Guilderland moves to require Pyramid outline all planned projects

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair 
Robert Sweeney, attorney from Whiteman Osterman & Hanna, speaking on behalf of Pyramid Management, discusses the proposed Rapp Road apartment-and-townhouse project with the Guilderland Planning Board on July 10. 

GUILDERLAND — Pyramid Management, the owners of Crossgates Mall and the new hotel on Western Avenue in front of the mall, will need to submit an Environmental Impact Statement to the town’s planning board, in the coming months, that will outline the scope of all potential future development in the area around the mall. Data from the EIS will then be used to calculate the cumulative impact on traffic patterns and sewer infrastructure. 

Meanwhile, Pyramid announced a number of concessions for residents of Westmere Terrace, who had expressed many concerns. Residents of the historic African-American Rapp Road neighborhood have not received assurance that any steps will be taken to mitigate traffic along Rapp Road between the project and Washington Avenue Extension. 

The Guilderland Planning Board, which is the lead agency on Pyramid’s proposal for a 222-unit apartment-and-townhouse project on Rapp Road, beside the mall, decided on July 10 to begin drafting a positive declaration under the State Environmental Quality Review Act, or SEQRA, meaning the project will have significant environmental impact and will require in-depth review.

The board will vote on the positive declaration at its next meeting, on August 14, with an eye to requiring Pyramid to draft an Environmental Impact Statement for all the lands it owns around the mall. 

The proposed apartment project is close to the border with the city of Albany, and Pyramid and town officials have been in discussions with the city about traffic. The city, in a letter written to Guilderland’s town planner, Kenneth Kovalchik, from Bradley Glass, planning director of the city’s Department of Planning and Development, had strongly suggested that the town require Pyramid to complete an EIS and to continue to look into all of the possibilities for traffic mitigation — and search for possibilities not yet uncovered — and the ramifications of each option. 

For over 20 years, Pyramid has been buying properties on several streets around Crossgates. Lawton Terrace, Gabriel Terrace, Rielton Court, and Tiernan Court have become a ghost neighborhood, as nearly all the homes lining those streets, which date from the 1950s and earlier, now stand vacant, with just a few holdouts where people continue to live.  

The buyers were a variety of limited-liability corporations, all listing Pyramid Management as their addresses. 

Crossgates Mall managers, over the years, would never say what their plans for the land were.

 

Pyramid, owners of Crossgates Mall, own about 90 percent of the land in the Transit-Oriented Development district, according to Guilderland’s town planner, Ken Kovalchik. The TOD includes: 1. Pyramid’s proposed apartment-and-townhouse complex; 2. Crossgates Mall; 3. Pramid’s dual-branded hotel; 4. Ghost neighborhood; 5. Westmere Terrace, which is outside of but surrounded by the TOD; 6. Western Avenue, at the southern boundary of the district; and 7. Rapp Road — the historic district is off the map to the north. View map.

 

Asked by The Enterprise in December 2018 about possible plans for the ghost neighborhood, Pyramid Management partner Michael Shanley replied, “It’s still occupied by some residents; that’s not a point of focus at the moment. We’re all focused on maintaining Crossgates, keeping the hotel going.” 

Shanley told The Enterprise at the end of 2016 that Pyramid had no plans to build a hotel. Pyramid announced its plans to build a hotel just three months later, in March 2017. 

It’s dual-branded Hilton hotel opened less than two years later, in October 2018. 

Shanley told The Enterprise at the time of the hotel’s opening that a challenging retail environment has forced Pyramid to explore alternatives other than retail, while continuing to keep the mall “as strong as we can keep it.”

In 2018, the Guilderland Town Board passed a local law establishing a Transit-Oriented Development overlay district in the area around Crossgates Mall. The TOD includes the mall itself and its parking lots, the town-owned southern portion of the ring road around the mall, vacant land on Gipp Road to the west, and the ghost neighborhood. 

The EIS 

Kovalchik told The Enterprise after the planning board’s July 10 meeting that Pyramid will need, in the EIS, to outline the total square footage of commercial space that it plans to build within the TOD, as well as number of dwelling units. 

Those numbers would then be used to calculate the potential traffic impact and impact on sewer systems of all of that development. 

If a version of the EIS is eventually approved, Kovalchik explained to The Enterprise after the meeting, then Pyramid would not need to do a SEQRA review for any future project that was part of what had already been approved in the EIS.

So, if Pyramid says that it is going to build a total of 500 residential units in the TOD, and it then proposes a 500-unit apartment complex, that project would not require a SEQRA review. If Pyramid, however, proposes a 1,000-unit complex, that would trigger the need for a SEQRA review, Kovalchik said.

Residential projects within the TOD can have a maximum of 16 dwelling units per acre, Kovalchik said. “As long as they’re proposing density that was within those thresholds approved, they don’t have to do any more SEQRA reviews,” he said. 

Kovalchik also said of Pyramid, “It’s in their court to be as honest as possible, because it benefits them to have as accurate numbers as possible.” 

The intent of the TOD was to promote the ring road as a primary thoroughfare, Kovalchik told The Enterprise. 

The city’s view 

Glass, director of planning with Albany’s Department of Planning and Development, did not respond to requests for comment. 

In his letter to Kovalchik, he wrote that the TOD may be overly broad in including 220 acres; he questioned if such a large area could effectively target mixed-use and high-density development in “practical proximity to existing and proposed transit services.” 

He pointed out, for instance, that the proposed apartment-complex site is “among the most distant locations within the overlay zone district from the proposed CDTA [Capital District Transportation Authority] transit center, which acted as the impetus for the overlay district.” He also wrote, “Not surprisingly, the proposed development is to be accompanied by 405 additional parking spaces.” 

At the July 10 meeting, Kovalchik responded to Glass’s letter, saying that the number of parking spaces was less than is allowed in the TOD. 

Pyramid is proposing a new bus stop at the entry to the apartment complex. 

Glass also noted in his letter that, although about 70 of the approximately 220 acres of the TOD are paved over as parking lots, this development is proposed for “one of the only remaining undeveloped green areas within the district.” 

The city suggested that the town could direct Pyramid to consider building the project in a different location, closer to the goals of the TOD. 

Kovalchik told The Enterprise after the meeting that the main area of undeveloped land in the TOD is from the new hotel going west to Rapp Road. One of the main questions, he said, will be the effect on the town’s sewer system. 

The town’s Dillenbeck pump station is operating at capacity, Kovalchik said after the meeting, but the Nott Road station is at just 40 or 50 percent of capacity. “We would probably require them to tie in their sewer to existing sewer lines on Johnston Road. Then that can take you, with gravity, to Nott Road, because they are at much less capacity.” 

Pyramid partner Michael Shanley, who lives in Guilderland, did not return multiple calls seeking comment. 

The purpose of the TOD was to ease traffic on Route 20 by directing it toward the ring road and, from there, onto the highways, Kovalchik said, noting that plans by CDTA to build two traffic circles at different parts of the ring road to ease traffic further and plans to build a new, indoor waiting area for bus passengers and create a new rapid-transit line to connect the mall and downtown Albany are “all tied up in congressional funding.”  

For now, Kovalchik said, there are plans to move the mall bus stop from its current location to one that is more out of the way, in front of Burlington Coat Factory. He said he had heard that this was because the current location tends to lead to pedestrian-vehicle conflicts. “It’s a bad spot there, with so many pedestrians crossing,” he said.

CDTA’s view 

Building a bus station, starting a rapid-transit line, and putting in traffic circles on the ring road were “really just a plan still,” said spokeswoman Jaime Watson of the Capital District Transportation Authority.

CDTA has had conversations with Guilderland and with Pyramid about the plan, she said, but “we are not in a position right now to move forward at this point.” 

“It’s something that we are still interested in doing, but it’s just a matter of, ‘Can we get the funding in place,’” she said, referring to federal grant money. “It’s something that’s on our radar, but no real progress to report on it.” 

Watson said there is no application from CDTA currently in a queue waiting for federal funding to be approved. 

“We’re always looking for different funding opportunities, especially when it comes to federal dollars,” she said, “so we have a department that is always looking for funding opportunities, so obviously, if we were to find a funding source or a grant application that would work for it, that would be something that we would certainly look into.” 

Asked if CDTA were actively looking for funding sources for Crossgates Mall transit improvements, she said, “We are. We always keep an eye on funding sources.” 

A rapid transit line connecting the mall, the university, and the state’s Harriman campus to downtown Albany would be CDTA’s third such express route. The first, the 905, connects downtown Albany and Schenectady, running along Central Avenue, she said. CDTA just recently received $27 million in federal funding to build the second, she said, which will run from downtown Albany to Troy, Waterford, and Cohoes. 

Westmere Terrace 

Residents of Westmere Terrace, a residential street parallel to Rapp Road that dead-ends in a cul-de-sac just beside the proposed five-story project, have banded together to protest many aspects of Pyramid’s plans. They met many times with Pyramid representatives, town officials, and other neighbors.

At the July 10 meeting, Sweeney announced that Pyramid would make many concessions to the street’s residents including: 

— Relocating and reconstructing a new cul-de-sac, instead of a hammerhead that had been proposed. Kovalchik explained to The Enterprise that the location of the new cul-de-sac will be on the site of the last house on the street, which Pyramid had purchased. It will demolish the house and use that site to create a new cul-de-sac; 

— Planting a 20-foot-high berm between the road and the project, with a double row of 12- to 15-foot-tall pine trees and with 6-foot-tall privacy fencing along the top of the berm; and 

— Including as a condition that there will be no pedestrian, vehicle, or other type of access connection between the project and Westmere Terrace. 

Rapp Road

Pyramid floated three options to cut off traffic between the project and the Rapp Road Historic District, in an effort to ameliorate, rather than exacerbate, the traffic problems already being experienced there. 

But neighbors on surrounding streets like Wilan Lane and Pine Lane in Albany, and Gipp Road and Paden Circle in Guilderland, spoke against the measures, which they argued would cut them off from city services or access to Route 20. 

Glass of the city’s department of planning and development wrote in his letter that new options for traffic mitigation should also be sought, and that the ramifications of options already on the table should be examined more thoroughly.

A letter, posted on the town’s website, from the Division for Historic Preservation of the New York State Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, says that any proposal that would close Rapp Road south of Pine Lane would have a “significant beneficial impact on the historic district.” 

John A. Bonafide — who is the director of the Technical Preservation Services Bureau and the agency’s historic preservation officer — also wrote that the option of a road closure would be “a significant and positive step to protect the historic district from increasing traffic.” 

The Rapp Road Historic District is on the national and state register of historic places and was selected by the New York State Preservation League in 2016 as one of “Seven to Save,” which is a list of important threatened buildings or districts throughout the state. 

The Rapp Road Historic District was built by African-American families who moved to Albany from Shubuta, Mississippi during the Great Migration, when about 6 million blacks followed opportunity, moving from the South to the North and to large cities in other parts of the country, between 1910 and 1970. This community, located just over the town border in Albany, is rare because it remains largely intact, with descendants of the original settlers still living in many of the homes. 

The district is bounded on the north by Washington Avenue Extension and, according to Beverly Bardequez, the historic district’s president, formerly extended to where Home Depot and Walmart are now located.

Sweeney, the attorney for Pyramid, told The Enterprise after the meeting, “There’s a causation issue always, when we talk about putting in traffic circles or moving roads.” He added, referring to closing off traffic to the north end of Rapp Road, “We have no causation for this.” 

He said, “We want to do whatever is the right thing to do, but that’s not part of our project. Our project doesn’t require the closing of the road.” 

Bardequez said that her organization is more concerned with the city’s point of view than the town’s. The district has had no communication from the city since late April or early May, she said, and the district learned at the July 10 Guilderland Planning Board meeting that the city was opposed to any of the proposals for road closures to mitigate traffic onto the north end of Rapp Road. 

“So at this point we are looking at the city of Albany for answers as to what their decision is to protect the historic district at the north end of Rapp Road,” Bardequez said.

Asked about the neighbors who strongly protested against the idea of any road closures, Bardequez said that they are concerned with not being inconvenienced, and not concerned with the impact on the historic district. 

She said that those residents may not be considering the idea that, if this project goes through, the areas around their portion of Rapp Road will also experience a “major, major impact.” 

Bardequez concluded, “It’s not over. We’ll see how things pan out.” 

 

More Guilderland News

  • The grassroots organizations Guilderland Coalition for Responsible Growth, Save the Pine Bush, and the Rapp Road Historical Association have launched a GoFundMe drive to fund hiring their own, independent scientists to evaluate any studies provided by Pyramid in its DEIS. But as of Jan. 10, the group had raised just $2,925 of its $100,000 goal. 

  • Subcommittee member Daniel Centi said he thinks that the recent nomination of town-board candidate Laurel Bohl at the April 2019 caucus highlighted a flaw in the caucus system: that anyone can be nominated and become a candidate, without prior vetting by the Guilderland Democratic Committee. He wants to look into whether the party can legally find a way to require that anyone planning to enter the race at a caucus must be vetted in advance. 

  • Christopher Lysogorski,

    His family is trying to stay positive following an active 22-year-old’s devastating holiday accident. 

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