Transit-Oriented Development District proposed for area around Crossgates Mall  

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair 
Disrepair: 2 Rielton Ct. in Westmere appears vacant. It was purchased for $170,000 in 2014 by Best Homes of Westmere, LLC, whose address is in Rochester, the same address used by another LLC, which owns multiple properties along these formerly residential streets. According to town Assessor Karen Van Wagenen, attorney Douglas Ulrich of that address is listed on some documents in town hall as being associated with Crossgates Mall, so “there may be a connection.” She did not know for sure, she said. 

GUILDERLAND — Twenty years ago, Pyramid, which owns Crossgates Mall in Guilderland, started buying houses in the neighborhood between the mall and Route 20, paying two or even three times their assessed value.

The transactions were secret and mall managers, over the years, would never say what their plans for the land were.

The Guilderland Planning Board is now discussing a Transit-Oriented Development District that is largely made up of the mall itself and also includes the town-owned southern portion of the ring road around the mall, vacant land on Gipp Road to the west, and those formerly residential streets now with mostly vacant homes: Lawton Terrace, Gabriel Terrace, Rielton Court, and Tiernan Court.

The town board has scheduled a June 5 public hearing on a proposed local law that would create this district.

“It’s really encouraging mixed-use development and walkability and use of public transportation,” Chief Building and Zoning Inspector Jacqueline Coons said of the proposed overlay district, which is based on the Westmere Corridor Study of 2016.

The Capital District Transportation Authority plans to develop a new transit center at Crossgates Mall, its busiest hub, that would include a second-floor climate-controlled passenger waiting area connected to the food court; a road would be built that would allow buses to load and unload passengers there.

The authority is also planning a new bus rapid transit, or BRT, express line from downtown Albany to the new transit center at the mall.

The Westmere study recommended the creation a Transit-Oriented Development District, Coons said, as a way to encourage mixed-use and commercial development. The district was not proposed by Crossgates Mall management, Coons said, adding, “I don’t know if Crossgates likes it, doesn’t like it, or is indifferent.”

Repeated calls to Pyramid Management partner Michael Shanley were not returned.

In 1998, when Pyramid first started buying homes on the residential streets near Crossgates, it had plans to build an eight-story hotel and a recreation facility at Crossgates, more than doubling the mall to about 3.6 million square feet. Massive citizen protest of the expansion project led the town not to approve the required zoning changes.

At the time, the transactions were secret; the properties were purchased in the name of Warp Enterprise, and Westville Associates, and residents who sold signed non-disclosure statements that one said stipulated, “We’re not even supposed to tell we have a contract.”

Pyramid is now building a five-story hotel just south of the mall, on Western Avenue, and received just over $1 million in tax breaks from the Guilderland Industrial Development Agency to do it. Pyramid had applied for $2.4 million in exemptions and received only about half of what it wanted.

Guilderland Supervisor Peter Barber noted that, when the town approved Pyramid’s request for a rezone to build the hotel, the town approved a smaller area than the company requested — 6.5 acres instead of the 12.7 acres Pyramid wanted to build something else later.

Barber said the company had also wanted additional parcels to the west rezoned for future development but the rezone request was approved only for the land on which the hotel would be built.

The town wanted to take a more comprehensive look at the area, Barber said, rather than doing partial rezones without looking at the bigger picture, particularly after having recently commissioned a study of the area, “with professional planners, people from our town.”

The goal of the district, said Barber this week, is to make sure that residential properties in adjacent neighborhoods are protected from development pressure. It will also alleviate traffic impacts on Route 20, he said, by encouraging development on the currently-underutilized ring road around Crossgates Mall.

“We’re trying to encourage building on the ring road, so people will actually use the ring road,” Barber said.  The main entrance to and exit from the new hotel is to be from the ring road, Barber pointed out on Friday. The Western Avenue entrance will allow only for right turns in, he said.

The proposed Transit-Oriented Development District aligns with the town’s comprehensive plan of 2001, Barber said.

The idea, Barber said, is to create a “more walkable and pedestrian-friendly environment” near the CDTA transit center, which he said is the busiest stop in the CDTA system.

Part of the idea is to discourage vehicle-oriented businesses, he said.


The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair 
Overgrown: A gate swings open and brush grows over the front of 7 Gabriel Terr., a 1950s-era single-story ranch bought in 2015 for $237,500 by EICE NY, a limited-liability corporation that may be associated with Crossgates Mall. Over the last two decades, companies associated with Pyramid Management have bought up nearly all the homes in the neighborhood, often at two or three times their assessed value.


“Little tiny lots”

Coons surmised that the future use of the once-residential streets is “probably not going to be those little tiny lots. They’re probably eventually going to be part of a larger project,” she said.

The houses that are currently inhabited, Coons said, would be considered preexisting, nonconforming uses, and would be grandfathered in.

Using Lawton Terrace, one of the four formerly residential streets in the proposed new district, as an example: Seven Lawton properties are listed on the county assessment rolls. Four are owned by a limited liability company called Crossgates Releaseco whose address is Pyramid management office in Syracuse; one is owned by an LLC called Vandy Associates whose address is in the Crossgates Mall management office; and two are owned by an LLC called EICE NY, whose address is in care of attorney Douglas Ulrich, 350 Linden Oaks Blvd., Rochester.

Town Assessor Karen Van Wagenen said, referring to Ulrich, “We’ve seen his name on several documents relating to Crossgates. So [EICE] is possibly a related company. We don’t know for sure.”

Ulrich’s address is also the one that comes up for another LLC, called Best Homes of Westmere, which owns three buildings in the area — 2 Rielton Court, a single-family home assessed at $177,022; 5 Rielton Court, a two-family home assessed at $274,840; and a multi-use building at 1677 Western Avenue, assessed at $198,460. It is also the listed address for Stewarts Newco LLC, which owns 6 Rielton Court.

Ulrich did not return a call asking for comment.

As an example of a purchase price for a property in the area, Van Wagenen said that Crossgates Releaseco purchased 16 Lawton Terr. in 1999, for $270,000 — more than twice its assessed value — when the property was valued at $121,7000. The property, according to current Albany County assessment rolls, has a full-market value of $272,786.

EICE also owns three properties nearby on Western Avenue (numbers 1679, 1681, and 1683), five properties on Gabriel Terrace, one on Rielton Court, and one on Tiernan Court.

Crossgates Releaseco also owns two properties nearby on Western Avenue, at numbers 1699 (rear) and 1689, and four pieces of vacant commercial land on the mall ring road with a total assessed value of $832,000.

If the land is rezoned, the houses are taken down, and the land becomes commercial land, the value of the properties will increase, Van Wagenen said.

Corridor study

The Westmere Corridor Study of 2016 looked at the area from Route 155 east to Church Road. Barber believes the $50,000 study was largely grant-funded.

According to the report, the study was conducted by IBI Group and subcontractors River Street Planning & Development and T. R. Johnson Engineering on behalf of the town and the Capital District Transportation Committee; it was funded by the CDTC’s Linkage Program. The advisory committee included representatives from the New York State Department of Transportation, the Capital District Transportation Committee, the Capital District Transportation Authority, the Capital District Regional Planning Commission, Guilderland’s Industrial Development Agency, and staff of the town and county.

The plan’s final report describes why the study was undertaken: “Improvements to transportation are a central element of the study, which also makes recommendations for land use, access management and streetscape improvements, pedestrian-bicycle facilities, and transit improvements.”

The Westmere Corridor Study discussed, Coons said, “how they want to utilize the connection of the major roads and get some of the congestion off of Western Avenue and encourage more use of the CDTA [city bus] system, and this is what they’re proposing to do that with.”

The Westmere Corridor Study recommends creating a Transit-Oriented Development District, and describes what it would do: “TOD assumes compact development at a density that will better support walkability and transit. This kind of density has numerous beneficial effects — that can largely be achieved without increased traffic, since TOD residents tend to use non-automotive modes of travel — for the surrounding area and the entire town, including broadening of the tax base, provision of a wider array of living options to accommodate the growing diversity in types of households, and more efficient use of existing, under-capacity infrastructure such as the Crossgates Ring Road.”

The Westmere Corridor Study, upon which the proposal for the overlay district was made, was developed through a lengthy process carried out by professional planners, and involving many public meetings and hearings, Barber said.

So it isn’t necessary that Guilderland have a new town planner in place before the town decides whether to go ahead with the creation of the new district, he said.

The town continues to receive résumés from applicants for the full-time position of planner, and Barber hopes that a candidate might be selected to fill the post within the next month or so, he said on May 18. Guilderland has been without a planner for a year and a half, since Jan Weston, who held the post for almost three decades, resigned at the end of 2016.  

TOD restrictions

A number of restrictions are put on buildings that could be constructed in the proposed overlay district:

— The maximum gross floor area of any nonresidential use is 4,00 square feet;

— Lots must be a minimum of 25,000 square feet, with maximum lot coverage of 75 percent;

— The maximum residential-unit density is, for a multiple-family dwelling, 16 units per buildable acre of land and, for a mixed-use building, 12 units per buildable acre;

— The maximum building height would be 35 feet — which corresponds to two-and-a-half stories — for buildings within 75 feet of Western Avenue. It would also be 35 feet for buildings located between 100 and 150 feet of the edge of a residential district located outside the TOD district. A height of 55 feet — “closer to four stories,” Barber said — would be allowed for buildings located more than 150 feet from the edge of a residential district outside the TOD district;

— Building setbacks are to be at least 100 feet from the edge of a residential district located outside the TOD district;

— The use of access management, traffic calming, pedestrian, bicycle, and transit improvements in design and layout is encouraged. Vehicle traffic should be directed, if feasible, the law says, to the existing ring road, to relieve traffic pressures on Western Avenue; and

— Pedestrian and bicycle facilities should be developed, including visible bicycle parking, pedestrian seating, and transit shelters throughout the district.

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