The public hearing on the lease for the City Center project lasted for some two hours.
The business community turned out in force. This included Bill Dake of Stewarts and Charles Wait of Adirondack Trust along with Joe Dalton who headed the Saratoga Springs Chamber of Commerce for decades and who chairs the City Center Board. A number of longtime downtown small business owners such as John Baker from Gaffney’s and Steve Sullivan of the Old Bryan Inn also spoke at length about the positive impact the City Center has had on their businesses and the health of downtown but also the frustration their customers often expressed at the difficulty finding parking spaces in the downtown area. The need for more convenient parking was also discussed by numerous speakers whose groups have used the City Center for events from everything from Mixed Martial Arts to high school graduations. A representative of the Farmers’ Market spoke in favor of the City Center’s proposal not only in terms of alleviating the parking crunch on market days but in terms of the possibility of the market utilizing the agora part of the parking structure.
Pretty much everyone that spoke either for or against the proposed lease, agreed that the City Center was critical to the health of the downtown and had been a great success. There was also a consensus that parking was a problem for downtown.
The basic arguments of the advocates of the lease were:
- The City Center must operate in an increasingly competitive environment especially with the Albany and Schenectady convention facilities coming on line. In this light, they argued that there was an urgency to get the new parking facility built.
- There is an absolute lack of parking which is hurting the downtown merchants.
- People looking for parking spaces resulted in greater downtown traffic congestion.
- To successfully attract conventions it was critical that parking be integrated into the City Center to make it more convenient for the attendees.
- The financial plan for funding the new facility was sound.
- The city liability was protected by the stipulations in the lease agreement.
- The High Rock Lot RFP Technical Review Committee that had reviewed the RFP responses had unanimously found the proposals received by the city for a mixed use project were both inadequate.
- The proponents pointed out that the City Center proposal had been discussed for three years rejecting arguments that it was being rushed through.
- The proponents argued that the parking facility was being built without any money from the City Of Saratoga Springs government. Moneys to offset potential losses during the first years would be paid for out of the current dedicated hotel room tax part of which goes to the City Center.
- They pointed out the high quality maintenance of the City Center and asserted that the same quality maintenance would be afforded the parking facility which also have a number of security features including staffing unlike the other parking structures in town.
Members of Citizens for High Rock such as Julie Cuneo, Rick Fenton, and Mark Lawton along with the owners of the Mouzon House, as well as Harry Moran from Sustainable Saratoga were among those who spoke against the lease proposal .
The basic arguments of the opponents were:
- A central point of the opponents was that limiting the development by building a stand-alone parking structure underutilized a uniquely important city owned parcel.
- They believed that the city had failed to work effectively with the responders to the RFP.
- They believed that the responses to the RFP were strong and should have been pursued.
- They rejected the urgency that had been asserted by the proponents and argued that the city needed to take the time necessary to carefully pursue these alternate proposals.
- Some argued that it was unclear whether or not there was a lack of parking in the sense that the city needed to develop a comprehensive parking plan before deciding on building another parking facility.
- The finances for the City Center project were dubious.
- a. They claimed that the parking study done by the City Center proved that the proposed facility would lose money.
- b. In light of the fact that the lease was twenty-five years, they asserted the city would end up owning a parking facility that would lose money and be in poor shape.
After more than two hours the public hearing was closed. After a short break, a presentation by Commissioner Scirocco on the idea of creating a downtown theatre district, and a unanimous vote for Nicholas’ Law, the Mayor moved Commissioner Madigan’s lease proposal up on the agenda.
Michele Madigan moved and Chris Mathiesen seconded that the Council instruct the Mayor to sign the lease with the City Center.
Commissioners Madigan, Mathiesen, and Scirocco supported the resolution and made the points noted above in the discussion that followed.
Commissioner Franck opposed the project on two grounds. His first was that he questioned whether the city was getting its “fair market” value for the lease. To address this, Vince DeLeonardis was asked to come to the microphone. The discussion was a bit confusing because the “fair market” value had two dimensions. One was a legal issue and the other was a monetary issue.
Commissioner Franck asserted that a payment of $50,000.00 a year was woefully low given the value of the parcel which had been appraised at 2.6 million dollars. Commissioner Franck, who is a certified accountant and appraiser, then offered an analysis based on the projected twenty-five year lease arguing that the numbers showed the payments were inadequate. Mr. DeLeonardis then responded that Mr. Franck was not taking into account the value of the improvements that the City Center would be making to the property. He noted that the projected cost of the parking facility was $9,000,000.00 and that at the end of the lease the city would own the facility as well as the land. Commissioner Franck dismissed the idea that the building would be worth anything after twenty-five years.
Mr. Franck went on to admit that the parking structure did have a public value, though, and that, not being an attorney, he could not really offer an informed decision on how legally the value would be defined. He argued strenuously that running the numbers (assuming that the facility would be of little value in twenty-five years) the city would fail to realize the value of the land were it to agree to the lease. Other Council members joined in a lengthy discussion about the value of a portion of the lot versus the lot as a whole.
Franck also argued that it was inappropriate to decide the lease before resolving the status of the outstanding proposals for the RFP.
The Mayor basically held that the city would be better served by pursuing the mixed use option as reflected in the RFP responses. She further questioned the need for a parking facility at all before the city could develop a comprehensive parking plan.
It was approximately 10:00 pm, some three hours after the start of the public hearing, when the Council voted on the lease. It passed three to two with Commissioner Franck and the Mayor voting no, Commissioners Madigan, Mathiesen, and Scirocco voting to approve the lease.
Mayor Yepsen had, as an item on her agenda, a discussion of what to do about the outstanding RFP responses. It was after 11:00 pm when this item came up. The discussion was rambling and strange. It perhaps reflected the late hour and the fatigue of the Council members. Mayor Yepsen described the history of the responses to the RFP and then stated (3:18 in part 2 of 2 of the Mayor’s agenda in the video of the meeting) that city should “put out new revised proposals.” Commissioner Scirocco then, in exasperation, asked why the city having just agreed to lease a major part of the parcel, would solicit proposals. Commissioner Madigan then asked to introduce a resolution to reject the RFP responses to bring closure. Commissioner Franck argued that since the RFP’s had come out of the Mayor’s office that she should be the one to introduce such a resolution. The Mayor then asserted that she would not take action on the RFP proposals at the current meeting. Commissioners Mathiesen, Scirocco, and Madigan argued that there appeared to be no reason to take up more time on the proposals since they were based on developing the entire lot which was no longer available. The Mayor refused to entertain a motion under her agenda.
Commissioner Madigan’s agenda arrived after eleven thirty. She told the Council she would like to have a vote on rejecting the outstanding RFP proposals. In order to add this item to her agenda she needed a motion. Commissioners Madigan, Mathiesen, and Scirocco voted to allow the motion to be made and Mayor Yepsen and Commissioner Franck opposed it. Madigan then moved to reject the RFP proposals and Mathiesen seconded it. Not surprisingly, there was virtually no discussion and it passed. Interestingly John Franck joined Madigan, Mathiesen, and Scirocco in rejecting the proposals. Mayor Yepsen was the lone vote against.