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Public Forum On Development Draws Crowd In Saratoga Springs

Lucas Willard

Residents of Saratoga Springs — a city with a booming downtown — gathered Tuesday night to ask questions and hear from developers about how to manage growth.

The community forum hosted by Sustainable Saratoga and the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation drew an interested crowd on a snowy Tuesday night.

With recent construction popping up throughout the city, the topics of land use and development have been hotly debated.

Before the forum with local developers, Georges Jacquemart, founding principal with firm BFJ Planning, gave a presentation focused on the height of the Spa City’s buildings, past and present. Saratoga, once known for its toweringhotels, today features newer construction that architects have worked to fit into the character of the city.

Much of the presentation was information from a study commissioned by the city in 2006. Jacquemart explored the notion of a height/width ratio between buildings and roadways.

“I wouldn’t call it a standard but there’s this rule of height versus width, or height over weight ratio,that some planners or some urban designers suggest should be close to one. So that’s a little bit of a challenge that we were asked to address in the study.”

Inside downtown Saratoga’s so-called T-6 area, buildings are generally limited to 70 feet. That’s based on the height of the church tower spires on Washington Street.

But street widths very greatly in the Spa City. Broadway, the city’s hub, is 120 feet wide. Some streets are as narrow as 38 feet.

Doug Kerr, current chair of the Advocacy Committee and past president of the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation, says buildings over 70 feet have been constructed downtown in the past and there is space available for development.  

“So there’s the potential to build a lot of very tall buildings. But there are existing constraints to that.”

One constraint is the necessary approvals from the city’s land-use boards. Another is the wealth of historic architecture downtown.

“The current zoning says that if you’re going to building something within the historic district or within the architectural district, then it has to be compatible with what’s around it. And so if you have a two-story historic building, compatibility is not necessarily a 70-foot-tall building right next to it,” said Kerr.

While some agree that the city’s strict zoning laws have helped concentrate development downtown and preserve residential neighborhoods, Matt Hurff of Frost Hurff Architects has mixed feelings on zoning laws.

“The dark side of zoning is that the fundamental premise is that the individual citizen doesn’t have the intelligence or morality to develop their property properly. So I think zoning, in terms of actual regulation, needs a fairly light touch.”

An ongoing focus of debate in Saratoga Springs, as real estate prices skyrocket, is the need for workforce and low-income housing.

One audience member chastised the so-called NIMBY’s – Not In My Backyard -- that he characterized as hindering developers from building affordable apartments.

Inclusionary Zoning, or requiring new construction to include affordable apartments, was fiercely debated last year.

Developer Sonny Bonacio said one solution to the city’s lack of housing is allowing additional floors to be built onto existing or new construction; exceeding the 70-foot limit but allowing for more units without breaking new ground.

He still thinks adding more affordable housing via Inclusionary Zoning is possible.

“We could have – and we still can and I still believe that we can – but Saratoga has this magic line that we’ve put it over the top…which is OK if that’s what the city wants, that’s fine…then we have to take off the point of saying ‘developers, you do this with an additional floor that we really don’t want to give ya.’”

Saratoga Springs Principal Planner Kate Maynard also took part in the discussion. Other topics covered included public transportation and building into the city’s residential area.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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