Skip Scirocco Proposes Theater District

That Jenny Grey!  The Saratogian might be in better shape today if they had hired her ten years ago and given her the freedom to write long and thoughtful stories.

This is a story about a proposal by Commissioner Scirocco to create a theater district between the City Center parking structure and Lake Avenue.

Theater District 1


Public Works commissioner proposes a High Rock theater district

By Jennie Grey, The Saratogian

Posted: 04/10/16, 1:00 AM EDT |

The theater district plan would construct another such building on High Rock Avenue. Image provided

SARATOGA SPRINGS >> While the City Center’s parking project advances, the city council continues to think about the rest of the High Rock parcel; and now Public Works Commissioner Anthony “Skip” Scirocco has presented his dramatic vision for that key part of downtown. He proposes creating a theater district.

“The time is now to give back the city a beautiful part of its history; something for future generations,” he said while presenting to the council April 5. “The creation of a vibrant theater district will spur economic activity downtown, create jobs, raise tax revenues, and be a substantial boost to our arts community and the quality of life for our residents.”

He later explained where the idea had come from.

“I like theater, but I don’t go very often,” he said. “Mostly I’ve seen high school plays. I’ve never actually been to a Broadway show. So this plan is just something I think would be good for the city. It’s not because I have a personal theatrical agenda.”

Scirocco had met with Assistant City Engineer Deborah LaBreche to discuss possibilities for the remainder of the High Rock lot.

“We thought, ‘What don’t we have here in the city?’” he said. “And then the light bulb went on.”

Although a popular destination for the arts both back in Victorian times and now, Saratoga Springs presently lacks a year-’round live theater venue downtown. Scirocco and LaBreche considered the idea of building a city theater, to be run by a professional theater company, on the part of the High Rock parcel nearest Lake Avenue. A small park bordered by mixed-use buildings would take up the central part of the lot.

“We want this to be new, innovative and modern,” Scirocco said. “But we want to keep the historic connection, too. The city is so well-suited to this idea, being a community of the arts.”

Back in the day, entertainment and horse racing made the city a tourist destination. Only a few steps from the train station, visitors could find everything from side shows to serious world-class operas. The Leland Opera House, a grand theater that could seat 1,600, was erected on the parklike grounds behind the Grand Union Hotel. Both buildings are long gone now.

But vibrant cities invest in their theaters, Scirocco said. Nationally, theater is a $135.2 billion industry that supports 4.1 million jobs and generates $22.3 billion in government revenue. Attendees spend $24.60 per person beyond admission during a visit to the theater. And theaters are resilient even in tough economic times.

“So many historic theaters are being brought back, complete with today’s technologies, by enthusiastic developers, supportive communities, skilled architects and craftspeople,” he said.

His presentation showed such renovated theaters returned to their former splendor in Brooklyn, Massachusetts and North Carolina.

Of course Saratoga Springs does have several theatrical venues at present, some of them likewise being renovated, such as Universal Preservation Hall (UPH).

“I think over the years, the UPH has done a great job and should be commended for what’s been done,” Scirocco said.

The Music Hall on the top floor of City Hall may soon be taken for much-needed additional City Hall space, likely for the courts.

The other existing Saratoga theaters are Saratoga Performing Arts Center, the Spa Little Theater, the Museum of Dance Riggi Theater and Café Lena.

Scirocco cited data saying that competing theaters benefit one another. The 40 Broadway theaters in Manhattan’s theater district continue to flourish.

“I think the UPH and a new theater could both be successful and work well together,” he said.

Some benefits of a High Rock theater district would include extending Broadway show business from New York City north to Saratoga Springs; providing a year-’round economic powerhouse; offering high-quality space in which local and out-of-town troupes can perform; generating revenue for the proposed parking on High Rock Avenue via theater patrons; increasing business for hotels, shops, restaurants and the local theater community; and building a classically and elegantly design theater building to showcase the city’s history and create a sense of community pride.

Looking at the mixed-use Winston-Salem theater district in North Carolina, Scirocco summed up the pieces that would already be in place for a similar High Rock theater district: the City Center with its convention-goers, paid parking in the planned facility, and plenty of nearby hotels and restaurants.

“The theater district could be proposed as a mixed-use plan for condominiums, retail and artist rental lofts associated with the new theater,” he said. “Green roofs could be included, and the theater courtyard could include green space for a park.”

Mixed use is a phrase much associated with the designs that came in from the High Rock requests for proposals. Generally, the community-minded design includes retail on the ground floor, with office space above that and housing at the highest level.

Bill Dake, the owner of Stewart’s Shops, commented on the current state of mixed-use development during a public hearing at the latest city council meeting.

“Mixed use doesn’t work,” he said. “Look at all the unleased space in Ellsworth Commons in Malta and here in Saratoga on Weibel Avenue.”

The face of retail is changing, he said. Consumers buy more merchandise online. Retailers therefore need less storefront, so those shop spaces go unleased. Developers then have to raise the rents on the apartments above, putting them out of reach for many people. The developers say they can’t afford to build affordable or low-income housing. So a whole mixed-use building can sit empty.

Scirocco tried, therefore, to think of different angles for mixed use, like the artists’ lofts.

“When we’d laid out the plan, we couldn’t find any negatives, only positives,” he said. “I think the city is hungry for a theater district. I am really excited about this.”

The next step would be to do a request for proposal to find a consultant who would then do a market analysis. Think of this as intermission.


13 thoughts on “Skip Scirocco Proposes Theater District”

  1. Is it an ethical violation for the Commissioner of Public Works to have had this idea in mind but to have kept it secret until after all the discussion and the Council vote on the City Center parking garage? During the controversy about what should go on that site, he never mentioned this possibility, even while the Council was debating the two proposals that resulted from the RFP. The public needed to know that this idea was at least partly behind his support of a single-purpose garage. Shame.

    In addition, to have a state of the art theater that could host legitimate touring companies and even a home-grown company would cost an enormous amount. Where is it going to come from? And a building that can host such productions will need to be much larger than the Leland Opera House pictured in the Saratogian. It will need towers in order to house scenery & lighting, for example, and backstage space for props, as well as a lobby, dressing rooms, restrooms, cloakrooms, reception rooms, and so on. It would really need to be a big building, out of keeping with the site. The kind of facilities a theater like the Leland had would certainly be inadequate, so we should not be deluded that we would wind up with a charming Victorian-style structure. (And personally I would hate to see us keep up this pseudo-Victorian charade. It’s really time we had some 21st century buildings in Saratoga.)

    And to be honest, how is a theater in Saratoga Springs going to compete with theaters like Proctors, the Palace, and the Troy Music Hall, which are drawing on a much larger local population?


  2. Democracy dies in the darkness. The timing of his presentation happened before the lease was even voted on. The optics on this one look very bad.


  3. Does anyone think this would really fly? Good points about who is going to pay for it. This is an election flyer in the making: Skip fights for the arts. Vote for Skip.
    Not to mention, not the best use of the space. Typical politicians.


  4. Why “shame”, Mr. Rogoff? It’s not like Scirocco would personally benefit by his proposal. Whether this flies or not it’s refreshing to have a proposal to look at that is a bit outside the box and not the same old same old retail and condos mixed use formula.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Shame” because Mr. Scirocco clearly had a hidden agenda that he deliberately withheld from public discussion about the site’s potential uses and that clearly influenced his vote on the parking garage. Bringing the idea forward would have permitted a freer and fuller consideration of the garage issue and its pros and cons.


      1. I’ve had the chance to work with Skip on a number of issues. If there is one thing I am sure about, it’s that he does NOT have ‘hidden agendas’. He’s as stand up of a guy as anyone could hope to meet.


      2. well, it is impossible to defend every straw man argument, but to say some massive plan was hidden, is not intellectually honest…this is something in the extreme early stages of development and there isn’t a developed plan to discuss per se. skip said it is a concept with potential usage, for the other part of the lot and to say he was for the lot, based on this and this is why he voted for it, is un-factual…shame.. ;))

        and i must ask?? what exactly is the “Hidden agenda” here…???

        some questions are fair, no doubt, but it deserves a decent conversation and this is something that can go a long way to bring people to saratoga…


  5. I personally don’t really care about this hidden agenda conversation; what troubles me is that this idea is even being floated in the first place. Necessity aside (we already have an overabundance of performing arts space in this region), I just can’t understand why the stewards of our city feel it’s in the best interest of all the taxpayers to 1) keep land off the tax roles; 2) continue proposing more publicly financed projects; and 3) continue to limit growth in the core urban zone. Then in the same breathe there are complaints about taxes being high and businesses failing. It’s no wonder people continue abandoning New York for more pro-growth states.

    The amount of flaws I see in this article are numerous:

    1. This would not be a theater district; it would be a single theater. And one that would operate on an infrequent basis. We’re not in NYC, and we don’t have the population/tourists to support a theater operating on a regular basis (I know we all think Saratoga is the epicenter of the world, but even Broadway theaters can have a hard time filling the house every night). It would be similar to Proctor’s, where traveling shows or one-time events would come by. But, otherwise it would sit dark a majority of the time. I don’t really see a lifeless building in the center of town as a boon.

    2. Along the lines of Proctor’s, I don’t exactly see a theater as having made downtown Schenectady a wonderful place to live and work. Sure, it’s nice – but people aren’t flocking to Schenectady for its theater. Nor are they in Albany or in Cleveland or anywhere else. A theater is a nice-to-have, but it’s not going to be a game changer – just like all the other big public works projects (arenas, stadiums, etc.).

    3. How about a little regional consideration, here? A theater in Saratoga would surely pull business away from Proctor’s, the Palace, Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, etc. AND, why do we need to build something brand new when so many beautiful existing spaces already exist (including UPH in Saratoga, which with a little extra cash could probably be something quite extraordinary – and appropriately sized for a city the size of Saratoga).

    4. Why do we need another park just a couple blocks from beautiful Congress Park? And if the greenbelt is so important in Saratoga Springs, it’ll only ever be a couple miles away. Why not focus on a thriving city center instead of trying to limit development?

    5. I can’t even come close to grasping the hate toward mixed use development and condominiums in Saratoga Springs. I think they’ve been beautifully blended into the urban fabric, and it’s one of the reasons my wife and I chose to move here (we live in a house, but we appreciate all the different buildings). Further, the reason there’s trouble getting some of the retail to succeed is because greater density is needed (more people to buy the stuff they’re selling – not exactly rocket science). More residents + more workers = more customers.

    6. The fact that there was even a comparison to Weibel Ave or Ellsworth Commons is completely laughable; those are completely different locations. I’m not going to go wander around an apartment complex in the middle of a cornfield to drop off my dry cleaning or buy a cup of coffee. Having ground level retail in downtown Saratoga is a completely different game – where people already come to shop, where residents might happen across a new store while out for an evening walk, where tourists enjoy the charm of a walkable environment (not to mention this land is directly across the street from huge new hotels with tons of potential customers).

    7. Last and certainly not least – I love that we’re already trying to find ways to fill the parking garage – the one that’s so desperately needed because of a LACK of parking.


  6. right, they make a theater work in the middle of schenectady, but somehow, not enough people will want to come to saratoga to get this one to work… a city know for the performing arts..

    no one has proposed a publicly funded building, as far as ii know.

    but you’re right, people will decide to go to the rep theater in albany instead,… cause that city is the crown jewel of the area. why come here, when you can wander the lifeless streets of that neighborhood???…the fact that regional consideration has been brought into the conversation, is direct proof of this…we would be the preferred choice, to people who attend these functions, over schenectady and albany.

    it is a good idea, that merits further discussion to see what it would actually take to accomplish…the retail is not succeeding and it begs the question, will making more of it, magically make people shop here, or has the capacity been reached??

    Liked by 1 person



  7. Brian, truer words have note been spoken and they deserve another place:
    “7. Last and certainly not least – I love that we’re already trying to find ways to fill the parking garage – the one that’s so desperately needed because of a LACK of parking.”

    AND, when the City converts to paid parking, those funds have already been spent on the City Center parking garage operating expenses. What, don’t believe me? Check out the feasibility study that $30k NYS tax dollars bought the city center only then to have Mr. Baker say he didn’t like the numbers they came up with, dismissing them and inserting his own. Talk about putting your carts before your horses! geez


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