Board rules against YMCA project

The YMCA’s $3.5 million housing project suffered a setback Wednesday when the Zoning Board of Appeal

The YMCA’s $3.5 million housing project suffered a setback Wednesday when the Zoning Board of Appeals ruled existing zoning code does not permit such use in the downtown commercial district.

The board voted four to two to overrule a 2005 interpretation from Building Inspector D. Robert Robbins that the 30-room expansion of the YMCA’s existing 23-room housing complex falls under the definition of a hotel, which is allowed.

ZBA Board Chairwoman Karen Smith and member John Callahan voted to uphold Robbins’ prior ruling. But members Arthur Simonds, Jeffrey Ashe, David Huckens and Garrison Seelow rallied behind Simonds’ view that the complex is more of a lodging house or an institutional facility.

Steven Serge, the Y’s executive director, expressed his disappointment, but also said Y officials will consider appealing this ruling to the courts. YMCA officials also have the option of applying to the ZBA for a use variance or petitioning the Common Council for a zoning change.

Serge, speaking in the hallway after the ruling, pointed out that the YMCA successfully applied for a $3.5 million state housing grant and completed its planning based on the 2005 ruling made by Robbins that the expansion is permitted under existing zoning code.

A group of merchants led by Beacon Wearhouse owner Susan Casey oppose the project, calling it housing for the homeless and contending it will draw undesirable people to the business district.

Casey spoke to the ZBA Wednesday, arguing that the YMCA project is institutional housing and cannot be considered a hotel as defined by the code. After the vote she declared the decision “a victory for the working people and the taxpayers.” She urged the Common Council to update the zoning codes to clearly preclude such projects in the future.

Serge said the board misdirected its focus on what it considered the original intent of the code and failed to examine the definition in the code. The Y’s lawyer, Gerard V. Heckler, noted what he called the “somewhat unprofessional way” in which the ZBA approached the issue.

The zoning issue reached the ZBA after some Planning Board members challenged Robbins’ zoning interpretation.

The YMCA, Serge pointed out, began its housing mission at the East Fulton Street location in 1913 before there was zoning. As part of the YMCA’s relocation of recreational facilities to Harrison Street this summer, officials planned to renovate the existing structure into additional housing.

As Robbins noted while advising the ZBA of his reasoning, the city zoning code is vague in regard to defining a hotel. It specifies more than the nine or fewer rooms assigned to a lodging house, does not prohibit permanent residents and does not demand a hotel be open to the public for overnight lodging.

As in many hotels, the YMCA facility would have lounges, kitchens and other facilities. Smith said the code does not prohibit such amenities.

Serge demanded the board opponents provide an explanation.

Simonds said he considered the proposal an unlisted use. He called it a self-contained housing facility and said it is not a hotel. Ashe said the proposed use is not consistent with a hotel operation. Huckens said while Robbins did his best with the existing code, the use proposed is “clearly not a hotel.”

Categories: Schenectady County

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