Inside a packed city council chambers on Tuesday night, it took nearly two hours for local residents and business owners to express their concerns or support for a downtown parking structure proposed by the Saratoga Springs City Center. The convention hall is seeking to build a parking garage on a hotly contested piece of property in the Spa City’s bustling downtown.
Supporters have called the parking structure critical to the success of the convention center and downtown businesses, while opponents have sought a mixed-use structure that incorporates retail space and apartments.
After the lengthy public hearing, Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan introduced her measure that would direct Mayor Joanne Yepsen to sign a lease-agreement with the City Center to move the parking structure forward.
“The City Center itself was established with a 3-2 city council vote. I feel confident tonight to the City Center and Mark Baker that there are at least three votes here, but we’ll find out more soon — I am hoping that it’s going to be five — that we all see what the City Center does for this community,” said Madigan.
In addition to the City Center’s project, which would occupy a third of the parcel in question, two other agencies submitted designs for mixed-use facilities that would be built on the site. Both proposals were met with criticism and later in the evening were rejected by the City Council.
Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen backed the City Center’s proposal over the two alternatives, and has said that those projects would not accommodate the needs of city vehicles.
“Getting involved with those two massive projects is not in the interests of the city at this point in time. I think that’s really jumping the gun. I think it really makes a lot more sense to do things on a piece-by-piece basis,” said Mathiesen.
Mathiesen’s sentiment was echoed by Public Works Commissioner Anthony “Skip” Scirocco, who gave a slideshow presentation on his concept for a downtown theater district to be built on the city-owned land adjacent to the parking garage project. Scirocco said the lack of parking creates unnecessary traffic downtown.
“More and more people that I meet with, even in my office, come in my office and the concern is, ‘Jeez, I’d have been here earlier but I couldn’t find a place to park. I couldn’t find a place to park. And those are the people that are driving around the city creating all the traffic issues. And that’s been said in studies.”
Commissioner of Accounts John Franck said he believes the downtown parcel was undervalued. He also expressed concern about voting to authorize the lease for the City Center before formally responding to the alternative proposals. In late February, the developers complained of a lack of communication with the City Center.
“There was this back and forth. I just think we never even really closed that process and I think we should have done that or rescinded the RFP altogether before we voted on this. There’s also a current lawsuit outstanding, which gives me some pause.”
The city faces a lawsuit from the owners of the Mouzon House restaurant, which is next door to the City Center project site.
Mayor Yepsen also took issue with the lease authorization.
“If this was privately owned, would we ever allow just a portion of it to be planned and developed? I don’t think so. Or would we prefer a complete development plan that includes more parking than the proposed garage. So if we’re talking about solving a parking problem, we should go with one of the RFP proposals,” said Yepsen.
After discussion, the council voted to direct the mayor to authorize the lease for the City Center project 3-2.
City Center president Mark Baker said he was “extremely excited” about the results, and said he was sorry the mayor could not support the project. Now, the project heads to the city’s Design Review Commission for an architectural review.
“Once we do that, we’re looking for a building permit. And in that process, we’re still looking and open to hear from our neighbors and our friends and people that have concerns and hoping to continue to engage people in conversation.”
Baker says he wants the City Center to be a good neighbor and business partner moving forward.