The Age of Excelsior
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.