Pyramid seeks $1.5M in tax breaks, public divided at hearing

— From the application for Rapp Road Development on file with the Guilderland IDA 
David Aitken of Pyramid showed Guilderland’s Industrial Development Agency, at a public hearing Monday night, this rendering of an apartment complex the company wants to build at Rapp and Gipp roads, just west of Crossgates Mall. Crossgates is asking the Capital District Transportation Authority to add a bus stop in front of the complex. 

GUILDERLAND — Corporate welfare: That’s what several Guilderland residents said Pyramid would get if the town’s Industrial Development Agency approved its application for tax breaks to build a 222-unit apartment-and-townhouse complex at Rapp and Gipp roads.

On the other hand, two business owners and a former president of the local chamber of commerce supported the project and the tax breaks at a public hearing on Monday.

Pyramid, which owns Crossgates Mall, is applying for an estimated $1.5 million in exemptions — $1.2 million in sales-tax exemption, and $354,000 in mortgage-recording tax exemption. Pyramid says it will cost about $41.8 million to build the complex and anticipates a mortgage of $35.4 million.

The Industrial Development Agency will consider the application at its Jan. 28 meeting, to be held at 7 p.m. in Guilderland’s town hall, said Donald Csaposs, the agency’s chief executive officer. Csaposs said that comments in letters or emails made by Jan. 28 will be entered into the public record and that people can comment at meeting as well, he said.

David Aitken, Pyramid’s director of government affairs, outlined plans to build two five-storey apartment buildings. That is the same height, he pointed out, as the Pyramid-owned hotel that opened in October in front of Crossgates Mall on Route 20. Pyramid received over $1 million in tax breaks from the IDA to build the hotel.

One five-storey building would hold 94, and the other 98, apartments, for a total of 192. The apartments would have one- and two-bedroom units.

Behind the two five-storey apartment buildings would be three two-storey buildings, each with 10 townhouses, Aitken said, bringing the total number of units to 222. There would be parking underneath each structure.

The apartments would target young professionals and empty-nesters, he said. Pyramid is asking the Capital District Transportation Authority to add a bus stop directly in front of the complex, Aitken said.

Csaposs noted at the hearing that the portion of mortgage-recording tax earmarked for the CDTA would not be subject to any mortgage-recording tax exemption, if an exemption were granted. He said that the amount due to CDTA is calculated at one-fourth of 1 percent of the total mortgage amount, which would be $88,500. That amount would still be payable to the CDTA, he said.

According to the IDA application, the complex would open in the summer of 2020.

The application also calls for about 4,300 square feet of commercial space to be included in the project.

This development project is necessary, Aitken said, because the industry has changed a lot since Crossgates opened in March 1984, almost 35 years ago. “Traditional retail outlets are closing around the state and around the country,” he said, adding that Pyramid has always “worked to be ahead of the curve,” as evidenced from the mix of entertainment and dining venues now seen at Crossgates along with retailers.

Aitken pointed out that the land, owned by Pyramid, is within the recently approved Transit-Oriented District. This overlay district, created in 2018, is intended to concentrate apartment development around the area of the Crossgates Mall ring road, in keeping with recommendations of the 2016 Westmere Corridor Study.

Because it is located in the Transit-Oriented District, the development project requires only site-plan review from the planning board. It has not yet been approved, and has only been discussed at one planning-board meeting to date, on Dec. 12.

Don Reeb, formerly the head of the McKownville Improvement Association, talked about some of the other ways that tax money could be used by the county and town, if it were paid by Pyramid instead of being exempted. He said that part of it might be used by the county to maintain Lawson Lake on the Helderberg escarpment, or by the town to create and connect walking pathways or to make sidewalks.

In any case, Reeb said, if the money were held by government, it would be subject to democratic scrutiny each time it were used in a different project; there would be no scrutiny by the public if it were held by Crossgates, he said.

Lynne Jackson, a founding member of Save the Pine Bush — which Jackson describes as an all-volunteer organization that uses litigation and education to protect the globally rare pine barrens — said Crossgates has been a bad neighbor. “For 10 years running, Crossgates appealed its property tax assessment,” said Jackson, who lives in Albany. Guilderland Assessor Karen Van Wagenen clarified on Tuesday that this was a long time ago, through around the year 2000.

Jackson added that it is far too early in the process — “nowhere near approval by the planning board,” she said — for the developer to be asking for tax exemptions. Jackson said that, globally, one species after another going extinct. The reason for these extinctions, she said, is people building in ecologically sensitive areas. Guilderland taxpayers are obligated to protect the Pine Bush, she said.

Resident Steve Wickham read aloud the mission of the Guilderland IDA from its website: “Assist in the enhancement and diversity of the economy of the Town of Guilderland by acting in support of projects in the Town that create and/or retain jobs and/or promote private sector investment utilizing the statutory powers of the Agency as set forth under the provisions of the laws of the State of New York.”

The agency’s mission is not, he said, to provide corporate welfare. The IDA should not be granting tax breaks to companies for projects that the companies would do anyway, with or without the assistance, especially when those projects are contrary to the mission of the IDA, he said.

On Tuesday Wickham said, “My understanding is that the mission of the IDA is to help attract businesses to the town that we need. And to provide diversity — encourage competition. But this is not that at all. We already have several proposals on the table for apartment buildings. Why do we need to encourage Crossgates to build another apartment complex?”

Wendy Dwyer of Canaan in Columbia County said she continues to pay taxes every year on “a tiny piece of land” in Guilderland that belonged to her parents. She is not a person of means, she said, but she lives frugally, and she pays the taxes because she thinks empty land is important.

Her mother fought against the proposed mall almost four decades ago, she said.

She suggested that if stores become empty in the mall, maybe Crossgates could house some of its employees in apartments inside the mall, “because I’m pretty sure mall employees won’t be able to afford to live in the apartments.”

Two business owners spoke in favor of the project and the tax breaks.

Joe Bouck of Johnny Rockets said that Pyramid has made the mall much better than it was when it first started and has “kept up with the times.” He said the mall generates a lot of jobs.

John Randazzo, owner of Via Fresca at 1666 Western Ave., said that he now works closely with the hotel staff, and that they “have given me a lot of business.”

In addition, Kathy Burbank, former president of the Guilderland Chamber of Commerce, said she supports the project and the IDA’s involvement. She said that Crossgates “gives us options, gives our kids options” in terms of shopping and entertainment.

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