Zoning Board Of Appeals: Inappropriate contact with an applicant? You must be kidding.

Land Use Board members are barred by law from entering into conversations with applicants regarding proposals before them outside of the formal meeting venue.  This is called an ex parte contact.

At Monday night’s ZBA meeting Gary Hasbouck responded to the issue of his being seen having drinks with Michael Toohey and Sonny Bonacio immediately following a ZBA meeting where their Moore Hall proposal was before the Board.  Mr. Hasbrouck alleged that he just happened to run into Toohey and Bonacio at a bar immediately following the meeting on their application and that he simply said hello and exchanged pleasantries.  He said that he never discussed the application with Bonacio and Toohey.  He told the rest of the Board and the public that he saw no reason to recuse himself.

Following Hasbouck’s statement, Keith Kaplan, another Board member,  made note that he had been at the History Museum fundraiser and ran into Sonny there and chatted with him.  He entered into the record that they did not discuss the application.  Other members of the Board made similar statements about being at public events and encountering Sonny.

When the meeting was over, Michael Toohey announced that he would be going to a particular bar and advised the members of the Board not to go there.  This was meant to be funny and he got laughter from some of the Board members.

These are just more examples of the flagrant contempt displayed by many of the members of our land use boards.

To begin with, it is obviously poor judgment to be seen socializing with an applicant following a meeting where their proposal is being considered.  Mr. Hasbouck was seen having a drink with the applicant.  It was not a drive by hello.  We will never know whether he discussed the application with Mr. Bonacio and Mr. Toohey.  We have only his word for it.  Bear in mind that early on Mr. Hasbouck had made statements at the meetings that showed he was solidly in Mr. Bonacio’s corner.  Most of us would be embarrassed about creating the public appearance of impropriety. It’s too bad he didn’t  have the good grace to indicate that he could at least understand why people opposing the project would be disturbed by this.

It is obvious that Hasbouck’s meeting with applicants in a bar  is very different from encountering an applicant at a public event.  Clearly it would be very difficult to have an inappropriate conversation in a situation such as a public fundraiser where other parties could either overhear you or could easily join the conversation.    The “confessions” of the other Board members  seemed to be an attempt to denigrate the criticism of Mr. Hasbouck.

Mr. Toohey’s “joke” was particularly in bad taste and had a certain silly macho quality.

Along the same lines, a member of the audience attempted to advise the board that there was a problem with the live web feed at Monday night’s meeting.  This person had been contacted by text message of the problem.  The response by one of the members of the board was to interrupt her and actually shout at her that she could not speak.  She persisted and they finally acknowledged her.  William Moore, who is chair of the Board, simply dismissed the problem.  In a tone reminiscent of “whatever” he said it was being recorded.  He meant that people could access it later.  One would have expected the chair to halt the meeting momentarily to try to determine if something could be done.  When it comes to the public, Mr. Moore just does not do “nice” well.  His attempt to limit the lawyer representing the Moore Hall neighbors to a two minute comment after Mr. Toohey had been afforded an open ended amount of time to present his case for the applicant  is particularly memorable.  Mr. Moore makes his living doing appraisals for the real estate industry.

All of this is just another example of how broken our Land Use Boards are.  It is not that there are no fair and gracious members of these Boards.  There most certainly are.  Unfortunately, though, a majority  of our Land Use  Boards’ members  are representatives of  real estate interests who are used to helping their friends out without the irritating habit of community members interfering.


United Neighbors Victorious: Moore Hall To Come Down

What a fantastic victory!

Briefly, Bonacio Construction and Norstar Development tonight asked that the Zoning Board of Appeals put their conversion proposal for Moore Hall aside and consider a radically new one.  They did a presentation of a very rough plan to tear down Moore Hall and replace it with a series of structures that will house twenty-eight condos with all of the required parking on site, almost all or it  underground (two spaces will be above ground).  The condos will be priced to sell for under $700,000.00.

The exciting thing here is really the extraordinary spirit, energy, and organization of the many people who devoted their time and skills to oppose this project.  This was a classic example of “people power” :   the signs throughout the Southeast sector of the city, the petitions, the research on the problems with the project, the publicity to get the word out, and the poise and dignity of the many speakers who attended the Zoning Board of Appeals meetings and the special City Council meeting.

To Sonny’s credit, he told the audience that he had run into opposition to every project he had worked on but he had never experienced the opposition he faced with his plans for Moore Hall.

So let me gloat for a few lines at Sonny Bonacio’s expense.  I do so with a certain good humor.  Sonny is a man of extraordinary charm.  He never seems threatened and his enthusiasm for his projects is to be admired.  Still let’s remember the narrative that appears to have evaporated:

  1. It is simply too expensive to take down Moore Hall.
  2. The only way to make the development of this parcel work is to put 53 mini units in the old dorm.
  3. If this project is turned down, this decaying building will be a liability to the community forever.

Well, miracles will never cease.  It is now possible to take down Moore Hall and to build twenty-eight condos.

This should also be a cautionary tale to all the people who accepted this narrative and told the neighbors that they would have to live with the plan to paint the pink palace brown,  cram it with “micro” apartments, and deal with all the accompanying  parking and traffic problems.

I will write more about this in a posting later this week.


Commissioner Mathiesen Addresses ZBA On Moore Hall

Commissioner Chris Mathiesen submitted the comment below to the Zoning Board of Appeals opposing the current proposal by Bonacio Construction for Moore Hall.

At the community meeting Skip Scirocco spoke in opposition of the proposal and said he would be notifying the ZBA.  I do not know whether he sent them comments.

To the Saratoga Springs ZBA,

Let me first acknowledge that I have the upmost respect for and understanding of the independent status of the Zoning Board of Appeals.  The ZBA carries out a vital role in our City.  As a member of the City Council, I have no right to interfere with the decision-making process of the ZBA. As one of only five individuals who are duly elected to represent our citizens, I do have an obligation to listen to their concerns.  I also have a right and, sometimes an obligation, to provide feedback to City government regarding issues that may have serious immediate or long-term neighborhood or City-wide impact. I have been contacted by a number of our citizens who have had concerns about the Bonacio Construction Co. proposal to re-develop Moore Hall.  On Saturday, Dec. 5, I and the other four members of the Council had the opportunity to meet with citizens during a special Council meeting that was held at Empire State College on Union Avenue.  We also were given permission to walk the Moore Hall site.  Unfortunately, the Bonacio Construction Co. chose not to send a representative and so much of what we learned about the project has been provided indirectly. From what I have been told, the proposal to re-develop Moore Hall would require approval by the ZBA for Area Variances seeking relief from minimum lot size and minimum on site parking requirements.  The Bonacio Construction Co. is also proposing that parking be allowed in setbacks.  The parking would be provided in existing lots that abut White St., along the alley behind the main building and along an access driveway the would be constructed from a new curb-cut on Union Avenue.   Neighbors are concerned primarily about the density of the residential use and the parking impacts on the neighborhoods.  I may be mistaken but I believe that, in the past, area variances that sought increases in residential use such as this would be considered as Use Variances since the relief sought is not merely dimensional but actually having to do with a density of use.  This apparently is no longer the case but I do think that it does point out the importance of giving very serious consideration to neighborhood impacts when considering residential density of use. As the Board considers the Moore Hall application, it must give consideration to all five factors including: 1. Whether an undesirable change will be produced in the character of the neighborhood….   In this case, it is hard to imaging how an application which is so short of the 1.5 parking spaces per unit standard would not have an impact on the neighboring streets. 2. Whether the benefit sought can be achieved by some method feasible for the applicant to pursue…   According to what we have been told, the applicant plans to leave in place all the one story auxiliary buildings on the property including the cafeteria.  It is my opinion that removing those buildings could solve a number of problems with this project.  Demolishing all those buildings, leaving only the multi-story main building, and gutting the ground floor of the main building so that it could be used for parking under Moore Hall rather than as residential units would significantly increase the on-site parking possibilities and would reduce the number of residential uses on the property. 3. Whether the requested variance is substantial.  Both the relief from on-site parking requirements and residential density limits are very substantial.  Given the significant density of use request, it would seem to be particularly important to mitigate the on-site parking deficiencies. 4. Whether the variances will have an adverse impact on physical or environmental conditions in the neighborhood…   There is much to consider with this standard.  On the one hand, there is parking and traffic.  On the other hand, developing this parcel would solve a long-standing neighborhood problem.  As the building continues to deteriorate and be vacant, the negative impact on the neighborhood is only heightened. 5. Self created.  The conditions on the Moore Hall property pre-date this application as well as the applicants.  This is truly not self created.  Mr. Bonacio should be given credit for even considering this project.  It is very challenging.  It is my opinion that, with mitigation of the neighborhood impacts with an increase in on-site parking and a reduction of residential units as I described above, the re-development of Moore Hall could represent an improvement for the neighborhood and have a positive impact on the City as a whole and on the availability of relatively moderate cost residential units. Chris Mathiesen Commissioner of Public Safety

Moore Hall Is On The Agenda Of ZBA

A heads up to the public.  The Zoning Board of Appeals will probably decide on Moore Hall at the ZBA meeting which starts at 7:00 PM.

Will Hasbrouk recuse himself for having gone drinking with Sonny Bonacio and Michael Toohey following the ZBA meeting at which Moore Hall was proposed?

Will Sonny Bonacio succeed in getting his proposal approved by a jury (board) of his peers (fellow members of the real estate/construction industry)?

Will the fact that hundreds of people have signed petitions opposing the project and the fact that the project has been shoddily designed and would abuse the concept of variances make a difference?

Visit my site late tomorrow night to find out.

The High Rock Multi-Use Proposals: Fatally Flawed

ProposedBuildingsI contacted an old friend who is an experienced developer to try to better understand the proposals submitted in response to  the RFP for the city’s High Rock Parking Lot Redevelopment.

I have struggled through both proposals and watched the videos of their presentations.   What struck me most about the proposals were the many unanswered questions and assumptions.

My friend explained to me that there are a number of problems with responding to RFP’s such as those issued by Saratoga Springs.  Foremost is the cost.  Basically developers are acutely aware that the chances of being selected and of then reaching an actual agreement are quite low.  It is hard to rationalize spending a lot of time and money on RFPs.  So respondents come up with some ideas and try to package them into a credible document that can get them “in the door.”  Once they have been selected and have a firm agreement they begin the real work.

He noted that there is a very wide range of character in the developers who pursue these agreements.  Some produce proposals that they honestly believe can be done and are committed to achieve as much as possible.  Others produce proposals that are purely meant to appeal to the fantasies of the municipal organizations issuing the RFPs.   This end of the spectrum expects that the municipality will in the end accept a shadow of what was promised.  The fact is that it is rare that what is proposed does not end up significantly modified and in most cases significantly downsized.

Many factors will contribute to the modifications.  When a full market study is actually done to find out the demand for something like commercial or retail space, it may turn out that there is less demand than initially assumed.  Actual engineering may expose serious problems with the site of the project.  The level of available financing may turn out to be far less than anticipated.  A particular, large tenant may decline to go through with purchasing or leasing space.

Sequence Development is one of the two companies responding to Saratoga Springs’ RFP for the High Rock Parking Lot Redevelopment.  Recently Sequence Development was awarded the redevelopment rights for 1 Monument Square, the land on the Hudson River where the Troy City Hall once stood.  This project has experienced major problems.  An article from the October 9th edition of the Albany Business Review tells the basic story( Link To Business Review Article) .  Reporter Michael Demasi characterizes the project as having been “repeatedly delayed and redesigned.” The article goes on to note “The comments at the IDA meeting laid bare the challenges the development team faces as it seeks an unspecified amount of tax breaks critical to financing the project.”The full article is well worth the read.

In the July 21st Times Union, reporter Ken Crowe wrote, “ The 1 Monument Square project is being redesigned again as architects, business owners and residents question whether the proposed redevelopment plans are right for the city. The design and appearance of the mixed-use building, the Troy Waterfront Farmers Market inclusion in the structure, the use of public funds, lack of a public parking garage and the closing of Front Street were among the issues raised at the Planning Commission meeting Tuesday night.”Further in the article he writes, “Evan Doublas, dean of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute School of Architecture, said there’s a ‘communal sense of disappointment’ over the failure to redevelop the former 1.5-acre City Hall site between River Street and the Hudson River, and that the current proposal [Sequence’s] ‘is not worthy of Troy.’”  Link To Times Union Article


1 Monument Square has apparently already been downsized but even in its current incarnation, it remains to be seen whether it will survive.  Whether this was a case of an overambitious sales pitch or a series of bad luck events, I do not know.  It is, however, a cautionary tale about just how difficult these kinds of large projects can be when developers attempt to deliver on their promises.

There is another factor to consider.  My friend tells me that there is currently a lot of cheap money around in the real estate market.  Investors are finding it difficult to find attractive places to put their money and he tells me developers are benefiting from this.  Is this potentially another bubble?  How much money can a developer make playing with other people’s money?

Saratoga’s RFP: The Parking Issue

The Saratoga Springs RFP calls for a minimum of 600 parking spaces.  “Fundamental to this proposal is the requirement to address the current and envisioned parking demand for the Saratoga Springs City Center, City Hall, existing and proposed nearby activities, in addition to being available to the general public and downtown businesses.”  I have emailed Brad Birge, head of city planning, to ask where the 600 number came from (he never responded).  I checked with Mark Baker and neither of the applicants for this project ever contacted him to determine the needs of the City Center.  As far as I know, they never contacted anyone at the city to determine what the city government’s parking needs are. (They currently park a significant number of cars in the lots).

It is important to note that the parking issue is complicated by the fact that the City Center’s parking needs can radically fluctuate depending upon the events scheduled.  To dedicate a set number of spaces to the City Center would be a very inefficient use of parking spaces.  This represents a challenging design problem.  As far as I can tell, neither of the applicants effectively addressed this issue.  Paramount, one of the two respondents to this RFP, proposes to designate one of three levels of parking to the City Center.  They also say they plan to provide spaces to the City for its vehicles.  The number of spaces for the city is not specified. Sequence Development proposes  592 spaces which is less than the 600 minimum called for in the RFP.

The City Center proposes a facility with 480 spaces all of which are open to the public for paid parking.  In addition, after the facility is built there will still be 91 spaces left on the existing parcel.  This represents 571 spaces.   My guess is that the 600 space minimum may have meant the spaces required for the essential needs of the city before any additional needs are created for whatever else the developer builds.  If Brad Birge ever responds I will post how he came up with the number.  If in fact this is the number of spaces required before adding on any additional needs from the projected additional tenants then the two proposals have woefully under calculated the number of needed parking spaces.

I spoke to a local prominent developer and asked why he had not submitted a proposal for this RFP.  He told me that the parking that would be required to meet the current city needs plus the additional needs of any mixed use development asked for in the RFP, given the size of the parcel, made the project unworkable.

The Proposals

The written proposals and a video of the City Council meeting at which they made their presentation is available on the City’s web site.

Link To Podcast Of Presentations By Developers

[I could not find the link on the new city web site to download the proposals from the two applicants.]

So let’s take a look at the actual proposals and presentations.  Given the length of the documents I fully admit that the summary that follows is really my impressions.

The Sequence Proposal


The table below is from their proposal:


This project, to be charitable, is by their own characterization more concept then actual proposal.  It includes a skeletal set of elements.  The primitive nature of their graphic rendering reflects this.

The following people did the presentation for Sequence:

Jeff Hyman of Hemisphere

Jeff Buell of Sequence Development

Mike Phinney of Phinney Design Group (Oddly enough I could not find him listed in their formal proposal document)

A representative from JCJ Architecture (They never gave her name)

Mike Phinney is part of their “team.”  Mr. Phinney is best known in the city as one of the owners of “The Local,” a restaurant and bar on the city’s West side. In fact, he is one of the principals of the Phinney Design Group which is a “multi-disciplinary Architecture, Interior Design and Green Building Consulting Firm” as described on their web site < Link To Web Site>.  Since he was not identified in their written proposal, I assume he was brought in late because of his local connections.

In his public presentation Phinney characterized their proposal as “conceptual plans” and a “process” but not a final design.  He explained that their team wants to schedule public forums and meetings to get community input.  This would be followed by a Charrette with the “stakeholders.”  All of this is meant to involve the community in order to insure that the end product would reflect what people want.

He went on to list a series of appealing images:

“Open Space/Green Techniques.”

“We can create pocket parks.”

“Pedestrian oriented.”

“Office and Retail Development”

“Parking is an opportunity”

The housing will be” work force.”

At one point he asked a member of the team to share her “sketches of thoughts”.

The proposal contains many, many ideas for how the buildings might incorporate green building including roof top gardens.  It speculates about providing space to the city government.  As should be apparent, the project is full of creative ideas but few specifics.

They indicated their hope to work out some sort of PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) and to potentially help pay for the parking through moneys from the Saratoga County Industrial Development Agency.

He did concretely offer that their plan was for a structure with four levels with 16,400 square feet per level.

Central to their plan in their written proposal was a large space meant for a major employer with from 150 to 300+ employees.  It is interesting to note that earlier in their written proposal they state that their target is a company with 50 to 150 employees.  Apparently there was a need for more rigorous proof reading.  For simplicity sake I am going to assume they will need 150 parking spaces for 150 employees.

They project 106,900 square feet of residential housing.  Their chart (see above) has a column titled “spaces.”  In the row that residential is on they have the number 100.  For the purposes of this analysis I am going to assume that they meant 100 units rather than spaces.  The city requires that there be 1.5 spaces for every unit of housing so they will need 150 parking spaces.

So if we add up the office workers’ needs and the residents needs we get a conservative 300 spaces.

I did a rough Google search on calculating parking for retail space.  According to one site I found, they recommend 6 spaces per 1000 square feet for restaurants and 2 spaces per 1000 feet of “retail-service establishment.”   For simplicity, I estimated that 25% of the retail would be for restaurants.   When you run their projection of 57,800 square feet you get 164 parking spaces.

So I get:                                                                Spaces

Office Employer                                               150

Residences                                                         150

Retail                                                                     164

Total                                                                      464


According to their proposal, they “suspect” that “approximately” 250 of the 592 spaces would serve the proposed office and residences.  They say this will leave 342 spaces for “…the Retail component on site, as well as the Civic Center Government needs, the City Center, and the public at large.”  I am not sure what they meant by “Civic Center Government.”  They probably meant the city government.

I calculate that they are actually left with 128 spaces for the City Center, the municipal government’s needs, and the public.  If this number were even remotely correct, they will fall well short of the parking needed.

Their plan does not include a direct connecting structure between their project and the City Center which was included in the RFP but was not made a requirement.

The proposal has them purchase the land from the city for $2,600,000.00 or about $1,000,000,00 per acre.  The city has not had the land appraised so it is unclear how generous an offer this is.

Reliable sources tell me that their retail space would be one and a third times the size of the current retail space on Broadway.  My uninformed opinion is that this is a stunning amount of additional retail for the downtown.  I feel confident that there have been no marketing surveys to show that the demand exists for this much retail.  I assume that were they to be approved for the project, they would do such a survey.  Were it to turn out that there did not appear to be the demand, this would obviously greatly affect this project.

JCJ Architecture which is part of this project does have an impressive track record of developments they have successfully been involved with.

As noted in the introduction to this post, these proposals cannot be seen as firm commitments.   Still, this proposal seems deeply flawed to me.

Paramount Development Proposal

Paramount’s proposal is a joint effort with Community Builders.  Community Builders has an excellent reputation.

Their plan involves the following:


Interestingly, my sources indicated that the New York State Department of Housing and Community Renewal is very interested in funding housing in Saratoga Springs.  This would suggest that they might find state money for the subsidized elements of this proposal.

In their proposal they project 607 parking spaces.  They would dedicate the top level to the City Center with 259 spaces.  They would allocate 30 spaces for municipal vehicles and employees.  They would allocate 60 spaces for the market-rate and for-sale apartments.  They would allocate 80 spaces for the senior and young family apartments.  Finally, they would allocate 178 spaces for public parking.

The problem here is that the city requires 1.5 parking spaces for each housing unit.  Since the proposal is for 166 housing units this would require 259 parking spaces.  They are proposing only 140 parking spaces for the residences.

They have also not identified the additional parking required by their very ambitious retail plans.

They are planning for a 49,800 square feet of retail.  Using the same calculations for parking related to retail as with the Sequence proposal, I come up with a need for 150 parking spaces.

So the total parking required for this project for just the housing and retail would be approximately 400.  This would leave a balance of 200 spaces for the City Center, the City Government, and the general public.   Assuming that the City Center plan accurately handles the demands for its patrons along with the general public and that the additional parking in the lots is necessary for the public and the city employees and departments, this would result in an enormous short fall.

There also appears to be a fundamental flaw in their engineering analysis.  Their plan requires an underground parking level.  I understood from Mark Baker and from what Tommy McTygue said last spring at the library, that Village Brook which runs under the property, makes this option untenable.  One of the members of the Paramount group told me that their architect had determined from a soil sample that this was a viable option.  He told me that the Hampton Inn had gone down a level.  I checked on the Hampton Inn and found that this was not true.  Since they are planning three levels of parking, this would mean they would lose one third of what they had planned for.  As noted earlier, what they had planned for was inadequate.

My developer friend also told me that underground parking is very expensive to construct and very expensive to maintain.  He told me that his group does everything they can to avoid this.

While this proposal has about ten percent less retail, it still has a great deal of retail.  As with the Sequence proposal, I am skeptical about the viability for scale of retail they are proposing.

Final Thoughts

I am completely sympathetic with the value of a mixed use building that incorporates retail and residential space.  This is axiomatic to the new urbanism.  The problem is that no serious analysis was done about what is viable in the available space assuming that there is a need for a large number of parking spaces.

There were three key issues that needed to be thought through before this RFP was issued.

  1. The first, and it should have been obvious, is what is the value of the parcel?  Before any developer  took the time to prepare a proposal, they should have been told up front what the city wanted either in terms of a lease or a sale price.  If, for example, the land is worth more than the $2.6 million dollars offered by Sequence, then Sequence would have either had to reconsider its proposal in light of how much they had to pay for the land or maybe they would have decided the cost was too great and not answered the RFP.  I simply do not understand how the city could have issued an RFP without doing this basic assessment.  The Mayor has said that an appraisal will be done.  What if the appraisal comes up with a price of more than Sequence is proposing?  Does that void Sequence’s proposal?  I do not know.
  2. The second issue is the lack of clarity regarding parking needs. The  RFP requires a parking component that addresses “the current and envisioned parking demand for the Saratoga Springs City Center, City Hall, existing and proposed nearby activities, in addition to being available to the general public and downtown businesses.” It then states “It is expected that proposals would offer  public parking to serve a minimum of 600 vehicles.”   It is not clear if the figure 600 represents the basic number of spots the city needs.  If it does then the developer would have to create these spaces and then figure on top of that the parking spaces needed for the new commercial and residential space the RFP asks for. The respondents have not done this.  [I noted earlier that a local developer passed on this because he estimated that the parking spaces required to meet existing and new needs within the space allowed was unworkable.  He of course, is a local person who is more familiar with the parking issues in the city.]
  3. How much additional retail/restaurant space can the city handle?  It would be a very serious error to rely on the developers making these proposals to answer this question.  Empty storefronts are something this city needs to avoid!  The city needed to do this analysis before it issued the RFP.

A development of this scale is never going to be easy as I noted at the beginning of this prost.  The debacle that Troy is going through should be a cautionary warning to this community.  To simply go on faith that all the unanswered questions will be answered is simply folly.

The fact is that the rush to get an RFP out was politically driven.  To continue with this folly is to waste staff time and resources.


Moore Hall: Lawyer Magic – Creating Land Out Of Words

Here is an another example of just how much Bonacio Construction and Norstar Development have to push the limits of logic to achieve their goal for Moore Hall.

As people know, the current zoning only allows eighteen units on their parcel and they want to put in fifty-three.

Common sense would suggest that they would ask for a “density” variance .ie increase the density.  The problem is that the zoning allows for bonuses based on providing housing for seniors (50%), providing a recreation resource (20%), or open space (20%).  Their need exceeds these bonuses even if they could provide the required services.  Thus, they cannot ask for an increase in density.

So they are asking for an “area variance.”  They are asking to “virtually (as compared to actually)” expand their parcel so that it will be big enough to hold fifty-three units.  In order to get fifty-three units they would need to expand the existing parcel of land with an additional 102,807 square feet or two and a half acres.  This is three times what the actual parcel is.  So they want the Zoning Board Of Appeals to consider their parcel to be three times what it is so that it can handle the fifty-three units.

To put this in perspective they would need a piece of land two and a half times the size of a regulation football field (48,000 sqf). 

Football Field

How about the size of 21 college basketball courts (50X94)?


How about 36 tennis courts?


Russell Pittenger is the source of these graphics and this analysis.  As Russell Pittenger has pointed out “The zoning code was written to prevent, or at least discourage, the abuses that can result from too much density forced onto too small a site.  Like rats in a trap, the close quarters will exacerbate vehicular/pedestrian conflicts, jeopardize emergency vehicle response time and degrade the quality of life of the neighborhood residents.”


Hospital Expansion: There goes the neighborhood

Hospital Addition

Saratoga Hospital plan draws fire from neighbors

By Dennis Yusko (Times Union) on December 11, 2015 at 4:39 PM

  •  Saratoga Hospital will present its latest expansion plans on Tuesday amid neighbors’ concerns that its proposed medical building for Morgan Street would overwhelm the residential area and lower property values. The project hinges on the City Council authorizing the hospital’s application for a zoning change from urban residential to a planned unit development (PUD). After a handful of residents objected to the project earlier this month, Matthew Jones, an attorney representing the hospital, agreed to provide a 15-minute summary of the project during a public hearing scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday in City Hall. The project is opposed by some members of the Birch Run homeowners’ association, who live nearby and worry the large building will bring unmanageable traffic, flooding and light pollution. “This is just a very, very large project that is taking up one of the last green areas on the west side,” said Dean Higgins, an attorney who is president of the homeowners’ association. “I’m concerned for the whole neighborhood.” Founded on Church Street in 1911, Saratoga Hospital employs 2,200 individuals, and spends $750,000 on 10 leased locations in the area, Jones said. The proposed 53-foot high medical building’s interior would measure 75,000-square-feet, though the PUD amendment seeks 88,500-square-feet as a maximum size, Jones said. The project is the latest in a series of expansions the hospital has proposed.In an interview Friday, Morgan Street resident Jack Despart, who lives directly across from the proposed project site, said he wants the area’s zoning to remain residential. If the hospital develops the Morgan Street lot, it would cut into the value of nearby homes because no one would want to buy property that’s essentially surrounded by hospital facilities, Despart said. The hospital has an option to purchase the Morgan Street parcel from D.A. Collins. The City Council this summer adopted changes to the city’s Comprehensive Plan that allow for a medical office building to be constructed in the area. That led to the Planning Board in October to issue a favorable advisory opinion on the rezoning request to the City Council. The Planning Board also determined the medical building would not have an adverse effect on the environment. If the council approves rezoning the parcel, the project would return to the Planning Board for a site plan vote.
  • “I don’t want to walk out my front door and see a 50-foot building in front of me,” Despart said. “I can hardly get out of my driveway now.”
  • The facility just completed a $33 million extension of its surgical unit on the southwest corner of its Church Street property, and in the last couple of years, built a $30 million emergency center and a $3.6 million orthopedic center. Some homeowners in the area are beginning to feel boxed-in by the activity.
  • Map shows parcel where Saratoga Hospital wants to build an at least 75,000-square-foot medical office building. (Matthew Jones)
  • “This building is necessary for the hospital,” Jones recently told the council. The project is part of the hospital’s effort to increase efficiency and save money by centralizing physicians under one roof that is owned by the hospital, he said.
  • The hospital on Church Street applied to build an 88,500-square-foot medical office building with at least 300 parking spaces on a vacant 8.5-acre site located a few blocks away. The three-story structure would allow doctors and staff that work off-site to relocate into one medical building that is about 200 yards north of the hospital.
  • Rendering of Saratoga Hospital’s proposed medical building for Morgan Street in Saratoga Springs. (Provided by Matthew Jones).

Bob Turner’s Students Seek Help For Survey

Previously I posted the results of the research that Skidmore professor Bob Turner’s students did on this year’s city election.  He has asked me to get the word out that one of his students is doing an additional survey  on political engagement.  For those of us who worry about the current state of politics, anything that encourages the public to think about these issues is to be applauded and supported.  I hope the readers of this blog will take the time to respond to this latest survey.

Hi John,
If you could write a short posting asking your blog readers’ to take my student’s survey, she would be most appreciative. Bob

My student Rachel Thomeer is conducting a short survey on political engagement. Your responses are confidential and the survey should take 2-3 minutes to complete. Please share with your politically engaged Saratoga friends. Thank you for your time.


Mayor Yepsen Steps Up To ZBA Integrity Issue

As noted in an earlier blog Gary Hasbrouk, who sits on the Zoning Board of Appeals, was seen drinking with Sonny Bonacio and attorney Michael Toohey following the meeting in which they had applied to the ZBA for variances for Moore Hall.

A neighbor reports that he spoke to Mayor Yepsen about the issue of Gary  Hasbrouk’s lack of impartiality.  The Mayor told him that the City Attorneys had requested that Mr. Hasbrouk go on the record as to why he should or should not recuse  himself from voting on the Moore Hall variances.  Mayor Yepsen told our neighbor that while she had no authority to mandate that Mr. Hasbrouk abstain from the vote, she felt “adamantly” that he should abstain.


So Exactly What is the Asking Price for Moore Hall?

At the Saturday meeting, members of the City Council worried publically that if the Bonacio proposal for Moore Hall were not approved, the cost of demolishing it could mean that the building would stand indefinitely as a rotting hulk.  This prompted me to wonder just how much has Norstar been asking for the Pink Palace?

The result of my attempt to find out is in the email below that I have sent to the members of the City Council and to the Zoning Board of Appeals:

We know that Norstar Development  paid Skidmore College $1,250,000.00 for Moore Hall.  What we do not know is what price they have been offering to sell it for during the last ten years.  We also are in the dark as to how much Bonacio Construction has offered for the property.

At Saturday’s neighborhood meeting with the City Council a number of commissioners expressed concern that the costs associated with the demolition of Moore Hall might make an alternative to the plan Bonacio was offering prohibitive.  The fear of course, encouraged by Norstar and Bonacio Construction, is that if they are not allowed their variances, Moore Hall will sit idle and deteriorating forever.  Given the fact that nothing has been done to the building in ten years, this narrative has an easy appeal.  Unfortunately, this scenario has never been soberly scrutinized.  As public figures who manage complex offices, the members of the City Council should know better than most the risks of drawing conclusions based on assumptions.

Following Saturday’s meeting I began making inquiries about how much Norstar Development is asking for the Moore Hall parcel.  I was amazed to find that there are no available records stating an asking price.  An internet search produced a resolution by the State University of New York to authorization the purchase the property for about two and a half million dollars back in 2011.  Subsequent searches, however,  failed to reveal why the sale did not go through.

I spoke to several local realtors and asked if the property had ever been listed locally.  The answer was that neither of them had ever seen an offering for it.  Both noted that they follow the local market closely and neither could recall any offering of the property let alone a price.

I then spoke to a friend who is a major developer.  He told me that it would not be offered under a local listing for a variety of reasons.  He told me that the closest thing to a listing for a parcel like Moore Hall would be by one of the national real estate firms that specialize in large, multi-family buildings.  He also had never seen any offering of the property.

He explained that with a building like Moore Hall a developer would use his contacts and his knowledge of the industry to periodically check for interest when the developer felt the market conditions were favorable.

So the reality is that we really do not know what Norstar has been asking for the property.  My friend noted that Moore Hall sits in one of the prime locations in Saratoga Springs making it a very desirable piece of land.  It is not at all unusual in the real estate industry, he told me, for an owner of such a parcel to hold the property for years in light of its potential.   Much depends on what the carrying cost and taxes are.

It is also very important to note that we have no idea what Bonacio Construction has offered Norstar as part of their agreement.

My friend offered the obvious: If Norstar is holding the property and paying the carrying costs and paying the taxes it is because they believe that at some point they can sell it or develop it.  The only way to get an honest sense of if viable alternatives might exist for the property would be to press Norstar on how much they have been asking for the land and to document how rigorously they have marketed it.   Lacking that information any assumptions about the potential for plans other than what Bonacio is offering to do with the parcel are simply blind guesses.

While it is to the developer’s advantage to promote the narrative that Bonacio Constructions proposal is the last hope for development of the property, the process would be better served if the members of the Council refrained from offering credibility to what can only be conjecture.