Arts District Expansion Plan Clears One Important Hurdle
SARATOGA SPRINGS – The Beekman Street Arts District, which brought life and energy to a once-blighted neighborhood, is in the midst of a movement to spread its wings and soar once more.
A plan to expand the boundaries of the Arts District to about three times its current size has passed a significant step in the process. During the October 1 Saratoga Springs City Council meeting, a measure sponsored by Commissioner of Accounts John Franck was approved unanimously. This measure merited for review the district’s expansion plan (see map) to both the city planning board and design review commission for recommendations to the council.
Though significant, this is but one step in the process. Should the aforementioned boards rule favorably, at least one public hearing on the plan (and their modifications, if any) will have to be scheduled before the city council can vote on a final expansion.
Nonetheless, with the October 1 vote behind them, some of the principals behind this movement are optimistic that if there are no unforeseen roadblocks, final approval might occur before the end of this year.
The process of expanding began in March of 2012, when a large public meeting was held at the Principessa Elena Society at 13 Oak Street.
“A preliminary plan was presented to our neighbors for input by our zoning committee,” said Jon Haynes, a project manager at Phinney Design Group and a partner with Michael Phinney at The Local Pub and Teahouse. That committee was composed of Haynes, Amejo Amyot and former city planner Geoff Bornemann.
“Based on that public input, we removed certain proposed permitted uses for properties. A youth hostel was eliminated, for instance.” Haynes said. “We also sought out opinions from everyone we could, including Mayor Scott Johnson.”
Based on these conversations, the original proposed expansion area was actually contracted.
“There were some strictly residential neighborhoods, areas east of Grand Avenue, for instance, which were supportive of what we wanted to do, but wanted to keep their strictly single family residential character.” Haynes explained.
So once the plan is in place, and let’s say it passes essentially ‘as is’. What happens?
In a short phrase: increased options. On several levels.
The first set of increased options would be a broadening of what is considered “permitted use”. For example, a single or two-family residence that becomes incorporated into a wider arts district could be modified by the owner in certain ways with just a site plan review and not need a special use permit.
Some of these potential permitted uses include:
- An artist studio or neighborhood art gallery (under 2,000 square-feet)
- A coffee shop or neighborhood eating/drinking establishment with 40 seats or less. For those concerned that this might bring a second coming of Caroline Street to the neighborhood, note that the closing time of these establishments would remain the same. For instance, The Local closes at midnight.
- Office space on the second floor of a building or above–less than 2,000 square-feet.
Additionally, with both a site plan review and special use permit, other options for the same property owner include a day care facility, neighborhood bed and breakfast or a first floor office.
Increased options for “accessory” structures, such as detached garages would include smaller, less than 1,200-square-foot, art studios and galleries among other uses.
The second important set of options stems from basic supply and demand principles.
“I personally know three professionals that would love to be on Beekman Street,” said Phinney. “They would have their office upstairs, with a gallery or studio below. But there’s no suitable place for them in our three-block district.”
Furthermore, the economy has, according to Phinney, caused some people to reappraise their philosophical approach to what constitutes “art”.
“It may be hard to believe, but when we were putting up our building [in 2006], there were those ‘art purists’ who had a hard time seeing architecture as a form of art.” Mike said. “And yes, we had an artist’s gallery on the second floor. After the recession, folks have taken a broader view of things.”
Cecilia Frittelli and Richard Lockwood, owners of the Textile Studio, see the same result, but from a different perspective.
“There has been a shortage of working and living spaces for artists of limited means for several years. The recent economic downturn has worsened that situation, forcing some artists to shut their doors, abandon rented spaces and operate in isolation elsewhere,” Lockwood said. “Also, some landlords do not share an arts district vision, preferring to rent to the highest bidder. Adding buildings and new landlords to the district can only strengthen a struggling arts community here.”
The Textile Studio is in a unique situation. Technically outside the arts district—across Grand Avenue currently—the couple also had not been able to find suitable space for their studio/retail vision.
But with a special use permit, and a bright banner outside their shop, to the strolling art lover they are “in.” So for them, the expansion of the district will not change anything per se’, except make them “official,” but they too take a broader view.
“An expanded Beekman Street Arts District will not only benefit artists, but all residents, visitors and the city's cultural life.” Richard said.
There is a school of thought that says that even a great idea must build up to a critical mass, offering the proper mix of goods and services, in order to maximize its success. Like a fine artist mixing maturity with raw talent, perhaps the Beekman Street Arts District’s greatest masterpiece is still to come in the not-so-distant future.