Moore Hall Application For Variances: Fatally Flawed

Next Monday night, November 23, the Zoning Board of Appeals is slated to address the application by Sonny Bonacio to convert Moore Hall into 53 “micro” apartments.  As many of you know, the City Council is scheduled to meet with the developer and the community in the neighborhood of Moore Hall on Saturday, December 5.  While it is hard to believe that the ZBA would proceed before the Council could make its own assessment of the situation, given the makeup of our land use boards it would not be altogether that surprising.  I have not been to a ZBA meeting but the experience at the city’s Planning Board does not breed confidence.  Scott Johnson’s long tenure as Mayor gave him the opportunity to appoint most of the members of these boards and he was none too subtle about placing the most reliable representatives of the real estate/construction/finance industry on them.

Still, the extraordinary mobilization opposing the project and its high profile due to the many signs on the East Side, the coverage in the local media, and the decision of the City Council to involve itself should pressure the ZBA to act more cautiously.

Of course, the real issue is the utter poverty of the proposal itself.  One of the central criteria the ZBA must use in deciding whether to grant the applicant its variances is whether the project would have a negative impact on the neighborhoods that it abuts.

The two variances Bonacio is seeking  are over parking and density.  City code requires that the developer allocate 1.5 parking spaces per unit and the dimensions of the parcel limit the number of units to 18. The developer seeks to reduce the required parking spaces to 1 space per unit and to increase the number of total units to 53.

In a meeting several of us had with Sonny Bonacio he made it clear that he will not budge on his proposal.  Sonny was charming but firm.  He argued that the inherent structure of the building makes any other design impractical and that the cost to do the conversion precludes reducing the number of units.

The central problem for the ZBA is that as a “non-conforming” property, most of the code requirements that insure a safe, attractive, and efficient project cannot be assumed.  The simple question then is, “how can one assess the impact of this project on the adjacent neighborhoods if many of the key elements of this project are unknown?”

Let’s consider some of these:

Parking

The variance being sought assumes that the parking lot currently contains 53 parking spaces.  This number does not stand up under the most cavalier review.  The fiction of this number is based on the fact that as a non-conforming parcel, the existing physical characteristics are grandfathered.  Therefore, the fact that this parking lot violates the city’s building codes does not necessarily mean that it must be modified.  [The following itemized problems with the lot have been documented in previous posts so you may want to skip these]

  1. None of the parking spaces meet the current code requirements for size dimensions. The purpose of this code is to minimize damage to cars that must navigate these parking spaces and to insure that in the event that someone must escape from a car in an emergency, egress from the vehicle will be easy.
  2. The driving lane between the rows of cars is required under city code to be 24’ wide. This is to insure that emergency vehicles can easily and quickly access the full lot and be able to operate the equipment in their vehicles quickly and easily. None of the lanes meets this code and one is less than 16’ in width.
  3. None of the parking spaces are currently designed for a handicapped car. The lot will require at least one such space and very possibly two.
  4. The lot is exposed to the elements so snow removal will be required. The design of the lot will have to address this and may require during the winter that certain areas be reserved to address this need.

This raises some fundamental issues about the quality and nature of this proposal.  One must surely ask, would it be appropriate to go forward with a project assuming such a lot?  I would go further and ask, would it even be ethical?

It is very possible that the issue of safety and liability may override the freedom of “non-conforming” characteristics.   Were this to happen, and it is reasonable to assume that it will, then the currently requested variance would be inadequate since the number of on site parking spaces would have to be reduced.  It begs reason that the Zoning Board of Appeals would consider the variance on parking before the actual final need could be determined.  There is also the issue of the density variance as it relates to parking which will be addressed later in this post.

Impact on Neighborhood

The current city code requires a setback of a total of 45 feet on both sides of a parcel.  The minimum for any individual side is 20 feet.  So, for example, one end might have a 20 foot setback and the other would have a 25 foot setback.  Setbacks are a very important element in our city code because they very much impact how the infrastructure of a project will affect the surrounding neighborhoods.  This is particularly acute when it comes to parking lots.  If you casually walk our city you will see that there is almost always a green buffer between the parking lots and the sidewalks or roads.  This is because eliminating this buffer makes for a very ugly and overwhelming wall of cars and concrete.

In the case of the Moore Hall project, the proposal does not include any setbacks.  In fact this raises serious questions about the safety of the property that abuts North Lane.  The cars will extend directly to the edge of the alley.  There will be no buffer.  As for the White Street side, the cars will press cheek by jowl against the sidewalk there.

There is also the issue of trash.  Fifty-three apartments will generate a great deal of trash.  How will it be managed?  Where will the storage bins be located?  How large will they be?  How will they be maintained?  It is important to note that the footprint of the building itself exceeds the city code.  It covers much of the parcel so there will be very little space to put trash receptacles.  Given that the only vehicular access will be in the rear of the building on North  Lane, the receptacles will have to be somehow placed there.  Most people are familiar with how residents of multi unit facilities like the one proposed can be careless in dealing with trash containers.  Will trash prove to be both an eye sore and a nose sore?  Given the fact that no code requirements must be met, this is also an unresolved issue.

There is of course the issue of the inconvenience for neighbors that the use of their street as an overload parking facility for this facility will entail.  I noticed only last week that much of the parking on White Street had been taken up by the annual leaf clean up event.

The Central Issue: Too BIG!

Central to all these issues is the variance on density.  This is not some tweak from the existing limit of 18 units.  The applicant wants to build an additional 35 units which would be  approximately triple the limit established by zoning.   Most of the problems identified above are directly related to the applicant’s effort to, in effect, jam fifty-three units in a parcel that the city’s standards would limit to 18.

To make this project work, if we accept Mr. Bonacio’s word, he must badly overcharge for the space the units would provide.  The rents the applicant claims they will charge (there is nothing that would require the applicant to hold to these numbers) per cubic foot (they will have 7.5’ ceilings) will not only greatly exceed the existing rentals in the neighborhood but would exceed the rental fees for other space the applicant currently rents in the city.  In fact, the Saratogian recently ran a story about rentals he is building in Glens Falls that will offer much higher quality space for the same or less money.

No one would quibble with the creativeness that Sonny Bonacio has shown in coming up with this plan.  The problem is that to make it work it grossly overreaches the capacity of both the building and the neighborhood.

It would be shocking if the ZBA were to approve these variances and their approval would set a dangerous precedent for other proposals that may come before them. This episode should be a teachable moment for this community about how important the appointments to our land use boards are.  Many of us believe that the city charter should be amended to require that the Mayor’s appointments should require the approval of the City Council.  These appointments should be a matter of a very public process in which the community gets to weigh in on the appointments to insure that the personal interests of land use board members do not conflict with their public duties.

 

3 thoughts on “Moore Hall Application For Variances: Fatally Flawed”

  1. John –

    Your reporting on Moore Hall is to be massively commended, not to mention your rallying of the local community. I have a longstanding relationship with the area – though I do not live downtown anymore, my family has been in Saratoga for 100 years or so and I am back all the time – and wonder if there is wisdom in trying to present some other options to Sonny et al, knowing that it is a likely outcome that SOMETHING will happen with Moore Hall, and we should want something to replace (or inhabit) the boarded up building currently there.

    To take a step back, from what I understand, and I stand to be corrected, one reason why the original purchase price in 2007 was so low was because of the intended remediation of the building, which everyone at the time thought was necessary for development. Sadly, that development never happened, theoretically because of not only money leaving the project, but also because of the spiraling costs to demolish the existing structure. So, what we now have is a Catch-22. A building that is too expensive to tear down, and if it is renovated with a lack of creativity, will overwhelm the neighborhood.

    To say that Sonny will not be able to find tenants for these apartments is a risk – one only need to see the high rates Saratoga Fox is charging a few feet away for short term rentals. What I might suggest is that we steer some other options Sonny’s way. In the end, he wants to cover his redevelopment costs and make a return on majority occupancy of that building (he could not assume he would get 100% occupancy – no developer ever does). There are so many other community needs, most particularly for senior housing and Saratoga’s visiting arts and educational community, that a better solution might not actually be so hard to find. Any of these options would bring communities that will likely put less load on parking in the neighborhood and put that building to great use.

    The first, a senior option is one that would need creative leadership and probably external subsidy, but I am wondering if anyone has reached out to Saratoga Senior Center (the Grove, of course, is another of Sonny’s projects) to get their take.

    The creative economy one is another great option. SPAC already rents masses of rooms from Skidmore for both the ballet and orchestra, and both the Orchard Project and Opera Saratoga bring great credit to the community as well. However, having attended some of the meetings about how these organizations are increasing Saratoga’s quality of life and putting high class programming into otherwise decrepit buildings like Universal Preservation Hall, one thing you hear them constantly bemoan is how hard it is to house artists in Saratoga. These are artists who generally do not drive as they are coming up from NYC.

    A third option is Empire State College, which continues to thrive in the old Skidmore buildings down the street. Their own programming could increase if they were allowed to rent from Sonny – and I am not sure they have been included in this conversation.

    A combination of the above could present everyone with a win-win option, not to mention there might be other funds available if any of these were pursued. I wonder if the community has reached out to suggest a plan B. If Sonny might be unstoppable, he might be steerable. Just saying.

    Bill

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    1. Thank you for your interesting post. Several of us met with Sonny. We raised the option of working with Empire State. He said that they had already pursued that without success. As I noted in an earlier blog, Sonny was quite charming. He did however make it pretty clear that he wanted to move forward with this project and that the other options were not realistic in terms of the structure of the building, the economics of making it work, and the need to resolve the issue.

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  2. John-

    That’s a pity. I had a conversation last year with someone at ESC who said that they had always hoped to be able to use space at Moore Hall. SPAC rented rooms from Skidmore for $200+/week for the Bolshoi and more when they were in town, Opera Saratoga is so priced out of Saratoga that they house everyone in Troy, and the Orchard Project rented our old place for about $900/bedroom (it is a four bedroom place that our friends now own). So there really is a market to keep non-car owners around, whether Sonny has done the research or not!

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