Businesses, public speak out about City Center lot lease
By Jennie Grey, The Saratogian
Posted: 03/16/16, 4:59 PM EDT
The city council chambers are packed with businesspeople and citizens who want to speak about the City Center parking-structure lease March 15. Photo by Jennie Grey – firstname.lastname@example.org
SARATOGA SPRINGS >> Many residents and business owners attended Tuesday’s city council meeting, and most had an opinion to share at a public hearing about a lease for the City Center’s proposed parking structure on the High Rock lot.
This showed most when Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan and Jennifer Leidig of Seward Street unexpectedly faced off during this public hearing.
Leidig had reviewed a City Center parking study, which had been presented by Michigan-based firm Carl Walker in June 2015. The study had examined parking conditions in a 19-block area bounded by High Rock Avenue and Van Dam Street to the north; Circular Street to the east; Division and Phila streets to the south; and Bolster Lane to the west.
The study found an inventory of 2,608 spaces in this 19-block area. It is based on weekday occupancy surveys conducted between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. on May 7-8, 2014. The study authors increased observed occupancies by 25 percent to account for higher demand during June through September. Carl Walker determined there was a 263-spot deficit of available public parking.
When Leidig began to discuss some of the financial figures in this study, Madigan interrupted her and tried to redirect her to the issues of the lease.
“But these finances are directly tied to the lease,” Leidig protested. “You can’t talk about one without the other.”
She also said her comments were just as on-track as those of many of the other public speakers, who mentioned many different aspects of the parking project, including green space and zoning laws.
The two women spoke back and forth, interrupting one another sharply, for several heated moments before Leidig stepped down.
Madigan said, “Maybe I shouldn’t be sitting here because I’m tired of dealing with you.”
In a later email to the Saratogian, Leidig wrote, “Very clearly, Commissioner Madigan tried to shut me up when discussing paid parking and finances. I’m still kind of shaking from her attack last night; thank goodness I’m not used to being spoken to that way. It was truly a form of censorship.”
Like Leidig, other Saratoga Springs citizens said they were against leasing to a single-use building that didn’t fit their hopes for development in the heart of Spa City. Meanwhile, business owners and residents who live downtown spoke up for the parking structure and its lease.
Madigan described the City Center’s proposal as it now stands. The plan would build a four-and-one-half-story parking structure with 480 spots, meant to create good connections between the High Rock area and downtown. The facility would be built on only a part of the High Rock parcel, leaving the rest for the city to develop.
The parking structure will be paid for by the City Center via bonds. Paid parking will support the project.
The present plan is to lease the northerly portion of the High Rock lot, leaving 93 free surface spaces. The lease is proposed as a 25-year agreement. The City Center would give the city $50,000 annually as a lease payment, plus 50 percent of the net paid-parking revenues after operating costs, debt service and reserves.
“An advisory committee will act as a liaison between the City Center and the city,” Madigan said
Harvey Fox of Caroline Street, the owner of N. Fox Jeweler’s and chair of the Special Assessment District, was the first to take the microphone during the public hearing on the lease. He spoke of the Downtown Parking Task Force, which will present to the city council in early summer.
“I’m in favor of the lease,” he said. ‘The City Center brings in business to Saratoga throughout the year. We’re no longer just the August place to be, but the year-’round place to be.”
Cindy Hollowood, the general manager of the Holiday Inn, also spoke in favor of the lease and in support of the City Center. She said Saratoga’s convention center had added 10 percent occupancy to her hotel’s rates, which had permitted the Holiday Inn to add staff as well.
“Our convention-goers love everything we have to offer in Saratoga,” she said. “We have everything but adequate parking.”
Roger Goldsmith, secretary of the City Center Authority Board of Directors, said, “This parking-structure project will become a catalyst for the infill of the rest of the High Rock parcel.”
Will Pouch, owner of the downtown eatery Esperanto, said a ripple effect from more people parking at the City Center would affect everyone, business-wise.
“And I might be classless and tasteless,” he said, “But the parking-structure drawings looked pretty good to me.”
Steve Sullivan, the owner of the Olde Bryan Inn and Longfellow’s, said the city council needed to be sure to do the right thing.
“Build it, and they will come; but with no parking, they might not come back,” he said.
On the other side of the question, Julie Cuneo, chair of Citizens for High Rock, reminded the council that the High Rock parcel was the last large piece of public property downtown. She urged the council to consider the two designs for it that had come in from requests for proposals (RFP).
“If I sound intent, it’s just passion,” she said. “It’s not disrespect.”
Mark Loughton of Nelson Avenue said the process had been too rushed and too opaque for most people.
Rick Fenton of Leffert Street, a member of Citizens for High Rock and Sustainable Saratoga, said the High Rock RFP Technical Review Committee, which reviewed the two designs, had done an incomplete analysis of the parking situation and the two plans.
Resident Colin Klepetar advised prudence in the parking approach. He wanted the council to consider public transportation and walking as well as vehicular traffic.
“This lease isn’t the best we can do,” he said.
Later in the evening, City Center President Mark Baker presented on the parking structure five-year pro forma. He said the study finances were being misinterpreted.
“We are in a position to do this financially,” he said. “Our finances are available online.”
Bonds would be issued to the City Center Authority, not the city; and the authority would then take on liability, he said.
“Our project has already gone through the land-use boards,” he said. “The business community wants it. The lease is flexible, and part of the parcel is still open for the city to develop as it wishes.”
Yepsen noted that the city council still needed to conclude business with the two developers who responded to the RFP. Madigan said that the High Rock RFP Technical Review Committee had been unable to recommend either of the two designs.
“If people have concerns about the City Center, they can look at our past history and see how well we’ve run their convention center,” Baker said.
The public hearing on the lease will remain open until the next city council meeting.