All along, we’d been led to believe we were getting this glitzy modern complex, something that would show that Schenectady had cast off its dingy 19th century industrial coveralls for a 21st century tuxedo.
On Thursday, we found out we were sold a bill of goods when developers released new architectural renderings for the Rivers casino and hotel-marina complex that look more like a combination of 1970s suburban shopping mall, high school gymnasium and the old Alco train-making factory that was torn down.
Remember how Dorothy felt when she discovered the Wizard of Oz was just a frumpy old man standing behind a curtain? It’s like that.
It’s gratifying that the designers had second thoughts about the original design and tried to incorporate more elements to make it fit into the historic nature of the community. They made the retail and office space look like a stretch of Jay Street. And they considered the abrupt contrast in architectural styles to the buildings in the historic Stockade and made an attempt to tone it down with brown bricks.
It’s all very thoughtful. And they’re right. It fits right in. But is that really what we wanted?
And by the way, what’s with all that pavement facing the street all of a sudden? It looks like the “Chariots of Fire” scene from “National Lampoon's Vacation.”
When the architects were considering designs for the site, did none of these issues about historic and architectural conformity come up in their meetings? Was there a sudden uproar from the public over the original design? Why is this design being sprung on us now? The only major issue some members of the public seemed to have — aside from having a casino at all — was the electronic signs. Judging from the new renderings, they’re as big and clunky and awful as some had feared. Interesting how those were the only things missing from the original design.
There’s nothing wrong with old-style Schenectady. We love it. But we’ve already got a lot of that. This was supposed to be something new. Something that would stand out from the rest. An exclamation point on the existing architecture, not a carbon copy of it.
A cynic might say this isn’t really about aesthetics, but about money. Perhaps not coincidentally, this casino looks remarkably similar to the casino that Rivers has in Des Plaines, Ill. Why create a modern new space when you already have an existing facility as a template? Familiarity breeds savings.
Maybe we’re supposed to be grateful for any design at all. Certainly, anything they build will look better than the existing giant empty lot, for decades littered with piles of construction debris, steel girders and weed-covered clumps of dirt.
But we weren't promised just anything. We were promised a spectacle. And this design is a fizzled firework.
Developers should go back to the old design that we’ve seen since the day they first offered renderings. The design the state Gaming Commission saw when it was weighing locations for the state’s four casinos. The design that was presented to the public and the politicians at public hearings. The one we’d come to anticipate.
If they still want to placate the traditionalists and keep some of the nicer elements of the new design, come up with a hybrid, some kind of cross between the gleaming glass and the boring brick. Look no further than the Schenectady County library downtown, which successfully blended new features with traditional elements. Or Glens Falls Hospital to the north, where the cancer treatment center is a remarkable example of how to meld the new and the old. Think: EMPAC performing arts building at RPI meets GE headquarters on Erie Boulevard.
In contemplating which design to go with, developers should consider that it’s very possible the original design helped sell the concept of a casino in downtown Schenectady in the first place.
Perception equals reality. What is the perception we want people to have of our new casino and retail center and hotel and townhouse complex? And how will that perception ultimately affect the bottom line? How enthusiastic are people going to be driving great distances to a facility that looks like a relic from the WPA? What reality will we get in return for this abrupt change in design concept?
There's only one place this new rendering should go:
Back to the drawing board.