Thursday, March 15, 2007

My way or the highway

Get your trusty wrecking ball out, because it’s throwback demolition day at City Hall. Tonight, the Saratoga Springs Design Review Commission will contemplate a pair of long-standing plans –pun quite intended –to level a pair of structures that have long been fixtures of the Spa City’s landscape for better or for worse.

And ironically, the two deep-pocketed developers –Stewart’s Shops and Bruce Levinsky –proposing to level them have spent the better part of this century sparring bitterly with the city over building plans and ways to bring their respective structures down.

First on the agenda is the 50-something-year-old service station on Union Avenue, immediately across from the main entrance to the Saratoga Race Course. For more than four years, developers from the omnipresent Stewart’s Shops have had their sites on the property, itself a throwback to the by-gone era of independent service stations featuring the corner mechanic.

Located just a stone’s throw away from the toweringly expensive mansions on Union Street, the property is on the edge of a very rich residential zone, meaning that technically the gas station isn’t even an appropriate use for the land. But during the 1950s, the city was in a pronounced downward spiral and city officials weren’t really that concerned about petty little things like zoning; hey, that’s what variances are for.

With the station built, service station operators pumped gas and fixed cars off Union Avenue on what is perhaps the most formidable quarter-acre of land in the city for nearly five decades. Then, the Dake family got an idea: throw a half million ducats at the property owner to get the land, then shower the city with love and affection so they change the zoning once again to allow a lovely brown-and-brick Stewart’s Shop on the popular corner.

See, the Dakes can sniff out a money-maker like a hog can sniff out truffles. And if there was ever a place in the world to have a beer-selling double-large coffee-pushing hot-dog-special moving convenient store, it would be right in front of the race course in “an upscale” Stewart’s Shop.

Aside from knowing the shop would pawn off more gut-bomb egg sandwiches and scratch-off lottery tickets than any convenient store in the state, the Dakes also realized the invaluable amount of advertising they’d get for eight weeks out of the year. With hundreds of thousands of people passing by the shop each season, Stewart’s would suddenly might able to bust the mold of being just a quirky little upstate lard-and-lottery dealer.

Then came along the pesky city zoning board. Residents in the area argued a Stewart’s wouldn’t fit the “character” of the neighborhood. Although it should be noted, the character of the neighborhood isn’t exactly enhanced by the present Citgo Station. After wrangling through three years of contentious public hearings and court proceedings, Stewart’s was sent to the high road, after a state Supreme Court Judge ruled they hadn’t proved station couldn’t be profitable by just selling gas.

Stunned by this defeat, the Dakes went back to sniffing. And they didn’t need to sniff long until coming up with a new plan: level the damn thing and pave over it. Yes, there’s money in that there asphalt –especially during the summer. What self-respecting touron wouldn’t pay dearly to cruise into a parking space just feet away from the track entrance? And with no existing buildings on the land, the tax assessment on the property would be negligible at best meaning the Dakes can simply wait for the proper political climate to retool their ultimate plan.

But even more conniving is the fork-to Levinsky, the owner of the former Rip Van Dam Motel. Nearly a year after his building began belching bricks on the adjacent Adelphi courtyard, the thorny developer has yet to do much of anything to the historic 40,000-square-foot wing of the hotel, despite threats from the city.

Now the building has aged one more year, with little or no attention and Levinsky will make yet another case before the commission as to why it should be torn down. Clearly for him, the only reason is that preserving it would cost money and force him to rework his dusty plan to build an upscale Ramada Plaza Suite hotel –as if the city really needs another hotel.

To date, the city has fined Levinsky more than $22,000 for his insolence, which is more cash than some people see over the course of a year. But for the stubborn and ineffectual developer, this is chump change, especially when he appears just a few snowfalls away from having unequivocal proof of the building’s deteriorating condition.

What the DRC should do is tell Levinsky to go stand helmetless in the Adelphi courtyard until a brick falls off his building and lands on his head. Then assure the developer –if he survives the massive head wound –he’s free to demolish the building at his leisure.

So folks, turn off that episode of Survivor tonight and head on down to city hall for some good old-fashion barn-burner. Who knows, maybe the DRC will have Levinsky duke it out with whatever shill the Dakes hire to spit lies; the winner gets the golden wrecking ball.


Anonymous Dan said...

On the subject, any idea when the former Skidmore dorm "The Pink Palace" will be imploded. That should be fun to watch.

11:00 AM  

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