Schenectady County

Some fear flooding not worth gamble on Alco site

Some professionals are split on the idea of putting new buildings on the riverbank, within the flood
The former American Locomotive Co. site is seen from across the Mohawk River in Scotia.
The former American Locomotive Co. site is seen from across the Mohawk River in Scotia.

The Mohawk Harbor development — which would be next to the proposed casino — is still a long way from getting a permit for construction.

The new harbor, a cutout of land next to the river on the former American Locomotive Company property, requires a special permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. They’re reviewing the plans closely, they said.

“It involves more than minimal impact,” said 1st Vice Chair Brad Sherwood of the Army Corps. “We’re still reviewing it.”

Soon, the agency will start a 30-day public comment period on the plan. After collecting data and other reactions from interested parties, the agency will make a decision on the harbor. Surrounding it would be condos, townhouses, a hotel and retail establishments.

But some professionals are split on the idea of putting new buildings on the riverbank, within the flood plain.

The buildings would be elevated 1.5 to 3 feet to get them above most floods. Some neighbors fear that might send more water into their houses.

That’s nonsense, said Metroplex Development Authority Chairman Ray Gillen.

“This has been an industrial site since 1830,” he said, adding that flood-plain concerns would be valid “if we were building this in a forest on the river.”

Engineers working for Galesi Group, the developer, pulled historical documents listing the days of production lost due to flooding in American Locomotive Company’s long history on the site. They found it almost never happened, Gillen said.

“It’s an extremely rare occurrence,” he said.

But the entire area did flood, in 2011, when Tropical Storm Irene hit. And that’s what some neighbors remember.

They worry that two hotels, a casino, a parking garage, many residences and retail establishments would cover the land so that it couldn’t absorb the floodwater, making matters worse at their homes nearby.

Some residents, including Schenectady Heritage Foundation chair Gloria Kishton, also maintain that flooding along riverbanks and coastal areas has worsened in recent years as the climate has changed.

“One of the most important things we need to be careful with is crowding the flood plain,” said Union College geology professor John Garver, who runs a floodwater monitoring system in the Stockade neighborhood and has studied the local river flooding for decades.

He would prefer Alco to become a large green space to absorb water, saying that development there is a bad idea.

“It’s one of the primary ways urban planning can worsen flooding,” he said. “People in the Stockade are right to be worried. It is possible that it [the development] could cause upstream flooding.”

But in warm weather, computer models indicate that won’t happen, Gillen said.

“The developers of Mohawk Harbor have conducted extensive hydraulic testing and due diligence,” he said.

The Department of Environmental Conservation has also reviewed the harbor plans and is satisfied, according to a DEC official.

“We reviewed a flood-plain development hydraulics report for this project that demonstrated that it would not have a negative flooding impact and we did not have any issues with the report,” a DEC official said. DEC policy no longer allows officials to be quoted by name.

Galesi Group COO David Buicko said the harbor will help reduce flooding from heavy storms.

“We’re designing it to enhance the ability to use the harbor for storm water,” he said. “This will help mitigate flooding.”

Garver said the harbor is “miniscule” compared to the entire Alco property, and couldn’t take in enough extra rainwater to make a difference in a major storm.

But he’s mostly concerned about something the hydraulics report may not address: ice.

Most floods here happen when there’s ice on the river, he said, when ice jams the river and water overflows the banks.

The computer models that predict flooding aren’t built to include ice, he said. Only one computer model — operated by the Army Corps of Engineers — can take ice into consideration, he added.

Garver said he thinks the development could create ice jams because the Galesi Group wants to “shave” the riverbank to increase visitors’ access to the water.

If the soil passes environmental tests, it will be used as fill elsewhere in the development, Buicko said.

The shaving means the river would be slightly wider in that area. Garver is afraid ice would expand to fill the river there, and then jam up when the river narrows just past that section.

“You end up with a reverse bottleneck effect,” he said.

The engineers for Galesi Group say that couldn’t happen. Buicko would not allow them to be identified by name, but a water resource design engineer working on the design said it would remove a “meander” in the river, reducing the potential of ice jams there.

DEC is also satisfied that widening the river will help, not hurt.

“It will increase the flow capacity of the river by widening the river channel,” a DEC official said.

But in the end, it’s not DEC, Metroplex, or Garver that will decide whether the development and the river widening is a good idea.

That’s up to the Army Corps of Engineers, a federal agency that oversees navigable waterways. It expects a lengthy review this summer before making any determination.

The decision could affect far more than just the harbor. Galesi Group has proposed a $150 million investment in condos, townhouses, a hotel and retail space around the harbor.

None of those items requires a harbor, but it is the central feature. Boaters could enter the harbor, tie up at docks and shop or eat. Residences would be built around the harbor, overlooking the water, and a bike path would be built along the banks as well.

And then there’s the casino. Rush Street Gaming wants to build a $300 million casino, hotel and parking garage next to the harbor and residences.

The entire development would transform the site — if Galesi Group gets the permit it needs to start building.

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