Posted by: David Giacalone | June 28, 2015

answering Mayor McCarthy on HCAs

mayorgarymccarthy2013bwWe’re pleased that the Schenectady Gazette Editorial Page allowed us to respond yesterday (Letter to the Editor,“Mayor missed point on casino package“, June 27, 2015, C5) to the Guest Column by Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy panning the Host Community Agreement notion. (see “Mayor: Schenectady casino deal better than Seneca host package“, June 12, 2015, C8, pdf. file) Due to space limitations, our Letter to the Editor was limited to 400 words. The longer 1st Draft follows.

Lago Lessons the Mayor Missed

In Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy’s June 19th Gazette Guest Column, he answers critics who have asked why he never tried to negotiate a “host community agreement” [“HCA”] or similar benefits package with Rush Street Gaming [“Rush Street”]. (Schenectady Gazette, “Mayor: Schenectady casino deal better than Seneca host package“, June 12, 2015, C8, pdf. file) It is gaming industry practice, and common sense, for a potential host community to use its inherent leverage to bargain for impact mitigation funds, goodwill payments, revenue guarantees, or other concessions. But, Mayor McCarthy has chosen to be chief cheerleader and backroom muscle for Rush Street, rather than chief negotiator for the people of Schenectady.

We pointed the Mayor to the Lago-Tyre Host Community Agreement to rebut his excuse that such agreements were not feasible in New York State, not to recommend slavish adherence to its particular terms. Rather than learn from the Lago example, McCarthy made a two-pronged attack on the HCA: (1) Dismiss the messengers as foes of the casino with an “ironic” new cause, and (2) stress cherry-picked and unexplained numbers. It is, of course, not at all ironic that those who opposed the casino due to its expected negative effects are taking the Mayor to task for leaving millions of dollars on the table that could have been used to mitigate those impacts and improve Schenectady. Casino supporters also expect the Mayor to maximize casino revenues, jobs, and community benefits.

HCAs are not cookie-cutter affairs, but are tailored to each community’s situation. Comparing selected pairs of numbers from Seneca County and Schenectady proves little when our situations are so different. Schenectady has almost 70 times more residents than tiny Tyre, and Seneca County has less than a quarter of the population of our County, and far less development momentum. Unlike Schenectady, both Tyre and Seneca County did their homework: They learned what host communities have done elsewhere, they commissioned studies to understand the impact of a casino and to quantify its costs and benefits, and they actively and successfully negotiated with their casino applicant.

TyreLogoB&W As a result, Tyre and Seneca County believe they have negotiated very favorable terms with Lago. For example, an extensive study by the County Industrial Development Agency claims that the benefits from Lago for the County will be 51 times greater than its costs. Wilmorite is spending 40% more developing Lago ($425M) than Rush is at Mohawk Harbor. And, the property tax accord will bring in $3.83 million more over the next 20 years than the County would have otherwise expected.

For a detailed discussion of the Lago agreements, see tinyurl.com/InfoLago .

In contrast, the Mayor’s approach has earned Schenectady not one penny more than the law will demand from Rush Street once its Mohawk Harbor casino is in operation, and nothing prior to opening. Moreover, Schenectady has no reason to believe Galesi will freely give up its scandalously low PILOT payments, nor that Rush Street is likely to give up its practice of challenging tax assessments and seeking every available exemption. More important, with no pressure from the Mayor and no cost analysis undertaken by the City, Rush Street has never stepped up, as Lago did, to acknowledge both the reality of negative impacts and its obligation to mitigate them with payments in addition to the gaming revenue taxes it must pay.

Schenectady could have done much better. Rush Street has offered each of its other existing and proposed casino locations various payments and community benefits beyond what the law requires, including millions prior to opening, millions in guaranteed annual revenues, large ongoing community benefit and mitigation payments, local job and vendor preferences, and more. It even agreed to guarantee waterfront access and build a Green Roof in Philadelphia, and to give Brockton a guaranteed $10 million a year in benefits, along with its beautiful casino design.

To see how generous Rush Street has been outside Schenectady, and what Mayor McCarthy might have achieved, go to tinyurl.com/RushGiveaways .

David Giacalone

Editor, StopTheSchenectadyCasino.com

Schenectady, New York

Posted by: David Giacalone | June 19, 2015

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, and Hudson Valley, as well as Brockton; also, see our posting “Schenectady casino redesigned“, June 4, 2015).

  • 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.

Posted by: David Giacalone | June 12, 2015

shrink that casino pylon! (with updates)

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

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

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

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original posting:

Which sign would you prefer as the symbol of Schenectady?

GESign2

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

 . . . or

DPCpylon4border  . . .  DesPlaines68

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

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

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

    proposed pylon

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

  • The GE sign’s giant letters are only 10′ tall, and its circular logo is 36′ in diameter, only 4 feet taller than the Casino pylon’s digital sign, and with a “message” considerably less distracting and easier to decipher than the Casino’s bright street level messages.
  • The new Waterfront Zoning amendments allow the casino to have more than one 80′ pylon, with no stated limit.
  • Philadelphia has a lot of tall buildings that could block the view of a pylon or other freestanding sign. Nevertheless, in its Casino Zoning District, where Rush Street has its SugarHouse Casino, no freestanding sign may be taller than 40′. [Philadelphia Code, §14-405(8)] In addition, and also for safety reasons, the City of Philadelphia allows no digital displays within 200′ of an intersection. [Philadelphia Code, §14-904 (1) (b) Digital Display]

pylonrenderlocation

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

pylontree2 . . . pyloncorner

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

ParkerBldg

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

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

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

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

SchdyPylonSketch2

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

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

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

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

If there were ever to be a freestanding, highway-oriented sign in front of a business in Schenectady that is “out of pedestrian scale”, it would be the pylon monstrosity proposed for our Rivers Casino. casinotownlogo

I’m hoping that Steve Strichman is as chagrined about the Rush Street/Galesi pylon proposal as we are. And, that Steve is pressing hard in the Planning Office to shrink that pylon to a manageable size. Of course, we cannot know what size is truly manageable without line-of-sight studies that have yet to be done. For additional discussion of issues raised by erection of the proposed pylon, see our recent post “lessons learned from the Des Plaines casino“; and, see our Pylon Collage at the bottom of this posting.

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

PylonCollage

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

PylonCollage2a

Posted by: David Giacalone | June 12, 2015

a must-read Letter by Jessie Malecki

Jessie Malecki has a Letter to the Editor in today’s Schenectady Gazette that deserves wide distribution and much consideration at City Hall. (June 12, 2015, C6):

what was the rush for casino approvals?

I hope everyone in the city of Schenectady had the opportunity to read Mohamed Hafez’s June 5 guest column, “Schenectady in need of host deal for casino.” That surely is an eye opener showing us what our city administration has neglected to do in dealing with Rush Street Gaming and the Galesi Group.

It is one thing that a casino will be coming to our city, but it is another that this administration did not even give the slightest thought that we should have a Host Community Agreement (HCA). This was completely left out of any dealings with Rush Street Gaming or the Galesi Group. [see our posting “Mayor McCarthy left millions on the casino table.“]

In other words, the administration of our fair city not only gave whatever was necessary for these two groups, but just about gave them the keys to our fair city — do what you want. No business is run like that — if it was, it wouldn’t last two days.

Even back in January, The Gazette had a great editorial (Jan. 29), “Public needs to see impact of zoning,” which is an important issue and should not have been taken lightly. Here again, most of the City Council members (except Vince Riggi), including the president, always had the inevitable “excuse” that there is a time deadline and a vote must be made as soon as possible.

There was and is always time to make sure things are done correctly and this was definitely one of them. This project will be here for a long time. By hurriedly voting on this important issue, they gave unlimited heights to buildings, signs, etc. to Rush Gaming and the Galesi Group.

hourglassAlmostFull What was all the hurry because we have a deadline all about? Rush Street Gaming has yet to receive a casino license from the state Gaming Commission, but it is said it will by the end of the year. Ms. King, among many other items needing immediate attention, what was the so-called deadline that you refered to back in January when you had to vote for the Alco site zoning change, which was something that should really have been thought about long and seriously?

The public needed to see the impact of the zoning change, which it did not because the “excuse” of a deadline in everything that was done.

Jessie Malecki

Jessie lives in the Stockade, in the North Street home she was born in during WWI. We are very lucky to have her among the founders of Stop the Schenectady Casino. She has been prolific telling the truth about the coming casino.

You can share this posting with this short url — http://tinyurl.com/LTEjm:

Bonus: Here’s the Guest Column by Mohamed Hafez mentioned above by Jessie:

Read More…

Posted by: David Giacalone | June 10, 2015

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.Churchill also added, “In fact, [the Planning Commission] would probably approve the casino if it looked like a giant Taco Bell.

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.

This Slideshow shows a lot.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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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.

Posted by: David Giacalone | June 7, 2015

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.
Posted by: David Giacalone | June 4, 2015

Schenectady casino redesigned

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

CasinoJune2015

– collage: renderings submitted June 2015 to Planning Commission –

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

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

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

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

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

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

CasinoHotel-4Jun2105

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

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

BrocktonCasino

– proposed Brockton MA casino –

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

– below: Hudson Valley Casino & Resort site rendition –

HudsonValleyCasino-Rush-Saratoga

RushStreet-Worchester2013

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

Posted by: David Giacalone | May 27, 2015

RUSH STREET’s GIVEAWAYS (a letter to City Council)

RushStreetGiveaways

Rush Street’s Giveaways

 Following up on the first two postings in our Money on the Table series (Part 1, and Part 2), the following email message was sent to City Council Members this afternoon (May 27), via City Clerk Chuck Thorne, along with a chart labeled Rush Street’s Giveaways. (click the link for a pdf. version, or the image to the right for a jpg. version). The Chart shows the many benefits Rush Street Gaming [RSG] has bestowed on each of its other casino communities, in commitments made prior to opening, while offering none to Schenectady. We believe Mayor McCarthy has left Money and More on the Table in its dealings with RSG and the Galesi Group concerning Rivers Casino at Mohawk Harbor.

To: City Council Members

Re: Chart entitled Rush Street’s Giveaways

The attached chart shows that Rush Street Gaming has given or promised significant voluntary (non-mandated) payments and other benefits to every one of its casinos, and in every casino application, while offering no such giveaways to Schenectady. Many of these giveaway payments have been made in the years prior to the opening of a Rush Street Casino. I am hoping that these documented facts will start a conversation among City leaders and perhaps the public and media about:

  • why the City has been so generous to Rush Street, and not the other way around (Rush Street wants a casino at Mohawk Harbor and Mr. Galesi is not able to move the location)
  • which neighborhood and community projects could have been funded with an extra $1 million, or even $100K, payment this year and next year?
  • has the City lost all leverage with RSG, or are there still things the Casino needs from the City or its residents that might inspire RSG to offer “goodwill” payments?

The Mayor referred to the Stop the Schenectady Casino website as “that blog” at the last Council meeting, and suggested the website has misinformation. I assure you that we’ve always done our best to present the facts and objective reading of laws concerning this Casino, and have often been the only source in this City for any stories, research, facts, etc., that show the casino or RSG in a bad light, or that even ask that the City Council and Mayor do some homework and stop to fully consider issues. We will correct any factual mistakes, if they are pointed out.

At this link, you will find documents and articles supporting our assertions, and find discussion countering the excuses that have been made to date by the Administration. You can use this short URL: http://tinyurl.com/casinoMOTT2

Please feel free to contact me with any questions and comments.

respectfully,

David Giacalone

Schenectady, NY

Share this posting with the short URL: tinyurl.com/RushGiveaways

Posted by: David Giacalone | May 18, 2015

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 entered 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, 2014),” 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:

Read More…

Posted by: David Giacalone | April 26, 2015

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): Read More…

Posted by: David Giacalone | April 9, 2015

Bloomberg on Cuomo’s casino policy

According to yesterday’s New York Daily News:

“Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg Wednesday broke his silence on New York politics Wednesday —ripping Gov. Cuomo’s decisions to expand casino gambling and reject hydrofracking.” Bloomberg said:

Our strategy in New York State seems to be to open gambling casinos so we can rip the lungs out of the poor to subsidize upstate real-estate developers. That doesn’t help anyone in the area.”

(see New York Daily News, April 8, 2015, by Kenneth Lovett, “Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg slams Andrew Cuomo’s decisions to expand casino gambling, reject hydrofracking“)

When will other New York political, business, academic and community “leaders”, who have been either casino cheerleaders or cowering mute in the shadows, finally come forward to admit that casinos are very likely to harm many of the disadvantaged members of our society? When will they take the next step and start planning how to avoid those problems to the extent possible?

Perhaps Michael Bloomberg can help to finance and organize attempts to find solutions. It seems certain that individuals and groups who care about the social and economic fabric of our communities, and the fate of individuals and families, will have to start demanding that our public servants in Government take action. Better yet, because we have learned that we cannot count on help from politicians (even those whose Party purports to care about social issues), we need to start brainstorming, researching, organizing and fund-raising on our own to help prevent and remedy casino-caused problems.

Those with ideas on how to start the Problem-Solving Process, should leave a comment or contact members of Stop the Schenectady Casino directly. And, even if it seems futile, start telling or local politicos they need to take heed and take up this cause.

Posted by: David Giacalone | March 28, 2015

Trump’s Taj casino doesn’t want a college nextdoor

It looks like the folks at Trump Entertainment have more sense than our Rush Street crew, City Hall, the Gaming Facility Location Board, and the Administration of Union College.  Here’s what they posted on their website last week about Stockton University wanting to use the lot next door for a campus:

podiumflip“The facts are that our company does not think having a college next door to the Taj is good for our company. Having kids under 21 who will attempt to gain entry to the casino and engage in activities reserved for those only 21 and older would create numerous problems we do not want, and could damage the Taj’s ability to attract customers and regain its financial health. You do not see a college on the Las Vegas strip. “

According to a story in the Courier-Post (March 25, 2015), Stockton’s president, Herman Saatkamp, lashed out at Trump Entertainment on Tuesday night, saying, “We have been stabbed in the heart.” Stockton College purchased the property, the site of the failed Showboat Casino, knowing that the Taj Mahal Casino would have to waive their rights to block anything other than a major casino at that location, for the school to have a campus there.  For details on the story, see “Taj casino doesn’t want college next-door” (AP/Courier-Post, March 25, 2015).

We’ are, of course, opposed to a casino near a college for different reasons than Trump Entertainment. See our posts “Union College and the Schenectady casino” and “what will the casino mean for Union College students?”. But, realizing that there are good business-related reasons for a casino to avoid such proximity to thousands of college students makes it even less palatable that local and State officials refused to acknowledge the problem.

Leadership We understand that Union College President Stephen Ainlay may fear retribution from the City, Metroplex and Galesi-related donors, for speaking out against a casino at Mohawk Harbor. Nevertheless, the silence of such an important local institution, despite the potential harm to its student body, shows an irresponsible lack of leadership and courage.  Click on the image at the right of this paragraph to see a poster about college presidents created by the (successful) opponents to a casino in downtown Hamilton, Ottawa, Canada. 

 

Posted by: David Giacalone | March 11, 2015

PROCTOR’s ACCELERATED MARQUEE MESSAGES look unsafe and unlawful


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

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

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

 IMG_7577 . . IMG_7583MSpsa

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

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

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

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

Sec.264-61(I)EVMS

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_7497-001

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

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

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

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

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

    IMG_7489

    – heading west on State Street towards Proctors –

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

    Heading east on State Street, a driver can see both the side message board and the front one at the same time, for quite a distance on that busy, confusing block.  He or she can also see the flashing reflection of the marquee display in a window that is on a wall perpendicular to the marquee.  In addition, the driver heading east can see the changing electronic sign above the doorway for Proctors 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 that than off of the theater’s premises, in no way affects its ability to distract drivers and pedestrians.

  • 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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This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

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

Strichman-email-20Mar2015

– email reply of Zoning Office to the above Complaint –

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

Mr. Giacalone

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

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

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

Thank you for your concern on this issue.

Steve Strichman

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

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

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

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

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, filing on April 15, 2015, and am waiting to see if Proctors submitted the SUP Application Form that is required by the Planning Office.

– 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?  

Read More…

Posted by: David Giacalone | March 11, 2015

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 virtually simultaneously.

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.

Posted by: David Giacalone | March 11, 2015

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. . ..

Posted by: David Giacalone | February 28, 2015

Location Board gives us its “findings”

LocBdReprot27FEb2015 The NYS Gaming Facility Location Board released its Report and Findings on its casino selection process yesterday, February 27, 2015.  In four decades of reviewing reports by government agencies as either an attorney and an interested citizen, I have never seen anything quite like this one:

  1. The Location Board tells us what was wrong with the other Applications, but
  2. Does not list any of the weaknesses of the selected Applicant, Rivers Casino at Mohawk Harbor, and instead
  3. Uses the assertions, projections, and promises — untested — of the Applicant as its Findings.

The Schenectady Gazette produced another of its cheer-leading articles today, in the piece “Report: Schenectady casino won on location, operator’s record,” by Haley Viccaro, Feb. 28, 2015.  This Comment at the Gazette website contains my response to both the Gazette article and the Location Board Report:

Comment by dgiacalone:

This is a most peculiar Report by a government Board. From its introductory “Disclaimer” page, we learn that:

  •  “In reaching its determinations, the Board has relied on the actual information or material submitted in [each] application.
  • “To the extent that this report contains any errors or omissions, the staff is solely responsible for such errors or omissions, and such errors and omissions are not findings adopted by the Board.” [note: This is a new one on me: “If we made a mistake, it is not our finding, and our staff is to blame” is an attitude that makes it hard to take these people seriously.]
  • “For the vast majority of Applicants, the results of the consultants’ estimates [of gaming revenues] were substantially lower than those of the Applicants.”

While the Board states the negatives of the other applications, it accepts all the Rivers Casino numbers, projections, promises at face value. The Report never mentions any of the opponents’ concerns over higher crime, proximity to Union College and the Stockade, traffic problems, impact on families, etc., much less explain why the concerns were not important. It also fails to explain how a site that already had a $200 million project, in a County that brags of its strong revitalization, meets the criteria of helping spur development.
.
The state traffic experts did not make “findings”, as reported by the Gazette above, but merely “suggest” that the Schenectady Casino’s traffic analysis is “highly detailed with specific analysis of intersections leading to the site,” without finding that the Casino’s analysis is competent or the details plausible.
.
Most telling, the Board simply counts comments pro and con, without considering the source or the strength of the arguments. It is hard to take the Location Board’s analysis any more seriously than we should take Rush Streets projections and its promises to protect the interests of the people of Schenectady. Like our City Council, the Location Board has, in its words, “relied on the actual information or material submitted” by the Applicant.

Click here to see excerpted pages of the Location Board’s Report and Findings, showing its Disclaimer page, the one-page discussing the Public Support demonstration for the Schenectady Casino, and two pages on that topic for the East Greenbush Casino proposal.

follow-up: Hey, we’re wondering how the Location Board could be so solicitous of bat colonies 5 miles from a rival casino site, but not even mention the treasured Stockade historic district, 0.5 miles away from Mohawk Harbor.  Maybe we also need to send spare eyeglasses to the Board members, who rejected other casino designs as “not inspiring”, but chose the extremely uninspiring Mohawk Harbor casino facility.

Posted by: David Giacalone | February 10, 2015

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

Posted by: David Giacalone | February 8, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read More…

Posted by: David Giacalone | January 29, 2015

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 are 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 operator of the casino itself [collectively known around this website as the Galesi-Casino Gang, or simply “the Gang”]

 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. (at 3)

Hmmm. City Hall and the Casino Gang keep telling us this casino carries on the proud history of General Electric and ALCO.  Maybe they really do want Schenectady to “light the world” again, with all that wattage at Mohawk Harbor.

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 seen, as well as specific problems never explained by staff.  Sadly, some Commissioners apparently did not know enough to know some of the issues even existed. 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 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 a 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?
  • 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 a City’s existing signage provisions for every 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 they 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 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 public access to 10% of the dock space. 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 15,00o 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 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.

share this post with this short linkhttp://tinyurl.com/CasinoTown

 – 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).

Posted by: David Giacalone | January 28, 2015

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.

.
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 (which, by the way, we think is a soft deadline, since the Gaming Board is not about to restart a multi-year process due to construction slippage of a couple of months).

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)
  • 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).

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:

Read More…

Posted by: David Giacalone | January 27, 2015

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?“.

Posted by: David Giacalone | January 24, 2015

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)

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

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.”

Read More…

Posted by: David Giacalone | January 23, 2015

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. 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.

Currently, 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 granting the public access to the riverfront, 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.

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

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 publicaccess 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 that 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)

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