Schenectady

New apartment project exposes Schenectady’s simmering parking problem

The old bank building site Credit: Peter Barber

The old bank building site Credit: Peter Barber

Categories: -The Daily Gazette, Business, News, Schenectady County

The second is, “Where can I park?”

Owner Sara Mae Pratt welcomed downtown’s recent growth spurt driven largely by Redburn Development Partners, which has rapidly snapped up the 500 block of State Street, transforming a once-shuttered row of buildings near Proctors into a blend of residential and retail properties.

But the developer’s now-retracted request to receive a variance from the city’s parking requirement for its new three-story apartment complex would have been “irresponsible,” Pratt said, and would have only exacerbated the longstanding parking crunch faced by neighborhood businesses.

“This exciting new build will surely be an improvement on the architectural blunder that was Citizens Bank,” wrote Pratt in a letter to the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals, “but I fear we may be knocking down one mistake only to build another.”

Redburn tore down the former bank building between Clinton and Barrett streets this summer and plans to construct a 49-unit apartment on the footprint, a measure that would instantly transform the block as part of a broader strategy to revitalize the Clinton Street corridor.

Yet the project has also peeled back the curtain on slow-burning parking issues, exposing tensions that are only poised to widen as downtown continues its resurgence, as well as the challenges facing developers who want to continue to invest in the community.

SHIFTING TRENDS

While supportive of the project and its ability to bring activity to the city’s side streets, virtually all of the surrounding business owners — the Clinton Street Pub, Museum of Prints and Printmaking, and Moisture Salon — opposed the variance, and said the city needs to be more assertive in coming up with a long-term strategy to handle the swelling number of new residential units.

Part 2: How to solve downtown Schenectady parking woes? Solutions abound, say stakeholders

Businesses already face fierce competition for limited spots, said Katie Toombs, who owns a law firm on Barrett Street specializing in elder law.

On-street parking has become nearly impossible, she said, and impacts her business because her clients will go elsewhere if they have to walk, which is why she keeps her small lot reserved for them and rents spots elsewhere for staff.

“Redburn is looking to develop to the maximum dollar value to the detriment of the neighborhood,” said Toombs, who painted parking as a near-existential crisis facing her business.

City Code requires 1.5 parking spots for each apartment unit. For Redburn, that equates to 73 spots.

The developers called the regulation “substantially outdated” when compared to other locales.

Adding hardscape street parking would be detrimental to downtown’s revival, said Damien Pinto-Martin, Redburn’s vice president of development, and detracts from compact and walkable downtowns, a keystone of the developer’s mission.

“There is an abundance of hardscape street parking in the downtown [commercial] district,” Pinto-Martin said, “and Redburn firmly believes adding to that would be detrimental to the revival that we’re seeing in the downtown district here.”

It’s a viewpoint shared by city Planning Chairwoman Mary Moore Wallinger, who believes current parking regulations are incompatible with thriving downtowns because they may force developers to purchase adjacent buildings, tear them down and use the footprint as the cheapest, easiest way to fulfill their parking requirements.

But unless the mandate is repealed, developers must continue to either provide parking or request variances.

The city Board of Zoning Appeals commissioners subjected Damien Pinto-Martin to a withering cross-examination on Aug. 5.

“Are you telling me the only way that you can build something that is financially viable, so that a bank will loan you money to build it, is to build something that has no parking spaces?” asked commissioner Krystina K. Smith.

Developers are attempting to attract a younger crowd who may eschew cars.

Pinto-Martin pointed at data showing a decreased demand for vehicles at Redburn’s Albany properties, which are branded as affordable housing units geared towards young professionals.

As those buildings fill, actual usage for their parking spots has come in under projected demand by as high as 40 to 50 percent, including the Knickerbocker News building at 16 Sheridan Ave.

“We’re just not seeing the lease-up from tenants,” said Pinto-Martin.

But even if they wanted to provide on-site parking, Pinto-Martin said there were few viable options for the 501 State St. project.

Redburn explored the idea of an underground parking garage, but a two-level structure would increase the scope of the project because the developers would then have to add additional stories skyward, growth that would bump up against downtown’s 75-foot high requirement and dramatically reshape the size of the building.

“We’d have to go high-rise style construction to make it pay off,” Pinto-Martin said. “The bigger you go, the more expensive everything gets.”

A bigger project would also increase its scale, perhaps beyond even what the neighborhood is able to support when it comes to people and vehicles.

Furthermore, while luxury apartments could hypothetically support the increased cost, Pinto-Martin questioned the demand and worried about units sitting vacant as renters flock to more inexpensive units.

“We would not develop a building that we could not rent,” Pinto-Martin said. “We have a very substantial track record of building properties that lease very quickly and stay leased.”

Alternatively, the developers could opt to put up an office building, which does not have a parking mandate.

But that, too, would exacerbate parking issues without carrying the revitalization aspect that residential apartments bring to the downtown landscape.

“Any development that happens will have an impact,” Pinto-Martin said.

STRATEGY QUESTIONED

Redburn has restored several downtown buildings in the past several years, using historic tax credits to renovate underutilized or empty properties.

The developer owns virtually the entire 500 block of State Street, including its headquarters in the Foster Building, as well as the Fitzgerald Building, which houses the Clinton Street Mercantile on the ground floor and 12 apartment units.

It’s also renovating the former Gazette Building on Broadway.

For buildings without on-site parking — including the Fitzgerald — Redburn has steered tenants to the 14 lots owned by Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority.

But the 501 State St. project represents a significant departure in that they’re building a brand-new structure.

“We don’t expect that no one will have cars,” Pinto-Martin told commissioners. “We simply believe that there are an abundance of options here in downtown Schenectady and we are more than capable of working with those partners to be able to provide parking for our tenants.”

Commissioners questioned why a private developer is leaning on a government entity to provide parking via taxpayer-subsidized lots.

“It is a publicly subsidized resource for the community, and it should properly be used for public purposes, and that means visitors to downtown,” commissioner Brendan Keller said.

Neighborhood stakeholders also criticized that approach, contending several of the lots — including Clinton North behind the Jay Street Marketplace — already face a crunch, and that the city should instead work with developers to negotiate shared parking agreements with the owners of private lots that often sit empty during nights and weekends.

Resident Ketura Vics said she was excited about the project, but pointed at numerous nearby lots, including the MVP garage, the Hilton Garden Inn and OrthoNY, among others.

“What options have been considered in terms of maximizing the utility of existing parking that would not be publicly subsidized in the same way that Metroplex’s Laz lots are?” Vics wrote in a letter to the city Board of Zoning Appeals.

Vics also wondered if a formal traffic and parking study had been completed for the $15 million project, which developers have said will break ground this fall.

Pinto-Martin said developers generally try to examine cost-free options first.

Metroplex has the capacity to absorb additional vehicles, said David Hogankamp, the agency’s resident urban planner.

Volume at Metroplex-owned, Laz-operated lots is down by a third of pre-coronavirus pandemic era usage, said Hogankamp, who spent several weeks counting cars earlier this summer to prepare for the pending rollout of the city’s Passport parking app.

“We have an abundance of parking,” Hogankamp said.

A key goal now, he said, is accommodating shared parking solutions throughout the network, making the sticking point not a matter of capacity, but rather creating a system that will regulate the flow of users at different times.

Ideally, office workers would utilize spots during the day, Hogankamp said, while downtown apartment dwellers could use them during off-peak hours.

“We certainly have enough parking spots at night,” Hogankamp said.

Other businesses have also stepped forward to lend a hand.

Brooke and Chris Spraragen purchased a two-story building across from City Hall in March, and the sale includes the 28-unit parking lot located next to Shamrock Pub on Clinton Street.

“Given its close proximity to the project, we would be happy to entertain speaking with residents and collectively come up with a parking solution,” Brooke wrote in a letter to the city Board of Zoning Appeals.

DEAL REACHED

Amid the criticism, Redburn withdrew the application, and said parking for 74 spots will tentatively be provided behind the nearby Bank of America building, where the developers have site control and plan to purchase and convert the structure into retail space, pending the announcement of state economic development funds.

Redburn is currently working with the city and the owners of the bank to hammer out the agreement.

“The purpose of the agreement is to reduce traffic hazards, conserve space and promote orderly development while at the same time maximizing parking efficiency,” said city Corporation Counsel Andrew Koldin on Friday.

Ron Suriano II, owner of Moisture Salon on Barrett Street, said he was glad Redburn withdrew the request. Yet he remained skeptical of the prospects of tenants parking a block away, and across State Street, when they could just park in Clinton North or along Barrett and Clinton streets.

“I don’t realistically feel tenants will abide by that parking,” said Suriano, who also wondered about congestion once events resume at Proctors.

It’s not the first setback Redburn has faced this year. its plans to purchase the Stockade Inn and convert it into apartments and office space this summer was met with fervent opposition from the Stockade Association, leading the developers to walk away from the project.

Suriano said downtown suffers from lack of a neighborhood association, and as the city attracts more and more residents, an organization would be useful.

“It’s more residential and we need to be heard,” Suriano said.

The pending apartment complex is just one project being undertaken by the developers in the neighborhood.

Redburn has plans for further development along Clinton Street as part of an ambitious $38.7 million effort to maximize occupancy along the underutilized corridor, which begins at City Hall and ends at Broadway three blocks away.

Acquisition of the Bank of America building would create a virtually uninterrupted pathway of ownership down the southwest block to the former OTB building on Smith Street, which Redburn purchased last year and plans to convert into affordable housing.

In the middle is the Backstage Pub, which is surrounded entirely by pavement.

Parking is a problem in all cities, shrugged owner Terry Aldrich, who said his customers seldom complain.

Aldrich hasn’t heard much about the development, but anticipates it will be good for business.

“I feel like we’re at the center of everything,” Aldrich said. “It’s great.”

Part 2: How to solve downtown Schenectady parking woes? Solutions abound, say stakeholders

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