a slow week at Mohawk Harbor?

Amphitheater, 3 PM Memorial Day

 Quick online searching* confirmed my assumption that casino resorts would be among the most popular destinations for America’s millions of travelers over the Memorial Day Weekend. So, given a refreshing breeze and blue skies, I was a little surprised by how few people were out and about at Mohawk Harbor mid-afternoon on Memorial Day. I had stopped by to catch the tail end of the Rollin’ on the River Car Show and Auction, hosted by Rivers Casino, and then spent about an hour sitting and strolling around the grounds and taking photos.

During my visit on Memorial Day:

  • There was only one boat docked in the Marina the entire time. [The same was true on my return the next day; however, on May 30, there were three boats docked, the most I have ever seen in the Marina.]
  • No kayaks appeared to be checked out [ditto May 29, 30]
  • No one else used any of the picnic tables or played on the large lawns between the River House and the Casino
  • A few pairs of bicyclists and a couple of dog walkers used the mixed-used path that runs through Mohawk Harbor, but I saw none of them stop while traversing Mohawk Harbor.
  • No one spread a blanket or sat at the lovely, manicured Amphitheater, despite its unobstructed view of the Marina.

CasinoRevs01Jun2018 Perhaps all the Holiday Weekend trekkers had already started their return trips home, or were squeezing in one last cook-out at a relative’s or friend’s backyard. It made me wonder, though, how much gaming action had been going on at Rivers Casino over the weekend. The weather on Saturday and Sunday had enough rain in the forecast to motivate indoors activity such as that found inside the Casino. So, I checked out the weekly Revenues report for Rivers Casino that went online yesterday, Friday June 1st. However, as you can see by clicking on the image to the left of this paragraph, last week Rivers Casino at Mohawk Harbor had its worst week for gaming revenues since the end of March, with a total GGR of $2,876,146 for the week ending Sunday May 27, 2018.

If you have not spent time on the greener side of Mohawk Harbor, you might enjoy this Slideshow, which has photos taken May 28, 29 and 30, 2018.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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view north toward River from Amphitheater

*/According to the AAA, the draw of gambling made Las Vegas NV the 4th most chosen destination for Memorial Day Weekend. 2018. Gambling hubs such as Denver and Phoenix were also in the top ten destinations list for the holiday weekend.

 coming in June, Druther’s at River House . . MHDruthers30May2018

casino site plan approved (including the pylon)

CasinoPylon3rd

bait ‘n’ switch?

 follow-up – no full images for public review (Friday evening, July 24, 2015): It was disappointing to be told at City Hall this afternoon that there were no additional renderings or sketches available to let the curious public see the final design of the Schenectady Casino. The unveiling of the 3rd Design on July 9th by Rush Street Gaming merely gave us a peek, with a detail from the front and one from the rear, of the make-over they performed on the unpopular 2nd Design.

Although their Power Point presentation for the Special Site Plan Review Meeting of the Planning Commission on July 22nd offered a more complete set of sketches (not detailed renderings) of the nearly 300-feet long casino facility, those images were apparently not made into hardcopy form for submission to the Commission or for public viewing.  Rush Street has not posted any additional images at its Rivers Casino at Mohawk Harbor website, as of 10 PM this evening. (It does still have a video clip with the original casino design from last year on the home page).

Casino#3Pylon
[R] photograph of pylon image presented to Commission meeting on July 22 in Power Point display, showing the white branding section as contrasting greatly with the darker body of the pylon.

Nonetheless, one accomplishment of my visit was being able to snap a clearer photo [see and click on image to the left at the top of this follow-up section] of the sketch of the pylon design that was presented to the Commission for the Special Meeting, and which was approved as to height, width and location (with possible changes in color and materials to be considered). Looking closely at the new version, I realized that it is actually worse than the prior version in several ways relevant to the complaints of many thoughtful folk: It is boxier (no narrow light-box “lantern” at the top), brighter (a pure white background on the Rivers branding section of the pylon, instead of black), taller in the sky by perhaps 6 or 7 feet (its main “branding” sign having been raised to 80′ by removing the “lantern”), and wider (39′, instead of an already excessive width of 38′).

– Regarding the lack of openness in the Commission process, see the Gazette Editorial: “Schenectady Commission still operates in shadows over casino” (July 27, 2015)

Below is a collage illustrating the sneaky new problems with the latest version of the Casino pylon. (Please click on the collage image for a larger version.)

SneakyPylonChangesW

. . . Commissioner Wallinger had pressed the Rush Street consultant over the white background of the branding sign at the Special Meeting, saying that the bright white was too much of a contrast with the remainder of the pylon, making it look like a separate sign sitting on top. That is one of the items that were noted for possible changes in the otherwise approved pylon. The consultant, Mike Levin, was surprisingly reluctant to discuss making the background dark, saying they want the “lantern effect.” It is more likely that they like the distance-viewing effect even more of the bright sign on top. There is little reason to be optimistic about the results of any additional tweaking, as we are told by Corporation Counsel Falotico that Commission members will merely receive a courtesy copy of the Rush Street changes to the pylon, rather than having a subcommittee session that might be viewed by the public. ” See “Public won’t review casino sign changes” (Schenectady Gazette, by Haley Vicarro, July 24, 2015).

– original posting –

PylonCommentsCover

rejected Comments

 The Schenectady Planning Commission, with only one dissenting vote (by Commissioner Tom Carey), approved the site plan for Rivers Casino at Mohawk Harbor. That includes saying yes to the fuller view (merely a projected sketch) of the 3rd Design presented by Rush Street’s architect, as well as the size, location and shape of the proposed pylon. Paul Nelson at the Times Union described the meeting in some detail:

“The city Planning Commission gave final site plan approval to the gaming operator of the $330 million Rivers Casino despite complaints from some residents and disagreement among some on the panel about certain features of the 80-feet tall pylon, or gateway, sign. . . . 

“The lone dissenting vote Wednesday came from Tom Carey, who lamented the sign’s size, the amount of parking and his feeling the developer could have made the gambling hall more energy-efficient. [follow-up: This dissent surely was the reason why Mayor McCarthy failed to renew Carey’s position on the Commission when it expired at the end of the year.]

“The sign’s height, which complies with city code, and the brightness of signs on nearby residential neighborhoods area emerged as key issues.

“Mike Levin, design team consultant for Rush Street, said the gaming operation is orienting to traffic because the casino will be 750 feet from an Erie Boulevard roundabout being built.. . .

“Stockade resident David Giacalone said pylon sign will do nothing more than ‘dominating our skyline’.”

(Click to see the Gazette’s coverage of the “green light” given the casino.)

3rdCasinoRear . . . [L] 3rd version detail of riverside view of casino and hotel.  I hope the Commission was given more detailed renditions of the 3rd design than we saw at the Commission meeting. The presented drawings were not up to the usual standard for Site Plan submissions, but I heard no complaints from the Commissioners.

SitePlanReview22Jul2015 . . . Levin and Primiano

– above: [L] Commissioners listening to Rush Street design consultant Mike Levin; [R] Levin (standing) and Principal Schenectady Planner Primiano –  

Wallinger-pylon

Com’r Wallinger

A couple of rather minor design “tweaks” could be in store for the pylon, but none of the issues raised in the Comments that I submitted today to the Commission made a difference. (If curious, click here or on the image at the top of this posting for the 9-page Comments in pdf. form, with text and images on issues such as safety, aesthetics, phony excuses for the height and location, questions never asked and documents never requested, legal duties in a Site Plan Review, and more. Also see my June 17th submission to the Planning Commission, which stresses the inappropriate height and width and the serious traffic hazard from the huge digital display.

  • Chair Sharran Coppola declared that she liked the design of the pylon and its materials.
  • Commissioner Wallinger said she was pleased that the pylon did not look like a Las Vegas sign, but thought having the top “branding” portion of the structure such a bright white made it look like a separate sign sitting on the top of the pylon.
  • Thomas Carey, the lone dissenting vote on the Commission, declared that 80′ is too high, and bemoaned the fact that restrictions placed on every other business in the City against large signs lit internally did not apply to casino signage.
  • Commissioner Bradley Lewis, who is also the Vice Chair of Metroplex and was defended by the Chair from a charge of conflict of interest, praised the large size of the pylon and the ability to use the display screen for any message you might have, or for a “fancy logo” if that is what you want. Lewis made a joke of the idea that Union College students would be affected by the light from the pylon, saying “Union will survive.”
    • Bradley also went out of his way to deride the notion in my Comments that the classic Sands marquee pylon was at all relevant, saying that it was on the Vegas strip and therefore along the street. He appeared to miss my point that the Sands sign, which was the tallest at the time on the Strip, was only 56′ high, despite being used to compete for attention with so many other casino signs. I’ve yet to see a Metroplex project Mr. Lewis did not enthusiastically (and often with barbed tongue for any skeptical questions) support before the Commission.
  • Galesi Group COO David Buicko, who has often been the spokesman for the Casino Applicants, attended the Meeting but said only a few words.  When I was making my presentation to the Commission, focused on the failure to show the need for an 80′ sign, Buicko did animatedly shake his head “no” at me a couple of times, especially when I asked whether there would be streetside directional signage pointing toward the Casino throughout the City, eliminating the need for a colossal sign supposedly meant as a safety precaution to make sure drivers know in time that they need to get on the Erie Blvd. roundabout at Nott Street.
  • Commissioner Julia Stone told Rush Street’s Mike Levin the pylon was “the ugliest thing” she’d ever seen. She did later vote in favor of site plan approval, perhaps forgetting the power the Commission has over design in review of site plans.
  • East Front Street Association president Carmella Ruscitto told the Commissioners she just couldn’t understand why some people could be against the casino or its design, especially after the Galesi and Rush Street folk have worked so hard. It was a surprise that Carmella never brought up the subject of East Front Street opposition to the pylon. According to the Gazette, her younger sister Mary Ann pointedly told the Planning Commission last month, “We don’t want the giant big sign at the entrance to our neighborhood.” That topic must have made for some interesting sisterly conversation over the breakfast table.
  • Camille Sosnowski, president of the Goose Hill Neighborhood Association, told the Commissioners of her concern over light pollution and glare from the pylon and reminded them we do not yet know how much higher the Mohawk Harbor site will be raised above the flood level.
Casino#3Pylon

3rd pylon design

I believe the public will be quite underwhelmed when they see the rest of the 3rd design. Until better renditions are available, I am reluctantly posting the following blurry images that were snapped of the slide presentation from the back of the room with a pocket camera, as “better than nothing” CasinoDesigns2&3 above: front of the casino in the 2nd design [Top] and 3rd design

below: drawing of rear of casino in 3rd design

Casino#3Rear

One point future Site Plan applicants might want to keep in mind is that Sharran Coppola, Chair of the Commission, and Principal Planner Christine Primiano, apparently convinced their colleagues that a Site Plan Review consists of nothing more than determining whether the proposal is consistent with the Zoning Code. Past applicants nitpicked into making many changes in design may not be amused.  Ms. Primiano insisted that the permit should not be held up due to the differences over pylon design, since it was not a question of code violation. My legal interpretation of the law is quite different, as reflected in my Comments. Here’s a quote I used in the posting “the Commission should require a better pylon”, taken from the “Beginner’s Guide to Land use Law,” by the Land Use Law Center of Pace University School of Law:

What a site plan accomplishes “The purpose of site plan regulations is to ensure that the development of individual parcels of land do not have an adverse impact on adjacent properties or the surrounding neighborhood. Such regulations also ensure that the parcel’s development fits properly into the community and conforms to its planning objectives. The development of individual parcels must conform to the provisions of local zoning which contain use and dimensional requirements for site development. “Zoning, however, does not contain specifications regulating the details of a site’s development that protect, for example, the design of vehicular access to the site, the provision of needed landscape features, the location of parking areas, and the architectural features of buildings. Site plan specifications go beyond those of zoning, and protect adjacent areas and the community’s residents from flooding and erosion, traffic congestion and accidents, unsightly design, noise pollution, and the erosion of neighborhood character. This is their distinct purpose.”

  • By the way, Chair Coppola started the meeting by giving her defense of the “subcommittee meetings” the Commission members had with the Applicant Casino developer. She insisted it is a frequent practice and only to gather facts. She insisted more than once “there are no deals”. Later, Ms. Coppola remarked that she wondered what the Gazette editorial page would have to say about this evening’s results.
  • Share this posting with the short URL: http://tinyurl.com/unsitely
  • See our Pylon Directory to find links to postings detailing the safety, design, and process issues raised by the Colossal Casino Pylon and its approval process.

the Commission should require a better pylon

SampleCasinoSigns

– click on the above collage to see sample signage designs for casinos other than the “shopping mall” colossus proposed for Schenectady, and to read a short explanation of why we deserve much Better than Big & Bland from Mr. Bluhm.  Share this posting with the short URL http://tinyurl.com/betterpylon

Rush Street has proposed a pylon sign design as mediocre as its overall casino design, and wants to place it at the worst possible location when safety and aesthetics are taken into consideration (find full explanations in the posts listed in our Pylon Directory). Rather than allow the Rivers Casino to foist its monster pylon on this City, the Planning Commission needs to decisively wield its authority under the City’s Site Plan review process, instead of yielding it to Rush Street and the Mayor’s Office.  The Commission should re-read the clear language of its duties and powers under our Zoning Code, and not be swayed by any pressure from the Mayor or advice from Corporation Counsel Carl Falotico to stand down on this matter (as happened during the Commission’s review of the C-3 amendments in February).

update (July 23, 2015): see “casino site plan approved: pylon, too” (July 22, 2015); and click here for a pdf version of my July 22 Comments to the Commission.

Mr. Falotico has apparently left the Planning Office and Commissioners with the impression their “hands are tied” concerning the pylon, because the C-3 district rules for casino signage now say (emphasis added):

“Multi-sided pylon signs shall be permitted, with a height not to exceed 80 feet.”

At the most, those words mean the Commission cannot refuse to approve locating a pylon sign, up to 80′ tall, somewhere on the 25-acre casino compound.  The prior sentence in §264-14(H) as amended states: Signage for a casino gaming facility and related uses within the C-3 District shall be viewed and approved by the Planning Commission as part of the Site Approval process.”  And, Zoning Code §264-92(b) makes it plain that (emphasis added):

“The Planning Commission’s review of the site plan application shall be guided by the elements listed in §264-89 of this article.”  

Among the §264-89 factors that “shall” be applied by the Commission to all casino signage, including the pylon, are:

  • proper vehicle and pedestrian traffic flow and safety, including impact on intersections and traffic controls;
  • proper location, arrangement, size, design and general site compatibility of lighting and signs;
  • maximum retention of existing vegetation; and
  • protection of adjacent or neighboring properties against glare or unsightliness or other objectionable features.

Who agreed with the above interpretation just last February?  According to a Gazette article, “Schenectady City Council mulls zoning for Mohawk Harbor: Riggi wants city to reiterate Planning Commission’s authority” (Haley Vicarro, Feb. 3, 2015), Carl Falotico did:

Corporation Council Carl Falotico stressed that the commission has the ability to evaluate the aesthetic visual impact of the project even if the plans satisfy zoning requirements.

In “BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO LAND USE LAW,” the Land Use Law Center of Pace University School of Law, explains:

What a site plan accomplishes “The purpose of site plan regulations is to ensure that the development of individual parcels of land do not have an adverse impact on adjacent properties or the surrounding neighborhood. Such regulations also ensure that the parcel’s development fits properly into the community and conforms to its planning objectives. The development of individual parcels must conform to the provisions of local zoning which contain use and dimensional requirements for site development. Zoning, however, does not contain specifications regulating the details of a site’s development that protect, for example, the design of vehicular access to the site, the provision of needed landscape features, the location of parking areas, and the architectural features of buildings. Site plan specifications go beyond those of zoning, and protect adjacent areas and the community’s residents from flooding and erosion, traffic congestion and accidents, unsightly design, noise pollution, and the erosion of neighborhood character. This is their distinct purpose.”

We urge each of the nine Planning Commissioners to take those words and their oaths of office to heart when reviewing the most important Site Plan they are ever likely to encounter.  As we have repeated often, there is no urgent need to sacrifice a full review merely because Rush Street keeps making the same false claims of deadline pressure. It will not have to open its casino for at least 26 months, and an appropriate pylon sign structure can be designed and installed in a couple of months.

dontforgettack  Because a thorough review requires a full set of Site Plan documents from the applicant, we also urge the Commission to demand all necessary documents, as mandated in §264-91 Application and Required Information, before granting the requested Site Plan Permit. If necessary with this complex, multi-faceted Plan, the Commission should consider approving various portions in stages, reserving final approval until it has received all required documents, and sought any expert opinion need to supplement the knowledge of staff and Commissioners.

  • The expert opinion of the New York State Department of Transportation on assessing the safety of electronic message displays could be particularly helpful when located close to busy intersections, and the Commissioners should not let inter-governmental rivalry, or a false sense of deadline pressure, keep it from asking for DOT assistance. (see this discussion)
  • RNBL4EMCs Similarly, the brightness and distraction of a huge electronic display (proposed to be 32′ by 19′) raises such significant issues with glare, driver confusion, particularly in inclement weather on unfamiliar roads, and the disturbance of nearby residences, that the Commission should take advantage of the International Sign Association’s “Recommended Nighttime Brightness Levels for On-Premise Electronic Message Centers [EMCs]“. The Commission should (1) consider adopting ISA’s Illumination Limits: “The difference between the off and solid-message measurements using the EMC Measurement Criteria shall not exceed 0.3 footcandles at night,” and possibly contacting the Statement’s primary authors; and (2) specifically ask Rush Street to demonstrate the proposed LCD screen will meet the ISA brightness standard. 
  • Additional information and explanation from the Applicant should also be required concerning how the siting of the pylon is likely to impact on nearby traffic and nearby residences, including those in the East Front Street and Stockade neighborhoods, on Goose Hill, and in Union Colleges housing, including the 7- story dormitory a block away.

Indeed, because getting the casino right is so crucial to the City and its residents and visitors, the Commission should use its power under §264-91 (G) to probe topics that are important for a casino compound and its signage (including, e.g., a Visual Impact Analysis and proof that brightness standards will not be violated). The Commission should require:

§264-91 GSuch other and further information or documentation as the Zoning Officer and/or Planning Commission may deem to be necessary and appropriate to a full and proper consideration and disposition of the particular application.

. . click to compare the Schenectady pylon to the Cincinnati Horseshoe pylon marquee.. CinciHorseShoeSignageCompared

Better Design.  Any large pylon or “marquee” signage meant to draw attention to Rivers Casino at Mohawk Harbor may become the primary image of Schenectady for many prospective and actual casino patrons, and will be a constant presence for a very large percentage of City and County residents. Its appearance should be much better than simply “okay enough” or “not particularly ugly.” It must be better than “good enough” to be approved. Although it is a matter of taste, the Commissioners are called on to make such judgments often and should not shy away from doing so on the casino project.

DesPlaines68

Des Plaines Rivers Casino pylon

 A lengthy search online has resulted in my discovering only one casino pylon somewhat similar in height, bulk and blandness to the one proposed for Schenectady, and that is the Rivers Casino pylon in Des Plaines, Illinois. The Des Plaines pylon [image at the right] would, in my opinion, be rejected for use as a shopping mall monument sign in even a less-than-trendy suburb.  Its Schenectady sibling will surely not improve its appeal merely by being significantly taller and wider. A new design with more “style” and artistic impact is called for, simply from the standpoint of what makes effective signage.

As with the overall Schenectady casino design, which is quite uninspiring compared to proposed casino plans in other cities and towns wooed by Applicant Rush Street (see “why does Schenectady get Rush Street’s scraps“), Neil Bluhm and his casino subsidiaries seem to have taken a much different approach at their other locations to the need for or design of major outdoor signage.  Thus, Philadelphia’s SugarHouse and Pittsburgh’s Rivers Casino have no pylon or similar giant freestanding sign, despite being in cities filled with skyscrapers blocking views.

FallsView However, the Neil Bluhm-developed and managed Fallsview Casino and Resort in Niagara Falls, Canada, does have a relatively tall sign. It is, nonetheless, definitely not recognizable as a relative of the Des Plaines or Schenectady pylons. The Fallsview sign, seen in the rendition to the left of this paragraph but better viewed on the upper left portion of the collage at the top of this posting, was aptly desribed in a release by its corporate creator:

“The ‘traffic-stopping’ craftsmanship of this Diamond Vision display will be a beacon to the millions of tourists who visit Niagara Falls each year, and an integral part of Niagara Fallsview Casino Resort’s allure,” said Mark Foster, general manager of Diamond Vision. “As with all Diamond Vision installations, we worked closely with the architects and designers to create a display that complements the resorts theme and personality.”

Naturally, I’m not saying Schenectady should have a pylon-marquee sign just like Fallsview. For one thing, the LED screen ( 25′ x 12.5′) may still be too large for a streetside sign. And, at about 70′ tall, it might fit the scale of nearby buildings better in Niagara Falls than in our City. But, we do deserve an image that shows some of the thought and art that went into the Fallsview sign.  It could perhaps reflect the presence of a lovely Mohawk River location, or the ALCO history of the site, or Schenectady’s colonial past. Most important, it should reflect something unique, fresh, and aesthetically pleasing, and be designed at a size and with electronic display elements appropriate for its location.

My first set of pylon-related Comments to the Planning Commission (June 17, 2015) contains additional discussion on issues raised above, especially the safety problems posed by placing large digital displays close to busy intersections.

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pylon options

– above: a few more examples of casino pylons –

ALCOlogo Afterthought: Looking into the “casino problem” over the past year, I’ve came across some of the interesting logos used by the Alco company over the decades. [see example at the head of this blurb] Perhaps one of them could be a starting point for a theme showing Schenectady’s past and strength aiming toward the future. (June 17, 2015)

a Pylon Precis (too big, too bright, too much)

  We’ve posted a lot at this website about the immense proposed Schenectady Casino pylon. This posting is an attempt to provide our readers (including the Schenectady Planning Commission and staff) with a fairly pithy summary. To wit, as explained a bit more below, we believe the proposed pylon colossus is too big and too bright for Schenectady and its visitors, especially at the proposed location near Nott and Front Streets, Erie Boulevard, and the planned traffic rotary. [update: click here for a pdf version of Comments to the Commission regarding the Casino Pylon, dated July 22, 2015; also, “bait and switch along the Mohawk” (July 31, 2015).]

– Two collages sum up our main factual points; first:

NoSTSExcuseE

– click on each collage for a larger version –

However, some casino boosters (and regulators), might say: “Haven’t Galesi Group COO Dave Buicko and other Rush Street representatives been telling the Planning Commission, the Mayor, and the press, all year that an 80′ pylon sign was absolutely needed due to the casino being unseen behind the STS Steel building?” Yes, they have been constantly making that claim. And, it is not true:

NoSTSExcuseS

We believe the Schenectady Planning Commission has the duty and authority in its §264-89 Site Plan review of the Rivers Casino site plan to refuse to approve the proposed size, location, and design elements of the casino’s pylon. Although they exempted casino signage from the Zoning Code’s Art. IX signage regulations, the amendments this year to the C-3 District rules nonetheless specifically required Site Plan Review of casino signage by the Planning Commission.  Thus, as amended, §264-14(H) states:

“Signage for a casino gaming facility and related uses within the C-3 District shall be viewed and approved by the Planning Commission as part of the Site Approval process.”

Protestations by Commissioners and the Planning Staff that their “hands are tied” regarding the size and design, much less the location, of the pylon have no basis in the law, and frankly stoke the fear that applying a rubberstamp and rushing through Rush Street’s requests have become the modus operandi of the Commission (even if not the personal preference of individual members). As stated in Comments to the Commission on June 17, 2015 (by this site’s editor):

Even if the Applicantʼs pylon proposal is within the C-3 pylon height and signage maximum limits, this Commission has the authority and responsibility when performing a site plan review (under Zoning Law, §264-89 et seq.) to assure:

  • proper vehicle and pedestrian traffic flow and safety, including impact on intersections and traffic controls;
  • proper location, arrangement, size, design and general site compatibility of lighting and signs;
  • maximum retention of existing vegetation; and
  • protection of adjacent or neighboring properties against glare or unsightliness or other objectionable features.

The two-sided pylon signage structure proposed by Rush Street Gaming for Rivers Casino at Mohawk Harbor is:

  • too large in both height and width, with an LCD message screen far too big and bright, to be so near crucial intersections, including the planned new (and unique for Schenectady County) traffic rotary, and the entranceway and exits of the Casino compound and Mohawk Harbor; see our discussion and outline of the electronic message screen safety factors at tinyurl.com/electronicdisplayfactors
  • too close to residences (e.g., East Front Street homes and Union College’s largest dormitory a block away, as well as condos, town-homes and apartments planned at Mohawk Harbor)

Thorough and objective application of Schenectady’s Site Plan standards should, we believe, require the Planning Commission to reject the proposed pylon or approve it with adequate and specific restrictions as to size (both height and width), brightness, proximity to roadways and residences, and use and size of LCD displays. Refusing to approve the pylon as proposed is particularly appropriate, given the failure of Rush Street to provide renditions of the structure showing its precise location in relationship to roadways and the rest of the casino compound and other Mohawk Harbor buildings, parking lots, etc. Furthermore, with no Visual Impact Analysis, including a line of sight survey, indicating where and how the pylon sign will be visible in the day or the night, the Commissioners do not have sufficient information to make responsible decisions about a monumental sign that would dominate our skyline and surely become the symbol of Schenectady to the rest of the world.

– share this post with the short URL: http://tinyurl.com/PylonPrecis

red check For amplification of the points made above, see the postings and materials listed in the Pylon Directory at the top of our Pylon Envy posting.

third time is a bore

AOA-rivers_casino_schenectady_rendering_v3_back Rush Street Gaming released its third design proposal for the Rivers Casino at Mohawk Harbor this morning and it is, frankly, a bore. (Image at the left is a view of the riverside patio and the Casino hotel). The Gazette and the Times Union’s Business Buzz Blog only have two images to show us. The TU post pairs the peek at the 3rd version with similar images from the 2nd version. (click for our post on the 2nd Design) There is apparently no broad rendition of the entire casino facility or compound available, which seems to be one more slight for the public. Here is the front entrance to the Casino as released today:

AOA-rivers_casino_schenectady_rendering_v3_front

 And, here’s an Open Letter to the Gasino Gang from a disgruntled resident of Schenectady and its Stockade District [me]:

Dear Mr. Galesi and Mr. Bluhm:

We want Mohawk Harbor to be pedestrian-friendly, but we don’t want the design to be pedestrian.

“Schenectady” does not mean “doormat” or “dustpan” in the Mohawk Language. Treat us with a lot more respect, please.

s/ Man on the Street and on the Web

Haley Vicarro at the Gazette referred to the above design as “the third and presumable final draft of the Rivers Casino.” (Schenectady Daily Gazette, “New look for Schenectady casino revealed“, July 9, 2015)  Rush Street has consistently believed and acted as if the public’s input is irrelevant; sadly, so has City Hall. I hope there will be another groundswell of opinion, keeping in mind that:

More commentary is surely to follow. Please leave a (polite) comment with your opinion or suggestion.  update: Michael DeMasi at Albany Biz Journal uses his headline to tell the story; see “New Schenectady casino design: how “brick” became a four-letter-word” (July 9, 2015). And, thanks once again to All Over Albany for providing high-resolution versions of the new renderings, plus encoring the earlier versions.

– additional media reaction well worth a look: (1) Sara Foss in the Sunday Gazette, “casino drawings speak volumes“, July 12, 2015; (2) a Sunday Gazette editorial, Casino design is better, but public needs to see more” D2, July 12, 2015; (3) Chris Churchill’s frankly insightful Sunday column in the Times Union, “Let’s be honest about the (redesigned) Schenectady casino” (July 12, 2015);

p.s. VegasCompareCollage2 The Casino Pylon: Wrong Size/Wrong Place. Please don’t forget to check out our campaign to topple (before it gets built) the 80′ x 38′ eyesore and safety hazard Rush Street wants to erect, looming over Erie Blvd. from the corner of Front & Nott Streets. Links to relevant posting can be found at the top of “pylon envy?“.

follow-up (Thursday eve., July 9,  6:30): Could Rush Street have done any less work re-designing this facility (or spent less time and money)? Actually, they were honest, they just “tweaked” it.

detail2ndDesignEntrance . . . casino3rdDesignEntrance

– – the fake second story wall and support for the sign were removed from the 2nd design and colors were changed.

 – Casino2ndDesignRearPatio – – The tweaking in the rear patio was even less significant.

more follow-up (July 10, 2015): Demographics: Commentors at various sites and others chatting about the new renditions have noted that all of the Casino customers are thin, young, hip, white. How does Rush Street plan to make a profit without the Granny Buses rolling in and poor folk spending rent and food money?  Carl Strock (we miss him here in Schenectady!), after pointing out his opposition to casinos as an economic development tool, opines at his TU Blog, “Fantasy customers for Sch’dy casino(July 10, 2015):

Look at them. Look how trim they are. Look how well dressed, the men in dark suits, the women in skirts and heels. All of them looking like they just stepped out of a Fifth Avenue shop window. I would say to the project developers, if you can guarantee us a crowd like this, I don’t care how you design your casino.

PYLON DIRECTORY/Envy

 
Casino#3Pylon

July 2015 version

 Pylon Directory:  Here is a list of our posts and Comments discussing the proposed 80′ x 38′ Schenectady casino pylon and its digital display:

 .
Mayor McCarthy defends the casino pylon” at the League of Conservation Voters forum (September 22, 2015)
.
bait and switch along the Mohawk” (July 31, 2015) suddenly we have a v-shaped pylon with an LCD screen on each wing.
.
– “casino site plan approved: pylon, too” (July 22, 2015). And, the pylon will be bulkier, brighter and wider than expected.
 .
– click here for a pdf version of Comments to the Commission regarding the Casino Pylon, dated July 22, 2015
 .
– “the Commission should require a better pylon” (July 20, 2015) The Planning Comn has the power to insist on a safer and better-looking pylon.
.
– “a Pylon Precis: too big, too bright, too  much” (July 16, 2015): a pithy summary.
 .
– This posting “pylon envy?“ (see below): compares the Sch’dy pylon to classic Las Vegas signs and a massive new sign in Cincinnati; it also compares the signage rules that apply to all other businesses in Schenectady but not to the Casino
.

– “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.

– other pylon-related materials: (1) Comments submitted to the Planning Commission June 17, 2015, which stresses the inappropriate height and width and the serious traffic hazard from the huge digital display. (2) a discussion of variables for evaluating the safety of roadside CEVMS (digital variable message displays). (3) The Casino’s Visual Resources Assessment submitted by the Mohawk Harbor applicants as part of its environmental impact assessment, concluding that the project would have no negative visual impact on the City or any historically sensitive areas.
.
original posting:
PYLON ENVY?
GlitterGultch Right after giving the Planning Commission the easily-refuted excuse (see our posting “phony pylon excuse“) that they needed an 80′ pylon because the STS Steel building blocked the view of the Mohawk Harbor’s 71-foot tall casino, Galesi Group COO Dave Buicko assured them it would be “classy”, not gaudy. Sitting in the small Commission meeting room that evening, I remember smirking over what Mr. Galesi, Rush Street’s Neil Bluhm, or Gaming Industry folk in general might think of as “classy”.

Fremont+Stthe+Nugget+Apache+Pioneer+MUST

above & Right: photos of the 1960’s “Glitter Gulch” from the Classic Las Vegas website. For more images and history see InOldLasVegas.com.

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:

Compare-Schdy-Sands-Pylons

 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:

SandsNightDetail 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]

VegasCompareCollage1

. .  . .

VegasCompareCollage2

SchdyPylonSketch2-006 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?

CinciHorseShoeSignageComparedA 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.

Continue reading

phony pylon excuse: STS Steel is simply not in the way

STSSteel5Jul2015a

STS Steel Building – 49′ tall

 The only “justification” that Galesi Group COO Dave Buicko and Rush Street representatives have given for needing a monster 80′ pylon — beyond their always implicit and winning argument “because we want it” — is that the STS Steel building blocks the view of the Mohawk Harbor Rivers Casino, so that the pylon is needed to let people know Schenectady has a casino and where it is.  Despite the fact that the STS Excuse is very easy to refute, no one on the Planning Commission or in the Mayor’s Office, or among the majority of Yes-Persons on City Council, have pointed out that the assertion is simply not true, much less asked obvious follow-up questions such as:

  • How does a 49′ tall building block the view of a 71′ tall Casino that is sitting on land raised a few additional feet above the floodplain, which could also have a roof sign?
  • Why did you choose to place the casino partially behind the STS Steel building, if that is a big concern, when you have over 20 acres to choose from?
  • Casino-STS-PieChart When the entire project, river-side and street-side. is taken into account, wouldn’t a Pie Chart show that STS Steel makes up a tiny sliver of the sightline into the Casino, and one could not get to the “blocked” area without passing by an area from which the casino compound is visible? [click on image at the head of this bullet point]  Also, will Rush Street put in a much smaller sign if it succeeds in pushing STS Steel off the old ALCO site?
  • Who is going to be in or near Schenectady when the Casino has opened who won’t know there is a casino here?
  • How will a giant pylon guide drivers (front- or back-seat) off exits and through the streets of Schenectady? And, won’t there be plenty of signs along the way on our streets?
  • How do we balance the aesthetic damage and traffic hazard of such a large and bright pylon sign, and its intrusion on the skyline of our low-rise City (becoming the new Symbol of Schenectady), against its minimal actual usefulness?

SchdyPylonSketch2 . . . STSSteel5Jul2015b

above: rendering of 80′ pylon [L] and 49′-tall STS Steel Building seen from Erie Blvd. 

To put it charitably, the STS Excuse is silly and the acceptance by City Hall and the Media irresponsible and embarrassing. This posting will use images, photos and words to rebut head-on the STS Steel Excuse for a monster pylon. There is no need to balance the benefits and disadvantages of the monster pylon, because the STS Steel Building is simply not in the way of viewing the casino.

For other factors causing us to oppose the Monster Pylon, see Shrink that Pylon, which looks at the safety issues and the lessons taught by the Rivers Casino pylon in Des Plaines, and our “pylon envy?” piece, which compares the proposed pylon to signage at other casinos and to the rules that every other business must obey in Schenectady. And, see “how big is 80 feet by 38 feet?” (July 12, 2015), which reveals that the proposed pylon sign is both taller and wider than Schenectady’s former Masonic Temple, at 302 State Street.

– share this posting with the short URL http://tinyurl.com/PylonExcuse

CasinoAreaPlan-001

  • As can be seen on the Area Plan submitted in the Applicant’s Site Plan materials (above), even if the Casino building were not 20+ feet taller than the STS Steel Building (plus, on land raised a few feet to be above the floodplain), the locations and orientation of the two buildings means that STS Steel is not blocking the view of the Casino for traffic heading NE on Erie Blvd. (from I-90, State St. or Union St.), nor for traffic heading SW on Erie Blvd (from the Freedom Bridge or Maxon Rd. Extension) until a vehicle is actually alongside STS Steel.
    • Click here to see the Pie Chart above combined with the Casino Area Plan.

CASINOvSTSvPYLON2

  • Ironically (see mock-up above), the giant pylon would surely block the view of the Casino itself for those coming NE on Erie Blvd., or entering Erie Blvd. from Jay Street, to a far greater degree than the STS Steel Building does. With the removal of the Automated Dynamics Building along Front Street, the view from the block of Erie at Jay Street should be a large open parking lot that permits viewing of the Casino until the point where the pylon blocks the view.
  • viewfromNottStTrestleAnd, even directly across the street from STS Steel and Mohawk Harbor, at the SE corner of Nott St. and Erie Blvd. (under the railroad trestle), a driver should be able to see the top of the Rivers Casino and any rooftop signage over the roofline of the STS Steel Building. The constructed image to the right illustrates the likely view, which should signal even the most oblivious driver there is a Casino neaby.
SatelliteViewMohawkHarbor2

Google satellite view

There’s No View Even Without STS Steel. Finally, and perhaps most telling, due to the terrain, the orientation of the roads, and the existing obstacles, traffic coming northward on Erie Boulevard (from State St. or I-890), or toward Erie Blvd. from Jay Street or Nott St. could not, and should not expect to, see the Casino facility until within a short block of the Mohawk Harbor entrances, even if there were no STS Steel Building.  Click on the Google satellite screenshot to the left of this paragraph, and explore the corresponding Google Map page. Thus: Even with no STS Steel Building, you could not see the Rivers Casino at Mohawk Harbor when driving north up Erie Boulevard (click on photos for larger versions):

. . from Union St.: ErieBlvdAtUnion

. . Erie@Green nor from Green Street, or Jefferson or Monroe:

 . . IMG_8302 . . IMG_8307 . . The Casino/Gaming Building is not in the line of sight up Erie Blvd. If no other structures are in the way, it will be the Galesi-Marina-Mixed-Use portion of Mohawk Harbor coming into view, not the Casino.  This shot looking south from the corner of Nott St. up Erie Blvd. shows that the street layout does not permit a view of the casino when driving north on Erie Blvd.:

IMG_8362-001

Similarly, vehicles coming toward Erie Boulevard on Jay Street could not see the Casino until reaching the RR underpass at Erie Blvd.:

JayStNearErieBlvd

. . Nor could drivers and passengers in vehicles traveling “west”on Nott Street toward Erie Boulevard see the Casino building if there were no STS Steel Building, as the line of sight takes you to the future location of a Casino Parking Lot, not to the actual casino facility:

NottSt-MaxonRd

Given the reality of the Casino “viewshed”, the only reasonable conclusion of those observing the zoning amendment and site plan process to date, is that there are but two reasons giant pylons were permitted in the C-3 Waterfront zoning district: (1) The Gasino Gang wanted them, and (2) no one at City Hall had the courage to do his or her duty and speak truth to power: that the proposed pylon was “the wrong size and wrong location, and the STS Steel Building is simply not a valid excuse”.

MakeBobble-poker

from MakeBobble.com

Like the majority party members of the Schenectady City Council, and the staff at the City’s Planning and Zoning Offices, Members of the Planning Commission are apparently so accustomed to simply nodding their heads in agreement and turning off their B.S. Meters whenever Dave Buicko, Rush Street representatives, Mayor McCarthy, or his Legal Department make an assertion, they failed to notice how silly the claim is that the location of the 49′ tall STS Steel Building justifies an 80-foot pylon monster looming over the intersections of Nott and Front Streets and Erie Boulevard. Of course, given the basic intelligence of the Commissioners and the rest of the City Hall Casino Cheerleaders, it seems far more likely that they simply feel compelled to nod “yes” and to hide behind phony deadline pressures for their Rush to judgment. Perhaps the firm MakeBobble.com (see sample of card player bobblehead at the left of this paragraph), could customize their dolls a bit further for us so that the heads only nod up and down and never shake a “no” reply. When reviewing the proposed amendments to the C-3 Zoning ordinance in early January, we wrote in “the House is already winning” that:

“By merely suggesting the possibility of an 80-foot pylon, Rush Street and Galesi Group demonstrate a brutish lack of sensitivity to aesthetics, safety, neighborhood traditions, and the image and reputation of the City of Schenectady — not to  mention the truth.”

Those strong words have not loss their significance, but it is tempting to be more antagonistic toward the Casino Gang half a year later, given the many half-truths and deceptive arguments they have made in their bamboozling and steamrolling of City Council and the Planning Commission and the public. 316-vector-no-evil-monkeysRNonetheless, it seems clear that the words are even more apt when applied to City Hall — the decision-makers in the Mayor’s Office, the Planning and Law Departments, and those whose votes on the Council and Planning Commission should and could have protected the City and its residents. (Perhaps, I’d substitute the more damning word “irresponsible” for the adjective “brutish” when targeting City Hall.)  Although deceptive business practices are unlawful in our legal system, we expect businesses to use sharp practices when hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake and often wink at them. However, if our system of government is to work effectively, and ever hope to gain the confidence of the people, we cannot permit those who purport to be acting on our behalf and enforcing the letter and spirit of our laws to passively accept arguments and statements that have no basis in fact or law.

why does Schenectady get Rush Street’s scraps?


MinorLeagueSchdy  
I
t seems obvious that a “destination resort casino” should be designed to look and feel exciting and extraordinary.  The Gazette editorial board thinks so, and so does our Planning Commission.  Why, then, has Rush Street Gaming handed us two minor league designs, just boxes on boxes, and a casino complex easily relegated to the realm of humdrum regional facilities? It is not because Rush Street does not know how to put a little sparkle or class in a casino design. Click on the collage to the right of this paragraph to compare the two Schenectady designs with three others recently proposed by Rush Street. (You can also click the following links to see separate images of the gaming facilities in Worcester (also here and there), and Hudson Valley, as well as Brockton 1 and Brockton 2, and Millbury; also, see our posting “Schenectady casino redesigned“, June 4, 2015).

  • FallsView

    Fallsview

    A flashy digital brochure submitted to the New York State Gaming Commission, “The Companies of Neil Bluhm,” touts his having “developed and acquired over $50 billion in world class destinations,” his “Establishing international beacons to successfully attract the tourism market,” and “placing an emphasis on superior design” for his casinos. Unfortunately, instead of an “international beacon” like Fallsview Casino in Ontario, Canada, we get a design that reminds us Neil Bluhm “pioneered . . . the creation of urban shopping centers.”

  • According to the Worcester Business Journal (April 25, 2013), when Rush Street Chairman Neil Bluhm was unveiling their concept design for the 120,000-square-foot Worcester facility, he “called it beautiful and said it ‘will fit well with the surrounding area and enhance the neighborhood’.”
    • Bluhm was right to call the Worcester design beautiful, and we have to give him credit for not trying to tell us the same thing about either Schenectady design.
  • By the way, I wonder how much the architect bill was on each of the projects shown in the above collage. Considering they cloned the Des Plaines model for the 1st Schenectady design, and Rush Street CEO Jeff Carlin said the 2nd Schenectady design is just prefab modular that makes it easy to change, I bet the other projects were a bit more dear.
  • Share this posting with this short URL: http://tinyurl.com/RushScraps

Our first guess as to why Rush Street does not try very hard for Schenectady is that it has had our “leaders” fawning over it ever since the first rumor of a casino was in the air early last year.  This morning’s Schenectady Gazette suggests another reason: As with the earlier zoning amendments, the normal Planning Commission process has been aborted (hijacked?), with the skids greased by the Mayor to make sure Galesi and Rush Street never have to wait very long to get their wish list fulfilled, and with public input stifled whenever possible.

Thus, the Gazette reported that “Schenectady Planning Commission held closed meetings on casino plans – State official: Sessions legal but ‘evasive’” (by Haley Viccaro, A1, June 19, 2015). Observers of Schenectady’s government in action are “seldom surprised, but often shocked” and disappointed. The revelation that our Planning Commissioners met in 4-person “subcommittees” with Rush Street Gaming and the Mayor to discuss the important issue of casino-design is not surprising.  By meeting short of a 5-person quorum, the Commission did not legally have to give notice or have the meeting open to the public.

Bob Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, was probably correct that it does not violate the Open Meetings Law to hold a single non-quorum session on a topic, but that “it demonstrates a lack of transparency,” and might not pass judicial muster “If there is an attempt to evade the Open Meetings Law by ensuring that a series of gatherings will include less than a quorum.” Freemen bemoaned the fact, as do we, that the Planning Commission left the public in the dark about a major development.

A major problem with Planning Commission Chair Sharran Coppola having held the pre-Meeting sessions with Rush Street, is that she thinks those chats justify not discussing the design issues during the Public Meeting this week.  If you care about the design issue (much less good government), you are very likely to want to know what the Commissioners are thinking and suggesting about the need to re-do the redesign. Left in the dark, the public has to comment about their design wishes in a vacuum, mostly complaining about its overall reaction to the Factory-Retro second design, rather than saying what it likes and does not like about the new suggestions, and giving alternatives.  In other words, we will probably be facing a fait accompli on July 15, and be (sadly, as always) wasting our time addressing the Commissioners.

The following is an online comment left by myself (David Giacalone) at the webpage of this morning Gazette‘s article. It suggests that Rush Street be required to submit its redesign by Independence Day weekend, and it reminds the Gazette readership and the Commissioners that no one was excited about the first Schenectady design, and it should not become the fallback outcome by default.

Comment to the Gazette:

DesPlainesCasinoCollage

real photo from Des Plaines

By depriving the public of a discussion among the Commissioners, its staff, and the Casino, concerning the design of the Casino, the Commission has made it impossible for the public to make meaningful comments over the next couple of weeks about the design “retooling” and to have any significant impact on the final design. Saying what we don’t like about the 2nd design is not an adequate way to work toward a much-improved 3rd design.

Schenectady surely does deserve a spectacular design for its casino. From the start, many of us pointed out that Rush Street’s competitors understood that a destination casino must look special, while our applicant seemed to be willing to settle for a very modest “regional” casino look, and the City Hall yes-persons failed to ask for something better.

Prior to the release of the Factory-Retro red brick 2nd design, I saw and heard no praise of the first design. At best, when anyone pointed out how much it looked like a gaudy version of a 1970’s mall cineplex, and was a retread of the underwhelming, mid-West-snazzy Des Plaines Rivers casino, the reply would be, “gee, it’s not that bad.” It is my hope that the Planning Commission, Mayor and Rush Street do not simply return to the mediocre first design, adding some redbrick coloration here and there. We also should not fool ourselves that the constructed casino will look like the rendition. To see how reality differs from the Rush Street drawings in Des Plaines, go to http://tinyurl.com/DPClessons .

The Applicant should be required to submit its next design proposal before the Independence Day weekend, so that the public can give meaningful input prior to the Commission’s July 15 meeting. We deserve more than a Done Deal sprung on us at the last minute. And, because the deadline for opening the new casino is at least 26 months away (and Rush Street insists they only need 16 to 18 months for construction), the Commissioners should be willing to have a 3rd public meeting on the Site Plan in order to give it adequate review.

I’ve seen this Commission force “little guys” to come back two and three times over things as insignificant to the public as the color and shape of their tiny storefront sign. Mohawk Harbor deserves closer scrutiny than a two-meeting rush on something so complex and important. And, of course, the public needs to be in the loop, not out in the hallway due to some 4-person loophole.

shrink that casino pylon! (with updates)

 How Big? See “how big is 80 feet by 38 feet?“, and click on the collage to the left. Yep, it’s bigger than the façade of Schenectady’s former Masonic Temple.

 casinopylonTree . . . update (June 17, 2015): Click for Comments to the Planning Commission regarding the proposed Casino Pylon (9-page pdf.). The submission collects, organizes, and amplifies points made below, arguing that the Pylon is the Wrong Size and in the Wrong Place. Rush Street’s argument that the pylon is needed because the STS Steel Building blocks the view of the Casino is rejected, and elements making this location highly hazardous for traffic are detailed. [a Wrong Size/Wrong Place collage, which is part of the submitted Comments, can be found at the bottom of this posting.]  Incidentally, the proposed location would require removing a large, healthy tree — probably the loveliest tree on the overwhelmingly barren Mohawk Harbor property (see photo at the left). Site Plan review factors include “the maximum retention of existing vegetation” [§264-89(G)]. We need a tree-hugger or two on the Planning Commission.

Haley Viccaro at the Gazette covered the Commission meeting in an article you will find here; the Times Union‘s Paul Nelson blogged about it here. The Gazette reported that East Front Street Neighborhood Association’s Mary Ann Ruscitto opposed the pylon, saying “We don’t want the giant big sign at the entrance to our neighborhood.”

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.

original posting:

Which sign would you prefer as the symbol of Schenectady?

GESign2

General Electric’s famous sign, atop historic Bldg. 37 

 . . . or

DPCpylon4border  . . .  DesPlaines68

. . . an even larger version of the Rivers Casino pylon in Des Plaines IL, which is shown above and to the right of this caption.

Imposing as it is, the Des Plaines pylon would be the shorter little brother of its Schenectady sibling. If the enormous “pylon edifice” proposed by Rivers Casino at Mohawk Harbor is erected at the size and the location (close to Nott & Front Streets, and Erie Boulevard) requested by Rush Street Gaming and developer Galesi, it will almost certainly become the new symbol of Schenectady for all outsiders and newcomers, and soon local residents, too.  A few facts:

  • The Des Plaines pylon above is a mere 68′ tall, with a digital display about 25′ tall, plus an additional light-box taller than its digital sign.  When presenting their requested Schenectady zoning amendments earlier this year, David Buicko of Galesi Group said the Des Plaines pylon was similar to the one he was proposing for Schenectady. The slide showed to the Commissioners was a daytime photo of the Des Plaines pylon, in which the lightbox did not appear to be illuminated.
  • CasinoPylon-4Jun2015

    proposed pylon

    The proposed Schenectady pylon is significantly larger: It would be 80′ tall, 38′ wide, with a digital display 32′ high and 19′ wide, and it would have an edge design the entire height of the pylon that we presume is also a light-box.  The only explanation given for the increased size by Galesi Group COO David Buicko was that they needed it to be visible above the STS Steel Building so that the Casino could easily be found. The STS Building is, in fact, only 49′ tall. More important, it blocks only a fraction of the view from the street to the Casino, and none of the riverside view. Ironically, the tall and broad pylon will block the view of the casino for traffic heading east on Erie Boulevard far more than does the STS Building.

    • It was finally announced at the July 22 Planning Commission meeting that the “multisided” pylon will not simply have a message on the front and back. It will by “v” shaped, with wing of the vee facing toward Nott and Erie, and the other facing westward toward Erie and Jay St.
  • The GE sign’s giant letters are only 10′ tall, and its circular logo is 36′ in diameter, only 4 feet taller than the Casino pylon’s digital sign, and with a simple “message” considerably less distracting and less visually intense, due to the “dead space” between the illuminated portions of the logo. The GE signs sits upon historic Building 37 (site of the first corporate research facility in the nation), which is 73.89 feet tall, and sits far back from the street and from any residential or commercial neighborhoods.
  • The new Waterfront Zoning amendments allow the casino to have more than one 80′ pylon, with no stated limit.
  • Philadelphia has a lot of tall buildings that could block the view of a pylon or other freestanding sign. Nevertheless, in its Casino Zoning District, where Rush Street has its SugarHouse Casino, no freestanding sign may be taller than 40′. [Philadelphia Code, §14-405(8)] In addition, and also for safety reasons, the City of Philadelphia allows no digital displays within 200′ of an intersection. [Philadelphia Code, §14-904 (1) (b) Digital Display]

pylonrenderlocation

– above: location and size of proposed Schenectady Casino pylon –

pylontree2 . . . pyloncorner

– above (click on image to enlarge): corner where 40′ tree would be replaced with 80′ casino pylon, with Erie Blvd. a short block to the south; and see Pylon Collage 2, below –

ParkerBldg

How wide is 38 feet? It is the length of two large SUVs parked nose to nose. The Parker Building, next to Proctors, is only 24 feet wide. (For many decades the tallest building in Schenectady, it is 99 feet tall.) As mentioned above, the giant GE Logo is only 36′ in diameter.

  • For safety reasons, the NYS Department of Transportation cautions that off-site variable electronic signs should not be located so as to distract from nearby traffic control devices, nor be closer than 300 feet apart if more than one variable sign is visible to a driver at the same time. In addition, DOT requires that such digital signs appear no brighter at night than during the day, and no brighter than other signage such as billboards. See Criteria for Regulating Off-Premises Commercial Electronic Variable Message Signs (CEVMS) in New York State (2014).

casino-accessplan-frontst update (June 15, 2015, 5 PM): A visit to review the site plan this afternoon at the Schenectady Planning Office confirmed that the proposed pylon would not be located within the Casino Compound, nor merely close to Nott St. and Erie Blvd. It would be at the SW corner of the intersection of Front St. and Nott St., a few yards down from Erie Blvd., on what must be the shortest block in Schenectady. That short, narrow block will also be the point where vehicles will be exiting the planned traffic rotary, with drivers craning their necks to read the messages on the giant digital display. The plat detail to the left of this paragraph shows the pylon’s location and proximity to Erie Boulevard and the Rotary. (And, see this annotated detail from the Site Plan.)

Moreover, Front Street will be extended across Nott St. into the casino compound, rather than dead-end at that point, as it does now.  The intersection of Nott and Front Streets will be busy, and particularly confusing to first-time visitors to the Casino, or to customers leaving under the influence of alcohol.

SchdyPylonSketch2

To the right is a sketch of the proposed Schenectady pylon from the Site Plan submission. (Click on it to enlarge.) It shows the color scheme and gives the dimensions of various portions of the sign.

Thanks to All Over Albany for linking to this posting and covering the re-design issue.

It is worrisome that our City’s planning and development staff are now in the position of supporting signage of this nature along such a busy and important stretch of roadway. In 2008, the proposed City of Schenectady Comprehensive Plan would have inadvertently required the GE Sign to be removed within two years, because rooftop signs are no longer allowed, and the Plan called for all illegal signs to be removed by 2010. They wisely ended up declaring that only illegal freestanding signs must be removed by 2010. Ironically, Schenectady chief zoning officer Steve Strichman stated back in 2008 that their goal was to remove “oversized signs that have been more recently installed in front of other businesses.” As the Gazette put it (in “Rule nearly brings down GE icon“, by Kathleen Moore, February 2, 2008):

Strichman aims to rid Schenectady’s streets of highway-oriented signs that are “out of pedestrian scale.”

If there were ever to be a freestanding, roadway-oriented sign in front of a business in Schenectady that is “out of pedestrian scale”, it would be the pylon monstrosity proposed for our Rivers Casino. casinotownlogo I’m hoping that Steve Strichman is as chagrined about the Rush Street/Galesi pylon proposal as we are. And, that Steve is pressing hard in the Planning Office to shrink that pylon to a manageable size. Of course, we cannot know what size is truly manageable without line-of-sight studies that have yet to be done. For additional discussion of issues raised by erection of the proposed pylon, see our recent post “lessons learned from the Des Plaines casino“; and, see our Pylon Collage at the bottom of this posting.

Symbol of Schenectady? In addition to the GE Logo Sign, Schenectady residents might prefer the Stockade’s statue of Lawrence the Indian (a mere 13 feet high, including base), the new, human-size memorial to Edison and Steinmetz, or Union College’s splendid Nott Memorial (103′) as Schenectady’s symbol.  Casino Town is, however, the wrong image for Schenectady, whether done in futuristic, shopping mall retro, or faux-factory style. We are a proud City preparing for a casino, not a desperate one willing to be branded a Casino Town. No matter what the Mayor, Metroplex or the Chamber of Commerce want us to believe about the Casino honoring our past and symbolizing our future, that pylon needs to be cut down to size and put in its proper place.

PylonCollage

-click on the collages above and below to enlarge the image –

PylonCollage2a

lessons from the Des Plaines casino

DesPlainesCasinoCollage

Des Plaines Casino Collage

  The release of the new design for Schenectady’s Rivers Casino at Mohawk Harbor (see our June 6th posting) has started a robust debate that we hope will stir the City’s Planning Commission to actively evaluate and appropriately modify the casino Site Plan, which they will first treat in public on June 17, 2015.  Press coverage has included: Schenectady Gazette (subscription needed): “Reaction mixed on new casino design” (by Haley Viccaro, June 6, 2015); “Rethink the new casino design” (Editorial, June 7, 2015); “History shouldn’t repeat itself at casino” (column by Sara Foss, June 7, 2015); and Letters to the Editor: “Casino design could use historic charm” by Virginia Newton, and “New design of casino screams out ‘cheap’” by Suzanne Miller (June 10, 2015, scroll to 3rd Letter). And, Albany Times Union (subscription needed): “Redesign of Schenectady casino is a dud” (column by Chris Churchill, June 9, 2015).

TU‘s Chris Churchill rightly points out that:

[T]he city should demand better. The casino is a once-in-a-lifetime project and opportunity.

It’s too important to get wrong. It should be a knockout. 

photos taken by visitor at DPCR

photos taken by visitor at DPCR

Churchill also noted that the Planning Commission “would probably approve the casino if it looked like a giant Taco Bell.” Indeed, so far (e.g., with the C-3 zoning amendments), the Commissioners and Planning-Development Staff have acted like sleepy, toothless watchdogs, deaf to the requests and opinions of anyone other than the Casino Applicant (operator Rush Street Gaming, and The Galesi Group, site owner and developer), our Mayor Gary McCarthy, and County Planning satrap Ray Gillen. We hope the photos and images in this posting from Rush Street Gaming’s Rivers Casino at Des Plaines (Illinois) [“DPRC”] will prove more persuasive than the previous arguments and suggestions of many well-intentioned Schenectady residents.

The Des Plaines casino images in the Slideshow below teach us at least three important lessons:

  • As Rush Street has indicated over the past year, the first Schenectady Casino Design, from June 2014, is like a fraternal twin to the Des Plaines casino, with minor cosmetic changes and element slightly re-arranged. We got hand-me-downs from our Midwest sibling, not a Schenectady-specific design.*/

DPCrender2  . . .  Casino-RenderResort

– renderings: [L] Des Plaines Rivers Casino and [R] Schenectady’s Rivers Casino –

  •  The “reality” of the Des Plaines casino’s exterior is significantly less sparkling, futuristic, or inspiring than its artist renderings.  (That might be why DPRC’s Facebook page still has a 5-year-old rendering, rather than a recent photo, in its masthead.) The reality of the Des Plaines design might lessen the grief of many who, after seeing the Second Schenectady Design, are praising the First Schenectady Design for the first time and bemoan its demise. They should perhaps not urge the Planning Commission to revert to the First Design, but instead ask how the Second Design might be improved so that it is worthy to represent the best of Schenectady’s past accomplishments and future prospects.
  • real DPRC pylon at dusk A proposed pylon can be far more imposing once built than suggested in artistic “daytime” renderings. The brightness of the digital display at night and the size and intensity of the lightbox built into the pylon structure must be taken into consideration.  The shorter height of the Des Plaines pylon (68′ as compared to 80′ in Schenectady) and of its digital signage area (25′ tall approx. compared to 32′ in Schenectady), as well as its apparently narrower width, should give pause to Schenectady’s Planning Commission as it evaluates the proposed Schenectady design and its proximity to a vital and complicated intersection. It should ask whether the non-sign portion of the pylon “cabinet” will be lighted; and, demand a line-of-sight study of the proposed pylon edifice, in daylight and at night. For safety’s sake, it should also keep in mind the reasons behind the Philadelphia ban on digital signs within 200 feet of an intersection (§ 14-904 (1) (b) Digital Display), and the insistence of the NYS Department of Transportation that digital signs appear no brighter at night than during the day, and no brighter than permitted roadside billboards.
    • The Gazette June 7th editorial noted that “Judging from the new renderings, [the electronic signs are] as big and clunky and awful as some had feared. Interesting how those were the only things missing from the original design.”
    • Rush Street’s primary justification for its giant Schenectady pylon was that it had to be tall enough to be visible despite the STS factory building on the site.  The renderings show no connection between the pylon and the STS building, which is in fact 49′ high and not being raised up above the 100-year flood plain like the casino compound.

PylonCollage Click to see our Pylon Collage.

follow-up (July 17, 2015): In deciding whether the Big Brother of the Des Plaines pylon should be located near Erie Boulevard, the planned traffic rotary, and narrow Front and Nott Streets, they should take note that the Des Plaines pylon has a lot more “breathing room” than the Schenectady pylon would have.  Here’s a collage showing it is in a much different kind of location (click on it for a larger version):

DesPlainesVicinityE

This Slideshow shows a lot.

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We’ll let readers decide if we have drawn the correct lessons from the Des Plaines Rivers Casino. As we did in the posting “tips for the Planning Commission,” we urge members of the public to let the Planning Commission know their feelings on the overall casino design, the pylon issues, the proximity of the big, bulky hotel to the riverbank, the need to secure public access to the riverbank, and all the other issues that must be part of a Site Plan Review.

update (June 19, 2015): See “Why does Schenectady get Rush Street’s scraps.”

CasinoJune2015  *It is surprising that the Gazette editorial on June 7, and then the June 9 Churchill Column in the Times Union, concluded that the new Schenectady Design looks like the Des Plaines casino. Compare the renderings of the Second Schenectady Design in the collage at the beginning of this paragraph with the Des Plaines images in the above Slideshow.

Schenectady casino redesigned

casinoFacilityRend-June2014  It took a year, but the Schenectady Casino Gods & Gremlins have finally answered one of my prayers concerning the Rivers Casino at Mohawk Harbor: The rather tacky design (to the left of this paragraph) submitted to the public and Gaming Commission in June 2014, which mimicked Rush Street Gaming’s Des Plaines, Illinois, Casino, has been discarded for a design that is an improvement (in my personal view), even if disappointing. Below is a collage of the four images released today (and posted in a Sneak Peek by the Albany Times Union; the blog All Over Albany has high-resolution versions of the renderings, with comparisons to the 1st designs). They were submitted, along with many other documents, to the Schenectady Planning Commission for site plan review at its June 17th meeting, in 101 City Hall, at 6:30 PM. (Click on the collage for a larger version offering better detail.)

CasinoJune2015

– collage: renderings submitted June 2015 to Planning Commission –

According to Gazette reporter Haley Viccaro (“Schenectady casino seeks site plan approval“, online June 4, 2015)

The operator decided to make the two-story building less modern and instead play into Schenectady’s industrial history.

Instead of a white-colored building, the casino will be mostly brown with a large red sign mounted on its structure that says “Rivers Casino.” The casino will have metal panels, canopy ceilings and large windows.

CasinoPylon-4Jun2015The casino will be 71 feet tall and 72 feet from the River.  It will also have a pylon sign by the entrance to the site — at Erie Boulevard and Nott Street — that will be 80 feet tall with a 32-foot digital display.  I wonder if anyone considered, for aesthetic purposes, how wide the pylon should be. More important, I wonder if the Commission will insist on a line-of-sight study, and also take into consideration that an electronic sign at that location, so close to a major intersection that will have a new traffic rotary confusing people, changing every 8 seconds, is likely to be a significant safety hazard. (see our posting on the CEVMS at Proctors) By the way, under Philadelphia’s § 14-904 (1) (b), Digital Signs are prohibited within 200 ft. of any intersection of two or more streets.

CasinoSign-4Jun2015 It appears that the faux factory wall that would face the street and contain a large sign will be a portion of the casino gaming building that is around 70′ high. It is difficult to gauge its visual impact. Viscerally, it may remind us all that real things (many of them very important) used to be produced in Schenectady. It is somewhat ironic that Galesi Group CEO David Buicko told the Planning Commission the casino needed a tall pylon and lots of signage to overcome the effect of the STS Building, which is only 49′ tall, and does not appear to block the view of the casino from the street or the River.

The Gazette article also states there will be 14,929 square feet of signage.  It looks as if there will be no large, garish electronic display on the building as was shown in last year’s casino design.  It will be interesting to see how the pylon display is used, as to motion and brightness and frequency of changing. Rush Street said in its Environmental Impact statement that it would use up 15,000 square feet of signage. Nonetheless, our very generous Corporation Counsel, Carl Falotico, interrupted a Planning Commission member who questioned the 20,000 sq. ft. figure originally called for in the City zoning C-3 Waterfront amendment, and the City’s chief lawyer insisted he had looked closely at Rush Street’s needs and 20,000 was the very least they would need. That put an end to discussion and questions about the amount of signage. (Because Rush Street’s staff had mistakenly counted both sides of the pylon and our staff did not notice that mistake during its close review, the figure was reduced to 19,000 sq. ft. in the final amendment.)

CasinoHotel-4Jun2105

– above: the casino hotel: large and looming too close to the riverbank –

There are many facets the Planning Commission must consider in doing its casino site plan review (see our Zoning Law, §264-89 et seq.). I very much hope the Commission Chair remembers that she rushed through consideration of the zoning amendments because the members planned to look very closely at the details of the actual site plan. Another single review session would be a very bad sign.

BrocktonCasino

– proposed Brockton MA casino –

  .p.s. The first online Comment at the Gazette article described above states “Wow. The new one looks like a humdrum, suburban mall that you can find in Anytown, USA. Just what we always wanted in Schenectady. Uggh.” That was my instant reaction also, despite being pleased that the first design was being junked. In a way, we have replaced a tacky design like a 1970’s suburban mall with a more upscale 21st Century shopping mall design. The casino proposed by Rush Street’s Massachusetts division for Brockton (image above this paragraph), with its New England college aura, is clearly superior to the new Schenectady design.  As was the design Rush Street proposed in 2013 for a slots parlor in Worcester, Mass. (See Worcester Business Journal, April 25, 2013), and in 2014 in its joint venture with Saratoga Raceway for the Hudson Valley Casino & Resort:

– below: Hudson Valley Casino & Resort site rendition –

HudsonValleyCasino-Rush-Saratoga

RushStreet-Worchester2013

– above: proposed Rush Street slots parlor for Worcester MA (2013) –

Safety factors for Proctors’ electronic marquee messages and other LCD displays


ProctorsMarquee06Mar2015 I
t’s only been four weeks since the Schenectady City Council passed a resolution allowing commercial electronic variable message signs (“CEVMS”), also known as electronic message boards, to change every 8 seconds, rather than the 60-second interval that was the minimum allowed between changes under the prior zoning code, §264-61 I(3). Proctors [there has been no apostrophe in its official name since 2007, despite the one on the marquee] has, however, already adopted the significantly shorter interval.  Its electronic marquee signs along State Street near Jay, now have intensely bright, colorful, quickly-changing ads for its upcoming performances that are designed to attract attention, and public service announcements, while spotlighting their corporate sponsors, The Times Union and Keeler Motor Car Company.  The marquee appears to have the same message on all three sides most of the time, but occasionally the messages differ.

As discussed at length below, these changes raise important questions about the lawfulness of the CEVMS display and its potential threat to public safety.

share this posting with the short URL: http://tinyurl.com/ProctorsCEVMS

follow-up (Dec. 19, 2017): Gazette reporter Sara Foss published a column today called “LED displays unsightly, distracting,” about a display at the Albany Times Union Center. I left the following Comment:

Thanks for raising this issue, which impacts the safety and aesthetics of our busy roadways and neighborhoods. Please write again to address the proliferation of these signs in Schenectady, since City Hall favorites Proctors, Galesi, and Rivers Casino asked in 2015 for signs that change much more often, and are larger, brighter and closer to roadways.

To serve these favorites, as opposed to the public, the City (including the Planning Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals) has basically overlooked all issues related to traffic safety (vehicles and pedestrians) and the impact on residents and ambiance. The Zoning Law requirement that an applicant demonstrate the lack of negative impact on safety and the environment [which includes the nature of the neighborhood] has been totally ignored, with one-sentence assertions that there will be no impact accepted without any questions. The large, strikingly bright sign at Erie Blvd. and Freeman’s Bridge for the Lighthouse Restaurant, and permission for an LCD screen for Mohawk Harbor at Mohawk Harborway on Erie Boulevard, and for Crosstown Plaza (atop the grandfathered tallest sign in the City, at one of the most dangerous intersections), are recent examples.

See http://tinyurl.com/ProctorsCEVMS for a history of this issue in Schenectady and a list of topics and questions the NYS DOT and other experts consider when using such signs.

. . ORIGINAL POSTING . .

 IMG_7577 . . IMG_7583MSpsa

– above: two of the many ads on display on Sunday, March 7 –

The following 19-second video is presented in its original, unedited form to show a bit of the current marquee experience on the Proctors block. During those 19 seconds, the image on the signs changes four times. Of course, the effect and affect of the Marquee can not be captured by either a still photo or a video clip viewed on a computer screen.

In addition to its public information role, this webposting is meant to be part of a Complaint to Schenectady’s Development and Code Enforcement Offices.  The current operation of the Proctors marquee raises a few important questions about the lawfulness of the CEVMS display and its potential threat to public safety.  These are my primary concerns/complaints about the Proctors CEVMS display:

  • Does Proctors Need a Special Use Permit? Is it lawful for Proctors to make this significant change in its marquee’s electronic signage without seeking a Special Use Permit from the City’s Planning Commission?  Schenectady’s Zoning Code, §264-61(I), requires that a special use permit be issued by the Planning Commission before an electronic message board is permitted.  As shown in the image immediately below, in order to protect the public from any substantial neighborhood disruption, or threats to traffic conditions, or to the public health or safety, the owner/applicant of any such sign must show at a public hearing that the proposed sign will have no such negative impact.

Sec.264-61(I)EVMS

– Schenectady Municipal Code §264-61 (I) – Electronic message boards. (Click on image to enlarge it)

In addition, the following message (emphasis added) appears* on the City’s webpage for the Department of Development:

Sign Approvals – The City of Schenectady has Sign Regulations for all new or changed signs.  Please verify conformance prior to purchasing any signs by looking in Article 9 of the Zoning Ordinance. [emphasis added]

*followup: Sorry for the inconvenience, but at least since the City’s website was revamped, the above Sign Approvals notice was removed from the Development Office webpage, and the word Sign no longer appears there, nor on the Building Inspector/Code Enforcement Page, or the Board of Zoning Appeals page.

Whatever potential safety hazard the Proctors marquee might have posed when it changed once every minute, its changing every eight seconds surely represents a significant change in the signage, with a substantially greater threat to traffic conditions and public safety that should be fully evaluated by the Planning Commission after a public hearing.  As is outlined more fully below in the discussion of factors affecting the safety of CEVMS displays, the curbside location of the Proctors marquee, at the center of our busiest downtown block, makes it the very situation that most calls for review under §264-61(I).

DOTSeeBeSeen Background Note: In September 2013, the NYS Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) announced a program to increase pedestrian safety along the 15-mile Route 5 Corridor, which stretches from State Street in Albany, through Colonie and Niskayuna, where it is called Central Avenue, and then Schenectady’s State Street. In addition to increased enforcement of traffic laws and education, DOT planned a detailed study of pedestrian-related accidents on the Rt. 5 Corridor, focusing on the 8 segments of Rt. 5 with the most pedestrian-vehicle accidents and interactions.

FocusArea1pedsOne Focus Area segment was downtown Schenectady, from Nott Terrace to Washington Avenue, which includes the Proctors Block. A detailed analysis was made of accidents over the 6-year period 2007-2012, with pedestrian-vehicle traffic counts made for the 2-hour AM and PM rush hour peak periods. The resultant 2015 Pedestrian Safety Study, “New York Route 5 Comprehensive Pedestrian Safety Study” (July 1, 2015), showed that the Proctors Block (from Broadway to the Jay St pedestrian crossing to Clinton St.) had the most pedestrian crossings of any Schenectady block (1,222 crossings, Fig. 3.2, above), and experienced a significant percentage of Schenectady’s Rt. 5 pedestrian accidents (see Fig. 3.3). The block has “a signalized mid‐block crossing at Jay Street in the middle of the downtown area adjacent to numerous restaurants, hotels, and Proctor’s Theater”, and mix of parallel and diagonal parking. (see the Study, at 14-22) 

The Study showed pedestrian use of traffic signals far below national averages along all of Rt.5, including the Proctors Block; highlighted the problem of mid-block jaywalking; and indicated that glare and inattentive drivers and pedestrians were problems. (The Study did not cover non-pedestrian vehicle crashes, nor the traffic and pedestrian issues raised when a large show is exiting the Proctors site.)

mayorgarymccarthy2013 When the Study was released, Assembly-member Angelo Santabarbara said, “Venues like Proctors and all businesses on Jay and State streets in Schenectady see a lot of foot-traffic. Implementing programs to keep our families safe in these areas will keep people coming downtown and enjoying all it has to offer.” And, Schenectady Mayor Gary R. McCarthy stated, “Route 5 is one of the City’s most traveled commercial corridors and a vital link between the City of Schenectady and our neighboring communities.  I look forward to working with the Governor’s representatives, the New York State Department of Transportation, and all other involved parties in improving pedestrian and motorist safety alike, thereby enhancing the walkability of this great City.”
See, “Safety improvements coming to Central Avenue” at WGY.com.

Some would argue quite cogently that no interval less than 60 seconds is appropriate at the Proctors site on State Street. However, if a shorter minimum interval between message changes is to be permitted, the factors presented near State and Jay Streets seem to call for intervals significantly longer than every 8 seconds.

The primary question is whether Proctors, or any other owner of an existing electronic sign in Schenectady with variable messages, may lawfully change to the shorter interval without seeking permission from the Planning Commission?  To avoid any confusion, the amendment to our electric message board ordinance that was promulgated last month should have explicitly stated that any speed-up of an electronic sign visible from a public roadway or residential zone must receive another special use permit.  It did not, and I do not know whether the oversight was intentional or accidental.  Given the clear purpose and goals of §61(I), the Code Enforcement Office (and the public) should demand prior use of the special use permit process.

IMG_7497-001

– above: electronic signs that change every 8 second are shown on the Proctors marquee and on the entry to its Apostrophe Cafe and Lounge –

  • Are Proctors’ Electronic message signs spaced too closely together?  In order to assure public safety, the change to 8-second intervals should have been explicitly accompanied by the related DOT CEVMS spacing requirement, which concerns situations where a driver can see more than one CEVMS sign at the same time:

    The Spacing rule in the “DOT CEVMS Criteria Statement” says (at page 2, emphasis added):

    Spacing = If more than one CEVMS sign face is visible to the driver at the same time on either side of the highway, the signs must be spaced at least 2500’ apart on controlled access highways, and at least 300’ apart on other types of highways.”

    [Note: In case you are wondering, State Street is a “highway”. Under the NYS Code, “highway” is any publicly maintained roadway that is “open to the use of the public for purposes of vehicular travel.” N.Y. VAT. LAW § 118. More specifically, a “public highway” is “Any highway, road, street, avenue, alley, public place, public driveway or any other public way.” N.Y. VAT. LAW § 134]

    IMG_7489

    – heading west on State Street towards Proctors –

    Driving west up State Street, a driver can see the changing displays on both the front and side panels of the Proctors marquee, as he or she heads toward the traffic signal at Jay Street, which is at the south end of a one-block pedestrian mall.  

    Heading east on State Street, a driver can see both the side message board and the front one at the same time, for quite a distance on that busy, confusing block.  He or she can also see the flashing reflection of the marquee display in a window that is on a wall perpendicular to the marquee.  In addition, the driver heading east can see the changing electronic sign above the doorway for Proctors Apostrophé cafe’ and ticket counter, with it crammed lettering. Rather than being 300′ from the marquee, the lounge’s 8-second electronic message board is less than 30 feet away. This situation is clearly inconsistent with the NYS DOT spacing requirement for off-premise CEVMS signs, causing added distraction and confusion on what is perhaps the busiest and narrowest part of State Street, at the heart of Schenectady’s downtown district, and with arguably the greatest parking woes and most jaywalking of any block in the City.  Of course, the location of the Proctors’ marquee on the theater’s premises (viz., attached to the building) in no way affects its ability to distract drivers and pedestrians, and is clearly relevant to assessing its potential adverse safety effects.

  • Is the CEVMS display on Proctors marquee too bright?  The marquee lights at Proctors seem much too bright.  NYSDOT’s CEVMS criteria Statement sets a maximum for night-time brightness, saying it should not appear brighter than in daytime:

Maximum Brightness = 5,000 cd/m2 (daytime), 280 cd/m2 (nighttime)

It also says, in more practical terms:

The brightness of CEVMS is not only potentially distracting due to its ability to attract increased attention, but may also create problems with dark adaptation among older drivers. In order to minimize these dangers, the brightness of this technology should be constrained such that CEVMS do not appear brighter to drivers than existing static billboards.

IMG_7492

Members of the public rarely have the ability to measure illumination readily at hand. We end up just “eyeballing” the display, and perhaps looking for our sunglasses.  But, the City’s code enforcement office certainly has the capability to measure illumination. Both of the shorthand criteria mentioned in the DOT Statement — not appearing brighter than in daytime and not appearing brighter to drivers than existing static billboards seem problematic enough to warrant the short trip from City Hall to Proctors to evaluate the situation from the DOT CEVMS perspective, as well as under the City’s Code.

IMG_7576-001

The following slideshow gives a glimpse at the things theater-goers do when exiting Proctors. All daytime photos were taken over a 17-minute span on a cold and windy afternoon, when the Sunday matinee of “Annie” was letting out, March 8,  2015.

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Drivers passing by Proctors or trying to pick up theater goers when Annie was letting out needed to be mindful of the pedestrians and their rides, the traffic signal at Jay Street, and vehicles leaving parking spaces, rather than being distracted by a quickly-changing, bright and colorful sign with information that is (1) difficult to fully comprehend, because of font size, brightness, short duration, etc.; (2) not immediately needed by patrons for getting to Proctors or finding parking; and (3) easy to attain from many other sources.  Were it dark, with precipitation or ice making the road and sidewalks slippery, or perhaps winds and frigid temperatures pressuring parents and older theater-goers to find shelter as soon as possible, even more attention on the demands of driving would be needed, whether driving through, picking up passengers, or safely exiting parking spaces.

 Is the risk to public safety worth taking so that Proctors can show-off with a little more pizzazz? Does Proctors need bright, quickly-changing messages to distinguish it from any other business or institution in downtown Schenectady?  Do Mssrs. Philip Morris and Ray Gillen contend that the flashing marquee is not there to attract the attention of passers-by? Isn’t the situation at Proctors precisely what the drafters had in mind when the protection of a special use permit and required findings on the impact on traffic, health and safety were placed in Schenectady’s ordinance regulating the use of commercial electronic message signs?

Strichman-email-20Mar2015

– email reply of Zoning Office to the above Complaint –

update (April 22, 2015): On March 20, 2015, Steve Strichman, Schenectady’s Chief Zoning Officer, replied to the above Complaint with an email (click on image above this update) that made it clear there would be no action to require Proctors nor, apparently, any other current holder of an electronic sign permit in Schenectady, to re-apply for a Special Use Permit in order to demonstrate that the higher speed will not have a significant negative impact on the listed Special Use Permit factors. Mr. Strichman wrote:

Mr. Giacalone

It is not my intention to revisit all of the electronic message boards that have received Special Use Permits over the past 15 years.

The special use permits were issued with the ability to change messages at rates set by the City Council.  That continues to be the case even though the time period has changed.

As for items 2 and 3 below in your email, those are D.O.T. regulations over which the city of Schenectady has no enforcement authority.

Thank you for your concern on this issue.

Steve Strichman

My email that day in response to Mr. Strichman asked a number of questions, including:

Is it your position that increasing the rate of change on an electronic message board from a 60-second interval to an 8-second interval is not significant enough an alteration to warrant another review?
– Is it your position that the showing needed to get a permit for changes at once per minute is adequate to satisfy the traffic and safety issues that would need to be demonstrated for a permit to change a sign every 8 seconds, at one of the most sensitive locations in the City for signs that basically abut the road?

In addition, I gave this reply to Strichman’s dismissal of the NYDOT criteria for CEVMS:

Of course, I don’t expect Schenectady to enforce the DOT regulations, but as you surely know (1) they are a good standard [promulgated after study and consideration by experts] regarding safety and traffic issues that are relevant to the showing required under  §264-61 (I)(2), and (2) the City Council and Planning Commission both said the change to 8 seconds was done to be consistent with the DOT Standards.  Why would you ignore the DOT standards meant to safeguard the public that were meant to complement the 8-second interval?

FOILED. No response was made by the Schenectady Zoning Office, or any other of the copied officials, to my March 20, 2015 reply.  That same day, I submitted a FOIL request for all documents relating to application(s) by Proctors to operate variable electronic sign displays. The FOIL office responded by sending me only one document, the Decision Letter, dated Sept. 27, 2013. It does not mention interval speed. Moreover, the 09/18/2013 Minutes of the Planning Commission (see pp. 3-4) meeting, at which the SUP was approved, makes no mention of the minimum change interval for the electronic display.  When the FOIL office suggested I needed to file another FOIL request for the additional documents relating to the application of Proctors for the September 2013 special use permit, I complied rather than complaining that they should have included those documents, filing on April 15, 2015, and am waiting to see if Proctors submitted the SUP Application Form that is required by the Planning Office.

red check follow-up: I have received the SUP Application of Proctors, signed by Philip Morris, and dated Sept. 2, 2013 (two months after NYSDOT and Mayor McCarthy announced the comprehensive Rt. 5 pedestrian safety campaign described above). It is understandable that the City Planners would not want the public to see what constituted Proctor’s evidence that there would be no substantial or undue adverse effects from its new variable-message digital marquee.  The rather nontechnical “explanations”, from page 2 of the 3-page application, were:

MarqueeSUP02Sep2013

Thus, no supplemental application for a Special Use Permit was required before Proctors put up the much faster variable message board, because it already had a special use permit for its much-slower digital sign. As expected, however, the Planning Office had approved the first digital marquee based on one sentence, with no facts or studies, or expert opinions, but instead simply denying there would be any adverse impact on public health or safety.

– posting continued –

 IMG_7539-001 . . . IMG_7527  .

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*.+ – click this thumbnail to see the collage “Exiting Annie” –

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Should we be concerned about short-interval CEVMS at Proctors?  

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Is PROCTORS jazzed-up MARQUEE a preview of Casino Town?

IMG_7488 Last Friday, upon seeing the new, hyperactive display on Proctors marquee for the first time at night, I had to wonder: “If this is what Schenectady’s culture mavens think is tasteful signage, what should we expect from the Casino Gang over at Mohawk Harbor?” Is this a glimpse of our gaudy, distraction-filled future as Schenectady the Casino Town?

For many images, and a video clip, of the marquee signage, and discussion of its threat to public safety and traffic conditions at State and Jay Streets, see our comprehensive posting: “Proctors accelerated marquee messages look unsafe and unlawful“, which is being released simultaneously with this post.

collage Speaking of Casino Town, the CEVMS “message board” on the front face of Proctors’ marquee is perhaps 50 sq. ft. of signage.  So, it would take almost 400 of them to equal the 19,000 sq. ft. of signs the City Council is allowing in just the casino portion of Mohawk Harbor.

No. Ferry St. lessons said to cause repaving delays

. . . No. Ferry St. in the Schenectady Stockade looking north toward the Lawrence Circle showing repaving deforestation-18Jun2010

– No. Ferry St. stripped of its mature trees due to repaving –

The Schenectady Gazette has an article today on the delay in paving Washington Ave.  “Sidewalk talks delay paving of Washington Avenue in Schenectady” [must subscribe, register for access to article], by Kathleen Moore.  Lessons learned from the re-paving of No. Ferry St. are given as the reason for the delay:

1) Some residents did not pay for upgrades to their sidewalks last time, so Commissioner of General Services Carl Olsen says “he’s going to have everything planned — and all contracts signed — before construction season.”

2) Residents of Washington Ave. do not like the look of No. Ferry St., with its shade trees removed, and do not want the same thing to happen on their street. Thus,  thus months of negotiations will be needed, as “residents and city officials are talking about rerouting the sidewalk around big trees, or simply paving the street without redoing the sidewalks.”

. . . . 

– Washington Ave. residents don’t want their shady block (l) to look like No Ferry St. (r) –

SOSTNoFerry follow-up (April 4, 2016): Click on the image to the left to see our collage No. Ferry St. Deforestation, a set of before and after photos.

According to the Gazette, “[Olsen] expects the planning will be useful for further historic district paving projects, and he wants the residents to be pleased with the end result.”  As I will argue in an upcoming posting, Schenectady badly needs a policy governing the treatment of existing trees when the City repaves or takes other actions.  follow-up (Noon, June 18, 2010): See our posting “Schenectady Needs a Tree Preservation Policy.”

update (June 25, 2010): See our posting “Gazette again roots for Stockade trees.”

. . . p.s. If the grand trees in front of St. George’s Church on No. Ferry St. had been alongside the curb and not a few feet away on the Church’s front lawn, they would also have been removed.

please help save our Washington Ave. shade trees

As discussed below, the City of Schenectady plans to remove the large Washington Avenue trees that are pictured in this posting, while repaving the street and repairing the sidewalks this Spring or Summer (only the new, small, decorative trees would be left).

Click on a photo for a larger version and scroll over it for a description.

– scene on Washington Ave. showing endangered trees during the 2009 Stockade-athon –

. . . . . . . .   

– trees on Washington Avenue in early April 2010 –

update: (April 15, 2010): Early this afternoon, I filed a Freedom of Information Request [FOIL], supplemented with a second Request around 4 PM, at City Hall concerning the repaving and repair of the street and sidewalks of Washington Ave. Go below the fold at the end of this posting for the wording of the FOIL request and the City’s response.

About ten days ago, at a meeting of Washington Avenue owners and residents with the City’s chief engineer, I first learned that the City of Schenectady’s engineering department was planning to remove all large trees located between the sidewalk and curb on Washington Avenue, as part of a project to repave the street and repair the sidewalks.  The trees would come down whether they were healthy or not, despite the condition of the adjoining sidewalk, as all sidewalks would be taken up and replaced regardless of their condition.   Short of fire-bombing or similar criminal or terrorist acts, nothing more drastic could be done to alter the beauty and ambiance of any neighborhood than taking down its shade trees, especially where there are sufficient trees to form a canopy over the street.  It seems especially irresponsible to perpetrate such urban deforestation in an historic district that has special protection against any change in the appearance of its streetscape.

Stockadians and lovers of the neighborhood, please pause to consider what has already happened on No. Ferry Street (for sample photos click).  Now, keep in mind that the City plans to go block by block throughout the Stockade with this paving and repairing project.  We need to change the policy before more trees are needlessly removed.

Also, note: The current plan of the Engineering Department is to remove all sidewalks, to be replaced with either tinted concrete or — at he homeowner’s request and expense — the anemic bluestone that can be seen on No. Ferry St. (at the Widow Kendall house, for example).   Existing slate will not be put back once regrading is done.  Preserving slate sidewalks is another very good reason (beyond saving trees) to ask the City to consider each stretch of sidewalk separately.

My hope is that the City will, instead — like many municipalities around the nation and world — consider all alternatives and make every reasonable effort to preserve every healthy tree.   We were told on Thursday April 1st that the requests for bids would go out in a week or two.   The City should halt the project before bids are requested, and ask the Schenectady Historic District Commission to study and make proposals about the preservation of trees (especially related to actions by the City).  I believe the Stockade Association should be on record urging the City to make every effort to preserve healthy mature trees. The Commission may initiate a study or make recommendations for new policy, laws or regulation, and it should do so, if not specifically requested by the City.

Here’s another shot taken near Front Street on Washington Avenue during the2009  Stockade-athon.  Imagine the scene without the trees:

. . Stockade-athon 2009 . . .

After saying it was impossible to keep any tree along the street due to safety and liability problems once the roots on both sides of the trees were removed for the repaving, the engineering department representative said — rather halfheartedly — that any owner who wants to try to keep his try should let him know, so he could “see what we can do.”

Is this box elder ..  . . . too ugly to live? . . .

Instead of jumping at the chance to keep his tree, the owner of the above unique, glorious and healthy tree (seen in several shots in this posting) said he was glad to have it taken down because it was ugly.  [Box elders, formally named acer negundo, is also called a maple ash.] Other owners in that row also said they would not mind having the tree taken down in front of their houses — one because it put leaves on his roof and in his gutter, and another because its branches touched the house, and it was not a very grand tree.  Of course, Historic District homeowners can’t take a shutter off the front of their homes without getting permission.   Yet, the homeowners were willing to have a large mature, healthy tree removed forever for some rather underwhelming or frivolous reasons.  Their say is apparently final according to the head of the repaving project.  The fate of these trees should clearly not be up to a single property owner.  The interests of the entire block and the whole Stockade District (perhaps with input from the Historic District Commission) must be given great weight.

One option the City has is to not take up sidewalks that do not require repair or replacement for safety reasons; another is to do less drastic root removal at sites where the sidewalk can be leveled without major root removal.  Take a look at the sidewalk along this stretch of Washington Avenue and consider whether such options might be viable in order to save a healthy tree:

. .  . .

The City is certain to claim fiscal reasons for asking construction crews to merely plow up all the sidewalks and mow down all the trees.  Of course, that assumes it’s is cheaper to do the blunderbuss approach, taking up all the sidewalks, rather than leaving significant stretches of sidewalk alone because they do not need drastic repair or because a moderately-needed repair is simply not a good enough reason to take down a mature shade tree.   More to the point in an historic district: an added expense in order to preserve an important structure, place or streetscape is considered a small price to pay to maintain the character of the district.

If you would like to help preserve our Stockade trees, please contact the mayor and the City Council members, send letters to your newspapers, and tell your friends to do the same. Here are email addresses for the Council and the Mayor:

Original List (2010):

Councilman Joseph Allen <jallen@schenectadyny.gov>
Councilwoman Barbara Blanchard <bjblanch@nycap.rr.com>
Councilman Mark Blanchfield <mblanchfield@schenectadyny.gov>

Councilman Carl Erikson <cerikson@schenectadyny.gov>
Councilwoman Denise Brucker  <dbrucker@schenectadyny.gov>
Councilman Thomas A. Della Sala <tomdellasala@aol.com>

Councilwoman Margaret King <mcking43@aol.com>
Councilman Gary McCarthy <gmccarthy@schenectadyny.gov>
Mayor Brian U. Stratton <mayor@nycap.rr.com>

Updated Contact List (March 2016):

Your comments are welcome on either side of this issue, but no personal attacks will be allowed and civility is required.

. . .

update (May 29, 2010): Washington Avenue looks pretty good at the end of May 2010, with leaves on all the trees. Check out the posting “around the block around sunset” at suns along the Mohawk.

update (June 18, 2010):  See our post, “No. Ferry St. lessons said to cause repaving delays,” about today’s Schenectady Gazette article  “Sidewalk talks delay paving of Washington Avenue in Schenectady” [must subscribe, register for access to article], by Kathleen Moore.  follow-up (Noon, June 18, 2010): See our posting “Schenectady Needs a Tree Preservation Policy.”

– stay tuned for more commentary, news and photos at this website –

FOIL REQUEST: As noted above, I filed two Freedom of Information Law requests at City Hall on April 15, 2010, seeking the following records relevant to the repaving and repair of the street and sidewalk on Washington Avenue(April 15, 2010): Below you can find the wording of those requests with discussion of the City’s response.

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