is anyone enforcing our digital sign rules?

Note: This web-post is a work in progress. I am posting it a bit prematurely, for those interested in seeing the two video clips mentioned at my Facebook Page on July 25, 2019, which deals with the lack of compliance and lack of monitoring of Schenectady’s digital signs.

. . Share this post with the short URL https://tinyurl.com/NoEnforcement

If you have followed this website over the past several years, you know that the Editor believes Schenectady has been far too lenient in allowing frequently-changing digital signs along its roadways. [see, e.g., this 2015 posting] The digital/LCD signs are called Electronic Message Boards [EMB] in the City Zoning Code, and Commercial Electronic Variable Message Signs [CEVMS] by New York State.

In addition to the Planning Commission’s nearly-automatic granting of Special Use Permits for EMBs, I’ve recently realized that the City’s Zoning and Code Enforcement Offices have been allowing highly visible violations of the relevant Zoning provisions for such Electronic Message Boards. Specifically, there appear to be ongoing violations of Schenectady Zoning Code, § 264-61(I), which states: “[3] In no case shall the message change at a rate greater than once every eight seconds.” This posting demonstrates and explores the lack of enforcement.

. .  .

. . Query: What’s the advantage for the business shown above in installing the digital sign on the right, over its attractive and effective predecessor on the left, in Schenectady upscale retail district? . . Also, with the bright digital sign placed at the sidewalk and very close to a busy roadway (with heavy vehicular and pedestrian traffic), and located near a complicated set of intersections and parking alternatives and restrictions, in addition to residences, what does the public gain that warrants added traffic hazards, questionable aesthetics, and setting a regulatory precedent that will certainly be exploited by nearby businesses? [see the Google Map depiction of the relevant stretch of Union Street]

.

NEFJsignpmNORTHEASTERN FINE JEWELRY. If you drive on upper Union Street, it is quite difficult to miss the digital sign [shown on the right] of Northeastern Fine Jewelry, at 1607 Union Street, on the corner of Baker Ave. The Jewelry shop’s application for a Special Use Permit to install the electronic message board was heard at the September 19, 2018 Planning Commission Meeting. As seen on pp. 3-6 of of the Commission Minutes for that meeting:
  • The Applicant originally asked that the new EMB be allowed to change every 6 seconds, but stated during the Meeting that it would be limited to every 8 seconds, the minimum interval permitted by the NYS DOT and the Schenectady’s Zoning Code. The 8-second interval was explicitly made a restriction on the SUP, and the 6-second request explicitly rejected. [see page 6 of the Minutes]
  • Tom Wheeler of AJ Sign, who presented the Application with his client, Gregg Kelly of NEFJ, also reassured the Commissioners that his “client was not proposing that the sign scroll or flash or have any animation.”
  • NEFJ-GoogleMapThe sign would be very close to residences (and, in fact, was within the 100-foot ban approved by the Commission in a pending proposal to amend the zoning Code). Commissioner Ferro was very reluctant to approve an EMB so close to residences. Nonetheless, rather than rejecting the Application for the same reasons that they have proposed the specific 100-foot ban near residences, the Commissioners added the mild restriction to the SUP that “The sign will remain static between the hours of 9 P.M. and 7 A.M.” The static sign overnight requirement is also a specific requirement in the proposed amendments. [see Minutes, bottom of page 6]
    • Note: A static sign, one that has the same image without changing, is nonetheless a very bright LCD screen. Moreover, in some months, people are in their residence and it is dark out, long before 9 P.M. Keying the Static Time to sunset or full dark would probably be more appropriate.
  • EMB-NEFJ-BIDEnablers. In deciding to approve the Application, certain individual members offered what seem to me to be very weak rationales. For example, Commissioner Bailey, according to the Minutes (see image to the right), “stated that he believes that the applicants are doing their best to incorporate the EMB in the most tasteful, unobtrusive way possible.” Bailey also agreed with Commissioner Beach that approval of the application by the Business Improvement District members is a plus. (Commissioner Ferro noted that BID members could very well want similar signs for their own businesses.) Meanwhile, Commissioner Wilson opined that the particular sign “is the highest quality”, and insisted that “people who live in a mixed use district should expect some commercial activity.”
    • Ed. Note: I’d say that people who live in a mixed use district should expect to be protected by their Planning Commission from inappropriate commercial activity, and businesses should respect the needs of the very residents that help make the district good for businesses.
    • Also, no one suggested that the sign was already quite large and perhaps the LCD screen should be smaller than the current sign area, given its proximity to intersections, the street and sidewalk, and residences.
  • Wallinger-Silhouette-001Planning Commission Chair Mary Moore Wallinger, prior to agreeing to approve the application, made several remarks that would seem to support its denial, give the burden on the Applicant to show the lack of negative impact. For instance, according to the Minutes: (1)  “Commissioner Wallinger stated that she also shares the same concerns [over impact on residences and the neighborhood], which is why she is supporting changes to the Code to address this issue. She added that neighborhoods have different characters, and she does not feel like the Upper Union Street area would be the right fit for a large number of these signs.” (2) “Commissioner Wallinger stated that in general the function of a sign should be to identify the business rather than offer information advertising special offers or products. She noted that the Upper Union Street district has a lot of pedestrian traffic as well, which most likely will not be the ideal audience for a sign of this type and size. ”  (3)  “Commissioner Wallinger stated that while she agrees that in this case the sign would be as tasteful as possible, she is concerned about neighboring businesses whose proposed EMB signs might not be appropriate.”
As seen in this video clip, taken on July 24, 2019, the digital sign at Northeastern Fine Jewelry changes every 6 seconds and has animation.
.

 

.

  • The Complaint that I filed with the City’s online Citizen Request Tracker on July 9 about the 6-second intervals and use of  movement has not received any substantive reply as of July 28, 2019. update (July 31, 2019): Early Monday morning, July 29, Schenectady Zoning Officer Avi Epstein responded to an email sent by me on July 26 asking him to look into this matter, and said: “We’ll inspect to make sure it meets the required specifications.” Also, on July 30, I received an email from the Complaint Office concerning my complaint saying: “Request reassigned from Codes to Development. Reason: This is a Planning/Zoning concern. Thank you.” I will follow-up here if/as I hear more.

Moreover, on July 25, 2019, I discovered that Northeastern Fine Jewelry’s digital sign is not in compliance with the explicit condition in its Special Use permit to “remain static” after 9 PM for the sake of nearby residences. (I was there at 9:40 pm.) The content of the display is unchanged from the daytime display. Here are two images of the bright and changing NEFJ sign taken when it should have been “static”.

NEFJ-EMBafter9PM

update (Aug. 18, 2019): On August 14, the NEFJ digital sign was still changing at 6 second intervals (or less), and was still fully operational after 9 PM. on August 15 (images below).

IMG_2073 . . IMG_2017

  • checkedboxsupdate (August 21, 2019): Schenectady Zoning Officer Avi Epstein let me know this morning that (emphasis added): “Northeastern Fine Jewelry has been issued a notice of non-compliance as per the city requirements and special use permit. The City is still conducting inspections on many other properties that have electronic message boards, however the images and videos you submit are not admissible as part of our records, as an officer from the City needs to witness the violation in order to issue a citation.”
  • IMG_2100-NEFJ25AugJPG update (August 26, 2019): As of Sunday night, August 25, the NEFJ sign is still not in compliance, with change intervals still at 6 seconds, and the sign is not being held static after 9 PM.
  • follow-up (September 18, 2019): Four weeks after Zoning Office Avi Singer informed me that “Northeastern Fine Jewelry has been issued a notice of non-compliance,” their digital sign is still changing at least every 6 seconds, but there is so much movement on the screen that it is difficult to say just how many changes are actually being made. Recall, as stated above, that Tom Wheeler of AJ Sign, who presented the Application with his client, Gregg Kelly of NEFJ, also reassured the Commissioners that his “client was not proposing that the sign scroll or flash or have any animation.”

IMG_2104-001

The Blue Ribbon Diner

BlueRibbonEMBThe Blue Ribbon Diner was granted Special Use Permits for signs at the Diner and next-door Bakery, at the Planning Commission’s Meeting of September 20, 2017. On my way home on the evening of July 25, 2019, I happened to pass by the Blue Ribbon complex at 1835 State Street, and marveled that the images on the EMBs seemed to change so rapidly. I parked and took a quick video to document the operation of the Blue Dinner EMBs.

The 28-second clip was taken at about 10:30 PM, and the lighting is not great. Nonetheless, you can see that some of the images change after only 3 seconds, not the 8-second requirement in our zoning code.

.

.

In addition, the changes are blended, and have swipes and dissolves, which add to the distraction,. Such gimmicks are discouraged by best practices guidelines. Notice, also that the Blue Ribbon bakery sign can be seen making its changes in the background. The NYS DOT guidelines on digital signage state that, if signs are visible at the same time to a driver, they must be at least 300 feet apart.

Is the City’s lack of enforcement in the face of highly visible violations malfeasance or “merely” nonfeasance?

follow-up: On the morning of August 14, 2019 (five weeks after my first Complaint to the City), the digital signs at Blue Ribbon Dinner and Blue Ribbon Bakery, had not been adjusted to be in compliance, with dwell time averaging less than 5 seconds. The digital sign at Hair Design by Ralf and the one at Wedekind Auto (photo below), also in Woodlawn along State Street, were also changing significantly more frequently than the 8-second minimal interval required by the Schenectady Zoning Code.

IMG_2031  . .

EMBs granted special use permits in Schenectady, 2017-2019

1903 Maxon Road. – Pat Popolizio – Lighthouse – Feb. 15, 2017

2330 Watt St. – Crosstown Commons – May 17, 2017

Erie Blvd at Harbor Way – Mohawk Harbor – Aug. 16, 2017

1753 State St.  – Ralf Torkel – Jan. 17, 2018 – [hair salon]

416 State Street – Berkshire Hathaway – May 16, 2018

1607 Union St. – Northeastern Fine Jewelry – Sept. 19, 2018

[Ed. Note: Additional discussion and analysis will be added to this posting in the near future. Sorry for any inconvenience. For fuller discussion of potential safety hazards from digital signs along our streets, see our March 11, 2015 posting on “Safety Issues raised by electronic message boards“, which starts with a discussion of Proctors’ marquee signs and includes an appendix with general information and relevant links. ]

  • An appendix of relevant Zoning provisions, along with [in the near future] Best Practices or Model Rule recommendations, can be found at the foot of this posting.

Continue reading

cherry blossom surprises

Two days ago (April 23, 2019), I had two surprises when I left the Stockade neighborhood with my camera looking for 2019 cherry blossoms. (To see blossoms in the Stockade this year, go to “suns along the Mohawk.)

One surprise was pleasant and one was not.

cb Harbor . .  IMG_0449

. . above: [L] Good Surprise at Mohawk Harbor; [R] Bad Surprise at City Hall

RiversSchdyRenderFront

Rivers Casino rendering

PLEASANT SURPRISE: For the past few years, I have been amused by the cherry blossoms inserted by Rush Street Gaming in the renderings it used to depict the first set of plans for Rivers Casino at Mohawk Harbor. E.g. see image on the right. For example, on April 26, 2015, I wrote in a posting at this site:

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.

SchdyCasinoRenderingRear I had not yet seen cherry blossoms outdoors at Mohawk Harbor, and certainly not along the entrance to Rivers Casino, as shown in the rendering.  But, given the emphasis on cherry blossoms to the rear of the Casino-Hotel and near the riverbank (see rendering at Left and immediately below to the Right),  I decided to check out the situation while out hitting other blossom spots outside the Stockade.

casino-atti-landscape

cb HarborAlthough I did not find the robust mini-groves of trees indicated in the Casino’s renderings, nor groupings that might one day be robust or mini-groves, I did find a few young trees with cherry blossoms abloom, east of The Landing Hotel, on the casino-side of the ALCO bike-pedestrian path. See the trees pictured on the Left and at the top of this posting. There may be others that are not healthy enough to bloom or that are late-bloomers, but three healthy cherry blossom trees at Mohawk Harbor counts as a pleasant surprise, given the track record of the developers and of public servants charged with assuring compliance with plans.

UNPLEASANT SURPRISE.  About a half hour before arriving at Mohawk Harbor, I stopped for my annual viewing of the beautiful array of cherry blossoms in front of Schenectady’s City Hall, on either side of the main entrance, along Jay Street. My surprise was unpleasant and dispiriting. The trees that had for years given us gorgeous displays of bright pink cherry blossoms were gone. One rather straggly weeping blossom tree did survive, near the main stairway.

Instead of this array, seen on May 3, 2018:

CIty Hall May 3, 2018

. . on April 23, 2019, I encountered this scene:

IMG_0449

. . along with several indications that something was missing:

img_0452

  At this point, I have not heard any explanation from our consistently benighted City Hall and the McCarthy Administration for the cherry blossom massacre. George Washington could not tell a lie about chopping down a cherry tree. I wonder how the Mayor will respond. As/if any explanations are forthcoming, I will report them in updates at this posting.

  • For more photos of the former cherry blossom array at City Hall, go to the suns along the Mohawk posting “in mem. City Hall Cherry Blossoms.” Who could have guess there would be more cherry blossoms at Mohawk Harbor than at City Hall?

From the webpost “in mem. City Hall Cherry Blossoms“, at suns along the Mohawk:

update (April 29, 2019):

In the Gazette article “Removal of City Hall cherry trees leads to muted blooms (Daily Gazette, by Pete DeMola, April 29, 2019, at C1, City Engineer Chris Wallin gave the City’s explanation for removal of the trees:

“They were removed so the city could perform our window restoration project,” City Engineer Chris Wallin said. “Under that contract, all of our original windows in the building will be removed, restored and replaced.”

With the help of a consultant, the city determined six trees were located too close to the building to perform the work effectively, prohibiting the installation of equipment and rigging.

The trees were not original to the building’s construction, and were planted in 2005 to commemorate Arbor Day by Re-Tree Schenectady, a non-profit organization that plants trees around the city.

. . .

IMG_7012-001 Wallin acknowledged the pleasant springtime vibrancy produced by the trees, but said cherry trees, in particular, require vigilant pruning and maintenance to keep under control, and the city hadn’t always performed the work.

“They started to really obscure the front of the building, which is a historically significant building,” Wallin said.

That wouldn’t happen in front of White House or Executive Mansion in Albany, he said.

A few points in rebuttal and in sorrow:

  • The sub-headline in the website edition of the Gazette was fact-based: “Trees removed to make way for restoration project”. But, the sub-headline in the print edition draws a conclusion: “Loss of blooms was unavoidable, but may make a return following city hall restoration project.” (Emphasis added, and sentiment rejected by your Editor.)
  • It is almost too obvious, but I might as well say it: Proper pruning over the years, and/or additional pruning last year to prepare for the restoration project should have been sufficient to save the trees. In my opinion, our so-called Tree City really needs an Arborist, and she or he should not be under the thumb of the Mayor or City Engineer, but should make recommendations based on good-faith, tree-oriented evaluations.
  • I’ve noted before that “Our Tree City has never found a reason too trivial to justify removing even healthy trees.”

p.s. Thank you, Gazette, for reporting on this topic and using our photo to illustrate what was lost.

CherryTrees2018-Gaz29Apr2019

 

encore for those infamous Snowmen

Thank you Albany Times Union, for helping to ensure that the history and legend of the Snowmen at the Schenectady Stockade Gates, on the night of the 1690 Massacre, will be more widely known and will not be buried or forgotten again. At the top of the Sunday TU Business section yesterday, The Buzz column (Dec. 9, 2018, at E1) read:

TUTheBuzzDetailHistory of Snowman, an illustrated view

The current issue of the Smithsonian magazine highlights the Snowman in history, including the failed effort by some human sentinels to protect the village of Schenectady in 1690 while they visited a tavern.

According to the new book, “Illustrated History of the Snowman” by Bob Eckstein  French and Indian forces weren’t fooled by the snowman sentinels the guards had erected in their place, and the night ended badly for the Schenectadians, with 60 residents — men, women and children — killed in the massacre. . . 

After describing the spread of snowmen images thereafter, including widespread use in advertising for alcoholic beverages, The Buzz cheekily points out:

Apparently, they hadn’t learned that alcohol and snowmen don’t mix.

. . [Ed. note] All the hoopla about the craft breweries coming to Schenectady’s Mill Lane Artisan District might be a fateful failure of memory of our local leaders. The 1690 wayward sentinels had, in fact, gone to the Douwe Aukes Tavern at Mill Lane for their tankards of brew, and the Stockade paid dearly for it.

HistSnowman2007Cover At this website, Snowmen at the Gates, our title theme of snowmen futilely guarding Schenectady’s gates has its genesis in Bob Eckstein’s original 2007 version of The History of the Snowman, which has a chapter devoted to the 1690 Massacre. That is where I first learned of the scandalous dereliction of duty that led to the horrific  Schenectady Massacre.

  • That’s right, after living here in ignorance of that tale for twenty years, it took a NYC sophisticate and author/humorist/cartoonist to teach me the sad story behind the saddest day in the history of my adopted home. As I travel around Town, and when I mention the name of this website, it is clear that most folks still do not know the legend of the Snowmen at the Gates, which I am afraid means that our City has not Learned the Lessons of the 1690 Massacre.

IllustratedSnowman-EcksteinCover If you’d like to read Bob Eckstein‘s full discussion of the 1690 Massacre and the impotent snowmen left at an open gate (despite warnings from Albany of a raiding party on the way), go to the Amazon.com page for his new Illustrated History of the Snowman”, where you can Look Inside the Book, and simply search the word Schenectady. You’ll also see that Schenectady snowmen are the first reference to snowmen in North America that Bob found in his comprehensive research on the history of such frozen aqueous sculpture.

Both editions of History of the Snowman contain the full illustration of the North Wind Archives artwork that adorns our masthead above; that’s where I first saw it and was inspired to contact the good folks at North Wind. Here is another image from the Illustrated History, a snow-globe depicting the 1690 Massacre:

1690MassacreSnowGlobe

Preparing to write this posting today, I discovered:

  1. bobecksteinschdyExactly a decade ago this weekend, on December 7, 2008, Bob Eckstein visited Schenectady to do a presentation at our Central Library (image at the right) and book-signing at the Open Door for the 1st Edition of History of the Snowman. See “snowman historian blows into Schenectady” (f/k/a, Dec. 7, 2008); and “SnowmanCity, NY“ (Nov. 29, 2008).
  2. While Schenectady snowmen were the first reference Bob found to their species in North America, the last two postings at Bob’s decade-long website Today’s Snowman, historyofthesnowman.com, were also about Schenectady snowmen. See “Schenectady’s Stockade Snowman at the Gates” (Feb. 3, 2016); and “Schenectady Snowman from 2009” (Feb. 10, 2016). Here are screenshots of those last two postings; click on them to enlarge.

TodaysSnowman

TodaysSnowman03Feb2016 . .  . TodaysSnowman03Feb2008a

So, in many ways, Bob Eckstein is the godfather or midwife of this website. Without him, we might be called The Adventures of Mayor McSmarty. Or, maybe “If this is a Renaissance . . . “.