The evolution of the plan for the $110 million redevelopment of two whole blocks in Albany's Park South Neighborhood -- and the big parking garage that's prompted so much conversation -- continued Friday with two new options presented to the Common Council committee examining the plan.
New renderings, comments, and a few thoughts post jump...
The renderings are in large format above -- click or scroll all the way up.
The Park South redevelopment is covered by a plan approved in 2006. What's currently at issue are three amendments to that plan:
+ An amendment to increase the height of the mixed-use buildings along New Scotland Ave.
+ An amendment to increase the number of residential units in the development.
+ An amendment to shift the footprint of the parking garage to cover to an already-existing building -- Bolton Hall -- that to be kept in the original plan.
Those first two amendments don't appear to be controversial. But the plan for the parking garage -- with about 60 percent more parking spots than the garage in the original plan -- has prompted a lot of discussion and criticism for its scale and appearance.
Columbia Development -- which is coordinating the project for Albany Med and Tri-City Rentals -- was back before the committee with two new options that it formulated based on feedback so far. The renderings are above and they're quickest way to get a handle on the changes. But the new options roughly break down like this:
Option 1: A residential unit is added to the corner of Robin and Myrtle. The garage reconfigured with an "L" shape so that it includes 825 spots and one level less than the previous plan (let's call that Option 0), so that it would be about 11 feet shorter.
Option 2: Again, the new residential unit on Robin and Myrtle. But in this version the garage would sit up against Myrtle Ave, allowing two levels to be taken off the garage. That would result in a garage with a height of about 64 feet -- roughly 15 feet shorter than Option 1 (depending on where it's measured). The garage would include 816 spaces.
The new options -- especially Option 2 -- seemed to get a generally positive reception from the committee members. And the city's planning staff -- which had earlier issued a memo with reservations about Option 0 -- weighed in with a new memo indicating a recommendation for Option 2, if an independent study of traffic and parking impacts is included.
"The plan that we presented today is a much better plan than we came in with," said Rich Rosen, VP of Columbia Development. "That shows that the process is effective and it's working."
Rosen again mentioned during the meeting that having the right amount of parking -- and Columbia believes that's probably somewhere in the 800-spot range -- is central to the success of the project, both in terms of being able to get financing and the long-run prospects of the office, retail, and residential space.
"What if we went out there and undersized the garage by a hundred spaces, and then we impacted the off-street parking in the neighborhoods with an additional hundred cars," said Rosen after the meeting. "I'd much rather be able to walk through two years from now with the garage we're proposing now and say, 'Wow, there are 10 vacant spots' than walk in and go, 'Oh my goodness, the project's failing because we don't have enough parking."
If the new version is approved by the full Common Council, many of the details will end up getting hashed out with the city's planning board. Also possibly part of that process: that independent traffic and parking study recommended by the planning staff. Rosen said he's "pretty confident" the outside study will back up the number of parking spaces currently included in the two options.
Even with the adjustments made in the two new options, the plan continued to draw criticism. Leah Golby, the only member of the five-member committee to vote against moving the amendments to the full Common Council, praised the changes made in Option 2. But: "It's still not enough."
Golby continued to express reservations about the need for 800some parking spots, citing trends that people -- especially younger generations -- are driving less. Though the parking garage amendment in question only relates to the footprint of the garage -- and not its capacity or design -- Golby said she saw the the footprint and the size of the garage as being inextricably linked. She framed the issue as being about land use, questioning why the city would want to swap land
currently used for housing with possible mixed use (Bolton Hall) for parking -- especially when a significant amount of land around AMC is already dedicated to parking. Golby, who lives a few blocks up Myrtle from the development site, was also critical of how traffic from the garage would affect the neighborhood's quality of life, asserting that a 500-spot garage was the "upper limit" for what the neighborhood's streets could handle.
That concern about extra traffic generated by cars headed for the garage was echoed by Cathy Fahey, another council member and member of the committee. Added council member Michael O'Brien later on: "The one thing that isn't going to change [about the situation] is the size of Myrtle Ave." And during the public comment period, Virginia Hammer -- the president of the Pine Hills Neighborhood Association -- questioned the order of how the process was moving ahead. "Why don't we have the [new traffic] study first?"
A few other speakers during the public comment period also questioned how the project would affect the city's tax base, an issue that will get more attention when the plan goes before the industrial development agency.
Different views of the future
Watching the meeting today, it occurred to us that some of the conflict in this process is about competing fundamental views of the future. From one perspective, there's Columbia Development and its desire for a development backed up with large amounts of parking -- demand for which it doesn't see declining over the years. This project is, in some sense, literally and figuratively built around parking. As Rosen said Friday during the meeting, "We are a car culture."
From another perspective, there's Leah Golby. She's an avowed transit rider, and her view of the future includes people driving much less than they are today. From her perspective, building a big parking garage is probably like looking backward instead of forward.
Of course, the problem is that no one really knows how the future is going to turn out. But this is a process that will result in choices that could echo through the neighborhood for decades, long after the people making those decisions are still here. These are big decisions.
Up next in this process: A vote by the full Common Council on Monday, December 16 about the three amendments. If the amendments are approved, the process moves along to the city planning board, which will examine many of the details involved -- and possibly reshape the plan even further.
Earlier on AOA:
+ Six not-boring parking garages
+ A bit more about the Park South redevelopment and that big parking garage
+ A big topic for the Park South redevelopment: parking
+ The big plan for residential and retail redevelopment in Albany's Park South
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