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Schenectady may end parking mandate for downtown apartment projects

Schenectady may end parking mandate for downtown apartment projects

Planning Commission likes concept but wants parking study first
Schenectady may end parking mandate for downtown apartment projects
Downtown Schenectady is shown in warmer months.
Photographer: Peter Barber

SCHENECTADY — City planning officials want to scrap the parking requirements for downtown apartments. 

For multiple-family dwellings, City Code requires 1.5 parking spots for each unit.

Now planners want to eliminate the regulation — but not before conducting a strategic parking study. 

"I think it's a complicated issue that's often misunderstood, but the easiest way to ease those fears is to do a parking study,” said city Planning Commisson Chair Mary Moore Wallinger. 

The city Planning Commission briefly discussed the concept last week, but backed off on presenting a formal request to the City Council. 

HOT MARKET

Residential downtown housing is skyrocketing. 

At least 1,100 new apartment units have been built since 2013, according to the Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority.

Wallinger said that growth is critical to sustaining downtown’s momentum. 

But with space at a premium, Wallinger fears developers will purchase adjacent buildings, tear them down and use the footprint as the cheapest, easiest way to fulfill their parking requirements. 

One building was taken down as part of the $30 million Mill Artisan District project, she said. 

“Ideally you never want to lose a building on the corner if you can help it,” Wallinger said. 

Scrapping the requirements will hopefully lead to more modern planning by developers, said Wallinger, who cited the underground parking garage at Electric City Apartments as a key example of smart urban planning. 

Getting a grip on parking would also bring the city in line with more modern urban design principles that emphasize walkability and compact downtowns, she said. 

“In an urban environment, what makes it work is its compactness,” Wallinger said.

Wallinger acknowledged planners began to seriously study the issue after noting an increasing number of variances being granted by the Zoning Board of Appeals. 

Since 2017, there have been several applications downtown that have sought permission to create zero parking spaces rather than the combined 42 spaces were required by zoning, according to the city's Development Office. 

"All of those applications were approved based on findings that demonstrated that providing zero parking would not negatively impact the walkable nature of the downtown district," said city Neighborhood Stabilization Coordinator Avi Epstein. 

DEVELOPER APPROVES

Metroplex Chairman Ray Gillen didn’t think stripping away the requirement would dissuade developers from providing parking for their tenants.

“The vast majority of residential projects downtown include plans for parking by the developer,” he said.

Among the power players shaping downtown is Redburn Development Partners, which has renovated two downtown buildings into mixed-use space — the Fitzgerald Building on Clinton Street and Foster Building on adjacent State Street — and plans on remodeling two more: The former OTB and Gazette buildings. 

Redburn Principal Jeff Buell called the regulations outdated and supports their elimination.

"I think overall, removing parking requirements will have a very positive impact on walkability downtown,” Buell said.

Others wondered about the broader impacts.

Ron Suriano II, owner of Moisture Hair Salon on Barrett Street, said the surge of development has led to displacement in his neighborhood. 

Citizens Bank relocated from their 501 State St. location in 2018. The building’s closure led to a parking free-for-all, with downtown office workers using the unmonitored space. 

Redburn purchased and restricted the lot to its tenants last August. Since then, parking has shifted to side streets, with office workers and staff feeding quarters into parking meters all day, Suriano said. 

The practice is problematic for his disabled clients who have canceled their appointments over the lack of accessibility, he said. 

He agreed a strategic parking plan is needed, and said the city should also boost enforcement of parking scofflaws.

“It’s frustrating,” he said. “How can we make a solution when there’s no enforcement?”

Sara Mae Pratt, a county legislator and owner of Puzzles Bakery & Cafe downtown, acknowledged parking can be problematic. 

"It does seem like there’s not enough parking to go around,” Pratt said. "A parking study is a step in the right direction and one that would be much appreciated by business owners and the customers who utilize those businesses.”

PAST DISCUSSIONS

This isn’t the first time the city has eyed revisions. 

The city Planning Commission weighed scrapping the requirements in 2016 but tabled discussion, citing the need for additional research. 

Mayor Gary McCarthy said chatter of parking woes is a good thing because it indicates success. 

Parking-related research is ongoing, said the mayor, who stopped short of endorsing the concept of a formal analysis. 

“How do you structure the parking to meet the needs of the expanding residential base and also the commercial base?” McCarthy said. “Part of the process is ongoing now and we’re collecting more information.” 

Metroplex runs 12 surface lots in the city and offers roughly 2,350 spaces in its municipal garage on Broadway.

McCarthy, who has previously said the city’s Smart Cities initiative will allow for better utilization and management of the city’s parking resources, said he’s working with the authority on new pay mechanisms, which will be deployed later this year. 

The city is also discussing increasing the number of diagonal parking spots downtown and converting some one-way streets to two-way, he said. 

Parking has also emerged as an issue as the city hashes out how to spend $10 million in state economic development funds. 

Participants at a public forum last week said the Downtown Revitalization Initiative should address the subject. 

Stockade resident Rich Unger said with the surge of development, he worries about parking spilling into his neighborhood, which already struggles with congestion. 

Planners acknowledge that whether Schenectady has a parking problem comes down to public perception.

Despite the plethora of open space downtown, many of those lots are privately owned and under-utilized, said city Planner Christine Primiano. 

And while hunting for parking in the Electric City isn’t comparable to cities like Philadelphia and New York City — or even Saratoga Springs, which has been wrestling with parking for years and recently began construction on a new public garage  — there is an expectation by the public to have parking immediately accessible to their destination.

“It’s all about changing that mindset," Primiano said.

Meantime, residential growth downtown is poised to continue.

Apartments at Mill Lane will be available for occupancy in February and final construction work completed in March.

And the same developers behind the Electric City Apartments have announced plans for a new project dubbed Erie Landing, which will build 136 new apartments paired with office and retail space on Erie Boulevard.

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