Schenectady County

Expanded city park in doubt

A few voices appear to have scuttled the city’s yearlong plan to expand Jerry Burrell Park.
PHOTOGRAPHER:

A few voices appear to have scuttled the city’s yearlong plan to expand Jerry Burrell Park.

At least half of the Schenectady City Council is leaning toward letting Habitat for Humanity build four houses next to Jerry Burrell rather than adding playing fields to the troubled park. They said they were convinced by residents who asked them Monday to fix up the existing park, not add more to it.

It was the neighbors’ last chance to convince the council before it votes on the city’s proposed comprehensive plan, which rezones roughly one-third of the city. Most of the rezoning proposals are not at issue, but a handful have been hotly debated for more than a year.

Jerry Burrell Park wasn’t on the hot-button issue list. No one seemed to notice that the city wanted to buy a piece of vacant land across the street from the park and turn it into parkland. But last week, as Habitat for Humanity neared a deal to purchase that land, Hamilton Hill residents realized they had a choice: another playing field or four owner-occupied houses.

They begged for houses in Monday’s public hearing on the comprehensive plan, saying owner-occupants would help deter the drug dealers who gather at the park.

“You may get some good tenants there and have some good residents,” said Hamilton Hill resident Portia Alston. “If you clean up Jerry Burrell and try to bring in new residents you might have a better showing of people in the park. Children might feel safe.”

Tony Gaddy, who works at Hamilton Hill Arts Center across from the park, said it doesn’t make sense to expand a park that is usually empty.

“I think it’s big enough as it is,” Gaddy said. “If we can add a housing component — homeowners have more pride in the neighborhood. People would rather see the park revitalized and renovated than expanded.”

Several residents asked for more lighting, regular activities and round-the-clock supervision by police or city employees.

But not everyone wanted to surround the park with houses.

“Have it be open and fly a kite there,” said Hamilton Hill resident Fred Lee. “There’s always a pressure, every time someone sees empty space, to put a house on it … I think it’s a dangerous course to take.”

Habitat for Humanity Executive Director Jeff Clark disagreed, saying his residents would improve the existing park merely by living nearby. Using those lots as parkland would not have as much of an effect, he said.

“We believe in quality, not quantity, as far as Jerry Burrell Park is concerned,” he said. “We believe it’s statistically proven that owner-occupant housing has a great deterrent on criminal activity.”

Councilman Mark Blanchfield said he was impressed by the argument.

“That behooves us all to take a second look up there,” he said.

Councilwoman Barbara Blanchard added, “A convincing case was made by the people who wanted housing.”

But Councilman Joseph Allen said Habitat could build elsewhere.

“I would prefer to expand the park. There has to be some other spots to put housing,” he said.

The council will discuss the issue next Monday at 5:30 p.m. at their committees meeting. City Homeownership coordinator Ann Petersen may be asked to offer expert advice on whether housing is needed there, Councilwoman Denise Brucker said.

CODE ON SIGNS

Council members were less impressed by business owners who argued against a change in the sign code, also included in the proposed comprehensive plan.

Many free-standing signs, often called pole signs, would have to be removed by 2010 and replaced with smaller signs if the plan is approved. The Chamber of Schenectady County presented a petition against the rule, signed by 11 owners of businesses and nonprofits.

“Forcing removal will result in a significant hardship for businesses, particularly those smaller in size,” said Charles Steiner, president of the chamber. “Business owners already face a growing list of financial challenges. Why add costs that do not exist for those choosing to do business in surrounding towns and villages?”

William Glock, owner of Family Tire and Auto Service Center on State Street, added that it would cost him $8,500 to remove his pole sign.

“Trust me, that is one significant hit to our bottom line,” he said. “The impact is really tremendous.”

Blanchfield said that if the only issue business owners really have with the proposed rule is that it will cost money to implement, a compromise could be worked out. But he speculated that business owners may also be objecting because they fear they’ll attract fewer customers with a smaller sign.

“We’ll look at it,” he said, but made no promises of eliminating the rule. City Zoning Officer Steve Strichman has championed the rule as a way of making the city more pedestrian-friendly. The signs, he says, are designed for highways and high-speed traffic, not a city.

Categories: Schenectady County

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