The Schenectady City Council welcomed a full house Monday evening for a public hearing on proposed zoning changes for the old Alco site, with a majority of people speaking in favor of the amendments.
More than a dozen people addressed the City Council about zoning changes requested by the Galesi Group, a Rotterdam developer, to transform the 60-acre brownfield into Mohawk Harbor with housing, hotels and a casino. Some speakers envision the project as a beautiful development, while others said it would negatively affect nearby communities.
“As all of you know, I’m for the casino,” said Mary Ann Ruscitto, who lives in the East Front Street neighborhood. “I think the buildings are going to be beautiful. For years we looked at empty buildings with broken windows. East Front Street does not see the problem and we’re very excited, as the neighborhood abuts the property.”
The public comment period came after the Planning Commission recommended the zoning amendments to the council following a four-hour meeting debating them last week. The commission made some small tweaks but approved a majority of the original requests. The City Council will discuss the zoning during committee on Feb. 2, and vote on the changes on Feb. 9.
Some of the changes to the C-3 waterfront mixed-use district include:
* Maximum building height of 110 feet, with no special-use permit required.
* A total of 19,000 square feet of signage for the casino, adjacent hotel, parking garage and other ancillary facilities. The Planning Commission requested that multi-use pylon signs not exceed a height of 90 feet. Electronic message boards with a rate of change every eight seconds.
* Buildings and parking lots could not be located within 40 feet of the Mohawk River. That’s down from the original 50 feet. Also, drive-in establishments would be permitted by special use permit.
* The Planning Commission recommended a maximum of 1.5 parking spaces per gaming customer and 1.75 parking spaces per hotel room. Additional parking would be permitted by special-use permit. Galesi was originally asking for up to two parking spaces per casino and hotel visitor.
* Business offices could occupy up to 5,000 square feet, up from the original 3,000 square feet, on the ground floor of buildings with frontage on the river. All other offices with more square footage would be located on upper floors, with retail on the ground floor.
* The bike trail would have a width of at least 10 feet along the length of the shoreline and be located adjacent to the river. Zoning calls for an additional 2 feet of graded area on both sides of the trail and a 10-foot buffer between the trail and the river.
Gloria Kishton, chair of the Schenectady Heritage Foundation, said she is concerned about public access to the waterfront after the site is developed by Galesi and a casino is up and running under Rush Street Gaming of Chicago. Public access to the property, owned by Galesi, is not required under the proposed zoning changes.
“One thing I am really, really concerned about is whether the public has a right to use our waterfront,” she said. “That is really important to me. The public was guaranteed that right, but I do not see that in the proposed changes. I would be outraged if the council allowed the developer to control public access to the waterfront.”
David Buicko, chief operating officer of the Galesi Group, the last person to speak during the public hearing, stressed that the project would include public access to the Mohawk River. He said the changes to the zoning code are not about the casino but about the overall development of the site.
Galesi and Rush Street were recommended for a casino license by the state Gaming Facility Location Board last month. The $330 million Rivers Casino and Resort at Mohawk Harbor will be built within two years of receiving a license from the Gaming Commission, which is expected in a few months after background checks are completed by state police.
“We would have been proposing the amendments to the Planning Board and the City Council with or without a casino,” Buicko said. “These are things that are necessary for the project. If you drive by during the day, it’s very exciting. It’s also one of the most complicated projects we have ever worked on.”
Buicko addressed some of the public’s concerns, including access to the Mohawk River.
“We’re working with the county to include a bike path,” he said. “We have a harbor that will hopefully be approved shortly. The easiest thing to do is not to do a harbor, but we think we need to get back to our roots and access the river. We’re going to add vibrancy to the city.”
As part of the $480 million development of the site, Galesi is looking to create a harbor with 50 boat slips. The marina still requires approval by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“This will enable a more creative and imaginable project, a project no one believed was possible when the zoning was originally created,” said Chuck Steiner, president of the Chamber of Schenectady County. “This project, as we know, is taking an abandoned brownfield totally inaccessible to the public into a multi-dimensional project.”
Other people who spoke in favor of the zoning changes were Jim Salengo, executive director of the Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corp., owners of the Van Dyck restaurant and the Paul Mitchell School, and members of the Local 157 Laborers Union.
Before the public hearing Monday evening, council members Marion Porterfield and Vince Riggi said city residents have valid concerns, and they would like more information on the potential impact of the zoning changes before next month’s vote by the council.
“It’s concerning to me, and I think for people like myself it would be nice to visualize something,” Riggi said. “I don’t want it to be a carnival-like atmosphere with the signage. Zoning regulations are there for a reason, and when we change them we have to be careful.”
Reach Gazette reporter Haley Viccaro at 395-3114, [email protected] or @HRViccaro on Twitter.