The Snowmen Effect #1: This posting is the first in our new The Snowmen Effect category, in which we will point out how inadequate protection of the public interest has resulted in a less attractive, less safe, less successful, and/or less responsible Rivers Casino in Schenectady. Here, we discuss the lackluster design of Rivers Casino, due to the failure of our snowmen-like leaders to demand better.
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If you lived more than 40 or 50 miles from Schenectady, would you choose Schenectady’s Rivers Casino at Mohawk Harbor, with its touted $320 million investment by Rush Street Gaming, over the half dozen other casino choices in upstate New York? More than once? (Click on the Upstate NY Casino Map to the right for a larger version; Google Map.)
How will residents of cities like Watertown, Kingston, Binghamton, or Rochester, choose between the casino options available in Upstate New York? Each of the casinos has ample “gaming” options, and similar guest incentive programs, with sufficient dining and hotel accommodations, and entertainment, along with fairly comparable weather. How important will the visual appeal of the casino complex be (architectural design, lighting and landscaping, physical setting)?
The main entrance of Schenectady’s Rivers Casino can be seen above (Click on the image for a larger version). As detailed in this posting, the final rendition submitted to the public of the casino entrance, in July 2015, looked quite different. Click on the thumbnail image to the right to compare. [note (Feb. 5, 2017): The Galesi Group is still using the July 2015 image in its promotion of Mohawk Harbor, as in the Gazette‘s January 31, 2017 advertising supplement, The Road to Rivers. click to view.]
Here are images of the front façade or casino entrance for each of the three other new Upstate NY “commercial” casinos granted licenses by the NYS Racing Commission (click on each for a larger image):
above: rendering of the casino portion of Del Lago, Waterloo-Tyre NY, opens 01Feb2017; below: [L] a rendering of the Tioga Downs Casino, Nichols NY, opened 2Dec2016, plus a photo of the Tioga Downs entrance; [R] a rendering of the Montreign Casino, Monticello, opening March 2018
There are quite a few choices besides our Rivers Casino (click on the link for each casino in the list below to learn more about its outside appearance, indoor ambiance, and amenities):
- The $440 million Del Lago Casino in Waterloo-Tyre NY (Sullivan County) opens February 1, 2017, a week before the Rivers Casino; click here for a recent article about it, and click on the collage at the head of this sentence for views of del Lago.
update (Feb. 1, 2017): Del Lago opened today at 10:30 AM. On Syracuse.com, the website of the Syracuse Post-Standard, you can find a “first look” video shot two days ago. Here is a photo taken on January 30 for Syracuse.com by Dennis Nett, showing that the final result is faithful to the original rendition:
- Tioga Downs Casino, in Nichols NY, has been revamped (with a $122 million capital investment) and is already opened (since December 2016) in the Southern Tier, with a “country-fair themed” experience; click the collage to the right for more images of Tioga.
- [on left] The upgraded Saratoga Casino and Raceway [FAQs], which is about 22 miles up Rt. 50 from Schenectady, is located in a proven tourist town that offers good taste, upscale shopping, and history; it is still a “racino”, but has over 1700 slot machines and electronic table games;
- The Montreign Casino at Monticello (image on right), scheduled to open early next year, with a much larger budget [$1.3 billion when the complex is completed] than Rivers Casino in Schenectady, and the vision of renewing the Catskills as a top-level tourist destination, with a four-star hotel (and a less pricey one being built in its expansive entertainment center); and, of course,
- The Oneida National tribal casino-resort Turning Stone at Verona, NY, is 24-years old and doing $20 million in upgrades to compete with del Lago; and
- Fallsview Casino in Niagara Falls, ON Canada, opened in 2004 as a $1 billion investment. It is owned by the Government of Ontario, and managed by a consortium that includes a company owned by Neil Bluhm, the original developer of Fallsview, and the primary owner of Rush Street Gaming. [image on the right]
In an Appendix at the bottom of this posting, I have compiled the distances of the various casinos from Albany, Binghamton, Buffalo, Ithaca, Kingston, Rochester, Syracuse, Watertown, and Utica. Here are the distance figures for Syracuse:
- from Syracuse NY
- to Del Lago: 43 miles
- to Turning Stone: 89 miles
- to Tioga Downs: 104 miles
- to Rivers Casino/Schenectady 156 miles
- to Monticello/Montreign: 164 miles
- to Fallsview Casino, Niagara Falls, Canada: 165 miles
- to Saratoga Casino: 187 miles
Taste is, of course, very subjective, and I do not expect universal agreement on which casino design is “better,” more attractive, classier, “more tasteful,” most likely to sway potential customers, etc. As a longtime resident of the Schenectady Stockade historic district, a photographer, and sometime haiga-haiku poet, I am especially drawn to things that are visually attractive in a low-key, classical way, but also at times to visually striking scenes. As I have said often over the past two years (e.g., here and there), for my money, Schenectady’s Rivers Casino looks like a flashy-tacky version of a 20th Century shopping mall’s cineplex wing. (Others have pointed out that Schenectady actually has a far more attractive cineplex downtown; and better looking gas stations, too.) It looks like a humdrum regional (maybe even local) attraction; boxes next to or on top of boxes. For me, the competing casinos seem visually much more “attractive” (able to attract).
Indeed, many people who are inclined to be kinder than I in their assessment of our Casino’s visual appeal, probably would come to the same conclusion. That’s without contrasting the eyesores greeting visitors on the way to and from Mohawk Harbor along Erie Boulevard (see collage to the right) with the physical setting in the vicinity of Montreign, del Lago, Saratoga, Tioga, etc.
In June of 2015, when there was still plenty of time to get Schenectady’s casino design “right”, or at least adequate as a true tourist destination, we raised many questions in a posting titled “why does Schenectady get Rush Street’s scraps?“:
It 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 [purportedly] does our Planning Commission. Why, then, has Rush Street Gaming handed us
twothree 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 collage to the right, and read the full posting].
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. . .
For discussion and details on the Planning Commission’s many acts of omission in reviewing momentous changes to the City’s Waterfront Zoning provisions (listed here) and casino design requirements, see “Schenectady’s waterfront zoning: a rubber-stamp in a Company Town” (Jan. 29, 2015; short URL: http://tinyurl.com/CasinoTown). And, see “McCarthy only wants snowmen on his planning commission” (Feb. 09, 2016, which in part stated:
Yesterday [in another February 8th disaster for our City], Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy made public his decision not to re-appoint to the Planning Commission its newly-chosen chair, Matthew Cuevas, ending Cuevas’ service after more than two decades. Clearly, the Mayor is not interested in keeping a Planning Commissioner, especially one with the powers of the Chair, who is actively interested in enforcing the zoning laws, fulfilling their promise to protect the interests of all residents of Schenectady, and not merely those of the Mayor’s favorite few applicants and their proposals. . . .
update (March 16, 2016): Our sheep-herding Mayor continues his deterrent-minded culling of the flock on his volunteer regulatory boards. Of course, he is not culling out the weak, he is removing the independent members who refuse to act like sheep. See Faces changing on Schenectady planning board (Times Union, by Paul Nelson, March 15, 2016; subscription req’d). The Mayor has failed to renew the appointment of Planning Commissioner Thomas Carey, who was the only member to vote No last year on the Site Plan review of the Casino compound plans. . . .
[Similarly,] Speaking about the Mayor’s failure to re-appoint herself and fellow Historic Commission member Frank Donegan, [former Chair] Marilyn Sassi told TU reporter Paul Nelson:
“We believed it’s because we spoke out against several projects the mayor is in favor of and he’s just eliminating anybody that doesn’t agree with him,” said Sassi . . “Right now, I’m relieved because I don’t want to have any part of a rubber stamp board, I want to be free to be able to express my feelings and concerns.”
Another reason for the humdrum design was suggested to me by an outgoing City Council member, and raised by others: If the Schenectady Casino fails, the owner of the land, The Galesi Group, wants the buildings left on the site to be easily converted into almost any new use — from big box store to light industrial use, to small shops or offices, etc. The last thing Mr. Galesi wants on his land if the Rivers Casino fails is a building that “looks like a casino”. Under this scenario, Rivers Casino is so iffy a project, that we got a casino compound that could be walked away from without too much of a mess for its landlord — a second-rate design in case Plan B is needed in the not too distant future.
Rather than acting as if “Schenectady” were the Mohawk language equivalent to “Second-rate-City”, or submissively resigning itself to the status of a mendicant Casino-run Company Town, there were many ways that a vigilant City Council and Planning Commission (or Metroplex), could have ensured that the City of Schenectady got a quality design for its casino, as a true tourist destination. First, of course, they could have used the tremendous leverage they possessed as the host City. Rush Street Gaming needed City Council approval of its application to the Racing Commission for a casino license. Rush Street also desired major changes to our zoning laws to develop its casino without restrictions meant to protect the community. Other cities, as is the universal practice in the industry, take advantage of this leverage to provide benefits for the residents and community. Asking for a quality casino design — which would benefit the casino owner as well as the City — would have been more than appropriate.
Next, our political and business leaders could have simply orchestrated public pressure to achieve an improved design, as when the universally disliked “factory-retro look” was rejected by the community. The very minor tweaks to that plan that resulted in our current design should also have been strongly rejected.
More fundamental and direct, however, was using the Site Planning process to require that the casino design live up to the expectations, and certainly not detract from, such things as the upscale image that The Galesi Group had been creating for its mixed-use Mohawk Harbor development, and the Metroplex ongoing renewal of downtown, along with capitalizing on (and preserving) the appeal of the historic Stockade Historic District, a gem merely one-half mile down Front Street.
According to a February 2015 Gazette article, “Schenectady City Council mulls zoning for Mohawk Harbor: Riggi wants city to reiterate Planning Commission’s authority”, even Corporation Council Carl Falotico confirmed the Planning Commission’s site plan authority:
“Falotico stressed that the commission has the ability to evaluate the aesthetic visual impact of the project even if the plans satisfy zoning requirements.”
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.”
Conclusion: Schenectady deserves a spectacular design for its casino. From the start, Rush Street’s competitors understood 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. Local business leaders were quite surprised to learn at a recent meeting with casino management that the primary geographic market targeted by Rivers Casino was only a 60-mile radius. Sadly, that fits in with the casino design they have given us.
The result will surely be far less revenue, and trickle-down tourist dollars, than the City and County assumed when they readily caved in to the Casino Gangs’ every demand and proposal. The Upstate, and soon Massachusetts, rivals of Rivers Casino at Mohawk Harbor must be pleased. Our community will now have to rely on local residents spending undue amounts of their disposable (as well as indispensable) income to keep Rivers Casino successful enough for Rush Street to want to stay. That is not exactly the future Schenectady deserves; unless, we deserve the leaders we elect and the future they create.
APPENDIX – Distances from various cities to the casinos