Schenectady County

Floods biggest fear for Mohawk Harbor

What’s scarier than a casino? Flooding, at least in the minds of many Schenectady residents who wrot
A rendering of the plans for the former Alco site in Schenectady, now called Mohawk Harbor by developers.
A rendering of the plans for the former Alco site in Schenectady, now called Mohawk Harbor by developers.

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Read all the public comments on the proposed Mohawk Harbor project as well as the Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority’s responses.

What’s scarier than a casino? Flooding, at least in the minds of many Schenectady residents who wrote to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers this summer.

The Corps held a public comment period on the proposed Mohawk Harbor at the former Alco plant, where a casino may also be built. The Corps isn’t evaluating the casino proposal, but marketers have already linked the harbor and casino, going so far as to name the facility Rivers Casino at Mohawk Harbor.

Developer Galesi Group also sees the harbor as a major attraction in its plan to build condos, townhouses, a hotel and retail stores, all of which would be arranged around the water feature.

Corps and city officials were expecting a flood of anti-casino comments during the public comment period, but it only came up a handful of times in the more than 100 pages submitted to the Corps.

Four of the 19 writers in favor of the harbor mentioned the casino. Seven of the 29 writers against the harbor also cited the casino in their concerns.

The Corps released all the comments Thursday in response to a Freedom of Information Law request by The Daily Gazette, but blacked out the names of residents to preserve their privacy.

Of those in favor, three said they wanted the harbor solely to support the casino.

“I think that the development of Mohawk Harbor into a casino complex would be great,” one person wrote. “The area needs some development … the Schenectady City School District and the city of Schenectady would benefit from an increased tax base.”

But those who opposed the harbor because of the casino predicted they’d never see a tax break.

“I am hereby stating that in my opinion it would not be conducive nor productive to establish or create a harbor on the Mohawk River for the purpose stated as to casino being built etc.,” one person wrote, citing failed economic development proposals in the past.

Others worried about the impact of the entire project on sewer and traffic.

“I will say in advance that I think Schenectady does not need a casino, nor does it need apartments at that site because the sewage system is already inadequate, needing yearly road digs on nearly every road where main sewage pipes exist, including Front Street in the Stockade,” one person wrote.

But for most, flooding was a much bigger issue than a potential casino.

Several wrote of their despair after 2011 flooding from tropical storms Irene and Lee.

One person wrote about having 3 feet of water on his first floor. It took months to repair the damage,

“The Galesi Group mentioned that this project would prevent flooding, but I find that difficult to believe,” the person wrote. “I hate to even imagine the consequences of this entire project being built in our flood plain.”

Galesi Group submitted responses to the comments, as requested by the Corps. On the topic of flooding, the company said it would not build or place fill in the “floodway,” although buildings will be constructed on the flood plain. The company also cited a hydraulic computer model which showed no increase in flooding after the development.

But many wrote that they were not willing to believe Galesi Group’s report that the development wouldn’t add to flooding.

“They say there will be no impact, but how do they know?” one person wrote. “If you visit the Stockade you will see the empty houses affected by the flooding. The Stockade is a fantastic historic area. To think that a corporation thinks that they can change the lay of the land without any effect on the Stockade scares me.”

Some called for more studies, conducted by the Corps, to determine the truth. Others suggested more pragmatic solutions, including requiring Galesi to post a bond to reimburse property owners if the development contributes to future flooding.

People also called for the Corps to investigate specific flooding concerns. One person asked whether ice would spread into the harbor, creating a large ice jam during winter thaws and flooding the surrounding buildings. Others said that the floodwater that once spread across the Alco site would have to go somewhere — and they doubted the harbor was nearly enough to contain it all.

Some simply tried to make the Corps understand the devastation of a flood.

“I have friends who were displaced from their homes for nearly a year and some residents have never returned,” one person wrote about the 2011 flooding.

Another described Tropical Storm Lee’s impact.

“I saw the Red Cross using rowboats to evacuate my neighbors from Ingersoll Avenue, families, pets and possessions leaving their homes; kayaks and canoes being used to get people out of flooded streets and homes,” the person wrote.

Several other writers were concerned about the RPI nuclear reactor, which is proposed to remain on site, disguised as a lighthouse in the harbor. RPI students use the small-scale reactor to learn nuclear engineering skills.

Some writers worried that digging a harbor would uncover hazardous waste or contaminated soil from the reactor.

Galesi responded that the Department of Environmental Conservation is supervising the work and would dictate how contaminated material is handled — including potentially removing soil and bringing it to a site licensed to store it. The company added that there’s no evidence reactor-related contamination was ever buried on-site, and ongoing testing has not found any releases of contamination from the reactor.

Others said the harbor might make it more likely for the reactor to be flooded and the land around it eroded away.

“Isn’t it possible that it might end up floating down to the next lock?” the person wrote. “Of primary concern is the life an event like this would literally erase.”

Galesi said that RPI’s safety analysis shows the reactor would be safe even if flooded.

Of the positive comments, many repeated the same phrases, including “there are very few locations where traveling boaters can dock, purchase supplies and/or services along the stretch of river from Waterford to Canajoharie.”

Those comments also often included a description of the site as a “decaying piece of land,” “inaccessible to the public” and praised the harbor as a “new waterfront access point.”

In addition, Mayor Gary McCarthy and county Legislature Chairman Anthony Jasenski submitted letters that were identical, word for word.

Schenectady County Community College acting President Martha Asselin submitted a letter nearly identical to that of McCarthy and Jasenski.

The Corps did not redact the names of public officials.

But several others wrote their own enthusiastically positive letters.

Among them were Mary Ann Ruscitto, a longtime resident of the East Front Street neighborhood who submitted five pages on why the project should be approved.

“Yes there is flooding in the Stockade, but as you well know there has been flooding in this area for 100’s of years,” she wrote. “As for the nuclear plant (you know the one that would barely light a 10 watt light bulb) this plant has been there for many, many years. Yes, it has come up in conversation but never has become a fear in our neighborhood.”

She added that she was greatly looking forward to the project.

“Well for many years we have had to stare at ugly empty factory buildings and now we have a chance to see beautiful buildings,” she wrote. “So please, allow the Galesi Group to build their harbor and proceed with their project.”

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