More Problems With The UDO Process

Maureen Curtin is a real trooper to whom we all owe our appreciation.  For years she has worked to help protect neighborhoods in our city from the pressures to build projects that threaten their character.

The Unified Development Ordinance is an extremely ambitious undertaking that is supposed to incorporate the city’s zoning ordinances, plus design review, and pretty much everything else associated with regulating development into one grand document.

The original contract to develop the UDO , as Maureen notes below, called for a technical advisory committee made up of representatives from the city’s departments, representatives of the land use boards and the city’s planning department to both monitor and contribute to the document’s development.  As Maureen describes, this part of the process has been badly abused.  Instead of having an on-going role, this committee has only recently (after over a year) been created.  Maureen does an excellent job of describing the dubious character of what has emerged.

Most troubling in this UDO process has been the development of something called a “diagnostic” that was supposed to lay out what issues needed to be addressed.  The original document that Behan Planning submitted to the Planning Department was rejected and the Planning Department then rewrote it.

To give you a flavor of what they came up with I will identify a couple of items.  Of particular interest is that these items came out of some mysterious ether.  Comments  that had been submitted and the outcome of the one community event that was held were posted on the UDO website. None of the following items were identified as problems in the public process.

The “diagnostic”  calls for an end to specific footage height limits for structures.  They want to change the height requirements from being measured in feet to floors.  This, they say, is to address the problem of buildings being too uniform in height.  Aesthetically, they think it would be better if there were variations.  Now I am sure, dear reader, that this has been a sore point for you.  You probably are appalled as you walk through the city at the boring uniformity of building heights (my attempt at humor).  Apparently, the drafters of the diagnostic were not concerned about the kind of abuse that some developers might exercise when they design their “floors.”

There is indeed a problem with building heights.  A central theme in today’s urban planning has to do with human scale.  In the case of building heights this has to do with avoiding the canyon effect when a narrow street is wedged between very tall buildings. There is little sunlight and the street is extremely pedestrian unfriendly.  Most planners understand the need for proportionality between the width of the street and sidewalks and the height of the buildings.

Compare Railroad Place with Broadway.  Railroad Place is a poster child for bad streetscapes.  You would think that high on the list of concerns for the “diagnostic” would be this height problem rather than the need for uneven roof lines.

Railroad Place
Broadway Downtown

The diagnostic also wants to dispense with the current minimum lot size in our zoning laws and replace it with some sort of average for some sort of so far undefined “neighborhood.”  Again, no one brought this up as a problem in any of the submitted comments or the community meeting.

Here is  yet another hitherto unknown problem.  There is currently no transitional building height between zoning areas.  At the risk of sounding cynical, where will the transition buildings that will be higher than one zone and lower than the other be built?  Might this be used as a wedge to build large buildings in our neighborhoods adjacent to downtown?

Continuing to sound cranky, I would guess that the development community quietly asserted itself in the crafting of the “diagnostic” by the planning staff.

Here is Maureen Curtin’s email:

February 1, 2017

To: Members of the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) Technical Review Advisory Committee (TRAC)

From: Maureen Curtin, On Behalf of Residential Homeowners and Neighborhoods

Re: Understanding the purpose of the TRAC

We do not understand the purpose of the UDO Technical Review Advisory Committee (TRAC) that was set up by the Mayor’s office. The voting members of this TRAC include six members of the Mayor’s staff and three members from the Land Use Boards, who the mayor appoints, for a total of nine votes.

The chair of TRAC is Bradley Birge, the director of the Planning Department for Saratoga Spring. Three of his staff members serve as voting members: Kate Maynard, Susan Barden and Tina Carton. The Deputy Mayor and City Attorney are voting members. All six of these people work in the Mayor’s Department.

It would be one thing to state that the Mayor’s Office is setting up an internal committee to address the UDO, but that does not appear to be what is being portrayed. The TRAC committee’s purpose and responsibilities in their By-Laws state (See link above for UDO Agenda for link to the TRAC By-Laws):

“The TRAC provides the technical input to carry out the continuing, cooperative and comprehensive planning process for the UDO. The TRAC provides technical review and guidance on draft regulations. The members of the TRAC will participate as representatives from and technical experts of their department and/or Land Use Boards; and as a whole the TRAC shall serve as the technical advisor to the City Council and the Contractor.”

“The Technical Review Advisory Committee will review consultant draft documents as well as public comments and then provide advice to the consultant. If the TRAC cannot reach agreement on a particular issue or if a significant policy change is being considered, the committee will request direction from City Council as the legislative body to pursue.”

“Each [TRAC] Member shall vote on all agenda items….” “…if a quorum is present, an agenda item must be approved by a majority of the Committee Members present at the meeting.”

Since six of the nine votes are from the Mayor’s Office, what is the purpose of a vote? It could hardly be considered democratic.

We appreciate the Mayor’s Office trying to move the UDO process forward.

We appreciate the meetings discussing the proposals being open to the public and the public being able to make comments.

However, voting on issues when the votes are stacked, and presenting these votes and decisions to the other city council members and the public as anything other than internal agreements by the Mayor’s Office is simply unfair and misleading. Thank You.

cc: Mayor Yepsen,TRAC members for whom email addresses are available: Vince DeLeonardis, Megan Kelly, Brad Birge, Kate Maynard, Susan Barden, and Tina Carton,Michael Allen, Behan Planning, City Council Members

Residential Homeowners

The next TRAC UDO meeting will be held on February 7, 2017. The Agenda is provided at the link below. The meeting will be held from 4-6 PM in the Music Hall of City Hall. The public is welcome to attend and may speak for two minutes each at the opening of the meeting.

9 thoughts on “More Problems With The UDO Process”

  1. If Maureen really wants to get the mayor’s attention, maybe she should walk down Broadway with an old double barrel LeFever (out of the bag, mind you). It seems they focus more on guns than they do on such deeply conceptual matters such as UDO. Maybe they just can’t wrap their heads around it?

    And speaking of; “My brain hurts…get me a drink!” How did the city approve 2 huge boarding houses being built by the track? One is behind 131 Lincoln and the other at 138 Lincoln. Both 5 bedrooms and 6 baths. Can you say AIRbnb? Or is it AirBNB?

    And someone re-designated Murphy Lane (Lincoln & White St’s service alley) as a right of way! Now 137-1/2 Lincoln became 17 Murphy Lane. So what, you say?

    Last week or so, a Casella garbage truck took out the electric, phone & cable lines in the alley! Now that Murphy is a right-of-way, carriage house trash cans don’t have to be put out on Lincoln. What a hoot…can’t make this stuff up!


  2. I don'[t think anyone likes the ‘skyscraper effect’. Hell, I basically lived on the street during the winters of my youth (Saratoga Bowl), so to me going down that street is the ultimate ‘culture shock’ now. But I get the need for height. It IS a big key for affordable housing to happen here, and people need to understand that. Large building are not the problem – clustering them altogether is the problem.


  3. Public involvement in the development of our new unified development ordinance is important. However, those invited to participate on an advisory committee should understand that, while they are expected to offer opinions about development issues to help guide the UDO process, they don’t have a vote on what does or doesn’t go into the document. That’s the responsibility of our elected officials and City staff, who have a very big job, and undoubtedly are hearing from a broad array of interests, and not just at public meetings.

    Changing height requirements from a specific distance to the number of stories on downtown streets might well help create a more diverse and interesting street profile. But it seems the guidelines would have to include strong language about desired design elements to give the planning board cover to require them, since interesting rooflines are more expensive. They might incorporate some context-based analysis – how does the proposed building design compare with those around it? Should there be a minimum difference in height from neighboring buildings? I wonder how concerned we have to be about abuse. Sure, developers would be inclined to make taller buildings if left to themselves, but with the goal of more stories with more rentable area, not more ceiling height. So a limit on the number of stories might be pretty effective in encouraging better design while keeping height within bounds.

    The quality of the pedestrian environment on downtown streets is important, and should be a major focus of the UDO. But in our downtown core, the public realm isn’t spoiled by the mere presence of buildings only 4 or 5 stories tall. We know there are great streets the world over in big cities with much taller buildings. The key is how the details of building design relate to the width of the street, the buildings around them, how much distance there is between building and curb, and what’s done with that space. On taller buildings, upper story setbacks help. The ground floor façade is a key element. Many new buildings downtown have colder, less inviting storefronts than historic buildings. They should be required to have more articulation – more of a sense that the ground floor is distinct from the upper floors. Much of the inviting character of the storefronts of the older buildings comes from designs including much more glass, much less wall, and more finely detailed woodwork. People walking along the sidewalks see the ground floor as the attractive face of the building, and design guidelines should require attention to good design principles.

    With regard to smaller lot sizes, I wonder if we shouldn’t sacrifice some of our attachment to the historic character of established neighborhoods in the interest of what is best for the city’s future. Maybe long-term planning for the growth of a sustainable Saratoga should anticipate the gradual conversion of neighborhoods in and near the city’s core to denser and taller buildings. Growth should be accommodated in the urban core, which should expand as the city grows. Denser residential development in the urban core means a more attractive, walkable city, less cumulative automobile travel and lower greenhouse gas emissions than sprawl development. Planning that protects the city’s greenbelt while limiting change in the urban core leaves sprawl in surrounding towns as the only option for growth.


    1. Rick,

      Housing for the workforce and seniors is important too. And in this 50+ year residents opinion, HAS to come first.

      All of that stuff is wonderful, but if the cost is people not being able to afford to live here, what good is it? And that’s a HUGE point to consider.

      Developers work on the numbers. It doesn’t matter if the project is big or small, it’s still a set dollar amount per square foot they shoot for. And if your land cost is high – that square footage cost goes up with it. If your zoning costs are high, that increases it too. At a certain point ‘affordable’ goes out the door if the workforce can’t afford it, so they build to a more expensive level to cover THEIR costs. This is NOT the developers fault. It’s how it has ALWAYS been done.

      Now, there are a few ways to cut costs. The ‘biggie’ is in how to include more units within that same tract of land. The answer is obvious: BUILD UP. The cost then goes down because you are only laying pipes once, wiring, zoning, ect., so the higher you go up, the less expensive the project is per unit. That’s how it gets done, like it or not. Saratoga is going to try to force something with a very limited height compared to most cities (ex: Troy is 150 ft., Saratoga is currently HALF of that). And I can assure you that Troy’s land and zoning costs are not even close to what they are here in Saratoga.

      The UDO can either help – or hurt – workforce housing here. It’s probably the #1 issue within the city now. And for this to get done, BOTH sides of the fence have to bend.

      We need to take of our own FIRST, and then worry about ‘articulation’, bike paths and the like. I’m sorry, but that’s the reality we now face. Saratoga needs to understand this NOW, not later.


  4. One other note to Rick’s post:

    Re: “With regard to smaller lot sizes, I wonder if we shouldn’t sacrifice some of our attachment to the historic character of established neighborhoods in the interest of what is best for the city’s future.”

    The city tried this in the early 60’s “Urban renewal” that displaced many families on the west side, of which many did not get fair compensation for their homes and land. And our city has been BEHIND on workforce and senior housing ever since.


  5. I disagree with John and Maureen on Railroad Place. Railroad Place used to be a dead, un-attractive street. Today, it is one of the most vibrant areas of our City. While not perfect, the architecture of those buildings came out well. Seventy feet is not that high and the street is not that narrow (four street lanes and wide sidewalks between buildings from east to west). The canyon effect that John and Maureen cite is greatly exaggerated as compared to streetscapes in other cities.

    Placing taller mixed use buildings in our inner City core and the other transect zones is a key element of our successful downtown. The urban characteristics of our downtown are necessary in order for our ‘City in the Country’ concept to exist.

    I would also disagree within the complaint about the input for UDO from staff of the City Planning Department. While their department organizationally falls under the Mayor’s department, they are permanent employees of the City, not political appointees. They each have backgrounds in planning and are best qualified to represent the CVity in this process.

    Chris Mathiesen


  6. Change the name from Railroad Place to Bonacio Canyon. (John, my attempt at humor).
    After all, there is no railroad on railroad place. No lake on lake avenue, no church on church street, no trestle on trestle alley (youngsters, look that one up in your Funk & Wagnalls), no geyser on geyser road, etc etc..


  7. Yes, Henry ol’ man. And Circular Street ain’t. North street is on the east side, white street is pretty white, Division Street has nothing to do with math but there IS an elementary school there, somewhere.

    Beekman Street is not the same as NYC, contrary to the arts communitee’s feeling (poor lads) and Outlook Avenue doesn’t outlook anything but the Golf & Polo Club; which doesn’t do much of either these days.

    When you drive down Lake Avenue; due east; leaving the city, make a left on Eureka Avenue. Drive down this wonderfully tree-lined temperate-zone example of what the great northeast has to offer until you come to the end; the circle.

    That’s when you realize it is certainly a special place in the heart of the city.
    Did you say Eureka! (lol),-73.7554774,1563m/data=!3m1!1e3
    Now, that’s rich!



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