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.

.

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.
  • Share this posting with this short URL: http://tinyurl.com/RushScraps

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

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

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

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

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

Comment to the Gazette:

DesPlainesCasinoCollage

real photo from Des Plaines

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

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

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

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

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

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?

– share this post with the short URL: http://tinyurl.com/casinoMOTT2

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 issues raised by electronic message boards on Proctors marquee and other Schenectady locations

IMG_2017

Upper Union St. at Baker Ave.

red check. . This posting looks at the placement of variable digital LCD displays on the Proctors marquee along State Street in Schenectady, and discusses general safety factors applicable to the placement of such digital signage near urban streets and roads (detailed in our appendix below).  In the years since this posting was first written, many digital signs have been allowed along Schenectady’s streets, with virtually no consideration for their safety implications or visual impact, nor monitoring once erected. The signs are designed and marketed for their ability to attract the attention of drivers more effectively than conventional signs. Shorter intervals between messages increase the ability to distract drivers and pedestrians.

As a Dutchess County planning report recently stated:

“It is difficult to understand how they can be attention-getting for the sign owner and not be a safety hazard or visual intrusion for the community.

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“Municipalities must decide what is more important – the benefit to the digital sign owner, or the safety and visual quality of the community.
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“Through local regulations, municipalities have the power and the right to prohibit or permit digital signs as they see fit.” [Shedding Light on Digital Signs“, in Plan On It, March/April 2019, by Heather LaVarnway and Emily Dozier, Senior Planners for Dutchess County]
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ORIGINAL POSTING

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ProctorsMarquee06Mar2015 A
s this posting is being drafted (March 11, 2015), it’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, while spotlighting their corporate sponsors.  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 (given the lack of review for the speedier image changes at this location) and, more importantly, 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.

CrosstownLCD update (June 14, 2019): Worrisome digital billboards have been installed at two of our most congested stretches of road, with merging traffic, higher speeds, complex signals, and exits that are frequently backed-up in rush hour. They are along the Crosstown Arterial between Albany and Watt Streets (image at right, click for a larger version), and along I-890, between the Broadway and Scotia/Rt. 5/GE exits, perhaps its most congested segment, in a (frequently ignored) 55 MPH speed zone. For more on digital billboards, see Billboards in the Digital Age: Unsafe and Unsightly at Any Speed.” at the Scenic America website; and Driven to Distraction: The Absurdity of Roadside Digital Billboards“, by Dave Meslin (Huffington Post, July 7, 2014, updated Dec. 6, 2017).

Ed. Note on Legislative INTENT: According to § 264-59 of the City of Schenectady Municipal Code, this is the Intention of Article IX, its Sign Regulation provisions (emphasis added):

redflag-circle§ 264-59 B. Intent. The article is intended to protect property values, create a more attractive economic and business climate, enhance and protect the physical and historic appearance of the community, preserve the scenic and natural beauty, enhance the pedestrian environment, and provide a more enjoyable and pleasing community. The article is further intended hereto to reduce sign or advertising distractions and obstructions that may contribute to traffic accidents, reduce hazards that may be caused by signs overhanging or projecting over public rights-of-way, provide more visual open space and improve the community’s appearance.

. . back to 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 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.

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In addition to its public information role at this site, this webposting was 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:

  • Did Proctors Need a New Special Use Permit? Was 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 and seeking public input?  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.

SchdyCode-EMB

– 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 any confusion, but the above Sign Approvals notice was removed from the Development Office webpage since the changed-sign issue was first raised here, with the City revamping its website, and the word Sign no longer appears there, nor on Planning Commission or the Building Inspector/Code Enforcement 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, just yards from a traffic signal, 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. As noted in the Appendix below, several upstate New York cities have mandated intervals far greater than 8 seconds, and imposed other restrictions to reduce the distraction potential.

HOW DID the 8-SECOND INTERVAL HAPPEN in SCHENECTADY?

red check In 2015, when “the casino wants it” was sufficient basis for major zoning changes, rushed through by Council President Peggy King with no explanatory memorandum or discussion of options and effects, the Planning Staff and Commission recommended the minimum change interval be reduced to 8 seconds from 60 seconds. Our Planners simply stated that the change would make our Code “consistent” with State law. In an apparent rush to please Rivers Casino and Proctors Theatre, Staff never referred to or showed City Council or the public the 3-page NYS Department of Transportation [DOT] policy statement that they were relying upon, nor in any way raised safety or aesthetic issues.

Never mentioned was that the NYS DOT’s 2015 Policy Statement Criteria for Regulating Off-Premises Commercial Electronic Variable Message Signs (CEVMS) in New York State (“DOT CEVMS Statement”),  was focused, as indicated by its title, on off-premise signs along major highways (billboards), not on-premise signs in front of businesses along urban streets. Because variable digital signs increase driver curiosity and “attract increased attention through their brightness and temporal changes of light”, DOT’s experts concluded they require more restrictions than do conventional billboards. Therefore, DOT imposed a set of complementary restrictions, only one of which was the minimum 8-second interval recommended by the Planning Office.

NoEvil-see More specifically, Planning Staff did not mention that the DOT Statement said: (1) “local ordinances will govern if they are more stringent” than every 8 seconds; (2) Transition Time between the messages on the face of the sign must be Instantaneous, to reduce distraction, especially for older drivers; (3) “If more than one CEVMS sign face is visible to the driver at the same time”, the signs must be spaced at least 300’ apart to reduce distraction; and (4) CEVMS must “not appear brighter to drivers than existing static billboards”

Of the four standards mandated by NYS DOT, Schenectady’s ordinance only deals specifically with the interval between messages. This incomplete regulation of on-premise signs along our streets is especially worrisome, because they are so much closer to traffic, pedestrians, and buildings than billboards are from major highways, and the streetscape can offer so many additional distractions and ambient light conditions.

HOW SHOULD CITY HALL TREAT EMB REQUESTS?

The primary procedural 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 Zoning Officer or the Code Enforcement Office (and the public) should demand prior use of the special use permit process before speeding up an existing digital sign. Does an 8-second interval make sense at a location right at the curb of Schenectady’s busiest pedestrian crossing and main downtown activity hub?

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:

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    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.”

    . . . Any distraction to a driver is inherently problematic, and allowing a motorist to see face changes on two different CEVMS simultaneously, or sequentially, may be even more distracting than a face change on a single sign. As such, signs should be spaced so that a driver is not influenced by more than one CEVMS at a given moment.

    [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, and thus an on-premise sign) 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? [Or, attract more corporate donations from potential advertisers?] 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 again 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 (and the full array of 5 electronic message boards, at the front and rear of Proctors, which were approved at once by the Commission).  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 the Applicant simply denying there would be any adverse impact on public health or safety, in two very different Proctors locations (the front being one of the busiest and most complex blocks in the City for vehicles and pedestrians, with EMBs on three sides of a marquee and a nearby entrance, and the back being a parking and drop-off roadway).

Proctors-StrattonPlaza

. . above: digital screen installed at rear of Proctors, at Stratton Plaza . .

– 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 and other Schenectady locations?  Below is a discussion of  factors to consider.

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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 approve the C-3 Amendments, despite their many flaws, and without having 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.

Peggy King’s chronic TDE (Tight Deadline Excuse)

  Peggy King, President of the Schenectady City Council, has done it again: Used a “tight deadline” as an excuse for rushing the vote on important legislation, without allowing time for the Council or the public to gather important facts, consider alternatives, and evaluate the likely effects.

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approved-CityCouncil The legislation this time is the [choose the most appropriate adjectives] novel, complex, radical, extreme, capitulating, over-generous, risky, under-researched, fawning, naive proposal to amend the provisions governing the Schenectady “C-3″ Waterfront Mixed-Use Residential Zoning District”.  The deadline is the two years that the New York State Gaming Commission gives a gaming facility licensee to be operating its casino after it is chosen by the Location Board.

The Tight Deadline Excuse [TDE] is a very weak justification even when the deadline could be met on an important action with only a bit more hard work by all involved. But TDE is not even a flimsy excuse when, as here, there is no deadline yet, much less a tight one that could justify rushing to pass such important and radical changes without knowing key facts.  For example, before voting, Council members should want to know what the Casino Group plans to do with permission:

  • To build 110′ buildings (i.e., how many buildings, where, effects on the view of the river? on future development nearby);
  • to use 19,000 sq. ft. of signage on the casino portion of Mohawk Harbor (what sizes, how bright, what content, and how they use signage at their other casinos), when it stated in its application to the Location Board it would need no more than 15,000 sq. ft.
  • to erect a 90′ pylon (what line of sight profile will it have, placed where, what content)
  • to construct a bike-ped path without the current provision requiring permanent public access to the waterfront, or a similar guarantee
hourglassAlmostFull

lots of sand left

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.

Ms. King told the Times Union that “I’m putting my trust in the developer that they are going to do what’s right.” (“Public supports Schenectady casino at hearing,” by Paul Nelson, Feb. 28, 2015) Trust them why? Because their renderings of the casino hotel and gaming facility buildings are much smaller in scale than the 110′ they now want? Because they want the permanent easement for public access to the riverfront removed from C-3? Because they’ve told us the old factory buildings at ALCO were so high that people never really had a view anyway; which is a silly argument when developing scarce waterfront, but also untrue, as the vast majority of the buildings were very long and about 50′ high, with an occasional tall, narrow section that did little to block the overall view. Because they have asked for much more in the amendments than they told Metroplex they would need or do? (such as pylon size, square footage of signage, setback from the river, and more).

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Why would Peggy King risk looking gullible or irresponsible, or like the godmother of a gaudy, permanent circus along the River and Erie Blvd.?  Just who does she want to please so much?  We’ll let the reader speculate.

One possibility: Tight Deadline Excuse has become a chronic and infectious disease at City Hall.

Here is our concise list of amendment changes:

Continue reading

a photo-collage reminder to the City Council

GEsignBlDice

Company Town again?

If members of the Schenectady City Council want to give some thought to the proposed amendments to the C-3 Waterfront zoning district, rather than slamming down that big City Hall rubber stamp, I hope they’ll look at the photo collage below, which should, among other things help to:

  • debunk the notion that the old ALCO plant buildings were all so tall they blocked out the view of the River, so it would be okay to allow 110′ buildings throughout the casino compound
  • demonstrate how excessive a 90-foot pylon sign would be, and that the casino does not need a monster pylon because it will be hidden behind the STS building, and no one will be able to find it
  • remind the Council that the renderings of the Applicant’s casino hotel and gaming facility were highly misleading, making them look far smaller than the buildings the Casino now wants to build
  • show just how small a 40-foot setback from the riverbank would be
  • motivate them to find out if the Golub/Price Chopper Headquarters is 103′ tall, as Mr. Buiko keeps saying, or 86′ tall, as we were told when we asked the Golub front office.  And, more important, show how, at well under 110′, the Golub Building looms over the landscape in a way fine for Maxon Rd. but not for the riverbank, whether seen in an aerial shot or from street level
    • Click on the collage for a larger version

C-3photofacts

Please phone, write, or email the City Council and Mayor to ask them to look closely at the proposed C-3 zoning amendments before handing to Mohawk Harbor and the Casino a license to turn the waterfront district into a gaudy, crowded little Las Vegas.

desktop misc7  We need some serious “homework” by City Council members, not a rubber stamping of provisions that are too generous to the Casino Gang at the expense of good zoning and planning principles. The following is a Comment left at the Gazette today (Jan. 27, 2015) in response to its article about the public hearing on January 26th, noting some of the important unanswered questions:

It was discouraging to watch supporters proclaim the urgent need for C-3 waterfront zoning so that the casino could exist in Schenectady. C-3 Waterfront zoning already exists and nothing in it prevents the casino from operating successfully. The issue is whether the proposed amendments to C-3, which have provisions far more lax and generous than are imposed on businesses in every other zoning district, are appropriate and best serve Schenectady’s residents and future. And, especially important is whether the Council should be rushed to pass these extreme changes, on novel issues with which it has no experience, before requiring more information on just what the casino plans to do on the site? Specific questions include:

collage Should Schenectady’s signage ordinance, Article IX of the zoning law, be made inapplicable to the casino and its accessory uses? Should the casino be allowed to have 19,000 square feet of signage, when shopping centers in Schenectady only get 150 sq. ft. plus one sq. foot for each foot of storefront, and the casino told Metroplex it would use a maximum of 15,000 sq. ft.? Should the current 7′ limit on freestanding signs be changed to 90′ for the casino (when the Parker Inn is only 99 feet tall), and the casino’s justification is that people won’t be able to find it otherwise?

Should the Casino be allowed to put up 110′ buildings (with no special permit required), when the C-3 district was created to preserve riverside views and control growth? And, when the casino has constantly circulated renderings that show a hotel of about 65 feet along the riverbank and a gaming facility much shorter than the hotel? [it has been spreading the false excuse that the old ALCO site had 130′ structures that blocked all views of the river, rather than the typical long 50′ structures that actually existed at the site.]

Should the current guarantee of a permanent right to public access to the riverfront, and of a portion of the dock space reserved for the public, be totally deleted from the C-3 zoning ordinance, leaving public access into the future up to the owner, which has repeated constantly lately that “this is private property” when riverfront access is mentioned?

Should we give a lot of weight to the recent approval of the C-3 amendments by the Planning Commission, when the commissioners where not given even one page of materials explaining the amendments and the reasons they were selected; when the commissioners admitted they were not experienced with issues and facts related to casino zoning; and when the people who gave the Commission point by point explanations and justifications for the proposed amendments were not the City’s Development and Legal staff, but were Mr. Buicko from Galesi Group and a lawyer and consultant of Rush Street Gaming?

checkedboxs Let’s stop, research and think. For more discussion of the issues raised by the proposed amendments to the C-3 zoning ordinance, go to http://tinyurl.com/CasinoZoning, and for an extensive list of questions that should be answered before a vote is taken on the C-3 Amendments, and a description of the inadequate consideration given by the Planning Commission to the Amendments, see: “Schenectady’s waterfront zoning: a rubber-stamp in a company town?“.

City Hall is giving bad legal advice to get council votes

     – below is a letter sent by email on Jan. 24, 2015 to the City Council of  Schenectady. Update: it is more relevant than ever given the outcome of the City Council committee meeting on Tuesday, February 3, 2015.  See Schenectady City Council mulls zoning for Mohawk Harbor
(Schenectady Gazette, by Haley Vicarro, Feb. 2, 2015)

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Dear City Council President and Members,

The Mayor [Gary McCarthy] has apparently been reassuring City Council members that you can accept items such as the height and signage limits in the proposed C-3 waterfront district amendments, without looking closely into each issue, because any problems can be fixed by the Planning Commission in Site Plan and Special Use Permit review proceedings.  As a retired lawyer who has done a significant amount of legal research and writing on zoning issues over the past few years, my good faith legal opinion is that His Honor is simply wrong.

red check Once legislated 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).

The developer and Casino owner have no reason to contradict the Mayor’s position, as they would be very pleased if you believe him and think you can just punt the hard decisions over to the Planning Commission.

Planning Commission Chair Sharron Copolla voiced the same excuse for going along with the proposals referred to it by the Council at the January 14 special public meeting of the Commission. She said they could accept 110′ building heights because the Commission could reduce that limit during Site Planning.  I returned to the table to correct her on that point of law during the public comment portion of the meeting, saying that in general our State’s judges won’t let a board or commission reject plans that are within the standards and requirements of an adopted zoning ordinance, and surely not without a very good justification. Ms. Copolla responded, “we know that,” but went on to make the same assertion again later in the Meeting, saying Commissioners had the power to reduce the maximum numbers during Site Plan review. Commissioner Wallinger immediately told Ms. Copolla, “No we don’t.”

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C-3 zoning amendments would axe access guarantee

NoRiverfrontAccess

– signs you may see at Mohawk Harbor’s riverfront –

Neither Schenectady’s Mayor nor the Daily Gazette has let the public know that its existing right to permanent access to the scarce riverfront being developed at Mohawk Harbor has been deleted in the City’s proposed C-3 district zoning amendments [which were adopted on February 9, 2015]. This is one of the many significant changes that City Hall development and legal staff “negotiated” with the future casino’s developer and owner. The amendments are the subject of a Public Hearing before City Council on Monday, January 26, 2015.  Click here for the Final version of the City’s proposed Schenectady C-3 Waterfront-Casino zoning amendments.

  • RiverbankAccess-Trail2009Currently, there is a requirement in the C-3 Waterfront Multi-Use District zoning ordinance that an owner of C-3 waterfront property file a permanent easement “for the purpose of assuring public access to and public enjoyment of the waterfront,” with the owner responsible for upkeep. There is also a requirement that a minimum of 10% of linear dock space be available for the public. Both those sections have been completely eliminated from the version of proposed amendments that will be addressed at the City Council’s public hearing on January 26. The public version does not even show the sections with the traditional strikethrough type to highlight their proposed deletion.

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Here are the two provisions that the City-Casino Coalition wants to eliminate, with the strikethroughs City Hall apparently did not want you to see:

Screen shot 2015-01-024§264-14(F) 

(2) Public access and recreation features.

(a) Waterfront surface easement. Public access shall be dedicated in the form of a perpetual surface easement, duly executed and in a proper form for recording in the Schenectady County Clerk’s Office and satisfactory to the City Corporation Counsel, for the purpose of assuring public access to and public enjoyment of the waterfront.

§264-14(H) Docking requirements. PrivateDockSign

(1) Residential: A minimum of 10% of linear dock footage must be made available for public, day use.

(2) Commercial: Docking requirements are flexible based upon the following considerations: parking adequacy, river width, navigation channel width, and water surface use.

Loss of required dock and riverfront access by the public surely will 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). On page 48, in the section enumerating Goals and related Action, the Plan says:

Goal Seven: Promote Waterfront Planning, Access and Redevelopment.

Action 2: Expand Public Access to the Waterfront

Tasks: Expand public access to the Mohawk River and create opportunities for recreational boating.

Action 4: Protect Waterfront Resources and Views

Tasks: Implement view protections and provisions to ensure that new development encourages public access to the water.

 The Comprehensive Plan’s Environmental Impact Statement also addresses the creation of a waterfront zoning district, and notes the two goals for that district (at 15):

“Created waterfront district:

  • Mixed use, walkable, live/work/shop community
  • Preserve public areas.” (emphasis added)

images-7 The Gazette has not yet mentioned that the C-3 amendments remove the public access elements of the ordinance. In fact, on Jan 15, in reporting on the January 14 Planning Commission special meeting, Haley Vicarro wrote for the Gazette that “The site . . . would allow for public access to the river with biking and walking paths and a proposed harbor with 50 boat slips.”  Well, with §§264-14(f) & (H) eliminated, the “site” would allow for public access as long as the Owner allows it. 

Should we just trust these casino guys? Galesi Group COO David Buicko (and not the City’s Development or Legal staff) led the presentation at the Planning Committee on January 12, and was careful not to mention granting public access as of right when mentioning the riverfront and docks.  He made remarks more than once reminding the Commission that “it’s private property” and that Galesi and Rush Street Gaming want people to come who will use their facilities. (An appropriate desire, but not one that bodes well for permanent public access.)

Note: It would be very bad public relations for Mohawk Harbor to open with a riverbank that is only available to persons who are “customers”, or to have absolutely no amenities near the riverbank for people who might want to just sit and enjoy the view.  However, the lack of  mandated access for the public means the area might be closed for special events; or, problems along the riverbank (e.g., excessive rowdiness, litter, noise) could cause management to start restricting access based on age, time of day, adult supervision, etc., or to “cut their losses” and close Mohawk Harbor’s riverbank completely.

Note, also, that a pedestrian-bicycle path that followed the River and circled the condo and office marina buildings, as planned by Galesi, would make a very nice amenity and attraction for people who live, work, or stay at the hotels, of Mohawk Harbor. Thus, putting in the path would not be a totally undesirable expense for the developer/owner of Mohawk Harbor, nor useless if public access is not allowed.

It is true that under the amendments the owner must put in a ped-bike path and there was a lot of talk before the Planning Commission about the meaning of the word “esplanade” in the text of C-3. But, there would no longer be a requirement that the owner permanently allow the public to use the riverfront, and also no requirement that the owner install an esplanade or add any amenities beyond the barebones bicycle-pedestrian walkway.   If they do put in public access facilities, they would be allowed an even bigger footprint for the buildings at Mohawk Harbor. approved-rubber-stamp This is perhaps why Commissioner Matt Cuevas lamented at the Planning Commission Meeting last week that (paraphrasing): “This is not at all the kind of public access we were thinking about when we drafted the C-3 provisions 6 years ago.”  Nevertheless, despite the fact that five of the nine current Commissioners were on the Commission when the Comprehensive Plan was written and the C-3 Waterfront district was created, they voted to recommend adoption of the proposed amendments (with only a couple of very minor tweaks).

The Planning Commission voted in a rush, without having any materials from their staff or the Mayor or Corporate Counsel explaining the meaning of the proposed changes, or discussing the pros and cons — and, visibly (often admittedly) without basic knowledge or understanding of zoning for something as complicated and exotic as a casino, especially one on a scarce riverfront. Nevertheless, by recommending that the proposed amendments be adopted, the Planning Commission handed the Mayor and City Council president, as well as the Galesi Group and Rush Street Gaming, a fig leaf for concealing the open secret that this set of zoning proposals gives the casino partners virtually everything they wanted, and in fact more than they have said they needed in past public statements. [update: At the Jan. 26. City Council meeting, several of the supporters of the amendments stressed the significance of an 8-0 vote of approval by the Planning Commission.]

red check This zoning calamity cannot even be slowed down, much less prevented, without the vocal and public opposition of people from throughout Schenectady County, even those who favor the casino and marina at Mohawk Harbor.  Please come to the Public Hearing on January 26 and tell the City Counsel that you want the principle and the promise of public access fulfilled.

 For the convenience of those who have not seen our prior posting that contains a summary of the proposed changes, here is an encore:

Highlights of Changes:

  • public access to riverfront: the requirement of a permanent easement granting a right to public access to the riverfront has been deleted; developer must build a bike-ped path (which it might have wanted anyway for those living in its condos and apartments), but there is no longer guaranteed public access
  • the right to 10% of dock space reserved for public use in the daytime is deleted
  • maximum building height would be 110′ with no special use permit needed; the exception is a 56′ height limit within 100′ of a residential district (current law is 56′ permitted in C-3, with special use permit needed for higher)
  • setbacks are a minimum of 50′ from the river’s mean high water mark (had been 40′ from the high water mark)
  • Article IX – Signs, which contains rules, limitations, sizes, etc. for signage of all types, no longer applies to the casino and attached uses, but continues to apply to all other zoning districts and outside the casino compound in C-3 (Art. IX does apply to the district under the current C-3 ordinance)
  • 19,000 sq. ft. of signage is permitted, with review Site Plan review, which looks at colors, style, location (currently, Art IX limits aggregate square footage to 150 sq. ft., with 25% more if owner has a single lot with more than one principle building).
  • directional signs do not count as part of the signage limitations and may have the logo of the establishment (Art. IX does not allow logos on directional signs)
  • Multi-sided pylon signs are permitted, with a height not to exceed 90 feet. (Article IX now allows one freestanding sign with a maximum height of 7′ in C-3)
  • electronic message board may change every 8 seconds; Planning Commission may reduce the minimum interval (currently, a CEVMS may only change every 60 seconds, and a special use permit is needed, with a  public hearing and demonstration that there is no significant impact on surrounding neighborhoods, traffic conditions, health and safety; 8 seconds is the minimum standard now at NYS DOT; a City may increase the interval, but contrary to the provision in the Amendment, it may not reduce it).
  • the embayment (man-made bay) may now be included in calculating how big the aggregate footprint of the casino compound may be, with 50% of the size of the embayment added to the total allowable footprint of the buildings (the subject not in current version of C-3; if the embayment is 5 acres in size, 2.5 more acres of footprint allowed; many, perhaps most, jurisdictions would not allow a body of water on a site to count toward the footprint allowance)

the final C-3 Waterfront-Casino zoning proposal

Click for the Final version of the City’s proposed Schenectady C-3 Waterfront-Casino zoning amendments, which will be the subject of Monday’s Public Hearing (Jan. 26). It shows proposed insertions in the current C-3 ordinance (but fails to show with strike-throughs a few of the important deletions). There are no accompanying materials explaining the changes in the proposed amendments.

 For the final Ordinance, click here: Local Law 2015-01, §264-14, Amendments to C-3 Zoning District, adopted February 9, 2015, signed by Mayor, Feb. 10, 2015.

https://stockadetrees.files.wordpress.com/2015/07/zoningamend-c-3ffinal.pdf

dontforgettack to voice your opinion at the Public Hearing before the City Council, Monday, January 26, 2015, at 7 PM, Rm 209 of City Hall (use the Jay St. entrance). Get there before 7 PM to sign up to speak.

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Below, without editorial comment, I have listed all the major changes being proposed, with the current zoning law in Schenectady stated in parentheses.  There are many good reasons to oppose the Amendments; see “the house is already winning” for opening discussion of height, setback and signage issues. Additional postings are listed at the top of the site’s righthand Margin, in the Recent Posts menu.  For an extensive list of questions that should be answered before a vote is taken on the C-3 Amendments, and a description of the inadequate consideration given by the Planning Commission to the Amendments, see: “Schenectady’s waterfront zoning: a rubber-stamp in a company town?“.

Highlights of Changes:

  •  public access to riverfront: the requirement of a permanent easement granting a right to public access to the riverfront has been deleted; developer must build a bike-ped path (which it might have wanted anyway for those living in its condos and apartments), but there is no longer guaranteed public access
  • the right to 10% of dock space reserved for public use in the daytime is deleted
  • maximum building height would be 110′ with no special use permit needed; the exception is a 56′ height limit within 100′ of a residential district (current law is 56′ permitted in C-3, with special use permit needed for higher)
  • setbacks are a minimum of 40′ from the river’s mean high water mark (had been 50′ from the high water mark)
  • Article IX – Signs, which contains rules, limitations, sizes, etc. for signage of all types, no longer applies to the casino and attached uses, but continues to apply to all other zoning districts and outside the casino compound in C-3 (Art. IX currently applies to the district under the C-3 ordinance)
  • 19,000 sq. ft. of signage is permitted, with review Site Plan review, which looks at colors, style, location (currently, Art IX limits aggregate square footage to 150 sq. ft., with 25% more if owner has a single lot with more than one principle building).
  • directional signs do not count as part of the signage limitations and may have the logo of the establishment (Art. IX does not allow logos on directional signs)
  • ArtIXsignregs Multi-sided pylon signs are permitted, with a height not to exceed 90 feet [at some point changed in the final version to 80 feet]. (Article IX now allows one freestanding sign with a maximum height of 7′ in C-3)
  • electronic message board may change every 8 seconds; Planning Commission may reduce the minimum interval (currently, a CEVMS may only change every 60 seconds, and a special use permit is needed, with a  public hearing and demonstration that there is no significant impact on surrounding neighborhoods, traffic conditions, health and safety; 8 seconds is the minimum standard now at NYS DOT; a City may increase the interval, but contrary to the provision in the Amendment, it may not reduce it). [Note, an amendment the night of the Council vote, proposed by Marion Porterfield and passed, removed all mention of electronic message displays from the C-3 amendment.]
  • the embayment (man-made bay) may now be included in calculating how big the aggregate footprint of the casino compound may be, with 50% of the size of the embayment added to the total allowable footprint of the buildings (the subject not in current version of C-3; if the embayment is 5 acres in size, 2.5 more acres of footprint allowed; many, perhaps most, jurisdictions would not allow a body of water on a site to count toward the footprint allowance)