The bagels and soup will probably be great and the ambiance surprisingly tasteful at Jack McDonald’s upcoming Gillette House fast-food restaurant, but there are at least two important issues that the Stockade neighborhood and City planners need to address if we indeed care about the residential nature and quality of life of our neighborhood:
- the façade: we should keep the façade of the Gillette House free from structural changes, such as larger windows and doors, not just for the sake of historical and architectural integrity, but because those changes will surely mean the building will never go back to being used as a residence or professional offices — the variance will become a de facto permanent zoning change
- traffic issues: we must deal with inevitable traffic problems caused when a building that’s been vacant for two decades suddenly brings a lot of customers and employees in motor vehicles to a location near a major intersection and alongside a one-way, one-lane, one-block, one-exit street that empties into a major thoroughfare, a few yards from a busy intersection, without the benefit of a traffic device.
This slideshow suggests some important issues:
Saving the façade of the Gillette House: The façades of our buildings are especially prized and protected in the Stockade. Even the most minor changes must be approved by the Historic District Commission. No one altered the structure of the street-side walls of the Stockade Inn when it became a restaurant, nor of the VanDyck when it reopened. Each building tastefully announces its function without damaging the historic face of the structure.
Those who pooh-pooh worries about the Gillette House façade need to remember that Jack McDonald tends to get his way (even when he wants something that violates our zoning laws) and he told the Zoning Board he wants larger windows for the Gillette House bagel shop. Indeed, Jack rejected my offer not to sue to reverse the unlawful use variance if he would promise not to change the exterior structure of the Gillette House.
Here are a few other things to keep in mind when deciding whether or not to actively work to protect the exterior structure of the Gillette House:
- Changing the Gillette House façade to make it look commercial will turn the use variance into a permanent defacto zoning change. The commercialization of the exterior, along with making the first floor a fastfood restaurant with a commercial kitchen, etc., will certainly mean the building will never revert to a residential use or become professional offices, which are much more residential-friendly in operation and appearance.
The Historic District Commission recently allowed Cafe Nola to carve up the side of 617 Union St., part of the Union Street Corridor Historic District, with a giant window display (see above, and click on the photo for a larger version).
- Despite the mantra of bagel shop supporters that the streetview is already so commercial at the Stockade entryway that nothing is lost by making the Gillette House look commercial, the residential look of the Stockade is still distinct and clearly demarcated from the downtown commercial zone around it [there’s even about 50′ of empty pavement between the rear of the Gillette House and Clinton’s Ditch Bar & Grill].
That’s how it should be at the Gateway to a historic residential district that is the oldest continuously residential neighborhood in the nation, and that is treasured precisely because the Erie Canal (now Erie Boulevard) saved the neighborhood from the commercial development that overran the rest of downtown Schenectady. (For more, including many photographs, see my posting on the Gillette House streetscape.)
- The standard is never “that would look nice, too” (or “that ain’t so bad”, nor “whatever Jack wants”) when the question is whether or not to make significant (or even minor) changes to the exterior of a Stockade building.
- Bakeries, ice cream parlors, and restaurants in historic districts around the nation make use of old homes without changing their outward appearance. And,
- The Gillette House is not “on the periphery of the Stockade.” It is the most prominent structure at the ceremonial gateway to our grand and special Residential Historic District.
– one-way, one-lane, one-exit So. College St. (click on map it to enlarge) –
updated (April 20, 2011) to include the Fire Station #2 expansion of Clinton’s Ditch Bar & Grill:.
The inevitable traffic problems caused when Station #2 and the Gillette House bagel shop bring many more customers and employees in motor vehicles to So. College St. must be addressed by the Planning Commission. The major concerns are:
1) Traffic on Union St. and Erie Blvd. may be slowed, backed up, or blocked due to many additional lefthand turns from Union St. onto So. College, only a short block (approximately 120’) away from the major intersection of Erie Blvd. and Union St.
2) The increased traffic must exit So. College street by merging into Erie Blvd. a few yards from the Liberty St. intersection, without the benefit of a traffic device, at a spot that is already often treacherous.
3) Double-parked delivery trucks servicing the VanDyck Restaurant already frequently reduce Union St. at College St. to one lane for both eastbound and westbound traffic, for lengthy periods of time, causing danger, obstruction and delays. Deliveries seem likely to increase with the opening of the bagel shop and Station #2, and may even overflow onto the one-lane of So. College St, unless safer delivery practices are required and enforced.
The additional business drawn to Station #2 clearly increases the traffic problems that will be posed by opening a bagel shop at the Gillette House. I do not oppose this long-anticipated restaurant expansion, but it should not be approved until there has been an adequate Traffic Study and steps are taken to assure traffic safety, including adequate plans for loading, and sufficient parking. Under § 264-89 of the City’s zoning laws, the Planning Commission is charged when considering approval of a Site Plan with reviewing thirteen elements, the first three of which are:
A. Adequacy and arrangement of vehicular traffic access and circulation, including intersections, road widths, pavement surfaces, dividers and traffic controls.
B. Adequacy and arrangement of pedestrian traffic access and circulation, walkway structures, control of intersections with vehicular traffic and overall pedestrian convenience.
C. Location, arrangement, appearance and sufficiency of off-street parking and loading.
Trier’s draft environmental assessment form estimates 8 additional employees, but it leaves blank the space asking the maximum Vehicular trips generated per hour. In addition, like Jack McDonald’s bagel shop application, Trier answers “No” to the question of whether the project would result in the generation of traffic significantly above the present level, and therefore gives no answer to the sub-question whether the existing road network is adequate to handle additional traffic.
Jack McDonald and Tim Trier, two savvy businessmen, are both investing significant amounts of money on their respective projects. It seems fair for the layperson and the Planning Commission to assume that they both anticipate attracting enough new customers to warrant the investment. Those customers will clearly increase the unique “traffic access and circulation” problems, and loading and parking concerns, posed by So. College St. in a significant way.
It seems far more likely that changing from having a corner building that has been vacant for two decades to having a busy (presumably successful) fastfood restaurant will generate a significant increase in traffic with a high probability — given the nature of the adjacent streets and intersections (see the map above) and of typical drivers — of significantly increased hazardous driving conditions during the morning and lunchtime rush. Additional traffic headed to Station #2 exacerbates the problems, especially during the lunch and evening rush periods.
- The slowing, backing-up, or blocking of traffic at Union St. and So./No. College Streets, due to additional left-hand turns onto So. College St., which is only a short block (approximately 120’) away from the major intersection of Erie Blvd. and Union St. [see Photo and Street Map]. At present, there are few turns there in the morning, with Gillette House vacant, Clinton’s Ditch not open until lunch, and an alternate way to get to Burger King using Liberty St. Rush and evening rush periods will be further affected by Station #2.
. . . The funneling of vehicles for parking purposes onto a narrow (less than 20′) one-lane, one-way, one-block street (So. College), with only one exit, that merges precariously into Erie Blvd., a major rush-hour artery (see Street Map and Photo), a couple yards from So. Liberty St. There are no traffic devices or signs at the exit of So. College St., other than a Yield sign, leaving vehicles exiting So. College with no more protection than they would have coming out of a private driveway onto a very business highway and intersection. Left turns are already virtually impossible at busy times and right turns often take long waits and a risk-seeking personality. And,
- An increase in U-turns (or K-turns, or driveway turns) on Union St. to allow customers parking on the street to return to Erie Blvd. after a stop for bagels
In addition, there will surely be increased obstruction of the busy two-way traffic on Union St. immediately in front of and across the street from the Gillette House, due to deliveries needed to operate the proposed fastfood restaurant. I say increased, because double-parked delivery trucks servicing the VanDyck Restaurant already frequently reduce Union St. at that location to one lane for both eastbound and westbound traffic, for lengthy periods of time (see, e.g., Photo 1, taken Feb 1, 2011, and Photo 2, taken Nov. 2, 2010). One office worker at that end of the block says its happens about three times a week, and I can attest that it happens far too often already. If bagel shop delivery trucks instead use So. College Street, that narrow, one-lane road might be totally blocked (especially because the adjacent Clinton’s Ditch parking area will not be available for shared use with the building of Station #2).
– see the Slide Show at the top of the webpost for additional photos.
Quality of Life:
Finally, as to quality of life for those living and working on that block, we should worry a bit that:
- there will likely be a decrease in available parking spots along that end of Union St. for residents, their visitors, office and institutional workers, their clientele, and volunteers — especially when its lunch time at the VanDyck. And,
- even the nicest fastfood restaurant will create undesirable noise and odors that denigrate the quality of life for those living on this predominantly and densely residential block, and the quality of working conditions in nearby Stockade offices. After dropping the ball in preventing loud events at Clinton’s Ditch at night, we should be working to minimize the externalities of the bagel shop.
Now that it has passed the Use Variance hurdle, I want the bagel shop to succeed. We have been spared Jack’s original idea of a drive-through window at that location. But, those who care about the livability, safety and historic residential integrity of the Stockade need to be vigilant and to get back to advocating for traditional Stockade values.
p.s. For the reasons stated in this email to the Stockade neighborhood Yahoo email group, I have decided not to bring a lawsuit challenging the unlawful bagel shop use variance. See “Making Sausages & Laws — and Bagels” (14 pp. pdf.) for an in-depth version of the Use Variance story.