have we learned the lessons of the 1690 Schenectady Massacre?

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47e1-3880-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.w (1) … nypl.digitalcollections.510d47e0-f447-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.w (1)

. . click on the images above to go to their page in the New York Public Library Digital Collections . .

Yesterday was the 326th anniversary of the infamous Schenectady Massacre, which occurred on February 8, 1690. The Massacre was the source of the Snowmen at the Gates legend that inspired the name and header image of this weblog. As we wrote in explanation:

snowmencameo Our name “Snowmen at the Gates” refers to the legendary snowmen “standing guard” in a blizzard, on February 8, 1690, outside the open north gate of the sturdy stockade fence that was built to protect the little village of Schenectady. Although messages had been received from the larger outpost at Albany warning that a war party was on the way that evening, the appointed sentries apparently decided to leave their posts to have a tankard or two at the nearby Douwe Aukes tavern. That dereliction of duty allowed a band of 114 French soldiers and 96 Sault and Algonquin Indians to enter the stockade, burn down the village, and massacre, kidnap, or scare away its residents.

Perhaps out of embarrassment, this story was not often retold in our neighborhood. I lived in the Stockade for two decades before I learned about it from Bob Eckstein’s well-researched discussion in his book The History of the Snowman (Simon & Schuster, NY, 2007, at 210-212). In fact, a longtime Stockade resident and business owner who gives informational tours of the Stockade had never heard of the tale when I mentioned it to him last Fall. Non-Schenectady-resident Bob Eckstein notes that:

The details of this event have been rewritten many times in the form of poems, song and history books, based mostly on rumor—often done to suit the desires of different political sides at work.

Quoting several historians, Eckstein discusses many of the reasons and excuses given for ignoring the warnings from Albany, and for the failure of the mostly-Dutch settlers to obey the orders of their hated English commander Captain John Sander Glen to close the gates.  Pointing out skepticism from some quarters about the snowman portion of the tale, Eckstein concludes that “Almost every historic source corroborates the snowman detail.” For example, he quotes Historian Nathaniel Bartlett Sylvester, from History of Saratoga County (1878), concerning the reaction to Capt. Glen’s wanting the stockade gate closed:[villagers] ridiculed him and placed a snow image as mock sentinel…before the open gate.”

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47e0-f443-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.w (1)  In addition, neither Bob Eckstein nor I have found any source that denies the gates were left open (stuck in the high snow) with no human sentinels in place when the French and Indians from Montreal arrived with malice in their hearts at Schenectady’s north gate. Like Eckstein, I agree that the villagers were wrong to assume that no human would be traveling, much less attacking, under such bad weather. That sounds like a lame excuse made up after the fact, as midwinter raids in deep snow had been made before, and blizzard conditions would make the raiders harder to detect and the guards perhaps less able to respond.

Others have filled in details of the night of the Massacre. Gaye Jeanes writes at Geni.com, in “The Schenectady (NY) Massacre of 1690“, that “The original target was Fort Orange (present day Albany), but when Schenectady was discovered [by a scouting party] to be defenseless the raiding party decided to attack [Schenectady] instead. Finding no sentinels other than two snowmen and the gate ajar according to the tradition, the raiders silently entered Schenectady and launched their attack . .”

In his “Why Schenectady was destroyed in 1690 (A paper read before the Fortnightly club of Schenectady, May 3, 1897)”, Jason S. Landon points to the “confusion and anarchy” caused when news of the abdication of James II and the ascension of William and Mary to the English throne reached New York, and disagreement arose as to the rightful governor of the colony. He then explains that:

[T]he people of Schenectady were divided in their sentiments, and though warned of their danger by the friendly Mohawks, still, incapable of union, they failed to obey either power and fell into anarchy and subsisted without any government. The result was that, though the village was surrounded by a stockade and had a garrison of eight soldiers commanded by a lieutenant, the gates of the stockade were upon this night of destruction left open and unguarded, and citizens and soldiers slept the sleep of the just.

snowmencameoBW-004 Eckstein sees no reasons why the snowman detail in the Massacre story would be a fabrication. One reason he gives is that “No one slanders a person by falsely accusing them of making a snowman of all things.” I agree with his conclusion, but not with that particular reasoning. Charging that a soldier or citizen detailed to guard the village went AWOL thinking snowmen would serve as adequate sentinels seems very serious to me, surely worthy of a courts martial, especially given the resulting massacre. Indeed the seriousness of the charge, made more scandalous by claiming the guards were drinking at a tavern rather than at their posts, seems like a very likely motive behind the people of the Stockade wanting to deny the incident and hushing it up. For one thing, descendants of some of those Dutch families are still living in Schenectady or its vicinity.

We’ll never know whether the AWOL guards really thought the snowmen would fool a raiding party. Eckstein is probably correct that no one was likely to stop to build snowmen in the middle of a blizzard in the dark. But, it seems highly likely that there would be snowmen built near the gates of the stockade. More than half of the inhabitants of Schenectady at the time were children, with no iPads or x-boxes or even tv’s available to keep them indoors. Building snowmen seems like a natural recreation, and would allow the kids to play soldier (and Indian). Given the treacherous surrounding countryside, parents and guards would almost surely have kept the children close to the stockade gates to monitor them better and help assure their quick return if danger arose.

The idea of the guards choosing a warm tavern over sentinel duty in a blizzard also makes a lot of sense. If you were going AWOL, would you return to your barracks or home, or would you sneak over to the pub? The Schenectady County Historical Society’s weblog tells us, in “Taverns and Inns of Schenectady, Part 1” (July 15, 2015), that:

Beer and heartier beverages were an important part of Colonial life and some of the more prominent original settlers of Schenectady brewed and sold these beverages in their taverns and inns. Alcohol was not just limited to the men in New Netherlands, women and children were also known to drink. Early Dutch settlers were so fond of imbibing that when Peter Stuyvesant became director-general of New Netherland, he passed several restrictions on drinking and selling alcohol.

Eckstein says the errant sentinels went to Douwe Aukes Tavern, “the center of most ruckus and riots in Fort Schenectady.”  That conjecture seems fairly likely, too. For example, in his 1914 book “Schenectady, Ancient and Modern” Joel Henry Monroe tells us (at 41):

 [Douwe Aukes De Freeze] kept an inn or tavern . . located at the corner of State street and Mill lane, near the first church erected in the village. Douwe Aukes’ inn apparently was the herding place of the villagers and the recognized center of festivities, for it is said that high carnival was or had been in action there the night of the massacre in 1690, which in some degree may  have caused the pervading insensibility to the impending slaughter of the citizens.

An 1898 Centennial Tablet located at Cucumber Alley and Washington Avenue states that there was a 24-man garrison located in the stockade the night of the massacre, and that “18 were scattered scattered through village, during the massacre.” I’m not certain, but that might suggest that six of the soldiers were at Douwe Aukes’ tavern when the raid took place.

DSCF1316-MassacreMarker Despite the weight of the evidence supporting the historical existence of snowmen outside the open stockade gate on the night of the Massacre, the very recently published February 2016 edition of the Stockade Spy, the newsletter of the Stockade Association, has a front page article stating that the tale “of the Snowmen Sentinels that failed to protect the village, remain[s] subject to skepticism and speculation.” The author, Samuel Maurice, also calls it a “tall tale.” In a similar vein, the historical marker to the left of this paragraph,erected at the Centennial of the City’s charter, says only that the raiding party “entered during night at north gate,” without mentioning it being rather easy to enter.

  • DSCF1319 Maurice gives more credibility to the Ride of Simon Schermerhorn that night to warn the people of Albany of the attack, than he does the snowman story. Some Schermerhorn Skeptics wonder if he wasn’t just fleeing or looking for medical help for his wounds. The people of Fort Orange at Albany, of course, knew the raiders were heading for Schenectady that night. Simon might have had mixed motives, but Schenectady needs as many heroes as it can get for the sad tale of its Massacre.

The skepticism over the snowman legend mentioned in the current issue of the Stockade Spy is rather ironic, for at least two reasons: (1) Sharing page one of the February Spy with Maurice’s “The Schenectady Massacre” is an article with the boldface headline “Celebrate the Snowman! A Winter Commemoration of the 1690 Massacre“. Despite a total lack of snow, the first-ever Snowman Celebration was held at Riverside Park, Saturday afternoon, February 6. (Go to “suns along the Mohawk” for photographic coverage of the event.) By promoting the Celebration of the Massacre Snowmen, the Stockade Association gave the legend its broadest publicity ever within our Stockade neighborhood. And,

DSCF1362

artificial snowmen celebrating fake sentinels

(2) The Stockade Association is perhaps the prime private organization targeted by this weblog when it asks whether Schenectady’s watchdogs are adequately on guard and acting to fulfill their duties to protect our community. (It is, of course, the one I know the best, as a resident of the Stockade.) Over the past few years, the leaders of the Stockade Association, and an often indifferent membership, appear to this observer to be sleepy, toothless watchdogs. They seem unwilling to fulfill the organization’s primary objectives, as stated in its charter and by-laws, especially: the “Promotion and preservation of the residential character of the Stockade Historic District”; the “Representation before any City or County governmental agency or component on matters affecting the neighborhood”, and enhancing the safety and beauty of the neighborhood. The most glaring examples are, first, the failure to put the issue of the Schenectady Casino (a mere half mile from the district’s western boundary) on its agenda, in order to allow full discussion, promote needed research, and gauge the support or opposition of residents and property owners. And, second, the current refusal, despite new leadership, to ascertain — and, more importantly, to simply ask the Planning Commission to find out through a competent Visual Impact Assessment — how the giant Rivers Casino pylon sign and LCD screens will affect our skyline, nightscape, and traffic safety.

(update) We need to add: (3) The failure of the Association to strongly protest the suggestion by the City Engineer early in 2016, that the office would continue to favor the “Ferry Street” process of repairing sidewalks and repaving streets, is similarly inexcusable. See information and commentary on our Save Our Trees portal.

  • No matter how successful and enjoyable events such as the Stockade Outdoor Art Show, annual Walkabout, or Valentine flamingo visitation, may be, thanks to the hard work of Association members and other residents; and no matter how neighborly individuals are toward each other, the Stockade Association cannot be taken seriously if it does not live up to the tagline on its website masthead: “Committed to protecting, preserving and improving New York’s first historic district.”

The lessons to be learned from the 1690 Schenectady Massacre and its Snowmen at the Gates are rather obvious, but well worth remembering, whether taken literally or metaphorically:

  • take warnings of danger seriously (including doing necessary fact-finding), even when you may not be friendly with the source of the warnings, or you hope your adversaries will only arrive when the weather is good
  • don’t leave your gate open to spite your unpopular boss or because digging it out is too difficult in a blizzard
  • when given or taking responsibility to protect the community, serve faithfully and diligently (and find able substitutes before heading to a tavern for a beer)
  • when choosing sentinels to stand guard or to police the community, make sure they have the heart, brains, and stamina needed to fulfill their duties. No Snowmen Need Apply.

snowmencameoBW-002 Have the people of Schenectady, its government, elected officials, civil servants, and community leaders and groups, etc., learned the lessons of the 1690 Massacre and put them to practice consistently? Far too often, it seems, the answer is no. That conclusion applies in spades when it comes to what is surely the most important continuing governmental role this Century: preparing for the selection, construction, and operation of a casino in Schenectady. (See the list of postings in the Home Page sidebar.) We need observant, curious, active, and diligent watchdogs — with a pulse, and both a bark and a bite.

One more thing about snowmen: beside serving no useful offensive or defensive regulatory or watchdog role, they are very averse to heat, hoping to avoid it and its damaging effects whenever possible.

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  • feb8infamy4x6we We belatedly realized that February 8, the day the Rivers Casino at Mohawk Harbor is slated to open, is the anniversary of the Schenectady Massacre of 1690. See our posting “our infamous February 8th

McCarthy only wants snowmen on his Planning Commission

 snowmencameoBW-002 Yesterday [in another February 8th disaster for our City], Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy made public his decision not to re-appoint to the Planning Commission its newly-chosen chair, Matthew Cuevas, ending Cuevas’ service after more than two decades. Clearly, the Mayor is not interested in keeping a Planning Commissioner, especially one with the powers of the Chair, who is actively interested in enforcing the zoning laws, fulfilling their promise to protect the interests of all residents of Schenectady, and not merely those of the Mayor’s favorite few applicants and their proposals. Gary McCarthy wants Commissioners who are mere snowmen, looking like sentinels but offering the community no real protection — and, like wise snowmen, avoiding the damaging effects of heat whenever possible.

cropped-snowmenheader.jpg . . . snowman14dec09demise

. . above: Snowman Sentinel before [L] and after Heat applied .

Here is the Comment I just left at today’s Gazette article, “Schenectady Planning Commission chairman bumped from panel” (February 9, 2016), by Haley Viccaro), giving my explanation for the dumping of Cuevas, and opposing making Bradley Lewis the next Commission Chair:

CityHallRubberStamp Why fire Matt Cuevas? Emperor McCarthy could not stand to have a Planning Commission chair who would occasionally ask questions at public sessions about the done deals sent to the Commission by his Zoning and Development staff and Metroplex. For example, Matt Cuevas noted during the Meeting on the amended waterfront district zoning that taking away the right of public access to the riverfront at Mohawk Harbor was inconsistent with the Commission’s Comprehensive Plan and 2008 Waterfront zoning goals.

Cuevas was also the only Commissioner to say that 20,000 square feet of casino signage seemed like too much, and that he was more comfortable with 15,000 sq. ft. That statement caused Corporation Counsel Falotico to stand up and reprimand Cuevas, with a lie about applicable zoning law, shutting down all conversation about limiting the signage. See http://tinyurl.com/CasinoTown

No matter what his qualifications might be, it is a conflict of interest for Brad Lewis to serve as both vice chair of Metroplex, which sends many of the most important proposals made to the Commission, and as a Commissioner. Lewis has never voted against a Metroplex-backed application. Instead, “Commissioner Quip” Lewis mocks any request from the public for additional information prior to voting and rejects out of hand suggestions that a proposal might have negative effects that need to be mitigated. For example, he once barked at me at a public hearing that “we should be so lucky as to have traffic or parking problems in Downtown Schenectady.” [The impact of a proposal on traffic and pedestrian flow and safety is, in fact, the first criterion listed in the section of our zoning law for review of Site Plans by the Commission.]

Schenectady needs a Planning Commission chair who takes seriously the role of protecting the interests of the people of this City and preventing unnecessary negative impact on our neighborhoods. We need a Chair who will ask the staff for full explanations of the pros and cons of proposals, and require that all information needed to make a responsible decision is obtained before decisions are made by the Commission.

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snowmencameoBW-003  update (March 16, 2016): Our sheep-herding Mayor continues his deterrent-minded culling of the flock on his volunteer regulatory boards. Of course, he is not culling out the weak, he is removing the independent members who refuse to act like sheep. See Faces changing on Schenectady planning board (Times Union, by Paul Nelson, March 15, 2016; subscription req’d). The Mayor has failed to renew the appointment of Planning Commissioner Thomas Carey, who was the only member to vote No last year on the Site Plan review of the Casino compound plans. Mitchell Miller, a Key Bank executive, is replacing Carey. Former-Commissioner Carey, a certified planner, told the Times Union:

“It seems to be a systematic effort to get rid of any independent thinkers on these boards. I’ve been an outspoken critic of the design review for the casino and other downtown projects.”

Speaking about the Mayor’s failure to re-appoint herself and fellow Historic Commission member Frank Donegan, [former Chair] Marilyn Sassi told TU reporter Paul Nelson:

“We believed it’s because we spoke out against several projects the mayor is in favor of and he’s just eliminating anybody that doesn’t agree with him,” said Sassi . . “Right now, I’m relieved because I don’t want to have any part of a rubber stamp board, I want to be free to be able to express my feelings and concerns.”

The TU article notes that “McCarthy shrugged off the criticism and denied he ever tried to exert an influence on any of the volunteer commissioners who serve at his pleasure.” Parsing his words, and forgetting about setting Sheep Dog Falotico on board members, the Mayor said, “I have not called people or told them how to vote or asked them how they voted.”

p.s. McCarthy has named Albany lawyer Randall S. Beach to replace Matt Cuevas. Mr. Beach gives the following as his “representative accomplishments”:

  • Assists various developers in obtaining financing, local permits and SEQRA approval for large commercial, housing and retail developments.
  • Negotiation and drafting of complex commercial leasing, acquisition and conveyance agreements in connection with commercial office, retail, hotel and industrial properties.

By The Way: Beach’s law firm now rubs elbows every day with Metroplex staff at Center City, as one of the five initial members of the newly announced innovation Incubator.

update (February 11, 2016): The Gazette editorialized yesterday with a thoughtful piece, “Schenectady Planning Commission chairman’s removal is questionable” (February 10, 2016). It speculates on why the Mayor would fail to reappoint Matthew Cuevas. With a bit of skepticism about the “needing new blood” explanation, the piece notes “Maybe it’s because Cuevas has a reputation for not just rubber-stamping proposals, but instead publicly raising questions about plans that might otherwise have gone through unchallenged.”

restore riverfront public access at Mohawk Harbor

In all their dealings with Schenectady casino applicants Galesi Group and Rush Street Gaming, Mayor Gary McCarthy, City Council, the Planning Office, and indeed all of City Hall, have acted as if “Schenectady” is the old Mohawk language word for “Second-rate-City.” That supine posture was particularly noteworthy and blameworthy, last February, when our municipal leaders ripped the guarantee of public access to and enjoyment of the riverbank from our Zoning Code’s C-3 Waterfront District requirements, at the request of the Casino Applicants.

This posting argues that, as soon as possible, before construction makes alterations impracticable, our City Council must restore the right to public access to the riverfront. That is not only because riverfront access is the acknowledged best practice for all urban riverside development, and because Rush Street Gaming allows generous public access at both its Pittsburgh and Philadelphia casino locations, but because to fail to restore that right leaves Schenectady in the status of a second-rate City with second-rate citizens. The next two collages tell an important part of the story: 1) the preferential treatment Rush Street has given to two Pennsylvania riparian casino cities compared to the step-child treatment for Schenectadians, and 2) the total lack of rational and persuasive explanation from our City Hall.

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LargeDockImagered check  update (July 24, 2018): In a Gazette article today, Ray Gillen is quoted saying that a Large Vessel Dock they hope the State will fund (with 80% of the cost) will provide real public access. I do not know enough yet to be able to agree or disagree. Click this link for a screen shot of a rendering presented by Mr. Gillen’s to the City Council Committee on July 16, 2018. A detail from that presentation is presented at the right of this paragraph, but it has poor resolution.  More information will be coming as/if I am able to learn more. follow-up (8 PM): See our posting “the Large Vessel Dock at Mohawk Harbor”, for more information and for two renderings provided by Mr. Gillen.

RushStreetAccessEd

– click on each collage for a larger, more revealing and legible version – 

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RestoreAccessE

When our Schenectady Comprehensive Plan 2020 was written, and the C-3 Waterfront Mixed-Use zoning district was created, back in 2008, our leaders understood the importance of public access to the riverfront and acted according. Then City Council President Gary McCarthy was proud of both the Plan and the forwarding-looking requirements of the Waterfront District, which mandated a recorded easement granting permanent public access. For more than half a year, therefore, I’ve been wondering just what the Casino Gang could have said, promised, threatened to change City Hall’s attitude toward riverfront access. Or, was the mere request to strike the access guarantee enough to persuade our timid, starstruck, supplicant “leaders” to forfeit the rights of the people they represent and are obligated to serve?

Three documents show the practices of modern, responsible city and State governments when treating the revitalization of their urban riverfronts, and demonstrate that the “right” to pass through on a bike-ped path does not fulfill a public access requirement:

StayOnPathSign The overly credulous regulatory policy suggested by City Councilwoman Leesa Perazzo is, at best, silly. Perazzo trusts the Casino Gang so much that she stated at the City Council meeting where she voted for the C-3 amendments, that the Public Access Guarantee was not needed, because “they’re going to do it anyway.” The response to an applicant who says, “We’re going to do it anyway,” is “Good, then you shouldn’t mind that we keep the law on the books for those tempted to ignore the rules.”

The Mayor, as mouthpiece and enforcer for the Casino Gang, was somehow so mesmerizing that even the educated, experienced Director of Development, Jaclyn Mancini, forgot all she knew about the meaning of the words “public access”, and insisted, “They will have access to the retail shops.” “Customer access” is not what is meant by “public access,” and the main purpose of public access is for the people who comprise the public to enjoy the riverfront, not to bring in more shoppers for the retail establishments or gamblers for the casino. When told the access guarantee would be stricken from the Code, Mancini’s zoning and planning staff were apparently too astounded to inform the public of what we were losing, or to quit in protest.

While Schenectady revoked the public access guarantee on the rather small piece of riverfront that was available in our City, even Cities with miles and miles of riverfront have strict riverfront public access requirements for all new development or redevelopment. Philadelphia, where Rush Street has its SugarHouse casino is a prime example.  A Pennsylvania State tourist site tells us that Rush Street’s SugarHouse “casino . . . allows the public access to a luxurious promenade along the river.”  As suggested in the first (green) collage above, in June 2014, while Rush Street was maneuvering in Schenectady for the repeal of riverfront access, it broke ground on an expansion project that would further enlarge its grand public access promenade, which was already almost 2000 feet long, and the biggest in a city with a dozen miles of riverfront.  (See, this 2011 article and this 2013 article in Philly.com). As discussed in our prior post “Mayor McCarthy left millions on the casino table“:

SugarHousePromendade

Rush Street’s SugarHouse public promenade

 Public Access to the Riverfront: Philadelphia has miles of usable waterfront accessible to the public (along two major rivers, as well as creeks, lakes, and ponds), but it nonetheless continues to demand significant public waterfront access to its riverbanks, even from gaming facilities that it hopes will produce major tax revenues.  In contrast, Schenectady has virtually no private waterfront beyond Mohawk Harbor that could offer the public increased access to the Mohawk River, but it has revoked the public access guarantees just when they would be applied for the first time.

Philadelphia Public Access: Under the Philadelphia Zoning Code for its SP-ENT District (which includes gaming facilities as a permitted use):

§14-405(9) Design Standards

“(c) Siting and Access: (.2)  A permitted use developed on a waterfront site must provide dedicated public access to the waterfront, open to and connected from a public street. Public access will be provided along the site’s waterfront length at a width of at least 12 ft.”  . . .

 Setback: “[A]ll lots must provide an unencumbered waterfront setback [of 50 feet] from the top of the bank of any river to allow for unrestricted public access to the river’s edge,” in addition to a public pedestrian-bicycle path. Specifically,

•This waterfront access must include open space that is accessible to the public at a width of at least 30 ft., plus a right-of-way dedicated for pedestrian and bicycle traffic at a width of at least 20 ft.

•If the Commission reduces the waterfront setback requirement due to site-specific conditions, the setback may not be less than 30′ in width and must include the bike-ped right-of-way that is a minimum of 20′ in width. [See §14-405(3)(e), which is a portion of  the “Yards” section of Area Regulations for the SP-ENT casino district.

PiitsburghAmphitheater Is there something about the residents of Schenectady and our County, or about our visitors, that makes us less worthy of full public access to the Mohawk riverbank than the people of Philadelphia are to their rivers? Or, less worthy than the people who get to use the lovely park and amphitheater along the River at Rush Street’s Pittsburgh casino? (click on the image to the right)

.

 . . casino3rd-rear-patios There is no indication in the latest, limited rendering of the riverfront view of the casino complex from Rush Street (see above), that there will be any public access “amenities” other than the pedestrian-cyclist path along the River.

NoPicnicSignThere appear to be no spots for anyone other than casino patio customers to sit down, and no space for picnicking or similar waterfront activities.  Whether you are a senior citizen, a tired runner, a family with children, or a couple on a date, “keep moving” and “stay on the path” will apparently be the message from Rivers Casino at Mohawk Harbor, compliments of Mayor McCarthy.

WalkPath-MH-Gaz02Jun2015-001The steep drop-off from the pathway shown in the June 10, 2015 Gazette photo (see Left) of the construction site may not be indicative of the final grading along the riverbank, but in combination with the benchless, treeless, rendering, it surely suggests that the public is invited to use the path that takes them through Mohawk Harbor, but not to dawdle along the Mohawk.

follow-up (May 29, 2018): My prediction above that the grading would prevent public access to the Riverbank, sadly, proved true. The rocks and drop-off may also be hazardous to cyclists and pedestrians who need to quickly exit the path. This image shows the path along the casino hotel and patios on Memorial Day, 2018:

IMG_7240

And, here’s another view of the stretch behind the Casino complex on Nov. 4, 2017:

IMG_4939

.

We are 18 months or more from the opening of a casino at Mohawk Harbor. Quick action by City Council and the Mayor to restore the public right to riverfront “access and enjoyment” can fairly re-impose this obligation, which existed long before Mr. Galesi purchased the old ALCO site for future development of Mohawk Harbor, and for the entire time Rush Street Gaming was applying for its casino facility operating license before the NYS Gaming Facility Location Board.  Indeed, nowhere did Rush Street inform the Location Board that it planned to ask that riverfront access be ripped from the existing Schenectady Zoning Code. Is there no City Council member who is interested enough in restoring the riverfront public access promised in the City’s Comprehensive Plan to come forward with a proposal to restore that right? Is the Mayor finally willing to declare his independence from the Casino-Galesi Gang and Metroplex and come to the defense of his public and their riparian rights? Or, am I about to be knocked off my quixotic horse one more time?

bait-and-switch along the Mohawk

CasinoPylon-Jan2016-001 update (December 18, 2015): According to an article in the Albany Times Union by Paul Nelson, “Casino sign plan to be submitted to city in ’16” (Dec. 13, 2015), a new design for the pylon sign will soon be unveiled:

As it stands now, the pylon sign is generally framed on two sides by a contiguous white vertical and horizontal band and does not feature any glass, as was previously discussed. It’s unclear if that white band will be lit.

pylonbait  bait . . . switch vshapemock-1

pylonsitecomparison

– above: [L] the Casino’s pylon “bait” rendering and [R] my amateurish but more accurate Switch mock-ups –

You’ve probably seen the Rush Street rendering of its proposed pylon sign shown on the Left above; it’s a 2-sided, rectangular monolith parallel to Erie Boulevard (note: the street indications were added by me, and not indicated by the Casino on their rendering).  On the right is my crude mock-up of the actual approved pylon: “v-shaped” with a giant 611 sq. ft. LCD screen on each wing of the vee. Because Rush Street never submitted a sketch, much less a detailed rendering of the real design and its orientation toward Erie Boulevard and Nott and Front Streets, and neither your Schenectady Planning Commission nor its Staff ever asked for the highly important documentation as part of its Site Plan Review, my awkward mockups are all we have for now. The uncertainty has led me to construct this QQ Pylon Collage:

V-ShapedPylonQQ

SneakyPylonChangesWThe surprise of a siamese-twin v-shaped pylon structure is, of course, in addition to the bait-and-switch elements we pointed out on Friday July 24 in a follow-up to our posting announcing the approval of the Casino Site Plan. The Planning Commission, without mentioning it, approved a version of the casino pylon that 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, but with no Visual Impact Statement provided or demanded for any version),
  • taller by perhaps 6 or 7 feet (having been raised to 80′ by removing the “lantern”), and
  • wider (39′, instead of an already excessive width of 38′).

. . . than the versions shown to the public. Click on the collage to the Right of this paragraph for the details.

The following image sums up the various bait-n-switch elements:

B&Scollage

In words, here are the basic bait and switch elements (there may be more as yet not revealed by Rush Street or their City Hall handmaidens):

  • Pylon-FrontSt The Bait: A two-sided, monolith, rectangular pylon structure, 80 feet by 38 feet, with one giant LCD screen 19 feet by 32 feet, topped by a narrow “lantern/chimney” about 7 feet tall, which is sitting over a 14.5-foot tall Rivers Casino “branding” sign that has a black background, all shown positioned parallel to Erie Boulevard, at the intersection of Front St. and Nott St. (As explained in Comments to the Planning Commission and in several postings, the original design was far too tall and wide, and its monster digital LCD screen far too distracting and bright, for the location and for Schenectady in general. But, even worse, we have instead. . . )
  • VShapeMock The Switch: First presented and approved at the July 22, 2015 Planning Commission site plan review special meeting: An 80′ by 39′ pylon façade, in an unexplained and never-depicted v-shape configuration, without a slimming “lantern” on top, and with its branding sign now having a much brighter white background and raised to the top of the 80′ structure, far more prominent in the sky.  In addition, there will be a second 611 sq. ft. monster LCD screen, with one aimed at traffic reaching Nott Street and Erie Boulevard from the east, and one aimed at traffic coming up Erie Boulevard from the west.
40by19v

each wing 35′ x 24′

What would a v-shaped pylon of the size contemplated by Rush Street look like, and “feel” like at that location? It is hard to know, given the failure of the Applicant to supply a rendering or sketch and of the Commission or its staff to demand this crucial piece of site plan documentation. Our search has found nothing similar in front of a casino on this planet.  The “sample” v-shaped pylon to the left of this blurb is by a Polish firm that says the steel girders can be up to 9 meters high, and each advertising sign 2.5 m. by 6 meters.  That would make each wing of the “v” in the photo perhaps 35 feet tall and 24 feet wide. Also note, the branding section on top is not illuminated from the inside and there are no giant digital displays.

  • Thank you to the Albany Times Union for printing my Commentary on the pylon, “Exempting rules a bad sign indeed” (August 4, 2015). It is a TU-Plus article, which requires a paid subscription to reach directly online. You can see a draft submitted by me to the TU Editorial page Editor, by clicking on this pdf. file, “A huge, homely and hazardous casino sign.”

p.s. Have some fun with the kids or grandpa, and make your own Pylonicus-V design:

pylonicus-v

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riverscasinodesigns Follow-up (Feb. 11, 2017): Speaking of bait-n-switch, see our posting “where did this unattractive Schenectady casino design come from?” (Feb. 9, 2017).

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.

how big is 80′ x 38′?

 The short answer is “too damn big”, but many people have no idea just what those dimensions look and feel like in the actual world, and we want to offer more than a conclusion about the size of the proposed Schenectady Casino pylon signage.  Luckily, here in Schenectady, we have a well-known structure right on State Street at Erie Boulevard that helps put the monster pylon into perspective. It is the former Masonic Temple, at 302 State Street, which is now the home of the Alcohol and Substance Abuse Council. To sum up the comparison: the proposed pylon sign is both taller and wider than the Masonic Temple.

The following collage shows and tells the tale (click on it for a larger image), including showing how huge the electronic display will be:

Around this website, we’ve been tired of the Pylon Tall Tale told by Dave Buicko and Rush Street to try to justify an outsized casino sign with no precedent that they can point to or that we have found. However, the ever-credulous Gazette news room repeats Rush Street’s STS-Pylon-Excuse in today’s Sunday newspaper, “Casino builders tout river views, huge revenues“, by Haley Vicarro, A1, July 13, 2015), repeats the STS excuse without qualification and makes the pylon sound like another Done Deal:

But unlike Pittsburgh, Schenectady’s casino will include an 80-foot-tall entrance sign, one developers say is needed because of how the casino is tucked into the old Alco property.

DesPlaines68 Rush Street’s Rivers Casino in Des Plaines has the only similarly wide-and-tall casino signage that we have been able to find online.  It is another reason we feel certain that the proposed Schenectady pylon is too big. The Des Plaines pylon is “only” 68′ by 25 ‘, and yet by any reasonable standard, it is objectionably large and looming and luminescent. See our posting “shrink that casino pylon“.

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.
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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.

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.

TIPS for the Planning Commission

 The Planning Commission of the City of Schenectady will begin, but hopefully not end, its Site Plan review of the Rush Street Gaming casino compound in Schenectady, on Wednesday, June 17, at 6:30 pm, in Room 101 the City Hall. (See our recent posting “Schenectady Casino redesigned“.)  We did not hide our disappointment over the Planning Commission’s “review” of the C-3 Waterfront Zoning Amendments, nor of the related actions of our City Council. But, despite recent history, we refuse to believe that the Planning Commission will shirk its duties in performing its review of what is surely the most important site plan to come before it so far this century (and millennium). See Zoning Law, §264-89 et seq. for relevant factors.

CasinoPylon-4Jun2015

80′ “pylon edifice”

There’s No Rush. There really is no excuse for a less than thorough review. The Commission justified its lightweight review of the Zoning Amendments by saying it would take a much closer look at the details when presented in the casino site plan review. It also has the final say here, and should not allow the City Council, the Mayor, or Corporation Counsel to cajole them to produce a particular result.  Equally important, it is now clear that Rush Street is under no looming construction deadline as they insisted last January when the Amendments were pushed through. Before the gaming license is issued, the Gaming Commission plans to release its proposed set of regulations for casino operation in three areas: problem gambling, disability access, and workplace diversity. There will then be a 45-day public comment period on the Regulations, with no license being issued during that period. It is highly unlikely the gaming licenses will be issued, therefore, prior to September, and the Commission said in May that it hoped to issue them before the end of 2015.

For well over a year, Rush Street has bragged that it could complete construction and open the casino for business within 18 months of getting needed permits and licenses.  Recently, Rush Street Gaming CEO Greg Carlin gave a 16-month completion estimate once it has its gaming facility license.  The Gaming Commission wants each casino operating within 24 months of receiving its license.  At the earliest, that 24-month deadline appears to be 26 months away. With Rush Street and Galesi promising completion much sooner than that, and their facing merely fines, and not loss of the license, should the deadline be missed by a modest amount, the Planning Commission has no need, and no excuse, to give less than a thorough review, including asking for all additional information needed to evaluate the proposal, and allowing time for meaningful public review of the final Site Plan proposal.

Given the importance of this matter, we want to urge all interested persons to submit comments to the Planning Commission, either in writing or in person at their Meeting.  At this website, there will be a series of suggestions to the Commission over the next couple of weeks, on questions the Planning Commission needs to ask and homework it should do in its Casino Compound Site Plan Review.

Topics will include: In addition to the lack of urgent time limits that prevent full evaluation, 1) the Giant 80′ Pylon and 32′-tall digital sign, including finally doing a Line of Sight profile, and evaluating its closeness to the intersection of Erie Boulevard and Nott Street; 2) ways to improve the newest Casino Design;  3) the overall need for signage, especially the bright, moving, changing kind; 4) the design, bulk and appropriate proximity to the riverbank of the very large hotel being proposed for along the Mohawk (see this photo-collage); 5) indications that the Casino and property owner is serious about allowing meaningful public access to the riverbank.

 Tip #1: The 80′ pylon “sign”, with 32′ digital display. We hope the Planning Commission will think hard about having such a giant pylon so close to Erie Blvd. and Nott Street. Below: Comparison of pylon signs at Rush Street’s Des Plaines [IL] Rivers Casino and at Mohawk Harbor in Schenectady (click to enlarge). See our post “shrink that pylon!” for additional factors to be considered and photos. update:  Click for my Comments to the Planning Commission regarding the proposed Casino Pylon (9-page pdf., June 17, 2015). 

PylonCollage

  • In general, you can get a good feel for our dissent to the Planning Commission’s treatment of the important Zoning Amendments in this post, which discusses public rights and protections loss in the new amendments.
  • Readers are invited to leave comments in response to ideas presented here and also to report their own tips for the Planning Commission.

MONEY ON THE TABLE, part 2

emptyPockets Summary: Mayor Gary McCarthy of Schenectady failed to obtain a host community agreement or impact mitigation plan from Rush Street Gaming and the Galesi Group, either prior to approving their Mohawk Harbor casino proposal, or later when granting major zoning and planning concessions to the casino.  In contrast, as in Massachusetts and across the nation, several of the other potential host municipalities in Upstate New York did successfully enter into such agreements with their local casino applicant.

Those Host-Casino agreements included benefits such as: Substantial payments to the Host prior to the opening of the casino, guaranteed amounts of annual revenues, lump and annual payments to mitigate direct and indirect negative impacts from operation of the casino, funding for community and neighborhood projects, real estate tax commitments, local hiring preferences, and more. [For example, see the Host Community Agreement, of the Town of Tyre, which will soon be the home of the Lago Casino, and which is discussed in detail below.]

Mayor McCarthy owes us a full, honest explanation for the failure of his Administration to protect and promote the interests of our City and community by insisting on a host community or mitigation plan agreement, when the leaders of so many other cities and towns undertook that crucial task. Why did Mr. McCarthy leave so much Money On The Table (“MOTT”) and ask so little of his “partners” Rush Street and Galesi?

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mayorgarymccarthy2013

Mayor Gary McCarthy

 In our prior posting, “Mayor McCarthy left millions on the casino table (April 26, 2015),” we asked our Mayor how it could be that Rush Street Gaming was willing to give so much to the cities of Philadelphia PA and Brockton MA, but has been able to achieve its entire wish list in Schenectady without making firm revenue guarantees to our City, offering pre-opening payments, or granting funds for the benefit of the community and neighborhoods. On May 11th, two weeks after that posting, a Schenectady resident raised that question at a City Council meeting, and a red-faced Gary McCarthy accused the speaker of getting misinformation from “that blog” [that is, us], and offered two excuses: (1) Massachusetts law requires such agreements and (2) in New York, the casino pays gaming taxes to the State, which distributes them to Host counties and municipalities, so applicants can’t promise payments to the host community.

We anticipated and explained the fallacy of the Mayor’s 1st Excuse in the earlier post. Massachusetts law mandates only that mitigation payments be addressed and responsibilities of host and casino be stated in a Host Community Agreement. It otherwise neither requires that any particular topics be addressed nor specifies the types of outcomes that must be achieved.

We note here that the 2nd Excuse completely overlooks at least two important facts: (1) Nothing in New York law prohibits a municipality from asking for, or a casino from giving, firm guarantees and additional payments to the Host government and community, and (2) New York’s gaming laws and regulations do in fact obligate a casino applicant to document the plans and commitments it has made to mitigate the impact of their proposed casino.  Moreover, the Gaming Commission has stated that “The Applicant is encouraged to work with a Host Municipality to reach what each considers appropriate mitigation”. It also answered a direct inquiry as to whether tax and fee payments made by the gaming facility may be “considered as part of the mitigation measures for the host municipality and nearby municipalities” with a very clear, one-word answer: “No”. (See Round 1 – Q&A, Location Board Report and Findings, at 489) That is contrary to Rush Street’s repeated refrain in Schenectady that revenues paid to the City from casino operations would cover any potential impacts, thereby requiring no additional payments to mitigate expected negative impacts.

smallquestionmark In this posting, we ask what may be an even more important question: Why is it that so many potential host municipalities in upstate New York not only asked their Casino Applicant for specific promises and additional payments but succeeded in entering into generous agreements with casino developers and operators long before the NYS Gaming Facility Location Board made its selections on December 17, 2014? Whether they called them Community Benefit Agreements, Host Community Agreements, or Impact Mitigation Plans, other New York State towns and cities got significant promises from applicants hoping to making scores of millions of dollars from operating a gaming facility, but who first needed the approval of the proposed host municipality. Indeed, at times it was the applicant who opened the discussion of benefit agreements and mitigation plans.

For example, click on the Casino Benefits Chart compiled by the Times-Herald Record last July, showing nine applicants in the Catskills/Hudson Valley Region. The accompanying article “Casino developers offering towns pot of gold” (July 28, 2014), notes: “As casino developers vie to get a piece of New York’s gambling pie, they have offered the moon and more to communities where they hope to build. And municipalities aren’t shy about driving a hard bargain, as consultants paid for by the developers tell them it’s an industry practice.” (As discussed near the end of this posting, Rush Street Gaming was one of the applicants bestowing largesse in the Hudson Valley, and in fact giving it out to nearby governmental entities, rather than to the Host Municipality.)

red check To protect the interests of their residents, other potential Host towns (as well as nearby municipalities) did what any good businessman or politician would do: They negotiated from strength with casino hopefuls who needed local approval before they could even submit an application to the Board. They leveraged the requirement stated in the authorizing statute [Upstate New York Gaming Economic Development Act of 2013§1316(5-7)], the resultant Gaming Commission Regulations [§5300.1(f)], and the Location Board’s Request for Applications, that each developer submit a description of its commitments to mitigate impacts of the proposed casino on each host municipality and nearby areas. As one news report stated, casino applicants “must provide studies completed by independent experts showing the impacts and submit copies of all agreements demonstrating mitigation commitments.” See “Casinos prepare applications for final review”, pressconnects.com, June 21, 2014.

Just a dozen miles down Route 5, Kathleen Sheehan, the Mayor of Albany, was in the same position as Mayor McCarthy and local leaders across the State: This was the first time her City and Administration ever faced the prospect of a gaming facility coming to town, with any potential casino applicant needing the approval of the local legislative body before it could apply for the casino license. Sheehan had the expected and appropriate response of the head of a municipal government to the challenge: She wanted to learn the City’s rights and options, and to know what cities had done elsewhere, as preparation for discussions with any Applicant. In the words of columnist Michael DeMasi at the Albany Business Review (March 26, 2014):

Mayor Kathy Sheehan wants to hire a law firm with expertise in casino gambling, land use and community benefit agreements as Albany, NY considers a developer’s proposal to build a $300 million-plus resort casino on the outskirts of the city.

“We think it’s very important that the city’s interests be well represented as we consider this opportunity,” Sheehan told me today. “We need to understand what our legal rights are and what we need to be advocating for in the context of the size and scope of this project.”

She added, “We have not had a $300 million, private-sector project ever [in the city] to my knowledge.”

The city on Monday issued a Request for Proposals for legal services, just a week after Sheehan first learned of the project being pursued by Flaum Management Co. Inc., a large commercial real estate developer based in Rochester.

. . . Sheehan does not know how much the legal services will cost, but said it’s possible the city would seek to have the fees paid for by the developer as part of the review process.

As a result, Mayor Sheehan hired attorney, Jonathan Silverstein of Kopelman and Paige P.C. in Boston, who had negotiated more than a dozen Host Community Agreements on behalf of cities and towns in Massachusetts. And, potential applicant Flaum Management paid lawyer Silverstein’s fees on behalf of the City. (See Albany Business Review, May 15, 2014). Meanwhile, Mayor McCarthy apparently decided to go with the minimal in-house expertise of his own Law and Planning Departments, and to look to the Applicant for good faith actions and advice.

In addition, whereas Albany council members wanted to be actively involved in the negotiation process and “want[ed] a host benefits agreement to include an upfront payment to the city (Id.),” McCarthy’s majority on the Schenectady City Council were satisfied with being cheerleaders and adopting a passive legislative and policy role predicated on implicitly trusting the casino partners and their Mayor.

 TyreLogo Lago at Tyre. More telling than Albany’s efforts to obtain a community host agreement is what happened with the Lago Casino in the Town of Tyre, a tiny agricultural community, which was the eventual “winner” in the Finger Lakes Region. Although Tyre has a population below one thousand, its leaders had a thoughtful and thorough response when they learned that the Wilmorite Corp. [also known as Wilmot] wanted to put a casino on a parcel within the Town. Beyond getting itself good legal advice and keeping its residents fully informed and involved, the Town commissioned the study “Impacts of Wilmot Casino on the Primary Impact Area: Emphasis on Socioeconomic & Public Safety” (June 2014, 44-pages), which was prepared by the Center for  Governmental Research, in Rochester, NY. Tyre also requested Cornell University to review and summarize a compilation of Canadian studies on the impact of casinos, especially problem gambling. 

The well-informed leaders of the Town of Tyre Board of Supervisors were, therefore, prepared to negotiate a Host Community Agreement [“Tyre HCA”, June 2014, ] with the Applicant. (The HCA notes on its title page that the Agreement constitutes a “Community Mitigation Plan, as Contemplated by the Upstate New York Gaming Economic Development Act of 2013.”) The lengthy list of responsibilities accepted and covenants made by Wilmorite, the Tyre-Lago Applicant, is a testament to the thoroughness of preparation of the parties, and also to the strong desire of Wilmorite to secure the approval of the Town Board and be a good neighbor if it were selected for the Finger Lakes Region gaming license.  (For a good summary of the terms of the Tyre HCA, see “Details of casino host community agreement unveiled“, Finger Lakes Times, by David L. Shaw, June 13, 2014.)

LagoLogo The Lago Casino owner-devloper agreed that, among other things, it would:

• Pay all costs and expenses incurred by the town for attorneys, accountants, engineers, consultants and others in connection with the casino review process.

• Pay the town $100,000 annually from 2016-21 for the purchase of development rights or other action related to the preservation of agricultural land in the town, to mitigate the loss of farmland.

• Preserve the graves in six known burial sites on the land.

• Pay for the training of a security force acceptable to the Seneca County Sheriff’s Office; for special training of deputies, as needed; and up to $100,000 a year for the anticipated hiring of an additional deputy because of the casino.

• Pay the cost of a new high-rise firefighting equipment for six Magee Fire Department firefighters and will pay the cost of a ladder truck for the department.

• Pay for any medical training required by North Seneca Ambulance personnel who respond to the casino for emergencies. If North Seneca handles a casino patient whose insurance does not cover the entire cost, the company will make up the difference.

• To fulfill a previous agreement with Seneca County Mental Health Department, pay for hiring one additional problem gambling treatment and one additional problem gambling prevention specialist. [Note: the protocol for setting up a Problem Gamblin g Prevention, Outreach and Education Program looks like a good place for Schenectady County to start to construct its own program.]

• Pay all on-site employees wages no less than 75 percent of the national average for each occupation.

MoneyBag neg To mitigate impacts on town services, pay the town $750,000 in 2015, $2 million on Jan. 15, 2016 (prior to operation), and $2 million on Jan. 15, 2017. For 2018 and beyond, the impact fee will be at least $2 million and be adjusted by formula. Once it begins operation, the Casino will receive credit for Gaming Tax Revenues received by the Town. That is, the Casino must make a prepayment of the annual minimum Impact Fee each January 15, with the Town refunding to the Casino the amount that it receives as Gaming Tax Revenues each year.

• Construct, install, operate and maintain, a six-inch private-force sanitary sewer main from the casino to the existing Petro orRoute 414 pump station.  And, construct and install a new water-line connection to the existing 12-inch water line located on the east side of Route 414, and work to create or extend a water district that includes the casino site. [Note: as anticipated by the Location Board’s application form, the Schenectady casino applicant has stated it will make analogous necessary utility improvements.]

• Design a telecommunications infrastructure for the casino, with at least one strand of fiber-optic cable dedicated to the town and its residents.

  • Implement, at its sole cost and expense, all actions described in the Engineer’s Report prepared for the SEQRA review, and perform all other traffic improvements recommended or required by the New York State Department of Transportation. [Lago estimates that the traffic mitigation measures will cost $4,152,500.]

• Apply to the Seneca County Industrial Development Agency for a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes on property and other taxes. [In the resulting accord with the County IDA, Lago agreed to pay $45.3 million over a 20-year period. That amount, according to the Agency’s estimates, is $3.83 million more than Lago Resort would pay if the project were fully taxed under the New York State statutory 485-b exemptions, which are available to businesses that invest $10,000 or more per year on building enhancements. See IDA Press Release, Feb. 12, 2015.]

  • Recognize the right of property owners near the Project to continue farming consistent with past practice using good agricultural practices.
  • Limit its lodging facilities to no more than 220 rooms, unless the Company provides the Town with independent forecasts that demand exists in the area for additional rooms, in order to limit the impact on other lodging establishments in the region, during the first ten years after gaming operations open to the public.

• Take out a $4 million mortgage on the project to secure the company’s obligations to the Town and County. The town will be given first priority lien on the mortgage.

  • Engage in Periodic Review and good-faith negotiation to deal with additional payments for unanticipated or miscalculated impacts, up to $1 million per year.

In accepting the Tyre HCA, the Lago Casino developer acknowledged that construction and operation of Lago would have both direct and indirect impacts on the community. Unlike the Mohawk Harbor Applicants in Schenectady, who denied or trivialized any impact on Schenectady or nearby communities, Wilmorite signed an Agreement stating:

Direct Impacts. The Company acknowledges that the construction and operation of the Project will cause direct impacts on the Town and its residents, including but not limited to impacts on Town infrastructure, environment, public safety, emergency services, social and other impacts (“Direct Impacts”). The Company shall mitigate the Direct Impacts in the manner described in this Article III.

. . . [And]  Indirect Impacts. (a) The Company acknowledges that, in addition to the Direct Impacts described above, the Project will also have known and unknown indirect impacts on the Town and its residents, related to or indirectly resulting from the construction and operation of the Project from time to time (“Indirect Impacts”). Indirect Impacts include, but are not limited to:

(1) increased use of Town services;

(2) increased use of Town infrastructure;

(3) the need for additional Town infrastructure, facilities, equipment and employees;

(4) increased traffic and traffic congestion;

(5) issues related to public health, safety, welfare and addictive behavior;

(6) issues relating to quality of life; and

7) costs related to mitigating other indirect impacts to the Town and its residents.

Schenectady’s City Hall never demanded a benefits or mitigation agreement with Rush Street and Galesi.  Indeed, the Mayor and his Administration, Metroplex, County officials, the Chamber of Commerce, and hopeful casino vendors, have never admitted to any likely negative effects. As a consequence, the City never did or commissioned any independent research or investigation that could be used to rebut the glib and facetious claims of the Schenectady Applicant that its casino would have no significant added costs or negative impact on the City, nearby neighborhoods or towns, or the County. This lack of vital information caused the only non-Democrat on City Council, Vince Riggi, to refuse to vote in favor of the proposed casino.

TuxedoMasthead Sterling Forest at Tuxedo. Like the Town Supervisor and Board in Tyre, the leadership in the Town of Tuxedo, NY, negotiated with its casino Applicant, Genting, and achieved a comprehensive and generous Host Community Agreement related to the Sterling Forest Resort proposal.  In his Supervisor’s Update to the residents of Tuxedoon July 21, 2014 Town Supervisor Michael Rost summarized:

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Mayor McCarthy left millions on the casino table

Hisstationand4aces-coolidge

.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . *_/

  At Schenectady City Council meetings, Mayor Gary McCarthy is pretty good at maintaining his poker face, while raking and calling in political chips. But, it’s apparently a different story when the Mayor sits down to gamble on our City’s future with the Casino Gang from Mohawk Harbor (Rush Street Gaming and the Galesi Group).  Despite holding numerous trump cards, the McCarthy Administration has left a lot of casino cash, public benefits, and basic zoning protections on the table, to the future enrichment and probable amusement of the savvy businessmen who are planning to make millions of dollars at the Old ALCO site.

*/ above image: “His Station and Four Aces” (1903), by C.M. Coolidge

So far, all that Schenectady has received from Galesi Group’s Dave Buicko and Rush Street’s Neil Bluhm are unenforceable promises of big dollars and jobs down the road, with lots of disclaimers, footnotes, and revenue projections adjusted downward. We should have expected and demanded much more of Mayor McCarthy, and his Legal and Planning Departments. As explained below, at the very least, we should ask how the Mayors of cities as different as Philadelphia (PA) and Brockton (MA) got so much from Rush Street Gaming, while Schenectady ended up with only smiles and praise for their cooperation from the so-called Partners.

. . . BROCKTON, MA

About ten weeks ago, in February 2015, Mohawk Harbor’s Casino Gang gave Schenectady City Hall its litany of zoning “needs”, and Mayor McCarthy gave them everything they asked for, and more, with no tit for tat. That same month, Rush Street Gaming, through its Massachusetts affiliate Mass. Gaming and Entertainment (“MGE”), entered into an agreement with the City of Brockton as part of its application process for a Massachusetts gaming facility license. As the Boston Globe reported (emphasis added):

“The six-page agreement, negotiated by Mayor Bill Carpenter, would require the casino’s developer to provide the city $3 million in upfront payments  and then $10 million a year, or 2.5 percent of gross gambling revenues, whichever is greater, if a casino is built.”  (“Brockton would receive $10 million a year under casino agreement,” Boston Globe, Feb. 20, 2015)

That’s right, Rush Street recently entered into a contract, called a Host Community Agreement, to make three million-dollar payments to Brockton for Community Enhancement during construction of its casino, and at least $10,000,000 a year in combined payments guaranteed once the resort is open to the public. (See the Yes for Brockton website’s description of the benefits promised to Brockton by Rush Street.) In addition, along with other benefits for the City and its residents, the Host Community Agreement (summary) obligated Rush Street to:

  1. commission and fund comprehensive Impact Studies to be performed by independent, mutually-acceptable experts, to assess the impacts of the Project on the City’s traffic and transportation infrastructure, utility infrastructure, public safety, and other impacts such as education and housing.
  2. enter a Mitigation Agreement, after receiving its gaming license, to fund the mitigation of all identified impacts.
  3. pay property taxes during construction based on the arms-length acquisition price of the land
  4. grant a hiring preference for both construction and permanent jobs, first to qualified Brockton residents and then to qualified residents of Surrounding Communities.
  5. pay for or reimburse the City for customary expenses incurred in the permitting and impact-review process
  6. issue at least $50,000 per year in gift cards or rewards vouchers to be used at local businesses located off site.

RSppMGCcover . . RSppMGC

– above screen-shots: Cover & Brockton Benefits page from Rush Street Power Point presentation to Massachusetts Gaming Commission, March 2, 2015 –

In addition to the very significant factor of allowing each municipality’s voters, rather than merely the local Council, to approve an applicant’s casino proposal, Massachusetts Gaming Law [G.L. Chapter 23K, §15(8)] differs from New York’s in that it requires the applicant to enter into a Host Community Agreement that sets out the responsibilities of both parties. But, the only specifically-required element is an Impact Fee of an unspecified size.  Everything else — i.e., payments prior to opening the casino; guaranteed minimum payments for real estate taxes and community enhancement, preference in hiring to local residents for jobs and vendors, etc. —  is a matter for negotiation and bargaining between the casino developer and the City.

checkedboxs  The most important aspect of the Agreement made by Rush Street with Brockton (as well as the agreements with Philadelphia) is that Rush Street clearly believes it can give such significant, firm prior commitments to the City and the Community and, nonetheless, make a profit sufficient to warrant submitting the application, waging a vigorous campaign, and making the immense investment necessary to develop and operate a casino. The apparent but understandable irony, of course, is that Rush Street offers its pre-operation payments, generous goodies, and binding revenue promises to the cities where the fight against Rush Street is the strongest (or where it faces a vote by the residents), and offers virtually nothing to places like Schenectady where “leaders” eagerly support their proposal.  That makes Mr. Bluhm a good businessman and poker player, but not necessarily a good neighbor. The question now is whether the City (as well as the County and Metroplex) can make up for those lost opportunities and take the City back from the New Bosses at the Old ALCO site. 

update (May 11, 2015): When confronted, by Mohamed Hafez at tonight’s City Council Meeting, with the many promises made by Rush Street to Brockton, Mayor Gary McCarthy made the expected excuse that Massachusetts requires the Host Community Agreements. As stated above, that response is incomplete, and cannot justify McCarthy not demanding similar agreements be made by Rush Street with Schenectady.

In addition, the Mayor pointed out that all New York gaming revenues go to the State, which distributes the funds to counties and municipalities.  That argument ignores the fact that the casino operator has the ability to guarantee that the city will receive a minimum amount each year in total revenues, and to reimburse the City for any shortfall from the revenue redistributed by the State and County.  In addition, the casino pays real property taxes directly to the County, City and School District, and those funds can be the subject of an agreement with the City, as can the other promises made by Rush Street with Brockton and Philadelphia, and the many other items that appear in typical Community Benefit Agreements.

RushStreetGiveaways For a detailed response to the Mayor, see “Money on the Table, part 2” (May 18, 2015), which describes the many Host Community Agreements and Impact Mitigation Plans entered into by other potential Upstate New York host municipalities last year, and their implications when judging the job the McCarthy Administration has done in Schenectady. Follow-up (May 27, 2015): See our post and related chart on Rush Street’s Giveaways (to everyone but Schenectady).

Additional points about casino location in Massachusetts:

  • See the Mass. Gaming Commission HCA webpage, for an explanation of Host Community Agreements, along with both full texts and summaries of existing agreements with 5 communities awaiting casino location. Also, click here, for 9 excerpted pages we’ve scanned from the 5 summary documents.
  • Payments prior to Opening. While it will be years before Schenectady tax payers will be seeing casino revenues to help reduce property taxes, Massachusetts localities, thanks to Agreements like the one made in Brockton, are already seeing pre-opening payments. Indeed, according to an article this week in the Attleboro Sun-Chronicle, several years before any casino dollars will be generated in Massachusetts:

Fifteen communities . . . have received roughly $5 million from the state’s three licensed casino operators as part of compensation agreements negotiated with the companies.

The payments range from more than $1 million to Springfield to $50,000 apiece to nearby Ludlow, Wilbraham, East Longmeadow and Holyoke. [“Early spend spree” (AP, The Sun-Chronicle, Attleboro MA, April 19, 2015)

  •  Helping Surrounding Communities. As the above Sun-Chronicle article suggests, another difference in the Massachusetts Gaming Law is that Massachusetts specifically attempts to help Surrounding Communities receive mitigation funds from a casino applicant/operator. (That is another way in which our State law fails to protect the public, making strong advocacy by a Host city for its residents and neighbors even more important.) Therefore, under G.L. Chapter 23K, §15(9), an applicant for a license must “provide to the commission signed agreements between the surrounding communities and the applicant setting forth the conditions to have a gaming establishment located in proximity to the surrounding communities and documentation of public outreach to those surrounding communities.” In Massachusetts, therefore, Rush Street says it will start approaching neighboring communities for mitigation agreements as soon as the people of Brockton vote “Yes” on the Brockton Agreement. See, “Neighboring towns keep close watch as Brockton prepares casino vote“, Boston Globe, April 26, 2015.

images-7 In Schenectady, by contrast to Brockton, neither City Hall nor the Casino (nor Big Brother Ray Gillen at Metroplex) has acknowledged publicly that there will be added expenses or other negative impact on the people, neighborhoods, and businesses of Schenectady and nearby towns. Instead, when asked about increased costs for police, fire, and emergency services, or the added need for public assistance and school district expenses, the “Casino Partners” glibly and dismissively tell us that more than enough extra revenue will come to the City and County from operation of the casino to easily pay for any such impacts, with lots left over to reduce property taxes. Similarly, when Council Member Vince Riggi (the only non-Democrat on the City Council) has asked his colleagues to study and report on added costs to the City caused by operation of the Casino, he has been rejected out of hand. images-3 . Likewise, calls by residents, and Mr. Riggi, at Council meetings, for a commitment by Rush Street for minimum payments to the City have been scoffed at by The Partners.  Imploring the Mayor and City Council to bargain from strength while they still have leverage has been met with Mayor McCarthy’s poker face and Council President King’s averted eyes. The goal proclaimed by Rush Street in the Brockton Agreement, “To achieve certainty for both parties”, cannot be heard along the Mohawk. . . . . .

.BrocktonCasino  . . . Casino-RenderResort – Rush Street Casino Renderings: [L] Brockton; [R] Schenectady (click on image for larger view) –

Architectural Comparison: There is at least one more significant way in which Rush Street has treated Brockton better then Schenectady: Neil Bluhm is planning a project at the Brockton fairgrounds that actually looks like it could be both a “destination resort” and part of a New England community, rather than a retread of his Midwest Des Plaines Casino, which has the charisma of a 1970s shopping mall or branch bank (see images above this paragraph). The Boston Globe said the Brockton proposal was a sprawling plan reminiscent of a New England college campus. I have wondered since last summer why no one at City Hall, the County Building, or Metroplex sent Rush Street back to the drawing board to come up with a design worthy of our City, perhaps in sync with the look and feel of our Historic Stockade District. I wonder if Brockton’s Mayor did just that, or if Rush Street decided from the start to go show Brockton more design respect than Schenectady has received.

StockadeFlagCollage

Stockade images

 

By the way, in its environmental remarks to the Location Board, concerning impacting nearby neighborhoods or historic sites, Rush Street the Applicant said there are design elements of the project that reflect the Stockade influence. Perhaps they mean the cherry blossoms that will apparently bloom all year long at Mohawk Harbor’s Casino, but only about a week in the real Stockade District.

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PHILADELPHIA, PA . . .

We have in Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino additional, strong evidence that Mayor McCarthy and his Legal and Planning Departments have underperformed immensely in dealing with Rush Street and Galesi on behalf of the people of Schenectady.  The Philadelphia casino is operated by Rush Street Gaming and owned by SugarHouse HSP Gaming, LP, which are both controlled by Neil Bluhm and his family.  SugarHouse gives us a telling demonstration of just what happens when a City and community actually bargain with Rush Street, rather than grovel like desperate and helpless supplicants.

  • Schenectady residents focused on lowering property taxes, as well as those interested in funding projects to combat expected social and neighborhood issues, should pay particular attention to the Philadelphia story.

SugarHouseEntryway Two major Agreements, made prior to its Selection to receive a gaming license in December 2006 and its Opening in September 2010, have had a significant impact on the SugarHouse situation, including the size, shape and timing of its benefits.  First, the City of Philadelphia entered into a Development and Tax and Claim Settlement Agreement (“The Development Agreement”) with HSP Gaming on December 17, 2007, three days before its application was selected for a gaming license.  Second, persons and entities representing four nearby neighborhoods entered into a Community Benefits Agreement with HSP Gaming relating to the SugarHouse Casino in November 2008, almost two years before its opening. [You can learn about Community Benefits Agreements, including the SugarHouse CBA, at the CBA weblog.] . . . . . In 2006, in another significant prior action, the Philadelphia City Council passed §14-400 of its Zoning Code, establishing the Commercial Entertainment District (CED) to permit licensed gaming facilities. That was a year before HSP Gaming was selected by the Gaming Commission. Similar to Schenectady’s original C-3 Waterfront Multi-use Zoning ordinance, Philadelphia’s 2006 casino zoning included a very strong public access requirement at riverfront locations (§14-406(5)(b), details below). Unlike Schenectady’s amended casino zoning provision, Philadelphia continues to specify the requirement of guaranteed public access to the riverbank. [By the way, there is no waterfront on the Braxton casino property. If there were, I’m sure its citizens would have achieved a firm promise of permanent waterfront access, as the folks in Everett and New Bradford, MA, recently did.]

Note: In December 2011, the Philadelphia Zoning Code was revamped and reorganized, but its casino district provisions were only renumbered to §14-405, and renamed, without changing their substance. The district is now called SP-ENT (Special Purpose-Entertainment). For those interested in making a comparison, the Repealed Casino District provisions can be found here.  Click on this link for the current SP-ENT provisions.

PENNTreatySSD Logo Not only did Rush Street Gaming enter into a comprehensive Community Benefits Agreement with Philadelphia for its SugarHouse casino, it went beyond the elements customarily found across the nation in development CBAs by agreeing to the creation of a Special Services District (“SSD”), controlled by four neighboring communities, to administer the CBA on behalf of the Community. The resulting SSD is called the PENN Treaty Special Services District (“PENN Treaty SSD” or “PTSSD”). Click this link for the full text of the PENN Treaty SSD Articles of Incorporation and the SugarHouse CBA.

Why “PENN Treaty”? According to legend, Pennsylvania founder William Penn signed his treaty of peace with the local Lenape tribe under an elm tree just off the Delaware River in 1683, at a riverfront spot near SugarHouse. The tree fell down in a storm in 1810, but the site was dedicated in 1894 and named PENN Treaty Park.

PENNTreatySSD Logo Here are some of the most important provisions in the SugarHouse Community Benefits Agreement:

1.Goals: The CBA says that SugarHouse wants to open on schedule, “with the minimum disruption practicable, during both development and operation to the Neighboring Community.” In addition, the Community Signatories are said to desire ongoing cooperation with SugarHouse, “in order to properly address the impacts of casino development and maximize the benefits of such development to the community.”

2.red check Special Services District: The Community Benefits Agreement includes setting up a Special Services District, called PENN Treaty SSD (“PTSSD”), which is a nonprofit organization formed and controlled by volunteers from the four Neighboring Communities that border on the Casino. As PTSSD states on its web homepage, it distributes grants and sponsorships to organizations that provide charitable benefits to the residents of the SSD. PTSSD started operations in January 2010, nine months before SugarHouse opened for business.

3.red check Funding:  It took two years of continued wrangling, but the Casino eventually began making the required payments under the CBA and the Special Services District has been sharing those funds since that time with the communities of Fishtown, Northern Liberties, South Kensington and Old Richmond.

1.PTSSD has already received $1,175,000 from SugarHouse under their CBA to fund projects for the benefit of the neighboring communities

2.SugarHouse agreed to pay $175,000 each year during the Pre-Opening period; $500,000 the first Post-Opening Year; and $1,000,000 in subsequent years, for 15 years, with upward adjustments up to $1.5 million.

3.SugarHouse also agreed to pay up to $35,000 for the legal fees incurred by the community representatives setting up the SSD, plus $1000 in startup expenses

4.red check Waterfront Access: SugarHouse agreed that “in no event shall such access be more limited than provided in the [Development Agreement it made with the City]”. As a result, as detailed at pp. 6-7 of the Development Agreement, once SugarHouse completed its Waterfront Promenade (during its first phase of construction), it must permit “substantial public access . . at all times along its waterfront pursuant to a mutually satisfactory agreement concerning such access,” with street entry from both north and south ends of the Casino complex, and with very limited partial restriction allowed for special events and safety reasons. SugarHouse must also consult with the SSD on a regular basis regarding access to the waterfront.

Note: This is of course, quite different from the situation in Schenectady, where Rush Street and City Hall collaborated to remove a public access guarantee from its C-3 Waterfront zoning provision: with Council Member Leesa Perazzo inanely explaining “we don’t need it because they’re going to do it anyway,” and Director of Development Jaclyn Mancini pointing out that “they’ll have access to the retail shops,” as if being able to shop at Mohawk Harbor retail establishments was in question and is equivalent to being able to freely enjoy the waterfront. When the topic of public access came up before the Planning Commission, Galesi Group’s CEO and representative Dave Buicko twice said “it’s private property”, and he admitted they want people to come as customers.

5. Promotion of Local Businesses.  SugarHouse must operate a Promotional Player Program with points redeemable at local businesses and must keep a list of businesses offering discounts to SugarHouse players’ club members.

6.Traffic. Miscellaneous obligations are undertaken by SugarHouse aimed at minimizing “disruption caused by increased or modified traffic” related to the development and operation of SugarHouse. For example, free parking must be provided for employees and casino guests to prevent spillover to neighboring streets. Also, a one-time $5000 payment was made to allow for free car washes for those nearby affected by construction dust.

In addition, the Development and Tax and Claim Settlement Agreement with the City of Philadelphia included many commitments, such as:

•Security, Safety, Medical Emergencies: SugarHouse will fund private security for its complex sufficient to maintain the peace; will pay for expenses related to 911 emergency calls from the Casino; and will provide or fund ambulance service for medical emergencies at the Casino.

•Traffic Report. In the first and third years of operation, SugarHouse must do a traffic count at specified intersections and provide a plan to remedy any failure to reach goals set forth in certain Traffic Letters.

red check Specified Settlement Payments and Use and Occupancy (property tax) Payments: Specific Dollar Amounts are pledged (see p. 10), with a minimum of $3.2 million in Settlement Payments, and $1 million in Use and Occupancy payments in each of the first 10 years, and $3.5 million in years 11 to 20, with CPI adjustments.

•LEED & Green Roof. SugarHouse will use an LEED Certified consultant, and promises to spend a minimum of One Million Dollars to construct a Green Roof on the facility covering at least 60,000 sq.ft. (Click here for the EPA webpage on Green Roofs) In Schenectady, the Casino Gang speaks more in terms of aspirations than promises, and they seem to be saying something like, “Gosh, we’ll do what we can to be energy efficient, as long as it doesn’t cost too much.”

•Waterfront Access. As discussed above in the CBA section, the Development Agreement (at 6-7) sets forth numerous public access requirements, and explains limited restrictions on access that might be imposed due to special events, construction, and safety concerns.

Zoning Code Differences. . . . The Schenectady City Council recently pushed through a set of C-3 Waterfront zoning amendments to meet the “needs” of the developer and operator, with the City’s incurious, almost-servile Planning Commission granting it major CYA protection (see our earlier posting). The resulting zoning code leaves the people of Schenectady with fewer rights and less protection. (See, e.g., our posting of Feb. 10, 2015, “zoning vote hands the Casino Gang a Blank Check“) In contrast, treatment of licensed gaming facilities in the Philadelphia zoning code was put in place prior to the selection of SugarHouse for a casino license and not tampered with at SugarHouse, as they had been in Schenectady under pressure to fulfill the pressures, whims and exaggerated deadlines of the Galesi Group and Rush Street. . Here are examples of the contrast between casino-related zoning provisions in Schenectady (its C-3 District provisions, §264-14, which are described, with a link to the final version, at tinyurl.com/C-3Changes) and in Philadelphia (its SP-ENT provisions):

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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.

Mohawk Harbor Site Plan released

Mohawk Harbor/Casino SitePlan03Mar2015

 – click on the above image for a larger version –

Above is the Site Plan submitted by The Galesi Group to the City Planning Commission yesterday, March 10, 2015.

red check Review of the Site Plan is slated to begin before the Commission on Tuesday, March 31, in a meeting to be held at 6:30 PM in Room 110 of the Schenectady City Hall. There is very little seating available, so plan to be there early, if you want to attend.

The above Site Plan is dated March 3, 2015, just 22 days after the City Council voted amendments to the C-3 waterfront zoning district, giving the Casino Gang everything they wanted (and more).  Galesi CEO and spokesman David Buicko said they could not let the public or the Council see a site plan until they knew how tall their buildings could be. Nonetheless, the Site Plan they have submitted does not does tell us how tall the casino facility or its 6-level associated hotel will be.  Over at the marina complex, we are told no specific height or even number of  floors, only “3-5” floors or “+/- 3 floors”.

As Applicants to the Siting Location Board, Galesi and Rush Street Gaming said they would be operating their casino 23 months after receiving a gaming license from the NYS Gaming Commission.  The gaming license has not yet been issued, and we must again ask just what all the rush was to force through the C-3 changes without first demanding more information from the Applicants and a lot more thoughtful evaluation by the Planning Commission and the City Council. See Schenectady’s waterfront zoning: a rubber stamp in a Company Town? and zoning vote hands Casino Gang a blank check. . ..

zoning vote hands Casino Gang a blank check. . .

. . . for a pig in a poke

(in a New York Minute, with a Rubber Stamp)

approved-CityCouncilWe need some new cliches and metaphors to describe the way Schenectady’s ever-grateful and gullible City Hall has again kowtowed to every wish and whim of the Casino Gang (The Galesi Group, which is the owner/developer of Mohawk Harbor & Rush Street Gaming, the erstwhile operator of Rivers Casino at Mohawk Harbor).  The links in our righthand margin will take you to posts describing the issues raised and the questions never asked (much less answered) by the set of amendments to our C-3 Waterfront Mixed Use District, which were passed into legislation last night (by a vote of 4 yes, 0 no and 1 Abstention (Vince Riggi [I]).  They are said to be what the Gang at Mohawk Harbor needs to make their/our dreams a reality. You can read news reports in the Times Union, “City Council approves new waterfront zoning: Rules let buildings be up to 10 stories tall” (by Paul Nelson, Feb. 9, 2015), and in the casino-smitten Schenectady Gazette, “Schenectady council OKs zone change for casino site” (by Haley Vicarro, Feb. 10, 2015).

Rather than use thousands of words to discuss the potential harmful effects of the needless rush to push through the C-3 amendments. I’ll remind you that:

  • “Trust”. Council members insist they didn’t need more facts or discussion before passing the C-3 amendments, because they trust the Galesi Group and Rush Gaming, especially their chief spokesman, David Buicko, and his promise that “it will be tasteful”; and,
  • “Minor Clarification”. Galesi COO David Buicko has said often that the C-3 amendments are minor, and mostly “clarification”, and not even really focused on the casino.

City Council is, therefore, putting its trust in the Casino Gang to protect the interests the zoning law is meant to serve, despite the fact they have pitched the following changes as just “minor clarification” of the existing ordinance:

  • deletion of the requirement of an easement to permanently guarantee “public access and enjoyment of the waterfront,” and of the provision granting a right to 10% of dock space reserved for public use
  • changing the maximum building height allowed to 110′ as of right; C-3 had required a special use permit for any building over 56′
    • By the way, Galesi told Metroplex the buildings around the embayment would be 3-4 floors, and that they wanted a 110′ gaming facility.  Buicko now says he wants the 110′ maximum to use around the bay-marina, if the market looks like there will be a lot of demand. How many buildings will be over 100 feet?
  • increasing the minimum setback from the river to 40′, from 50′
  • making Article IX-Signs of the Zoning Code, which contains the rules everyone else must follow when using signage of any kind, inapplicable to the casino and its related structures
  • permitting the casino and its hotel and parking structure, etc., to have 19,000 sq. ft. of signage, when under Art. IX it might need an area variance to have more than about 200 sq. ft.
  • allowing one or more multi-sided pylon signs, with a height not to exceed 90 feet, when under Article IX freestanding signs with a maximum height of 7′ are allowed

dice It might be better to put your trust on a pair of dice, because the only thing the amendments clarified is that the Casino Gang is in charge of this Company Town.

Finally, through ignorance, incompetence or cunning, the City Council did one more favor for the Casino Gang last night: At the request of Councilwoman Porterfield, they amended the proposal in order to remove from §264-61(I) mention of the new 8-second minimum between changes in electronic message boards.  Ms. Porterfield said that would make it easier to change the Zoning Code, by having all mention of the subject in one place, §264-61. [Sadly, only in Schenectady is changing a number in two places of a Code somehow considered to be difficult or risky.] What she may have forgotten, along with apparently everyone else in the room, is that §H of the amendments to C-3 states: “Article IX-Signs shall not be applicable to a casino facility and attached uses.” Therefore, because §264-61,the electronic message board provision in the Zoning Code, is part of Article IX, it is not applicable to the casino.  The casino’s use of electronic message boards is left totally unregulated under the Schenectady zoning code. At the public hearing last week, I had asked the Council to specifically make the protections in §264-61(2) applicable to the casino. Under§264-61(2), every other business in town must demonstrate, at a public hearing that the proposed sign

“shall not substantially impact upon the nature and character of the surrounding neighborhood, upon traffic conditions and any other matters affecting the health, safety and general welfare of the public.”

The one business most likely to fail that test, the Casino, does not have to take the test. At this point, I’d like to see the requirements of §264-61(2) applied to the Casino by a change in section H of the C-3 ordinance, or by drawing the Casino back into §264-61, even though it is part of Article IX.

Note: This reminds me that I have never heard the City Council or the Planning Commission mention why our signage regulations have been made inapplicable to the Casino, much less the potential ramifications. Was it so that no one would notice how much more generous Council has been to the Casino than to any other Schenectady business erecting a sign when they redid the Art. IX Signage Schedule?

Because the 8-second interval is the NYS Department of Transportation minimum for changes on electronic variable message signs, the casino will not be allowed to adopt a shorter interval, as long as DOT monitors and enforces its rule. Let’s hope that DOT also monitors and enforces its spacing requirement along the Mohawk Harbor stretch of Erie Boulevard. The spacing rules states that CEVMS signs must be spaced at least 300 feet apart, “if more than one CEVMS sign face is visible to the driver at the same time on either side of the highway.”

prayinghandsS If I were a praying man, I’d be asking St. Thomas (known for Doubting) and St. Nicholas (who is said to protect folks from Misunderstandings, Robberies, and Wolves) to take special care of Schenectady, especially along Mohawk Harbor.

– share this posting with the short link: http://tinyurl.com/BlankCheckZoning

the Planning Commission can’t tame the C-3 Amendments

As discussed below, my several hours of legal research this weekend reaffirm the conclusion in our earlier post,”City Hall is giving bad legal advice to get Council votes” (Jan. 24, 2015) that:

 diceOnce put into law in a new version of C-3 standards, the signage, height and setback numbers will be virtually untouchable by the Planning Commission (unless, perhaps, it does a new environmental impact statement under SEQRA that justifies the changes as necessary “mitigation” of environmental harm).

Mayor Gary McCarthy and Corporation Counsel Carl Falotico have continued to argue that the Planning Commission will be able to reduce the allowable square footage of aggregate signage and the maximum height of buildings in the C-3 district during the Site Plan review process.  A Site Plan submitted by the Mohawk Harbor Developer and Casino Operator would be a detailed depiction and description of their proposed Casino Compound (the location and design of the gaming facility, its ancillary uses, parking garage and lots, and the casino hotel, and its traffic circulation plans and full signage plans), with plats, architectural drawings and more.

approved-CityCouncil At the February 3, 2015 Committee Meeting of City Council, Councilman Vince Riggi, an independent and the only non-Democrat on City Council, asked that a provision be added to the C-3 Amendments specifying that the Planning Commission has the authority to make such modifications, before asking the Council to vote on extreme changes to the C-3 ordinance with no idea of what the results would be in the real world. Riggi was voted down, and the Amendments were place on the Council Meeting Agenda for Monday, February 9, 2015.  The City Council is, therefore, poised to vote to approved the C-3 Amendments, despite their many flaws, and without have a fraction of the information needed to make an intelligent and responsible decision. So, they are dragging out all those rubber stamps again to please their Casino Cronies.

Councilman Ed Kosiur was adamantly against such a provision and Councilman John Ferrari stated it would be redundant. See the Schenectady Gazette article “Schenectady City Council mulls zoning for Mohawk Harbor: Riggi wants city to reiterate Planning Commission’s authority,” by Haley Vicarro, Feb. 3, 2015.  According to the Gazette:

“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.”

While Falotico’s assertion is true, it is quite vague and seems to suggest more than he has actually stated. Planning Boards or Commissions, of course, very often do modify or set conditions for a Site Plan, usually after the applicant has agreed to the changes out of indifference or to avoid the Site Plan being disapproved.  Those conditions tend to state detailed landscaping or buffering requirements; specify allowed color schemes for buildings and signs; limit illumination, and similar “aesthetic” improvement or safety requirements.  Leaving such details to the Planning Commission not only makes sense, it is a necessity, since such details could not possibly be included in a zoning code for a district that has hundreds of parcels in many different settings (and some of the criteria may appear to be in conflict).  Of necessity, the criteria given to a planning board often speak in general terms, such as not having a “substantial impact” on the nature of the neighborhood; or ensuring the “adequacy” of landscaping or buffering between the project and adjacent lands, or of traffic or pedestrian access and circulation.

In the case Moriarity v. Planning Board of Village of Sloatsburg, 119 A.D.2d 188 (1986), the N.Y. appellate court for the 2nd Department pointed out that zoning codes establish specific standards that are applicable to all parcels in a zoning classification, but then have to be applied from lot to lot, by a planning board. The Moriarity court noted that: “there is no escape from the fact that most of the cases dealing with land use regulation indicate a fairly restrictive interpretation of delegated powers. Thus it has been consistently held that each local agency involved in the zoning and planning process [including planning boards], may not exceed the bounds of the power specifically delegated to it.”

The court went on to find that the Sloatsburg Planning Board could not, under its general power to protect the health, safety and general welfare of the community, deny site plan approval based on the lack of nearby public water for fire protection purposes.

Planning Commission conditions are said to be “more onerous” than the zoning code, because they take a code provision stated in general or broad terms and make particular demands of the applicant for fulfilling the code provisions (e.g., the number and height of evergreen trees, or the width and length of a landscaped buffer zone).

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SCHENECTADY’s WATERFRONT ZONING: a rubber stamp in a Company Town?

 desktop misc6 It’s hard to avoid being discouraged after the January 26th public hearing on the Schenectady City Council’s proposed amendments to our waterfront zoning ordinance (the C-3 District).  Rather than actually addressing any of the amendments’ provisions, the so-called supporters of the proposals merely told how exciting the casino project was and how necessary it is to have C-3 waterfront zoning (which we already have: click for Current C-3 Zoning Ordinance).  As someone who witnessed the four-hour Planning Commission Special Meeting on January 14th, it was especially disconcerting to hear speaker after speaker use the 8-0 vote of the Planning Commission approving the set of amendments as an important reason for adopting the proposal. [In this posting, the Planning Commission is at times referred to as “Commission” or “PC”.]

The major zoning changes that were under consideration are listed here, and discussed in several postings filed in our Zoning/Planning Category and in the Recent Posts menu at the top of the Sidebar.

GEsignBlDice

new boss in town?

We believe the four-hour Special Meeting of the Planning Commission on Jan. 14 was yet another demonstration that Schenectady has become once again a Company Town, where City Hall acts as a rubber stamp wielded to fulfill the wishes of Schenectady’s new Bosses, Galesi Group, the owner and developer of Mohawk Harbor, and Rush Street Gaming, the owner-operator of the casino itself [collectively known around this website as the Galesi-Casino Gang, or simply “the Gang”], with their godfather at Metroplex, Ray Gillen, pulling strings and greasing skids to help make it happen.

 As a result, the customary (non-casino-related) interests of Schenectady’s current and future residents, businesses and organizations, are ignored, with shortsighted decisions being made and Schenectady’s future and heritage being shortchanged.

In the zoning context, therefore, we see a set of proposed amendments that only make sense if traditional zoning and planning goals and processes are forgotten and the only goal is to make the Gang’s wishes and hopes for Mohawk Harbor into law. But, you ask, can’t we be reassured by the 8-0 vote of our City’s Planning Commission recommending the proposed amendments with only a couple of minor tweaks?  In a word, as explained below, No.

Alco&GElogos Many supporters of a Schenectady Casino (especially those who live in Schenectady and won’t be its business partners) simply want Schenectady to be a City with a Casino, and not a Casino City, known elsewhere mostly for its regional gaming facility.  More worrisome than becoming a Casino Town is becoming a Company Town again. Ironically, the new Company Town has its ruling Gang symbolically ensconced at the very spot where the American Locomotive Company and General Electric built useful things that helped win wars and modernize our homes and lives. It is also ironic that so many of the people who helped write Schenectady’s Comprehensive Plan 2020 are now undoing its boast that Schenectady was working successfully in an ongoing process to make “the transition from a company town” into something much more vibrant and diverse.

ALCODiceThe suspicion that Schenectady has transformed into a Company Town run by the Gang from Mohawk Harbor was strengthened a lot at the Special Meeting of the Planning Commission. The City’s Development and Legal Staff and the City Council had requested a review of the proposed amendments by the Planning Commission. It was, however, not the Staff who presented the proposed amendments to the Commission. Instead, Galesi Group Chief Operating Officer Dave Buicko began the Meeting with a slide show, after being asked by the Commission Chair to “put the changes in context”; COO Buicko reassured the Commissioners and public that this is really just “cleanup and clarification” of the current provisions of C-3. (That was the first of many “exaggerations” that were not remarked upon by the Commissioners or staff.)

A lawyer was next to address the Commissioners, but not one from the City’s Law Department. PC Chair Sharron Copolla casually transitioned from Buicko by inviting Andrew Brick, an attorney for casino operator Rush Street Gaming, to take a chair at the table. Mr. Brick then went line for line through the 8 pages of the proposal and explained how they relate to their new development. Brick, lawyer for the Gang with the most to lose or win, was the only person presenting the provisions to the Commissioners. He offered only the “pros” of the new amendments, not the questions or “cons.” And, the only reasons given for the changes were the advantages for Mohawk Harbor and its casino.

  approved-CityCouncil Corporation Counsel Carl Falotico was watching the Meeting from his office on a live feed, but felt the need to come down and interrupt the Meeting to proclaim that this really isn’t the developer’s set of amendments, and is from the law and planning staff, adding “we did a lot of work on it.” That’s a little different than it being the City’s plan, and it was amusing that one supporter of the proposals told the public hearing our Corporation Counsel proved it was his plan by saying so at the PC meeting.

In the next, public comment segment of the meeting, seven Schenectady residents voiced specific, well-articulated opposition to several of the proposals and especially called for adjournment before voting on the proposal, to allow for much-needed fact-finding and research. Although admitting often to ignorance or confusion, the Planning Commission went ahead, voting that night as if the public comments had never been uttered and their only real job was to get the proposals approved in time for the Council’s Jan. 26 public hearing.

After the public comments were made, the PC Chair invited Mr. Buicko to respond to the public comments, and then allowed Michael Levin, a principal in the firm that will be overseeing construction, to present his version of the reasons Mohawk Harbor needs these changes, now.  The City’s staff were never offered the opportunity to explain any of the provisions, and never tried to do so.

rubberstamptoolongBY Only after the Galesi and Rush Street Gaming representatives were finished, did the Commissioners begin their discussion of the Amendments, stopping often to ask Mr. Buicko or someone from his group to explain a provision.  Although that discussion was very long, it amounted to a slow-motion rubber stamping, as can be seen below in their treatment of the various issues that arose.

Adequately Prepared for Novel Issues?

This set of amendments raises zoning and factual issues that this City and planning board have never before seen, as well as specific problems never explained by staff. For instance:

  • How much and what kinds of signage do urban casinos that are not on a strip with similar establishments typically use and need? What does Rush Street do at its other casinos, and to what effect? Why does it only use 12,500 sq. ft. of signage in Des Plaines, not the 15,000 sq. ft. it told Metroplex would be the maximum in Schenectady, nor the 19,000 sq. ft. in the proposed amendments?
  • How are scenic river views and public access to a riverbank best preserved or achieved when zoning for a large new development along a rare stretch of river? How do the proposed amendments jibe with the goals of the C-3 waterfront district and the Schenectady Comprehensive Plan 2020 (adopted 2008), which call for the preservation of waterfront views and public access?
  • CasinoHotel9floors Is a bulky hotel building as tall as 110′ high too intrusive 40′ away from a riverbank? Why does the rendering of the Casino hotel along the riverbank that was first submitted to the public and the Location Board last Spring and continues to be circulated, show only a 5-floor hotel, perhaps 65′ high?
  • What would a fully illuminated urban casino look like at night and how will its illumination affect neighbors and the way our City is perceived?
  • Aren’t embayments and other bodies of water usually left out in calculating allowable aggregate footprint on a parcel?  Why should the Casino compound be allowed an extra 2.5 acres of footprint because of the size of the Marina’s embayment? Also, why would a project that wants to go so high also want more footprint? What would that do to the view of the riverfront within or outside Mohawk Harbor, from ground level or from nearby buildings?
  • How would the requested 90′ high pylon affect the City’s skyline, nearby and distant traffic, and neighborhoods? Aren’t such tall pylons used primarily near freeways to alert fast-moving drivers to get off at the next exit for a service not visible from the freeway, or used outside of cities to attract distant traffic?
  • CrosstownPlazaSign

    Crosstown Plaza – 50′ pylon

    With 7′ the current limit for a C-3 free-standing sign, why wouldn’t a 50′ pylon suffice for you, like the one grandfathered at Crosstown Plaza? If their Des Plaines casino’s pylon is 68′ tall, why is 90′ needed here? How could the 49′ tall STS plant be the justification for such a tall pylon? Will the pylon come down when Galesi gets STS to move and razes its building?

  • What happens when the City’s existing signage provisions applicable to every zoning district, Article IX, are made inapplicable to one large parcel with has a novel use, with no provisions substituted for the existing rules?
  • Would a proposed 8-second interval for electronic message boards be appropriate at a location with many signs and much illumination, where many drivers will be new to the City, and to roundabouts, and many senior drivers are expected? (Click to read the Standards and discussion in the NYS DOT’s “Criteria for Regulating CEVM signs“.)
  • And, many more questions that will come to the surface while answering the questions above?

desktop misc7 Despite a grueling, often embarrassing four- hour-long Special Meeting, there are a number of convincing clues that the Planning Commissioners were meant to merely rubber-stamp this set of amendments that will greatly impact the appearance, ambiance, reputation, economy, and social future of our City far past the foreseeable future. For example, the Planning Commissioners:

  • Were not supplied by the Staff with even one page of materials containing explanations for the proposed changes, pros and cons, alternatives, the results of research comparing practices elsewhere, etc., as the basis for informed preparation, questions and decision-making
  • Had no new submissions by Mohawk Harbor, nor from the Casino, with much more-detailed renderings of plans that coincide with the provisions they had negotiated for with the Legal and Development staff
  • Did not demand a full briefing from staff before the Special Meeting, nor during it, nor ask for new plans and renderings from the Casino Gang at any time
  • Were entreated in person by Leesa Perazzo to approve the proposed recommendation, although Ms. Perazzo is a member of the very City Council that had asked for the Planning Commission’s recommendation
  • Made their recommendation that the amendments be passed by City Council that night, despite reasonable requests from the public (including a retired city planner and a retired lawyer familiar with local zoning law) for an adjournment that might allow them to become adequately prepared for an intelligent evaluation of the proposed amendments

Immediately below is the only staff material I’ve located that mentions evaluation or analysis of the proposed amendments. It is from the 31Dec2014 Memo from Jaclyn Mancini, Director of Development, to the City Council asking that the amendments be sent to the Planning Commission for their recommendation and that a Public Hearing be authorized:

Evaluation/Analysis

Planning and Law Department staff has drafted amendments to Chapter 264, Zoning, for the casino and its associated parking to be permitted uses.  Changes to allowable building height and allowable signage are also included in the amendments.

That’s it for background materials to aid the Commissioners. In addition to their being willing to fly blind, there were many failures of the Commissioners to show adequate curiosity, research, or backbone.  Here are a few instances:

First [punting difficult issues], as discussed fully in the earlier posting “City Hall is giving bad legal advice to get Council votes“, Planning Commission Chair Sharron Copolla voiced at least three times the excuse that the Commissioners can go ahead and approve of the seemingly extreme provisions in the Amendments, because they could reduce the numbers during Site Plan review of the Casino plans.  That appears to be bad advice on the Chair’s part, and the last time she made the assertion Commissioner Wallinger immediately told Ms. Copolla, “No we don’t.” That did not stop the Commissioners from all voting for the big numbers (nor the smaller 40 foot setback).

Sidenote: If the Commission does have the authority to make major changes during the Site Plan process, as the Mayor and Council President have asserted, the Mohawk Harbor Gang would not have the certainty it claims to need right now. It is better to take a close look at the numbers in the Amendments and approve changes Schenectady can proudly live with.

ACLObuildings Second [taller buildings], not only did no Commissioner object when Galesi Group President David Buicko opened the Special Meeting by stating these major, unprecedented changes are “only clean-up and clarification” of what is in the current C-3 law, they remained silent to the repeated assertion that it is appropriate to have 110′ buildings now at Mohawk Harbor, because the old ALCO site had buildings 130′ high that blocked out the view of the River. Commissioners who have lived here more than a few years surely had seen the ALCO site, and knew that the factory plants consisted of very long buildings (some 1000 yards), that were about 50′ high, and that a few of them had a taller portion (apparently to accommodate a crane or similar device to lift heavy items from the assembly line) that took up a tiny fraction of the length of the building and the skyline.  See the photo at the head of the paragraph (by Howard Olhous at Historic Marker Database) for a typical ALCO site image; and, see the following photo with an aerial view from the River side (by Nick Skinner, also hmdb.org), which has a white asterisk on one of the tall sections:

ALCo Site - Aerial View

The Photo also shows how dominant the Price Chopper Building is despite it being significantly shorter than 110 feet. (Mr. Buicko says 103′, Golub Headquarters told me 86′ tall.)

Third [Article IX inapplicable to Casino], no one on the Commission ever mentioned that the amendments were making the entire Schenectady Zoning ordinance on signs, Article. IX, inapplicable to the casino and its accessory uses (but still applicable to the rest of C-3, apparently). This has never been done before, but there was no discussion of what was going to fill the regulatory vacuum or why Schenectady’s customary size, number, or type rules were not needed.

Fourth [public access guarantee], only Commissioners Cuevas and Wallinger voiced concern over the removal from the C-3 ordinance of the current requirement of a permanent easement guaranteeing public access to the waterfront and another provision requiring that:

“A minimum of 10% of linear dock footage must be made available for public, day use”.

No one asked Mr. Buicko why he needed the easement requirement removed, nor why he stated a number of times “it’s private property” in the content of public access.

Screen shot 2015-01-024 When one Commissioner did ask City planner and ex officio member Christine Primiano why there would no longer be an access guarantee at the waterfront, she said the City could not afford the maintenance; she gave no further explanation and there was no follow-up question. No one reminded her that the current law requires maintenance by the owner; that the City is expecting millions of dollars a year from this very parcel and has promised public access to the waterfront; or that it is odd that staff already knew a few years in advance that the City could not afford the maintenance on a project that so nicely fulfills goals set out in the Comprehensive Plan.

Loss of required dock and riverfront access by the public surely should shock and surprise individuals and families throughout the County. It is inconsistent with both the spirit and the text of the Schenectady Comprehensive Plan 2020 (adopted 2008). For a full discussion of the loss of guaranteed public access, see our prior posting.

Fifth [maximum signage]: During the public comment period of the PC meeting, the Commissioners were asked if any of them knew what 20,000 sq. ft. of signage looks like. As expected, several heads shook the response “no.” [Schenectady resident John Kolwaite told the Commissioners a few minutes later that he had measured the front dimensions of our City Hall, and 20,000 sq. ft. was more than twice the size of the City’s Hall’s façade (as is 19,000 sq. ft.). Click here to see the photo mock-up he tried to submit to the Commission, showing the front of two City Halls, and also stating it was equal to 20 large (18′ x40′) billboards.]

Despite their inability to comprehend how much signage the amendments would allow in the Casino compound portion of Mohawk Harbor, the Commissioners asked for few additional details. When Commissioner Matt Cuevas stated that 20,000 sounded like too much and he would feel more comfortable with 15,000 sq. ft., Corporation Counsel Carl Falotico stood, approached the table, and in a stern voice stated (closely paraphrased):

“You can’t go from 20,000 to 15,000 without a rational basis.  If you do, we will be overturned in court. I have negotiated with the Casino representatives and am convinced that 20,000 is the minimum they must have.”

This was an erroneous statement of the law (In legislating, the City has virtually total discretion choosing the amount of signage. Also, since the Casino told Metroplex and the Location Board it would use “a maximum of 15,000 sq. ft.”, it is difficult to say there would be no basis for that number.) What Falotico’s assertion accomplished, however, was a virtually end to discussion of a smaller number. No one on the Commission said, “Carl, if you have seen enough detail to know that 20,000 is the correct number, why can’t we see what you saw, or have you explain your conclusion?”

Another telling moment unveiling the need for more information and giving us a glimpse of Company Town control, came when Commissioners were discussing pylons, specifically the 68′ pylon used at Rush Street’s Des Plaines casino. As a Commissioner was telling Rush Street’s representative how we would measure the square footage of signage on the pylon, it was Rush Street’s man, not Corporation Counsel or Development staff, who said Rush Street made a mistake and had overestimated the signage ascribed to its proposed pylon, by 1000 sq. ft. Rush Street counted both sides of the pylon, whereas Schenectady only counts one side of a freestanding sign in measuring square footage. The Rush Street rep then said, “then we can live with 19,000 sq.  ft.” That is where the current 19,000 number came from.

collage Note, however, that no one on the Commission nor on legal or planning staff asked if they might have made other overestimation calculations, perhaps with other two-sided signs.  Corporation Counsel did not explain how they could have made this mistake if City staff had looked closely at Rush Street’s signage needs.  Nor did he offer to go back and look for additional mistakes.  He merely amended the proposal to 19,000 sq. ft.

And, Sixth [Electronic Signs], Chair Copolla brusquely stated they would not deal with the question of reducing the minimum interval for changing electronic message boards and signs to 8 seconds, “because we just did this a couple weeks ago.”  The only reason given by Development staff and the Planning Commission for the recent recommendation of the 8-second interval was to be “consistent with the State standard” announced by NYS Department of Transportation, in the 3-page document “Criteria for Regulating CEVM signs“.  DOT set a minimum interval of 8 seconds for changing electronic signs, but allows municipalities to be more stringent, with commentary that suggests circumstances that might call for longer intervals.

Those circumstances seem more relevant to the streets near the Casino than to any other parts of the City (i.e., places with higher illumination and more than one message board seen at the same time by the driver, with many distractions; where drivers are unfamiliar with the roads or with a roundabout; and where there are likely to be many senior/elderly drivers, who are especially distracted by changing images and bright illumination). Nonetheless, the proposed amendments make Article IX inapplicable to the Casino, including the requirements for receiving a variable electronic sign permit. The Article IX requirements include issuance of a Special Use Permit after a public hearing, in which the applicant must demonstrate that “the electronic message board shall  not substantially impact upon the  nature and character of the surrounding neighborhood, upon traffic conditions and any other matters affecting the health, safety and general welfare of the public.” [§264-14(I)(2)] Neither Mr. Buicko nor the City Staff were asked by the Commissioners why requirements that seem especially relevant to the casino district were no long applicable, or why those requirements should not be added to the C-3 amendment provision allowing 8-second intervals.

Tight Deadline Excuse?: As we have explained previously, there is no tight deadline that could justify rushing to push through the C-3 amendments without full education and deliberation for the decision-makers, and with full information to the public.

The two-year deadline for completion of the project starts when the actual gaming license is granted, and no one knows how long the “vetting” process will take and the license be granted. Meanwhile, the developer still brags about how far along the site is (they had already spent $100 million there over a year ago and much more since), and how they already have their approved Environmental Impact Statement, with brownfield mitigation near to conclusion.  Furthermore, Rush Street was chosen (and touted by the Mayor and Ms. King) because it has significant experience operating casinos, and has already designed casino facilities that are much like the one they will put in Schenectady.  It goes without saying that the Galesi Group, the Capital Region’s largest developer and manager of commercial property, has the experience to get the job done as quickly as possible.  In addition, if any hotel chain can get a hotel designed, constructed and launched within a two-year window, Sheraton can. Moreover, Mohawk Harbor faces none of the sort of local opposition that can tie the project up in court or administrative proceedings for long periods.

rubberstampTooLong In conclusion, one can’t help but wonder if individual members of the Planning Commission winced when they heard people pointing to their thorough deliberation and analysis as a reason for City Council to approve the package of amendments to C-3.  With all due respect, we strongly dissent. There appears to be no explanation for the Planning Commissioners’ dereliction of duty other than its working in a City Hall where rubber stamping is expected of them in order to please the new bosses in our resurrected Company Town.

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 – for another voice asking for more information before the Council votes on the amendments, see the Gazette editorial “Public needs to see the impact of zoning” (Jan. 29, 2015).

follow-up (Feb. 9, 2016): See McCarthy only wants snowmen on his Planning Commission“, regarding Mayor McCarthy’s failure to re-appoint Matthew Cuevas.