Posted by: David Giacalone | December 29, 2010

the Gillette House streetscape (and bagel shop story)

– scroll down past the updates for the original piece about the Gillette House’s distinctively noncommercial streetscape and the need to preserve it.

update (February 9, 2011): For the reasons stated in this email to a Stockade neighborhood group, I have decided not to bring a lawsuit challenging the clearly unlawful bagel shop use variance.  However, in the posting “a bagel shop – with a side order of preservation and safety,” I urge more action to protect the Gillette House facade and consideration of some inevitable traffic problems that will arise around the Gillette House once it is a busy sandwich shop.

Update & Intro (Jan. 23, 2011): Below you will find many pictures, a little discussion about the Gillette House Bagel Shop tale, and links to important materials.  Click “Board ignored law in approving bagel shop for Gillette House” for the text of my Sunday Gazette Viewpoint column (Jan. 23, 2011; at D3; pdf.; also available with subscription at the Gazette website).  And see “Making Sausages & Laws — and Bagels” (14 pp. pdf.) for an in-depth version of the Use Variance story, with background facts, explanation of the law, and details of the application process and the decision of the Board of Zoning Appeals [BZA].  As I say in that essay:

BZA’s job is to apply the law.  It doesn’t matter whether we like and respect Jack McDonald; or if he could make more money selling bagels rather than office space, or get additional tax exemptions or public grants.  Neither does it matter that some or all Stockade residents would like to have convenient, fresh bagels nearby and believe Jack would run an excellent bagel shop based on his other enterprises; nor that the surrounding blocks along Erie Blvd. might be commercial.  Without concrete proof of a hardship that is not self-created, the Board has no authority to grant a use variance to allow the bagel shop.  It must instead follow the law and promote its purposes, especially those meant to protect the quality of life and nature of residential neighborhoods.

. . . [O]ur long-standing Stockade zoning restrictions were enacted with the purpose “to protect the area’s distinctive residential quality and the architectural or historical significance of structures therein.” (Schenectady Zoning Ordinance § 264-10. Purpose)

Here are links to other important documents:

  • Application for a Use Variance for 252 Union St., by John M. “Jack” McDonald, asking the Schenectady Board of Zoning Appeals to permit a fast-food restaurant (a bagel and sandwich shop) at the Gillette House; plus the accompanying drawings, and the submitted environmental assessment form.
  • BZA Guidelines for Applicants – explains what the Board usually expects from Applicants.
  • Letter in Opposition by David Giacalone to BZA (8 pp. pdf.), and its 13-photo Photo Appendix (Dec. 30, 2010) – explains why granting the request would clearly be unlawful, as well as contrary to the purposes of the residential historic district zoning. (It was written prior to the January 5, 2011 hearing where the request was granted.)
  • Letter in Support from Stockade Association to BZA (Oct. 27, 2010) requesting approval of the the bagel shop use variance
  • NYS General City Law Article 5-A §81-b – – the governing state statute on the power of a zoning board of appeals to grant a Use Variance. See especially § 81-b(3);
  • Zoning Ordinance of the City of Schenectady (adopted March 24, 2008). See especially § 264-10. RH-2 Stockade Historic Residential District (pp. 23 -24); Schedule A: Regulations for Residential Districts (at 39); § 264-118. Appeals application (p. 129)
  • Stockade Land Use map from the City of Schenectady Comprehensive Plan 2020 (page 5 of the Stockade Neighborhood portion of the Plan); yellow, pink, purple and dark blue parcels are in residential use.

– click on a photo for a larger version –

. . . the original weblog posting, with updates:

Update (Jan. 6, 2011):  Yesterday evening, the Board of Zoning Appeals granted the Use Variance allowing Jack McDonald to put a bagel shop in the Gillette House.  (Read about it in the Gazette, here, if you are a subscriber) The Board’s action is clearly unlawful, but they seem unconcerned about the law or the facts.

The big concern for me now is preserving the Gillette House façade which is clearly in jeopardy. Jack says it needs larger windows and he likes the look of Clinton’s Ditch.  Stay tuned — and be vigilant.


[original posting]

– the gateway to the Stockade Historic District seen from below the Amtrak trestle –

– the Gillette House, 252 Union St. –

In his application for a Use Variance to allow a fast-food bagel/sandwich shop at 252 Union Street, Jack McDonald suggests that the setting of the Gillette House — the streetscape and activity around it — is already so commercial in character and appearance that nothing of significance will be lost by turning the building into a fast-food restaurant at the gateway to the Stockade Residential Historic District.  Several of my Stockade neighbors have echoed the same argument in supporting Jack’s application and trying to dissuade opposition.

For example, in his Application for a Use Variance, Jack McDonald says that the So. College Street view “is commercial being adjacent to Clinton’s Ditch [Bar & Grill],” when explaining why the variance won’t change the character of the neighborhood.  Similarly, in the Full Environmental Assessment Form he has submitted, when responding to a question about whether the proposed action is “consistent with the recommended uses in adopted local land use plans,” Jack states that “the building is bounded by commercial uses.”

The assertions are incorrect, as you can see from the array of over a dozen photos in the captioned gallery below, which look at the Gillette House, the Stockade gateway and So. College Street from several vantage points and perspectives and belie the notion that the streetscape is essentially commercial already (click on each for a larger version).  Furthermore, the Gillette House is not “bounded by commercial uses”.  Jack owns the Millington House, which is right next to the Gillette House to the west and is not zoned for nor being used as a commercial structure.  Neither, of course, is the apartment building next to the Millington House (248 Union St.), nor the one directly across from it at 243 Union St. (an 8-unit building), and its multi-unit residential neighbor, 241 Union St.

. . .

Of course, if the Stockade gateway were being overwhelmed by commercial activities and sights, it would be even more important to preserve the distinctive residential ambiance of the historic district by assuring that the most prominent building at its entryway — the Gillette House — be used as either a residence or professional offices, which are far more compatible with a residential neighborhood (especially with ample parking a few yards away across So. College Street).   The columns announcing entry into the Stockade are meant to set the district apart — and to announce how distinctive our residential historic district is.

Here’s the first section of the zoning law establishing the Stockade Historic Residential District (emphases added):

§ 264-10. RH-2

A.  Purpose. The Stockade Historic Residential (RH-2) District is intended to promote, maintain and enhance the historic Stockade neighborhood where specialized standards and requirements are necessary to protect the area’s distinctive residential quality and the architectural or historical significance of structures therein.

Indeed, on the home page of their Stockade Inn website, the McDonald family stresses the residential nature of the Stockade and explains how the great fire of 1819 and the building of the Erie Canal insulated the Stockade “from the repeated redevelopment that marks the history of nearly all of America’s city centers.” They note that “Strict zoning rules have protected the area since the 1960’s.”

The quickest way to give the Stockade streetscape and gateway along South and North College Streets and Erie Boulevard at Union St. the feel of a “developed” urban commercial zone would be to turn the Gillette House into a fast-food establishment or any other busy commercial business.  It is at their borders that historic districts require the highest vigilance to preserve their distinct appearance and style.  The buildings and neighbors located near those borders deserve more, not less, protection from the signage, noise and bustle of commercial establishments.

– This gallery offers more perspectives (click on a photo for a larger version) –



. . .

. . . . 

Personal Note: I’m was honored to have a photo I took of Lawrence the Indian used for the Stockade Historic District gateway banners, erected in February 2010 at Erie Blvd. and Union St., a stone’s throw from the Gillette House.

p.s. These days, the only time the entrance to the Stockade at Union St. and College Streets looks significantly commercial is when the westbound lane of Union St. is blocked by huge trucks making deliveries to the Van Dyck lounge.  Where would delivery trucks park to service a bagel shop located at the Gillette House?

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