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SARATOGA SPRINGS –It will remain until the next Saratoga Springs City Council meeting (on April 5) for a scheduled vote (after a second public hearing) on the Saratoga City Center’s proposed lease of the High Rock parcel. The Council at its Tuesday, March 15 meeting did take action on a matter that recognized, regardless of what gets developed at High Rock - inevitably an invitation will be extended to have more cars on the city’s streets. Therefore, any action that the Council takes to preserve and increase Saratoga Springs’ standing as a pedestrian and bicycle-friendly town is worthy of note.
Through a series of motions and capital budget amendments, the Council funded a project that, when built out, will provide a pedestrian/bicycle trail for about five miles along the northern side of Geyser Road. The trail is forecast to be about eight feet wide from Spa State Park west to Cady Hill Road, and then widening to 10 feet to the Town of Milton. A total of $96,790 was dedicated to the project. It will entail new engineering and will impact 12 property owners, with about $50,000 of these funds pledged for right-of-way acquisition for the trail and buffer along Geyser Road.
While the primary beneficiary of this is the Geyser Road neighborhood, where access has been historically limited to motor vehicles and some bus service, this is a significant event for all city residents. When completed, this will provide another key link in the overall plan to have the city completely connected via a series of pedestrian and bicycle accessible trails, along the greenbelt and through the downtown core.
Attorney Matt Jones offered up an interesting gambit, speaking on behalf of Saratoga Hospital, during a public hearing about amending the new comprehensive plan’s designation of a parcel, upon which the Hospital wished to expand, back to the 2001 zoning as residential. Mayor Joanne Yepsen and Commissioner of Accounts John Franck have recused themselves from all discussions and votes on this matter. With Commissioner of Public Safety Chris Mathieson’s stated opposition, it had appeared to make any plan approval impossible (three votes are required to pass any Council measure according to the City’s charter).
Jones stated that the Hospital’s application will be kept open, and advocated that a mechanism be developed, similar to Courts of Appeals, in which replacements are appointed for those who recuse themselves due to conflicts – in effect, giving all applicants an opportunity to obtain a three-vote majority from a full five-person “council”.
It remains to be seen if this idea develops any traction, as it would involve at least some City Charter amendments. Yet, what appeared to be dead issue is anything but that, at least for now.
Finally, a shout-out to city resident Bonnie Sellers, who always provides some pithy perspectives during public comment time. Bonnie contributed the idea of the day when she suggested the City look into developing a night court as an alternative to building an annex, potentially on the valuable High Rock parcel. Commissioner Mathiesen said it was an excellent idea and the City was already looking into it, and though there may be some (unidentified) logistics difficulties, it was certainly worth pursuing.
By Michele Madigan
For Saratoga TODAY
I want to clarify certain facts regarding the City Center's plans to build a parking structure, and clear up any confusion amongst members of the public regarding the City's RFP to develop the entire High Rock parking lot. It is important to note that the City Center Authority is not a private entity; it was created by a legislative act of New York State to carry out governmental functions. The Mayor is an ex-officio member, and the Finance Commissioner acts as its agent, empowered to examine its accounts, finances, contracts, and leases, among other things. As such, the City Center and the City have a very close working relationship that is written into New York State law.
The City Center approached the City Council on November 20, 2012 with a proposal to lease a portion of the High Rock lot upon which they would build - at their expense - a facility to provide much needed parking. The lack of covered and connected parking for vendors and exhibitors to unload marketing materials and wares at City Center events places them at a competitive disadvantage, which will worsen once competing local convention facilities are open for business. This is unfortunate, as the City Center is a vital part of our local economy, drawing thousands of visitors each year to our hotels, restaurants, and retail establishments, supporting local businesses and generating tax revenues that fund our government and help keep our property tax rates stable.
At that meeting, the Council agreed unanimously to allow the City Center to move forward with its plans. Although questioning the proposed $1 lease payment and resulting financials, I did offer my support, as did Commissioners Scirocco and Mathiesen, and Mayor Johnson. Commissioner Franck said that this was the best High Rock lot proposal that he had ever seen; he’d "worked the numbers" and was in full support. Soon thereafter, the City Center issued an RFP (Request for Proposal), receiving several responses and selecting one. Their plans have been subject to numerous public discussions, which resulted in several modifications. The current plan to lease approximately two-thirds of the lot and build a parking structure (that includes space for community events) on half of the leased land, with the City retaining development rights for the other half, has received all of the necessary approvals from the City's various land use boards.
While the above was transpiring, several local residents expressed reservations about these plans, suggesting a grander multi-use development of the entire High Rock lot that would simultaneously meet the needs of the City Center and provide other opportunities. The Council unanimously agreed to explore this alternative, and in the summer of 2015 the City issued an RFP soliciting proposals to develop the entire lot. The City Center's original RFP was focused on meeting the demonstrated downtown parking needs, with a structure occupying a portion of the High Rock lot, which they would pay to build. The purpose of the subsequent RFP issued by the City was to solicit plans to develop the entire High Rock lot while meeting those parking needs, which the City Center would not fund. The Council clearly stated that while we were issuing this RFP, and would be reviewing subsequent proposals, the City Center should continue to move forward with its plans. The City received two responses to this RFP, and the Council appointed the Technical Review Committee to review the proposals. At a special City Council meeting on February 25, 2016 the Technical Review Committee said they could not recommend either proposal due to parking, financing, urban form, and engineering concerns.
The City has been negotiating the aforementioned lease with the City Center since 2013; I assumed responsibility for these negotiations in September 2014. Given that the City Center has received all necessary approvals for their plans, and the Technical Review Committee's concerns regarding the two High Rock lot development proposals, I presented this lease to the public and the Council on March 1, 2016. I plan to ask the Council to make a decision regarding the lease in April. If the Council approves this lease then the City Center will be able to move forward with their plans - leaving approximately two-thirds of the High Rock lot available for future development.
Michele Madigan is the Commissioner of Finance for the City of Saratoga Springs
Seeking to Develop High Rock Parcel
SARATOGA SPRINGS – At a special Saratoga Springs City Council meeting on Tuesday, November 10, the only agenda item was presentations by the two groups seeking to develop the last large parcel in Downtown Saratoga Springs. The 2.6-acre site bordered by Lake, High Rock and Maple Avenues adjacent to High Rock Park has been the subject of intense interest, and the meeting was moved upstairs from the Council room to the larger Music Hall.
Community Builders/Paramount Realty and a team led by Hyman Hemispheric, LLC delivered presentations. Both proposed development scenarios involved mixed use: Combining parking with residential and commercial applications and both noted that they were attempting to respond to the needs of the community which they indicated had desired more than just a parking garage in this location, while attempting to respond to the need for more parking for the Saratoga Springs City Center, as well as being sensitive to the impact on the adjacent Mouzon House Restaurant. They did differ on several key points as to how best to accomplish these varied goals.
Community / Paramount presented first and detailed a $77 million mixed-use plan called High Rock Village that had 607 parking places (259 earmarked for the City Center, 30 for City Hall use, 140 for the development’s residents and 178 for the public) and presented a financial scenario that assumed the first hour of parking would be free, $1.50/hr. thereafter; and 166 mixed housing units: 64 senior, 42 “workforce housing” for young professionals and families, 36 condominiums and 24 market rate apartments. The plan anticipated about 50,000 square feet of retail space. The plan had several design features detailed including a pedestrian promenade running North/South and a possible water feature, perhaps including a ‘living wall’ fed by the water along the High Rock Park side of the development. Overall, their financial plan anticipated 50 percent of all revenue from the development going to the City, with about $2 million in annual tax revenue.
Hyman Hemispheric presented their team, which included Sequence Development, Phinney Design, Consigli Construction and JCJ Architecture. They noted that the team had worked together before and involved a local presence (e.g.: Phinney and Consigli). Their plan involved an outright purchase of the land for $2.6 million and would have 656 parking spaces, of which 350 would be reserved for the needs of the new development; 106,000 square feet of housing – a mix of market and workforce; 65,000 sq. ft. of office space in a four-level structure and retail. Mike Phinney noted that much of the actual design of the development would best be reserved until a charette (a meeting in which all stakeholders in a project attempt to resolve conflicts and map solutions) was conducted among concerned interest groups (such as the Downtown Business Association) and the public. Phinney indicated that the best projects are those placed before the land use boards with the public already supportive of the design detail.
However, their presentation did have some important broad design elements, such as setting aside 35,400 sq. ft. for open space, ‘green notes’ such as pocket parks and other pedestrian oriented features, including a park space facing the Mouzon House. The presenters stressed the primacy on an east-west flow of people, from the development to Downtown and the City Center, as well as retail across High Rock Avenue. The philosophy of the development was to use retail and housing to minimize the “garage presence”, concealing the parking portion to the greatest extent possible.
While generally appreciative of the two presenting teams’ efforts, some of the Council’s comments following the two presentations indicated that they had concerns that the two proposals did not adequately address the amount of parking space needs for the City Center, and did not provide for direct connectivity to the City Center from the parking area. Commissioner of Finance Michele Madigan expressed concern with the overall magnitude of the two projects for the area available, and called for a comprehensive traffic study involving traffic flow, congestion and parking requirements in the immediate and surrounding areas. Commissioner of Public Safety Chris Mathiesen raised the point that part of the parcel might best be reserved for a City Hall annex to alleviate overcrowding and satisfy the need for a mandated second courtroom in the city.