[Note that they did not show the very large parking lot for the project]
At Tuesday night’s City Council meeting Saratoga Hospital did an update of its proposal to build doctors’ offices behind Birch Run. Procedurally it was a continuation of the public hearing regarding their application to rezone the property from residential to institutional.
This is a link to the presentation here. The presentation starts at 2:20.
Their attorney, Matt Jones, presented a revised plan that involved a very modest downsizing of the project. The hospital had intended to build an initial structure and then add to it at a later date. The original structure was to be 75,000 square feet. The second phase was to bring the total to 88,500 square feet. Mr. Jones told the Council that the hospital had dropped plans for the expansion. There is a formula for how many parking spaces are required based on the square footage of this kind of project so the number of spaces was also very modestly reduced from approximately 300 cars to approximately 275 cars (this number included the potential bonus that the Planning Board can award).
The CEO of the hospital, Angelo Carbone, spoke to the Council about the critical need for office space for the doctors who will be associated with the hospital. He argued that they had settled on this site primarily for its proximity to the hospital because a prime concern was being close enough so that the doctors could walk from their offices to the hospital.
He noted that they had been quite aware of the resistance that this new building would generate and following the release of their plans they had been in regular communication with the affected neighborhood and were trying to address the neighbors’ concerns.
This last point was of particular interest to me. The new Comprehensive Plan includes changing the area in question from residential to institutional. The thing that I had been wondering about is how was this change incorporated into the city’s Comprehensive Plan without major controversy?
To put this in context imagine how you would feel if you had purchased a home in residential area with green space adjacent to it. You knew that the green space was zoned for residential so you expected that the lovely fields behind your home would someday have homes on them. Then one day you learned that the local hospital planned to build a major facility right by your home with a parking lot with two hundred and seventy-five spaces. There would be bright security lighting. There would be additional traffic. Of course, there would also be an enormous facility where the fields you had enjoyed had been.
One of the clearest presentations of the neighbors’ concerns was by Jennifer Leidig. You can find her comments here at 36:30.
How then to explain the fact that the incorporation of this change in the city’s Comprehensive Plan had somehow escaped you and the rest of the public’s attention?
The Comprehensive Plan had a torturous life. Scott Johnson had appointed half of its members. Among them were Charles Waite (president of Adirondack Trust), Sonny Bonacio (developer), and Todd Shimkus (Chamber of Commerce). The division in the make up of the committee was most evident in the divide over the issue of development in the city’s green belt. Agreement on this issue was basically impossible. It produced a rancorous process. The city had originally hired a consultant to work with the committee who appeared to use her position whenever possible to promote the development community’s interests. Those of you who have sat through these kinds of meetings are familiar with this kind of scenario.
On November 17, 2014, the committee held it’s second to last meeting. This was the last meeting at which any business was actually transacted. As it happens, this was the meeting in which Kevin Ronayne, VP for operations/facilities at Saratoga Hospital spoke to the committee during the public comment period regarding the hospital’s expansion plans. Bear in mind that this committee had been meeting for many, many months.
Strangely, there are no minutes for this meeting. I have laboriously scanned through the video but I could find no discussion of whether the area should be designated institutional. In fact, I could find no specific vote on this.
It is possible that at a previous meeting this issue was discussed. One of the people who served on the committee thinks there was some kind of discussion at some point of revising a map that authorized the change.
What is indisputable is that if there was any discussion it did not explore the gravity of the proposed change nor was there any input from the residents of the neighborhood that would be affected by this new land use designation. Whether or not you agree that the hospital should be allowed to build its facility there was something terribly wrong that this very controversial change could be slipped into the Comprehensive Plan without a public discussion of the issue.
I spoke to Matt Jones about what the hospital was planning in terms of visually buffering the project. He indicated that the hospital was planning to build a large berm and placing trees on it. I asked if this would totally hide the proposed building. He said it would.
As an interesting historical note, the land in question was part of Gideon Putnam’s original farm.