Look up in Saratoga Springs and you’ll see a skyline that has changed since last summer — buildings rising out of former parking lots, tall buildings where short ones previously stood.
On Broadway, a four-story, 65-foot building called The Washington is replacing a former public parking lot between Lillian’s restaurant and the Walbridge Building that houses Cantina restaurant.
A stone’s throw away, on Church Street, the steel is erected on what will be a new movie theater at the intersection with Railroad Place, in a spot where a one-story Price Chopper grocery store once stood.
And down in the gut on Lake Avenue, the frame of a five-story extended-stay hotel is being built in another former parking lot next to the Parting Glass Irish Pub.
A recovering economy is driving the flurry of building, and cranes, jackhammers and workers in bright-colored safety shirts toil in areas where projects sat dormant for several years.
“Probably four, five years ago things sort of slowed down, and the message that came back to us was the financing wasn’t there,” said Clifford Van Wagner, chairman of the city Planning Board. “It appears that money is getting a little more available.”
Developers plan more urban infill projects in the near future, some of them taller than the ones being built now.
Two six-story hotels are proposed, as is a new hotel on Congress Street that the city’s land use boards approved to replace the one-story Congress Plaza next to CVS Pharmacy and a 70-foot-tall addition for the rear of the Rip Van Dam building on Broadway that the land use boards are currently reviewing. The latter would keep the four-story facade of the current Rip Van Dam building and build the taller portion behind it.
Besides recent economic growth, the flurry of multistory buildings on prime properties is a product of the 2003 city zoning code revision that established so-called transect zones in the city’s more urban areas, said Bradley Birge, the city’s planning and economic development administrator.
“What that did is it encouraged very focused development into very specific areas of the city,” Birge said. “You want to have a very active pedestrian realm.”
That means bringing buildings closer to the street rather than having a parking lot prominently in front, putting buildings closer together and creating sidewalks in front. Buildings in the transect zones also must meet a two-story minimum height requirement to create a more urban feel, and officials prefer a combination of commercial and residential uses within the same building.
“What it really is saying is that historic construction has really made sense,” Birge said.
Although the new buildings may seem strikingly tall because they replace smaller buildings or empty spaces, all of the projects approved and under construction fall well within the city’s height limit, which is 70 feet for buildings in the downtown area, city officials said.
For example, Bonacio Construction’s project at 19 Railroad Place — the completed Market Center at the corner of Division Street and the future Bow Tie Cinemas under construction at the corner of Church Street — measure 55 feet, less than the 70-foot maximum. The theater is also shorter than the existing five-story Mabee Building across Church Street.
Some people have expressed concern about buildings seeming so tall or broad that a pedestrian walking in front of them feels dwarfed.
In areas where that was perceived to be the case during the design process, the city’s approval boards suggested the developers add balconies, lower the roof line nearest the street and then step it up to the desired height in the back or add expanses of glass to avoid a feeling of a box-like structure.
That happened when plans for a three-story apartment complex at the corner of Seward and Morgan streets came before the Planning Board, Van Wagner said.
“I personally was adamantly opposed to three stories,” he said. The board convinced the applicant to set the structure back from Seward Street so it would look less imposing, and approved the project in January 2012.
“It actually is moving along now and looks much more compatible,” he said.
Changes also were made in the plans for the Hampton Inn & Suites and the adjacent condominiums on High Rock Avenue to make them less prominent, including stepping back the corners of the buildings. The new three-story apartment buildings on Weibel Avenue — Bonacio Construction’s mixed-use development called The Springs — also may seem tall, since they’re surrounded by open areas and shorter buildings, but they fall within the 50-foot maximum height.
“That’s brand new height, so it’s a little startling,” Birge said.
The Planning Board also recently approved an adjacent project by Bonacio Construction for 12,500 square feet of commercial space and 120 more housing units on Weibel Avenue.
“That really reflects a dramatic change in the landscape as well as the land use in that part of the city,” said Kate Maynard, the city’s principal planner.
The current height limits have been in place for years, and Van Wagner doesn’t see them being a big concern, though he expects the topic will come up as a committee develops a revision to the city’s comprehensive plan this year. That process is in its infancy now, and Van Wagner is chairman of the committee.
“I have absolutely no clue if that’s on anybody’s agenda,” he said of building heights. “There have been no discussions to date.”
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