On the eve of the Travers Stakes, plans for a new luxury clubhouse and other modernizations at historic Saratoga Race Course are a step closer to reality.
State officials have finished the environmental review of plans for Saratoga’s most extensive renovations in 50 years, clearing the way for around $130 million in improvements.
The state Franchise Oversight Board last week accepted the environmental impact statement as complete, after the New York Racing Association made some modifications to the draft released in 2015 in response to public comments. The modifications include renewed emphasis on making any new construction look historic.
The state board’s sign-off — though not formal until a Statement of Findings is issued, as soon as next week — allows NYRA to begin detailed design of specific projects.
The projects in the Saratoga Race Course Redevelopment Plan include construction of a new clubhouse, a central facilities building, new barns and other improvements at the historic track. Each will still require case-by-case approvals from the Franchise Oversight Board, but not further environmental reviews.
“Inclusion of any particular project in the Generic Environmental Impact Statement is not the final approval of such project,” said Robert Williams, executive director of the state Gaming Commission and chairman of the oversight board.
NYRA officials have said they expect to spend around $15 million per year at Saratoga over a decade, making up for years during which aging wooden buildings were neglected. NYRA’s share of revenue from the Resorts World Casino in New York City will pay for it.
NYRA officials have been working on an improvement plan for their history-steeped summer racetrack since 2008. The last major improvement was a grandstand extension completed in 1965.
Work on the environmental impact study began in 2013. Release of a draft impact statement last year generated significant public concern about maintaining the track’s historic character.
The document finalizes a draft agreement under which the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation will be consulted on nearly all construction work, and the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation will also be consulted.
“The proposed improvements seek to maintain and emphasize the historic character of the Race Course while responding to changes in the global racing landscape to ensure a sustainable future for racing in Saratoga,” according to a summary of the impact statement.
The entire 337-acre grounds along Union Avenue, where racing first took place in 1863 and this weekend’s classic Travers Stakes has been run 146 previous times, is considered a nationally significant historic site. It is the oldest race track in the United States — a place where little should happen without considering history.
But NYRA officials say it needs new facilities to maintain its success in the modern world. The track attracts 900,000 to 1 million people per year over 40 days of racing between late July and Labor Day.
Among the changes made in response to comments, the size of a central services and kitchen building to be built on Nelson Avenue has been reduced, to put it in scale with surrounding properties.
Changes were made to address city public works department concerns about sewage and stormwater handling capacities. NYRA is to pay the city $350,000 toward a sewer system project.
“The proposed improvements seek to maintain and emphasize the historic character of the Race Course while responding to changes in the global racing landscape to ensure a sustainable future for racing in Saratoga,” according to a summary.
Among the major proposed changes:
— The At the Rail clubhouse building would be a three-story building west of the existing clubhouse, packed with high-end hospitality venues for banquets, outdoor dining terraces, and rentable suites.
— A new services building would be built off Nelson Avenue for administrative offices, central receiving docks, and a new centralized institutional kitchen. That would take much of the cooking now done in the grandstand and clubhouse buildings out of those old wooden structures.
— The historic grandstand would be renovated, with new casual dining options, more seating, and the addition of escalators. A 3,000-square-foot addition to the east end of the grandstand would be used to create a “Top of the Stretch Club” that would be more casual than the traditional grandstand.
— A new jockey house would be built within the paddock and saddling area, with upgraded amenities and space for racing offices.
— The backyard area would be expanded, taking some of the existing parking. The Union Avenue track entrance would be closed, and a portion of the existing picnic area turned into a “beer garden.” The Union Avenue entrance would be replaced by a new entrance on Lincoln Avenue.
— New barns and worker dormitories are proposed in the backstretch areas.
Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.