I sent the following email to Sonny Bonacio concerning his proposed “repurposing” of Moore Hall (The Pink Palace)
Dear Mr. Bonacio:
When you held a meeting in early September to present to the neighborhood your proposal to redevelop Moore Hall there was an impressive turn out. This was a reflection of the strong sense of community and mutual support that marks the people who live in the vicinity of Moore Hall. As you may recall, you received a very open and thoughtful response from the people of this neighborhood. While people were concerned about the potential negative impact that the proposed project might have, it was a sign of the respect and trust that your work here in the city has engendered that they were so open to your plan.
Now, several months later, many of us are at a loss to reconcile the Sonny Bonacio that we thought we were dealing with and the individual promoting this gravely flawed project.
A brief review is in order.
In 2006 Richard Higgins approached our neighborhood with his ambitious plan to raze Moore Hall and replace it with high end condominiums. This is not a NIMBY neighborhood. The neighborhood truly embraced Mr. Higgins’ plan as it would take down an ugly building that was sitting idle and replace it with a handsomely designed set of structures. Most importantly, the plan was to strictly adhere to the zoning requirements in terms of density of units and parking so it would fit in with the neighborhood. As you know, Mr. Higgins was successful at getting the zoning changed from Educational/Institutional to UR4 based on the plans he presented.
When the market tumbled in 2007 we all understood that the project could not go forward at that time. All of us believed that Mr. Higgins pursuit of his project and the zoning change had been done done in good faith.
The people of this community had no idea that this turn of events would be legally exploited down the road.
As you know when the zoning was changed, Moore Hall became a non-comforming structure.
It is important to put the concept of “non-conforming” parcels into context. The purpose of this designation was to protect citizens who already owned property when the zoning for their area was changed. A classic example is what happened out at Saratoga Lake. For years people had built rough “camps” out there meant for the summer season. As the city matured there was a need to establish stronger standards and zoning laws. When these were established in the district where these camps were, it was viewed as unfair to require these parcels to meet a new and higher standard. People had legally built these places originally and to bring these “camps” up to code would have been a terrible burden for many. This is where non-conforming came in. The city deemed these camps as officially non-conforming which allowed the people to keep the camps as they were. Only if they chose to change the footprint of these properties were they required to come up to code.
The people of Saratoga Springs granted Mr. Higgins his new zoning assuming that he would rebuild the property to meet the new zoning of Urban Residential 4. No one ever expected that this would be used as a loophole to get around our city’s standards. What is contemplated here is that by not changing the footprint, your company can circumvent some very serious and important standards. In effect, we have had a bait and switch.
Nowhere is this issue clearer than in the issue of parking. Our city’s code for parking lot design is not some arbitrary, bureaucratic hoop. It is based on the need to make sure that parking lots are safe and practical. The issues of minimum parking spaces, turning ratios, and proper ingress and egress to the street are based on our community’s concern that builders do not try to cut corners at the expense of safety and usability. Your company claims there are fifty-four parking spaces in the existing lots as part of your proposal. Putting aside the need to provide handicapped parking spaces, these spaces would utterly violate the city’s normal regulations.
There is also the issue of density. UR4 would limit this development to fifteen units. Your plan calls for putting in fifty-three units. This is a stunning number. It is one thing to ask for some kind of bonus but to ask to be allowed to almost quadruple the number of units from the normal zoning especially in a residential neighborhood is simply jaw dropping.
I know that you are pitching these apartments as “affordable” housing. I ran the numbers comparing what you are offering at Moore Hall with what you currently rent at Market Center Apartments At Railroad Place. Since the small, bunker like apartments you are proposing are only seven and a half feet high, I compared them with your other apartments based on cubic feet. The comparison is quite informative. You will be charging significantly more for the tiny apartments per cubic feet than you do at Market Center. In addition the Market Center apartments have balconies, reserved parking, washer/dryers, and a fitness center. There are many who would be disturbed at the apparent cynicism of this.
Finally, there is the request for a variance to reduce the required on-site parking spaces from 1.5 per unit to one per unit. This is a reduction of one third. As you know the neighbors pointed out a number of serious deficiencies in your parking study.
- The idea that young professionals are not interested in cars begs credibility. This is not Brooklyn. While people may work downtown, the limited public transportation and the distances required to travel in the Capital District make owning a car critical.
- People in the neighborhood commonly use the old Moore Hall parking lot now to park their cars. Your engineer admitted to me that he saw those cars in the parking lot but when he counted the available spaces on the street, he did not factor in that those cars would need street parking.
- The engineer’s study was done in September after the racing season was over. It is not unusual during July, August, and early September to have every space taken from one end of White Street to the other and all along Union Avenue. Putting aside the competition between existing residents on the street and your proposed tenants, the potential problem for your tenants to find proper parking during the summer will be quite severe. Designing a parking plan that mimics musical chairs does not seem like a quality design.
The people in our neighborhood are reasonable and caring. They are more than open to working with you on trying to address these problems and to suffer some inconvenience within reason. What people find so surprising and so disturbing is that you appear unwilling to truly engage with the community to explore how to find a fair solution. Instead it appears that your attorneys are exploiting a loophole in the zoning laws to force a very unpopular and unfair project on our community.
It is the hope of many people that you will live up to your reputation. Surely this project is not worth squandering the good will and trust that you have built up during these last years.