital Region AQUATIC CENTER . .
If some of Mohawk Harbor’s remaining green-space is to be sacrificed, it should be for a project that offers unique services to the people of our community and the Capital Region, as well as attracting and serving visitors. If it also provides water-related activities, that would be a plus. Using those criteria, the DRI proposal at Mohawk Harbor that suits the public interest far better than a Mohawk Harbor Entertainment Complex is the CAPITAL REGION AQUATIC CENTER, even though it will not be located at the core of our downtown. [see page 66 of the February DRI Power Point Presentation] Also see, “Aquatic center proposed on Schenectady waterfront gains $250K grant” (Daily Gazette, John Cropley, March 3, 2020). The Gazette article reports that:
The Capital Region Aquatic Center’s . . . would feature four pools for training, competition and diverse swim programs such as learn-to-swim, exercise and rehabilitation.
Plans also include spectator seating, classroom areas, meeting rooms, aquatic-focused exercise and weight room, studio/multi-purpose area, pro shop, concessions area and locker rooms.. .
In another boost, the Wright Family Foundation of Schenectady announced a $3 million grant in October.
Read about the Aquatic Center’s history and mission, here.
Thank you for taking the time to read this lengthy posting. Your (civil) comments are welcome. If you agree, please let the DRI Local Planning Committee, the Mayor and City Council, and the media, know. I plan to add updates and follow-up thoughts to this post.
. . share this post with this short URL: https://tinyurl.com/RealSchdyDowntown . .
. . Many thanks to Google Maps for assisting in making this posting . .
update: Sunday, March 8, 2020: See the Gazette article by Pete DiMola, “As priority projects come into focus, Schenectady DRI panelists could have conflicts of interest“. There’s a lot to consider in the piece. This excerpt gives a taste of the complexities:
But roughly a quarter of the 16-member panel tapped with making the final decisions represent organizations who are not only jostling for funding, but are also actively pitching projects themselves.
They include the city, Proctors, Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corporation, Rivers Casino & Resort and Schenectady Country Metroplex Development Authority.
Driving pedestrian traffic between downtown and Mohawk Harbor is the centerpiece of the effort.
David Buicko, CEO and president of the Galesi Group, which developed Mohawk Harbor and Rivers Casino & Resort, is co-chair of the panel.
Also, see Saturday’s Guest Column by former Union College President, and Mayoral candidate, Roger H. Hull, “Don’t emulate Washington on ethics transparency,” which also raises conflict of issues statements, especially re the leaders of Galesi Group and Proctors being on the Local Planning Committee. Dr. Hull ends the column with these observations:
Yet, even if they recuse themselves, the process would be tainted, since it would be easy to game the system. It would be best for them to resign, if their organizations are possible recipients of the grant.
A lack of transparency and conflicts of interest are troubling issues—or at least they should be. In the past, they were, but not today.
In the age of Trump, those issues are, seemingly, of no concern to most people.
In Schenectady, ethics and legal norms should be retained.
We would all benefit, and we might even serve as a much-needed model for Washington.
BLATANT CONFLICTS. Dave Buicko is CEO of the Galesi Group, which developed and owns Mohawk Harbor, and was the main spokesperson pushing the Casino application forward in 2014 and thereafter related Zoning changes and site plans, etc. As stressed above, the primary focus of DRI Schenectady is “increasing visitations to Mohawk Harbor“. Nonetheless, Mr. Buicko was made co-Chair of the DRI Planning Committee. And, Mayor McCarthy (who is seeking funding on behalf of the City), is the other co-chair. Mr McCarthy told the Gazette that he wants the Committee’s recommendations for projects that will receive grants to be bundled into a single vote. Doing that, of course, will mean that the final vote will allow Committee members with conflicts of interest, even if they have previously recused themselves on particular proposals, to vote for them as part of a “bundle” of projects.
If ever there were a situation ripe for “horse trading”, it is DRI Schenectady. Too many committee members (click on above image) are directly involved with proposals, and too many others are beholden to, or seeking favors from, the City, Metroplex, Rivers Casino, the Galesi Group and Proctors, to believe that an objective assessment of the public interest will drive the outcome.
How else but from the now-habitual McCarthy-Metroplex “done deal” perspective, with McCarthy and Gillen “snowmen” selected for panels, can the public understand how the primary goal of DRI Schenectady could be driving customers away from our core downtown to Mohawk Harbor, a private development situated over a mile from the Real Downtown Schenectady?
HOW FAR FROM DOWNTOWN? The initial brochure of the Galesi Group for its Mohawk Harbor development proclaimed it was “in the heart of downtown Schenectady.” Since then, they have been a bit more accurate. Galesi Group President David Buiko (co-chair of Schenectady DRI), told Spectrum News in 2016 that “you’re really less than a mile from downtown Schenectady.” And, the River House apartments amenities page points out there is “FREE Trolley Service To Downtown Schenectady” — just in case you don’t feel like walking that far.
follow-up (August 6, 2020): FULL SLATE DRI VOTING PROTECTS CONFLICTS. The screen shot below was taken during the DRI planning committee meeting last week. It looks like the Mayor is getting his way — committee members will be voting on the entire Slate of proposed projects, up or down. That means that members with undeniable conflicts of interest get to vote for their own projects within the slate, with no way to recuse themselves.
The dearth of questions at the Planning Commitee meeting on July 30, 2020 — no follow-ups, no skepticism about effects on downtown of the push to Mohawk Harbor, no discussion of pandemic consequences, etc. — suggests that there will be a lot of Scratching of Each-other’s Backs, and overlooking of the overreaching conflicts of interest.
- There are far too many examples of misleading, half-true, or simply erroneous claims surrounding Mohawk Harbor and the Casino for me to supply them in this posting. Browsing this weblog will give the reader a good taste (well, actually, a bad taste for our City Hall). But, here are three quick but relevant examples: (1) A few years ago, the initial online brochure for Mohawk Harbor stated that it was located “in the heart of downtown Schenectady.” (2) At one time it was claimed that Rivers Casino is located “across the street” from the new Train Station. And, (3) Dave Buicko (rather than the Planning Office staff) was allowed to present the large packet of amendments to the City’s Waterfront District zoning Code in 2015. The Galesi Group CEO told the Planning Commission and City Council that the amendments were mainly minor and technical, despite among other things, removing guaranteed public access to the waterfront, permitting 80-foot rather than 7-foot signs, allowing 19,000 rather than 250 square feet of signage, and completely removing the Casino from the Signage portion requirements of the City’s Zoning Code. (See our descrption of the Planning Commission Special Meeting that approved the Amendments: “Schenectady’s Waterfront Zoning: A rubber stamp in a company town?” (Jan. 29, 2015). With “alternate facts” like these coming from City Hall and its favorite “partners”, who needs actual facts when doling out $10 million taxpayer dollars?
follow-up (March 21, 2020): Thank you, Daily Gazette for publishing my Letter to the Editor today, “Invest state funds in our ‘real’ downtown” (at D2):