Codes? Those are for little people

Moore Hall Parking 2

Note the difference in the size of the driving lanes between the parking lot in the upper right and the Moore Hall parking lots in the lower left.  One has generous room for emergency vehicles to operate and the other does not.  (Double click on picture for better view)

Moore Parking

Between the use of the legal loophole for “non-conforming” parcels and the variances being sought by Sonny Bonacio for the conversion of Moore Hall, the project is a study in how to get around the city’s housing codes and zoning standards.

This is not a matter of a few tweaks, this project requires radically dispensing of a host of code standards as will be documented below.

The advocates for this project offer that it is being done in order to provide affordable housing.  This raises a fundamental question about our city’s policy regarding this critical need.  If we are going to dispense with many of our community’s housing standards in order to create such projects, then this should be addressed directly as a matter of established city policy.  Do we want to allow for lower parking standards?  Do we want to allow for large structures with copious tiny units that have different height requirements?   Do we, as a community, decide that the neighbors of such projects must accept that their streets will be designated as the parking for these projects?

Most critically, will we allow for parking lots that have lower standards for the safety of the people that use them and for the neighbors who live by these lots?

A Little Background

Northstar Development bought Moore Hall from Skidmore College to develop luxury condominiums.  The developer was seeking to change the zoning from Educational-Institutional to Urban-Residential four in order to implement their plan.  Since the plan complied with all zoning standards, it met with no opposition from the neighborhood and the rezoning sailed through the City Council.  Unfortunately, there was no expiration date established for the rezoning should the developer fail to successfully complete the project.  With the collapse of the market in 2007 the project died.  Unfortunately, the building remained and it was now a “non-conforming” unit so as long as a developer did not change the footprint, a developer was allowed to ignore most of the code requirements.  The new applicant today is  seeking major variances of the city’s codes for what it cannot achieve as a  “non conforming”

So the current project violates the following codes:

  1.  The parking lot violates multiple standards.  Only 6 of the existing 53 spaces meet the set back requirements of the current code.  Forty-Seven of the spaces are located partially or completely in the set back area.  This is not just a matter of safety (which it is) but setbacks are meant to maintain the aesthetics of the area.  Parking cars up against a neighbor’s property or against the street is a serious eye sore.
  2.  Six of the spaces adjoin North Alley. As they currently exist these infringe on the alley making them a potential safety hazard in general and  in particular a problem for large emergency vehicles.
  3.  The driving lanes between the parked cars are much too narrow.  The city requires that the lanes have a width of 24’.  None of the lanes meet this standard and one is only 15’ 7’’ wide.  That is only sixty-five percent of the standard.  This is a serious danger.  The standard is meant to insure that emergency vehicles can quickly and easily access an area.  The failure to address this is of grave concern.
  4. Making parking spaces too narrow make getting into and out of cars problematic and become an easy source of damage to adjoining vehicles.
  5.  The ceilings in the building do not meet the city’s height requirement.  They are seven and a half feet and may be even lower due to the mechanicals that will be required to heat and cool the building.
  6.   The current code does not allow a structure to exceed twenty-five percent of the parcel.  This project would exceed that standard by over twenty-six percent.
  7. The current code would require that no more than eighteen units be allowed.  This project would exceed that limit by thirty-five units.  That would mean that they would build almost three times the number of units allowed by the code.
  8.  The current proposal does not address the requirement for handicapped parking.  They claim there are fifty-three spaces but as everyone knows, a handicapped parking space is much larger than a regular space.  This is even more problematic given that the spaces the applicant claims to exist are under sized.
  9. The city requires that there be 1.5 parking spaces for every unit.  This would mean that for 53 units there would need to be 80 spaces.  They are short of the required number by 27 according to their calculations which are problematic—see above.
  10. How would the applicant address the snow removal for their parking lots?  Not addressed.
  11. How would the applicant address where trash would be put and how it would be removed?  Not answered.

This project cynically sells itself as “affordable” but in fact when looked at by dollar/space ratio a unit will cost more than some units at the applicant’s project called  Market Center.  Bear in mind that in addition to the size issue, the Market Center apartments come with balconies, reserved car spaces, and washer/dryers.

This project would set a very bad precedent if it were to go forward as is.  Its utter indifference to a neighborhood and the safety of potential tenants if backed by the city’s land use boards would establish a new standard and not one to be proud of.

Moore Hall: Making An Important Issue The Attention It Deserves And What You Can Do

As many of you know who have read my blog, I am not enamored of our land use boards.  Heavily dominated by past Mayor Scott Johnson’s appointments, they are mostly representatives of the real estate and construction industries.  The idea that these boards are made up of impartial people who carefully consider all arguments is an illusion quickly dispelled by those who suffer through their meetings.

In that context, the people concerned about Moore Hall are organizing to bring the members of the City Council to the neighborhood where the building is located to bring this issue before a public forum for a serious discussion.  Hopefully, this will not only be a lively and fairer discussion but it is hoped that it will make it more difficult for the Zoning Board Of Appeals to simply do the bidding of an influential developer.

Commissioner Chris Mathiesen will be bringing this to the agenda meeting on Monday (tomorrow) morning and will also be discussing it on his agenda at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting. 

It would be great to use this type of event as a precedent for future projects.  Consider that today it is the neighborhood around Moore Hall; tomorrow it might be your neighborhood.  Whether you agree with the concerns of the neighbors in this case, I hope you will support the need for them to get a proper hearing.

Please contact the Mayor and members of the Council (preferably today) to urge them to support Commissioner Mathiesen.

This is a link that will allow you to email the members of the council or call them.  Link To Email Or Call Council

Old And New Friends


I am finally back from Louisiana and away from a hotel that basically made it impossible to properly update my blog.

I thought people would enjoy this picture from the trip.  We were fishing in a bayou about twenty-five miles from the mainland when a bird alighted on my foot.  We think it was a yellow bellied sapsucker.  It proceeded to perch on all three of us in the boat at different times.  My friend, Ron Boutin is an avid bird watcher and thinks it was a young bird.  It was probably using us to rest.

I have a number of pieces to write and will be working on them this weekend.  Stay tuned.


Excellent Analysis By Russ Pittenger of Moore Hall #2

[Due To My Technical Limitations In Louisiana a Fragment of the Original Post Was Lost.   This is the complete version]

I have reviewed the submission requesting the Area Variance for the redevelopment of Moore Hall.  I was initially struck by the degree of relief requested in context with the incompatibility of the proposal with the existing Historic District.  In addition, I am frankly alarmed by potential safety concerns regarding the ZBA and Planning Board’s possible re-affirmation of the existing substandard parking layout.  Please consider the following observations.
1.  The area relief requested for 53 units to comply with the requirements of the UR-4 zone is 102,807 SF.  The existing land square footage of 56,192 allows only 18 units while the applicant requests an additional 35 units.  The relief requested is 182% of the base area, or an increase by a factor of nearly three times.  A request of this magnitude is unwarranted and would dramatically effect the neighborhood character.
2.  The existing parking lot layout is substandard and should not be reused without bringing the layout up to code.  It does not comply with current City regulations, nor industry standards.  Only six of the 53 parking spaces existing/proposed respects the setbacks.   Forty one of the 47 spaces in the two lots are located partially or completely within the 20/25 FT property line setback,(87%).  In addition, the 6 non-compliant spaces accessed from the alley are substandard in size and would encroach upon the travel way.  Use of these substandard spaces would impede emergency vehicle access and present a concern for health and safety of both the proposed tenants and the neighborhood residents, not only jeopardizing personal safety but also protection of property.
3.  The existing building does not meet current building set back requirements.  The 20 ft minimum is encroached on by as much as 19′-4″ in one location, (96%), 14′, 8′ and 13′ in others.
4.  In addition, all of the parking spaces in the lots are accessed by driving lanes of varying substandard widths.  All of the spaces.  The city requirement is for the applicant to provide an access lane of 24 Ft.  The existing/proposed lot has lane widths that vary from 15′-7″, (65%!) 17, and 19′-3″  feet. These parking lanes widths are deficient and inadequate for safe vehicle maneuvering.  Any large sedan, SUV or full size pickup would find the lot difficult to maneuver into, or out of, even if a space was available.  These maneuverings would be inconvenient at best and possibly dangerous at worst.  Large vehicles would need to park on the street, thus further exacerbating the street parking issue.
5.  Pedestrian safety in the area of the proposed project is a concern.  There are three schools within one block, with students ranging in age from toddler through high schooler and adult.  The existing crosswalks at Union Avenue and Regent are dangerous to use as the instruction to yield to pedestrians are commonly disregarded by drivers, especially at night.  Adding an additional 100 vehicles to this equation will not improve a currently difficult situation.
6.  The existing parking layout is outmoded and frankly, unsafe.  Firefighters and EMS personnel cannot properly access the parking lot in the event of a car fire, vehicular accident or if a resident in the lot is stricken by a health emergency.  Approval of this project will certainly impact the ability for rapid response teams to serve the project.  The liability of perpetuating this substandard condition rests with not only the applicant but the approval boards and the City as well.
7.  The existing building also exceeds the required lot coverage.  Required: maximum 25%.  Existing/proposed:  31.4%, overage percent of deficit:  26.5.
8.  The density of the proposal, the sheer number of additional people, would severely upset the balance of the neighborhood, nearly doubling the population on the block as a result of a single property.  The units are designed as one and two bedroom.  Singles, couples, young families and retirees would be the likely renters, raising the potential resident population to well above 70, perhaps over 100.  How many of these tenants would have children? How many dogs would be added to the street? Twenty?  Forty?
9.  Inadequate numbers of on-site parking spaces would adversely impact the neighboring residential properties.  Once the project lot fills up, the thirty or more additional cars would logically seek the next closest parking spaces on the street.  While car counts by the applicant indicate that on-street  parking  is available within 400, 800 or 1600 feet, the inconvenience to existing residents would be potentially profound.  That a single family homeowner would then be forced to double park to unload groceries and then drive around the block to find a space to park during the racing season is accepted.  But to have that become the new, year-round normal condition is simply untenable.  Retired persons, the infirmed and young families with children who find themselves unable to park in front of their own home in inclement weather would have an unacceptable burden placed upon their day-to-day existence, all to facilitate the desires of a single, absentee owner.
10.  Fair is fair!  If this project were approved, with all it’s numerous existing limitations, the ZBA would then be forced by precedence to allow any and all other properties in the city to expand their density to three times the allowed number or face a legal challenge.
11.  Contrary to the applicant’s opinion, this project must be reviewed by the Planning Board.  The current existing condition does not provide Handicapped spaces as required by code at a ratio of 1 per 25 cars, (or portion of 25).  The proposed unit count of 53 requires 80 spaces at 1.5/unit and four of those spaces would be required to be signed and striped for H/C use.  Adding striped loading lanes for the H/C spaces would further reduce the number of parking spaces provided on site by at least two.
12.  All night long lighting for security would adversely effect the residential character of neighboring properties.
13.  The sheer density of the project would increase traffic, hours of activity and ambient noise.  The commercial apartment-complex character of this proposal would have an adverse, disruptive effect upon the neighborhood character, ultimately impinging upon the rights of the adjoining residents to enjoy their homes in the reasonable manner they have come to know and should be able to expect.  Zoning should protect neighborhood character.
14.  Snow removal operations were addressed in an off-handed remark by the applicant as “the snow would be transported off site”, although this may be easier said than done.  The lots still need to be plowed, the snow piled up, all the cars moved to the street, pay loaders brought in, dump trucks backed, loaded and the snow hauled away, etc.  The site is so restrictive, so tight that there is no place to pile the snow, park the loader nor maneuver the loading operation without impacting the neighborhood with a commercial operation.
15.  Trash removal, dumpster location and garbage truck access has not been addressed. No location for daily waste removal has been provided nor demonstration that the improvements do not adversely effect the neighboring properties nor impede upon the alley fire lane.  Clear and open access for fire fighting equipment must be maintained. Also a plan for service vehicles, deliveries, and employee parking should be provided.
16.  The interior ceiling heights of 7.5 FT do not meet code and I understand those clearances will be further reduced by mechanical systems added during the retrofit.
17.  The existing building is an incongruous eyesore and detracts from the entrance to our city.  This is an historic district and precious gateway that must be protected and enhanced despite efforts by many who act as if the Comp Plan is flawed, but then wrap themselves in it as if it were a flag when the situation suits them.  The ‘City in the Country’ slogan was intended to preserve and protect green space, not meant to encourage high rise housing within the city, despite assertions to the contrary by the applicants and even some board members.
18.  The determination that this project is a Type-2 action under SEQRA is inconsistent with other projects of this scale and scope, leaving the review board’s decisions open to legal challenge.  The 2006 zone change recognized the potential impacts of an 18 unit conversion and deemed the action at that time to be a Type -1.
19.  It is disingenuous for the applicant to tout both the previous use as a dormitory in one breath and then to stand firm on the 2006 zone change to UR-4 in the next.  It can’t be both.  Like a border bandit, the applicant’s attorney strikes and then recedes across the boundary when the argument suits his purpose.  As a dormitory, the building was located upon a campus, amid other college buildings.  Parking was controlled by the college, was by permit only and very few of the students owned cars.  In addition, the building was all but empty during summer months when school was out and the track was open.  In the mid fifties, any development was good development.  But it is no longer the fifties…we should be looking toward the next sixty years, not reinforcing and preserving the mistakes of the past.  In addition, we all recognize that the zone change to UR-4 was only done to facilitate the building’s demolition and the site redevelopment into more human-scale buildings.  That was the project that was approved and prompted the zone change.  That the condominium market is currently soft is regrettable, but neither the city regulations nor the Eastside residents should be forced to capitulate to favor a particular application.  This proposal doesn’t merely bend the rules, it shatters them well beyond the breaking point in a desperate attempt to shove this square peg into a round hole.
20.  The UR-4 zone is intended for multi-family.  The number of units allowed is determined by lot size, square footage.  While the term ‘multi-family’ clearly means more than one, it shouldn’t be construed to mean ‘unlimited’.  I ask the review boards to reject this proposal.
Respectfully submitted,
Russell Pittenger, Landscape Architect and concerned neighbor

Saratoga PAC Tries To Re-Brand

Three area newspapers did stories on the failure of Saratoga PAC to elect most of their slate.  They interviewed Robert “Bob” Manz who is the chairman of the PAC and the CEO of D.A. Collins.  D.A. Collins is one of the largest construction companies in the area.

From the Gazette Newspaper:

While a lot of attention focused on PAC members’ support for allowing a resort-conference center to be built at Saratoga National Golf Club, Manz said that isn’t the group’s top issue.

Based on a resident survey the PAC did this summer, Manz said the top issues are the condition of the city’s water and sewer infrastructure, and the need to redevelop the South Broadway entrance to the city, along with a growing vagrancy problem.

From the Saratogian:

“It would be nice to have the elected officials in Saratoga focusing on the primary issues and working together to move those issues forward,” he said. “Our survey identified some key issues, such as the city infrastructure and the revitalization of South Broadway. We’ll advocate that the council focus on these.”

From WAMC:

He[Manz]  said the organization will continue reaching out to voters and “will now advocate for the priorities that more than 1,100 citizens told us need to be acted on by our city’s leaders with focus on improving our city’s infrastructure and revitalization of our South Broadway corridor.”

What I find interesting is Mr. Manz’s effort to spin the story away from Saratoga National Golf Course.  I expect that the feedback they are getting was that their emphasis on development in the city’s Conservation District proved to be a major liability.  I fully expect that their agenda is the same but they are shrewd enough to see that if they want to influence future elections they need to change their (dare I say?) branding.  Right now they are the big real estate and construction industry out to breach the country part of the “city in the country.”

In addition to cleaning up their own image in hopes of making themselves more appealing to the public they are shrewd enough to realize, I think, that they may be a liability to SNGC’s continued desire to expand. They know that too close an association with Saratoga National Golf Course’s campaign to build a resort may spook the politicians they are counting on.  Make no mistake, the PAC is continuing to use their very powerful network to lobby the trio on the Council, (Yepsen, Franck, and Madigan) that they hope will be their key to success.

Neighbors Mobilize To Oppose Bonacio’s Current Plan For Moore Hall Conversion

No Moore Hall

At its well attended second meeting, people from a number of neighborhoods surrounding Moore Hall (the former pink Skidmore dormitory on Union Avenue) met to strategize how best to deal with Sonny Bonacio’s current plan to convert the building into 53 “micro apartments.”

Some Background

The neighbors had previously attended a meeting of the Planning Board which had been asked by the Zoning Board of Appeals to advise them regarding Bonacio’s request for a variance on the minimum requirement for on-site parking spaces.  For whatever reason,  the Planning Board was not asked to advise on the other variance which would allow the project to go from fifteen units to fifty-three units.

The neighbors were advised to focus their comments on the parking issue in light of the ZBA charge to the Planning Board.  It was both interesting and consistent with the history of our Planning Board that we had to endure a lecture from Cliff VanWagner about how all discussion must be limited to parking. 

In fact, I was enormously impressed both by the turn out and by the performance of the members of our community who spoke.  Our speakers kept their presentations to the point.  People were both brief and articulate.  I have outlined their basic points in my email to Mr. Bonacio that I posted previously on this blog.  People at events like this can get quite emotional to the point sometimes that while one can have sympathy for them, one can still be embarrassed.  Not that evening.  I did not personally know many of the speakers but I was truly gratified to live in a neighborhood of such thoughtful and caring people.

After they spoke, we all then had to endure the discussion of the Planning Board members.  I have written about the makeup of this board so often that I will not go through it again in this blog.  Five of the seven members were appointed by Scott Johnson.  They represent the latest in a long line of real estate/construction appointments that are the legacy of a city dominated by this business network.

True to form they violated their own admonishments to the audience by talking at some length about what an outstanding example of “re-use” this proposal was.  They basically restated most of Mr. Toohey’s earlier presentation (of course he did not limit his remarks to parking either).   After a tedious and unfocused discussion on how great the project was when they were about to vote to recommend that the variance be granted, someone got up from the audience and pointed out to them that they had failed to once talk about the parking issue.

For several minutes, members of the Planning Board spoke derisively about people’s concerns over parking.  Mr. VanWagner, who always impresses himself with his own wit, pointed out to the public that many of them have been advocates for “The City In The Country” and since they live in the city they should be prepared to look for parking spaces. 

When another member of the public had the temerity to express frustration that the board appeared indifferent to the concerns of the community, we then had to endure lectures from Tom Lewis and Cliff VanWagner about the difference between listening to the public and agreeing with them.  They also went on at length congratulating themselves on the many hours they have spent as members of this board.

They then voted to support granting the variance.

If Sonny Bonacio wanted to build an eighty foot outhouse on Union Avenue, Cliff VanWagner would not only vote to approve it, he would attend the ribbon cutting.

The Neighbors Meet And Moblize  This Evening

So the neighbors met this evening with the attorney, John Hayko, who they had hired, to discuss preparing for the Zoning Board of Appeals meeting on Monday.  They also distributed signs for people to put in front of their homes.  The people who had circulated petitions reported on their success.

There still remained hope that Sonny Bonacio would address many of their concerns.

If you would like to support the neighbors efforts to get a better plan for Moore Hall, here is a link to an on line petition.  Link To Petition

Code Enforcement Officer Ends Crime Wave

The city’s code enforcement officer contacted one James Collins who was identified as the source of the electronic signs supporting Safford and Wirth positioned over the week end at three entrances to the city.  Mr. Collins is associated with one of the many subsidiary companies of D. A. Collins.  Robert Manz who is the head of D.A. Collins chairs Saratoga PAC.  Mr. Collins agreed to remove the signs which he did.  Kind of an undramatic end to the story but this blog tells it like it is.