Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Age of Excelsior

Don Shula could use a guided tour of the Spa City. At the very least, the most successful coach in the history of professional football could use a road map, opined a reporter from the Times Union in a recent blog entry.

The former Miami Dolphins skipper announced this week he’ll franchise out one of his dinosaur steak-flinging Grill 347 restaurants to the Courtyard Marriott off Excelsior Avenue. But his announcement contained a sort of gaff that any tried-and-true resident –or even a frequent visitor –wouldn’t make: his restaurant will be located at the very core of the city on Excelsior Avenue.

“It’s located in the heart of Saratoga, which is rich in history and proud traditions,” the coach said in a news release.

Considering any part of Excelsior Avenue –the east-west thoroughfare now spanning from the historic Olde Bryan Inn to the Northway –as even part of the so-called heart of Saratoga is just about as misleading as calling Wilton a quaint town in the country, with mom and pop stores abound. In fact, were one to liken Excelsior Avenue to a part of the human anatomy, it would probably be the gastrointestinal tract.

Historically, the structures along the corridor took in raw materials, produced energy and then left behind a whole bunch of shit. When industry left the city, it littered the street with burned out factories and superfund sites, some of which reportedly still exist. During the cleanup, power giant Niagara Mohawk decided to dam up a 4,000-foot length of a nineteenth century storm sewer, trapping contaminated coal tar in an eternal subterranean chamber.

However, the times have since changed on Excelsior. With the passing of time, thoughts of this once grubby side of the city have evaporated into the money-driven aspirations of developers. First, there was Sonny Bonacio’s resurrection of the badly blighted Van Raalte Mill into a small business incubator.With the proverbial canary landing a shovel in the ground, big development was off to the races.

Next up was Jeff and Deane Pfeil’s Excelsior Park, a 27-acre anchor development that literally placed a new community on the northeast corner of town. They were followed into the fray by the Marriot developers and the Lexington Club, a megalithic hotel and condominium complex off Marion Avenue. Add into the mix Bonacio’s town houses and a professional building of East Avenue and Excelsior is starting to look like the newest incarnation of Broadway, absent of course, any real reason for locals to travel down the street.

But wait, there’s more. Skidmore’s party house off Excelsior Spring Road is being marketed by none other than Tom Roohan, the fellow who was the foot behind Bonacio’s shovel during the Van Raalte days. Apparently, the 2.5-acre property is on the market for a cool $1.35 million. Along with the once-lavish Victorian home and adjacent carriage house come plans for a 32-unit residential development for the property that would supposedly use both buildings.

But wait, there’s even more. City planners are again contemplating a new condominium development across the street from the Olde Bryan Inn on High Rock Avenue. The plan calls for the demolition of two older houses –one appearing historic –and the construction of a 15-unit building, with a ground-floor retail space. The project has been kicked around for more than two years and would be something that would start to fill in the gaps between Excelsior’s monolithic condominium and hotel complexes.

So Shula may not be far off in his assumption; one that was undoubtedly made from Miami Beach chasing down a Shula cut with a few too many Budweisers. With rents sky-rocketing on Broadway, all Excelsior needs is a few buildings to house bars and businesses. Then maybe the corridor would actually start drawing pedestrian traffic from its plethora of transient and empty-nester housing sprouting up like crab grass in the spring.

Shula’s 347 Grill is also symbolic of something far different –and perhaps more sinister –than a dawning of the age of Excelsior. The 140-seat restaurant becomes the first chain full-service sit-down eatery to make a foray into the city since the Road Kill Café filed for Chapter 11 nearly a decade ago.

While there are only four 347 Grills, Shula operates 26 similar-themed eateries around the nation. Though the entrance of one small chain could hardly be construed as a trend, private city restaurateurs have good cause to be wary; this is especially if you happen to be Dave LaPoint’s estranged wife.

See, Shula’s join and chains of its ilk have more operating capital than any city restaurant has in assets, meaning they don’t have to worry too much about the aforementioned high rents or a particularly dreary season, as the economy might soon dictate. Shula could very well be the canary for these cookie-cutter businesses, which ironically cater to transient and empty-nester populations not familiar with the local flavors. It’s food for thought, no pun intended.


Anonymous agphoto said...

The 'heart' of Saratoga is a state of mind...some people think it's the track(s); others think it is actually Horatio.

Anyway, i feel somewhat bad for Doc's, which i like actually, but they seem to always be empty lately. It is to be hoped that the coming of Shula's will snap them into more agressively promoting, To wit:
1) On the website link yyou provided, note that all the "news and reviews" come from the Bobby Mitchell ownership era and mention him by name-- e.g.: nothing since 2003. Has Laura LaPoint done nothing to promote herself and her restaurant since then? It would appear by her own site to be so.
2)A pet peeve: no prices on their on-line menu. As one who dines out 3-4 times a week (often to places as expensive or more), I've got to say that's a turn off, and certainly might scare a lot of people. Bet Shula's has all their prices on line.

I don't think that any well-run independent restaurant has anything to fear from a chain actually. Starbucks didn't scare off the UG, and Eddie Bauer just added to the mix of retail. Well- run businesses can ride out economic downturns, sometimes better than chains, who have to answer to stockholders and corporate headquarters a 1000 miles away. Look at the recent misfortunes of Ruby Tuesday and Smokey Bones as examples.

12:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How can any chain restaurant be any worse than the constant whining of Brendisi?

5:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a sad state of affairs for our great city. National chains proliferate while our local favorites continue to suffer and struggle mightily just to keep pace with the Wal-Mart's and Border's of the world.

Why has the development project around the Mariott hotel stopped? Where is all the planned housing?

I'm guessing its all Tom Mctygue's fault.

7:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Time for anon 7:37 to move out of town! Good Riddance! The last thing anyone in this town needs is another jerk living in the past!

7:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I always thought that when the Racino opened that many of the downtown restaurants and bars would be hurt financially.
You can only cut that almighty entertainment dollar in so many pieces.
It would be sad to see Saratoga's privately run thriving restaurant and bar business be harmed by the State-sanctioned Racino.

8:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The trend over the last couple of years has been for the restaurants and bars to disperse further from Broadway proper. Beekman Street, Lake Avenue, Congress Street, and South Broadway all have recently had new establishments open.

Yes these new establishments are also causing the entertainment dollar to be divided into more pieces. Its time for those older Broadway restaurants and bars to step up and increase their competitiveness. It's just business.

12:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There was an article recently about a store on North Broadway moving from their current space to a space in the new condo space off Broadway. The quote was that people don't walk down Broadway. Then the next day there was another article about people not shopping the middle of town because there is no parking. Curious that no one is walking the entire length and no one can find parking? I always park the North end by the City Center (note the word "center") and walk the entire length. Shula's restaurant will be only a block or so further so I don't think it is a stretch for them to say it is the core of the city. Saratoga - as a whole - is completely walkable. Literally. Beekman street is an easy jaunt. Broadway, end to end, can be done by most anyone. Shula's joint will be a short stroll. I suggest people just get out there and enjoy what we do have. We focus so much on the negative. We live in a city that other places strive to be.

9:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The chain retailer and restaurateur are generally missing from the local scene when residents seek donations from the community. Their approvals for even the smallest request for support has to be made somewhere out in a corporate office in Timbuktu.

Although their public space walls are often graced with archival photos of the old city, their profits balanced out by the larger national marketplace do little for the local economy except of course to those who rent them space.

And that is the rub for the local merchant. The local landlords enjoy this ‘wealthier’ tenant but find it hard not to expect the local merchant from digging as deep into a shallower pocket. Don’t let the building owners suggest that the tax structure for commercial properties is burdensome -- many of them protected by a NYS property system that assesses their value at a fraction of its worth.

Also, don’t expect these national companies to provide their time, supporting local concerns and their inventory for silent auctions to raise money for local not-for-profits and causes. They are simply too far removed from making that sympathetic ‘local’ decision.

Progress is what progress does. We are what we eat, and we all shop at these stores. It just pays (us) to consider the local merchant a little bit more before they are only remembered as faded photographs on the wall of some chain replacement. What was it that Pogo said?

4:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

must've been a slow news day. calling the cities east side grubby. seems a bit of a stretch in comparison to the other parts of the city back then.

7:14 AM  

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