The City Center’s Proposed Structure: Less Hysteria And More Thought

Large Overview

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Structure And Mouzon House

To properly view these photos double click on them individually

I have great sympathy for the owners of the Mouzon House.  The restaurant business is extremely challenging.  They have worked very hard to build an excellent restaurant whose reputation for the quality of its food and the courtesy of its staff is well deserved.  I can speak from experience.

It is clear that they feel profoundly threatened by the structure being proposed by the City Center and they have campaigned hard to block its development.

In the course of doing so, they have played on many of the common prejudices.  To begin with, the image of a parking garage for many of us, conjures images of cracking walls, dark smelly stairways, ominous and huge towers blocking out the light and huge, threatening edifices.

There is also the image of a large, well funded, government agency ruthlessly crushing its critics and opponents.

None of this is true regarding the City Center and its proposed structure.

The first thing to understand is that because the City Center is a public entity they were not required to go through the normal zoning requirements.  In spite of this, the City Center is pursuing the required approvals by the city’s land use boards as though they were a private developer.

SolarPanels

Then there is the issue of the solar panels on the Mouzon House.  The panels are not photo voltaic.  They are passive thermal panels meant to heat hot water.  The Mouzon House installed these without the required building permits or the approval of Design Review.  A reasonable person in looking at the timing of their construction and their circumvention of the required steps could conclude that they may have been installed as a strategy to throw a legal impediment in the path of the City Center.

The fact that the ordinance regarding solar panels that the Mouzon House used has now been changed does not mean that the decision was retroactive as many of the City Center critics have maintained.  In fact the City Center is still required to go through the Land Use boards for approval.  This is not to say that the change did not greatly benefit the City Center and that their chances of success have not been improved.  I have argued in a separate blog that this change has an important and beneficial impact for all downtown development.  The fact is that the Mouzon House exposed the very serious problems with the existing ordinance.  It is instructive that no landowner in the city core that would be affected by the change spoke against it other than the owners of the Mouzon House.  If the change had been solely to benefit the City Center one would have expected that other landowners who felt they would be adversely affected by it would have come forward.

Some have suggested that the City Center should have offered to put the panels on the Center’s proposed structure but because the panels are thermal and are meant to heat water, this was simply not a feasible solution.  The City Center, in its negotiations with the Mouzon House, continues to discuss options that may help mitigate the impact of the structure to their business.

It is important to put the project in perspective of the needs of the city as a whole.  One of the principals of the Northshire Bookstore made an impassioned plea regarding the need for customer parking. This is the need most commonly expressed by downtown business owners. It is also critical to understand the importance of the City Center in sustaining the downtown.  Most of us do not appreciate how difficult it is for merchants to get through the winter months.  The conventions attracted to the City Center place thousands of people right in our city’s “center.”  The recent expansion of the City Center means more attendees which means more people in town to shop and eat downtown. The planned parking structure is important not only to accommodate the increased volume at the City Center but will relieve the parking crunch for other downtown venues (including the Farmer’s Market) as well.

A Serious Look At the Proposed Structure

So let’s look at what is really being proposed.  Below are a number of photos meant to give people a better sense of the project.  These are meant to expand on photos in an earlier blog that showed renderings of the actual buildings.

We all come at this kind of thing with our own eye, but the footprint of this building shows that while it is a large structure, it is not as large as many people think

The City Center has an excellent record of maintaining its facilities.  It would be a mistake to dismiss the possibility that the proposed building would be allowed to deteriorate but it seems unlikely.

As the photos show, the Mouzon House will not be cheek by jowl with the proposed structure.

The proposal includes a significant buffer to the street in order to plant trees as planned by the City Center.  There is a ten foot grass median from the curb.  There is another ten foot shared biking/walking path and then there is an additional three foot buffer between the path and the structure.  There will not be an imposing prison like wall running along High Rock Avenue.

It is important to remember that this parking structure will be built at no cost to the city with the City Center Authority paying for all operating and maintenance expenses as well. In addition the City Center will be paying an annual lease payment (currently proposed to be $70,000.00) to the city and the city will be receiving a share of the parking revenues (currently proposed to be half) as well as sales tax.

Multi Use Building

This is not to dismiss the current plan to issue an RFP for a multi-use structure.  If the structure can accommodate the parking in the current proposal along with whatever additional parking that the new uses will require, this would be outstanding.  I have expressed my skepticism about all of this coming together but time will tell.

A Civil And Thoughtful Assessment

It is wonderful that people care so much about our city that this project has generated such interest and at times passion.   I have been enormously impressed by the people I know from Sustainable Saratoga.  The city is extremely fortunate that we have a group of such quality working on behalf of our city.  I have also had many interactions with Mark Baker in the recent past.  I have found him to be not only accessible and open but extremely well informed.  I think that the city is fortunate to have him running our City Center.  The point of this post is simply to argue that the proposed project has significant merits that should be considered in our discussions.

9 thoughts on “The City Center’s Proposed Structure: Less Hysteria And More Thought”

  1. Thanks for writing about this issue with a calm and reasonable voice.
    You know in many small towns/cities a restaurant would more than welcome having such great parking with their business not only in full view but also the most easily accessible restaurant. I do not have a crystal ball, but am thinking the Mouzon House would have an increase in business.

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  2. Why is this writer concentrating so much on the Mouzon house? So they can claim we are nit picking or too concerned about a “small” issue? This is also about the people of this city who don’t want it, the lack of improvement in existing parking, an outdated design physically blocking High Rock park and how the city will inherit this monolith in the future. The proposed parking garage is a short term band-aid, not a long term sustainable solution for the future. Easy solution: Request alternative solutions and designs. Here is a chance to create something that everyone in the city will benefit from.

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    1. Charlie:
      I think that the issue of the Mouzon House merits a discussion for many reasons. First, if the structure proposed by the city center were to have a devastating effect on the Mouzon House, as members of our community we should be concerned. The owners of the Mouzon House have put a major part of their lives into their restaurant and any development in that area should take seriously their needs. For me, after exploring the issues with some thoroughness, I do not think that the City Center structure is a real threat to them. Others may disagree and I welcome their comments on this blog.

      I know that you do not want the City Center proposal to come to fruition and I know you are not alone but you need to consider that there are many, such as myself, who think that it is needed. You are welcome to disagree with those who support it but I hope you can agree that when the city council decides on this issue, they will consider those who support it along with those who don’t.

      I do not understand what you mean by “lack of improvement in existing parking…” There will be a net gain of three hundred and fifty-six parking spaces if the project is approved as currently proposed.

      I am troubled by the language in your post. “Out dated design” “monolith” As I have tried to show in my earlier post, the structure while by no means small is actually quite reasonable in size to some of us. I invite the readers to look at the photos in my recent post that show how much of the lot it will take up and also consider the landscaping and planned path that will be part of the design. Having talked at length with Mark Baker, the city center’s executive director, it is clear that a great deal of thought went into the size, location, and design. One may disagree but it is unfair to give the impression that the City Center director and board just threw something together.

      I also disagree with dismissing the proposed structure as a “short term Band-Aid.” We shall have to wait to see what the RFP produces but given the resources available to the city, the need for parking, and the goals, as laid out in our city’s comprehensive plan, I respectfully disagree with you and think that the City Center’s proposal has strong merit.

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  3. John, with the imminent release of a request for proposals, the real question is not whether the proposed City Center parking garage has anything to recommend it, but how it compares with a plan to incorporate parking in a good mixed-use project for the entire city-owned parcel. (You started to go there – hopefully you’ll say more about that.) if a great team of architects, planners and developers can create something great here, an exciting mix of shops and restaurants, places for young and old to live, the right kind of office space needed by new companies that want to move here, outdoor spaces where people want to sit and talk under the trees – something to rival all the great projects we see in other cities touted on urban planning websites – why, oh why would we even talk as if our vision should stop at a parking garage? A large dead building that takes up a third of the lot, with access ramps that take up another third? As if downtown is done, and Broadway is the only street. As if we should just hunker down, protect what we have, and take a nap.

    If the City Center is concerned about competition, why wouldn’t they see a shiny new extension of downtown right outside their door as just the kind of bold project that we need to bypass anything downtown Albany could muster? The newly adopted comprehensive plan has strengthened our enormously successful City in the Country model. Yes, let’s protect the rural character of the outer district and yes, let’s build a hell of a downtown. We have heard business interests pounding the table for new attractions to keep the city competitive in the tourism and convention arenas. Yet while they have worked to open the greenbelt to commercial development, they are working against development where it belongs – on the city’s largest undeveloped downtown parcel.

    Many are skeptical of an RFP. They are concerned that the City Council won’t be able to work together any better than they did before to bring this project to fruition. But here’s one place where development interests and groups like Sustainable Saratoga are on the same page. And the City Council should understand that, join forces and send a clear message that this time, it’s going to work.

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    1. I have always admired your dedication to the city. Few have put in the many hours to try to implement their ideas that you have.

      As I noted in an earlier post, I am skeptical about the economics of a large mixed use project that would live up to the expectations as expressed in your comment. I fully admit to my limited knowledge in these things. With that in mind, I can only offer that I am alarmed by the idea of committing the huge piece of city property to an RFP that seems very rushed and poorly designed. It has the feeling of something thrown together with the cavalier sense of “let’s see what happens.” I will be posting in more detail my thoughts on the RFP as the process unfolds.
      It is my hope that this blog will be a forum where people of good will such as yourself will be able to carry on public discussions so that we can all be better informed.

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  4. A small change in the garage footprint will not change the fact that the “cathedral to cars” is still the parking garage that mostly satisfies the City Center and throws a bone to the Mouzon House. The architecture, or design if you will, needs to satisfy most of us Saratoga Springs citizens.

    The RFP will hopefully give the city significant alternatives to enhance the space and fit the neighborhood and Saratoga Springs in general.

    Don’t get excited yet!

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