[From left to right: Franck, Madigan, Yepsen, Scirocco, Mathiesen]
[City Assistant Attorney, Tony Izzo]
[Council Members “inspect” site]
[Community Turns Out In Force and Addresses Council]
The City Council convened the meeting at the Empire State College auditorium on Saturday morning to hear neighbor’s concerns about Sonny Bonacio’s plans to re-purpose Moore Hall. After the pledge of allegiance, it was announced that Council members would be leaving to visit the Moore Hall site and that the people attending the meeting could not join them because only the Council had permission to go onto the site. This was unfortunate because there are many problems with the site that a number of particularly well informed members of the audience could have pointed out to them.
When the Council members returned, the Mayor explained that the meeting would follow the normal procedures. The attendees would be allowed two minutes each to address the council. Assistant City Attorney Tony Izzo then explained that the land use boards were independent bodies created by the Council. He noted that the Council could dissolve these bodies but the City Council cannot use its authority to dictate to these boards. In answer to a question, he acknowledged that there was precedent for a City Council to sue its own boards to overturn a decision.
Over the next forty minutes many spoke to the Council. It was really a rather Jimmy Stewart “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” experience. Every speaker expressed their concerns thoughtfully and with dignity and sincerity.
This blog has already gone through the issues that concern the neighbors about this development so I will not repeat them. What was important at this meeting was that the attendees fully understood that the Council could not overrule the Zoning Board of Appeals. What the Council was asked to do by a number of speakers was to use its status as the elected representatives of this city to urge the ZBA not to grant the waivers on the basis of the arguments put forth at the meeting.
Before going over the statements made by the Council following the public comment period, a little history is in order. Apparently on Friday (the day before this meeting) the City Attorney who works under the Mayor contacted members of the Council advising them that they should refrain from making statements at the neighborhood meeting about the Moore Hall proposal because of potential litigation that might follow a ZBA decision.
The timing of this advice seems rather odd. Commissioner Mathiesen had discussed having this meeting in the neighborhood at the Council agenda meeting last Monday and at the Tuesday night City Council meeting. Concerns about the degree to which the Council could comment at the neighborhood meeting never arose. Commissioner Mathiesen discussed reservations he had about the Moore Hall Project at both Council meetings and nothing was said about the risk the city might face by him expressing his opinions. In fact, in light of the many controversies, especially over land use issues, commonly discussed at Council meetings this seems especially odd. It was fully assumed that the Council would not only hear from the neighbors but would engage in a discussion about the Moore hall proposal at Saturday’s meeting. If the Council would in effect have a gag rule imposed then everyone deserved to know this prior to attending the event.
As it turned out, the Council did discuss the project. I think their willingness to enter into a discussion can be understood by a comment by Commissioner Madigan when she said “I never expected to see this many people at this meeting.” Given the size of the crowd and the substance of their many comments, it would have been hard to imagine Mayor Yepsen being able to credibly simply thank people for coming and close the meeting.
What They Said
Mayor Yepsen made one significant admission. She agreed that the proposed units cannot be characterized as “affordable housing.”
In an interesting development, she reported that the planning office (in response to correspondence from the neighborhood group) is now requiring the applicant to secure yet a third variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals having to do with the many problems with their plan for the parking lot.
Other than that she said nothing to acknowledge that she had any specific problems with the project only noting that there were “may things to look into.” Mainly she congratulated the attendees for coming out and she spoke about her plans to bring affordable housing to the city.
Commissioner Franck recalled that he was on the City Council when it approved the change in the zoning for the parcel in 2006. He said that his support had been primarily motivated by the applicant’s promise to remove the Pink Palace from the site. He said he had been quite skeptical about the financial viability of the original proposal. The significant issue here is that it confirmed that the approval of the zoning change was based on the assumption that Moore Hall would be demolished.
Commissioner Scirocco was refreshing in that he made clear that he thought the project was inappropriate and he shared the neighbors’ concerns. He said that while the Council could not require the ZBA to deny the project that he would communicate his concerns to them. He received a warm round of applause.
Commissioner Madigan praised the crowd for their attendance and for their thoughtful remarks. She reminded the crowd that they needed to bring their concerns to the ZBA. She made no reference to any specific problems with the project.
Commissioner Mathiesen noted that the Council had no authority over the Zoning Board of Appeals. He discussed the challenges that would attend the cost of demolition. He noted that he had serious concerns about many aspects of the project.
Originally, I held little hope that the Zoning Board of Appeals would deny the variances being requested by Sonny Bonacio. After all, the ZBA is dominated by the real estate industry. I feel cautiously hopeful now. The combination of the clearly demonstrated broad opposition to the project, the very poor job the applicant has done in the design for the project, the extreme scale of the variances they are asking for, and the great job done by members of the community to research and document the flaws in the project, has created an overall case that makes it very hard for even the ZBA to approve this proposal.