Will taller cinema cast a longer shadow on Butterfly Hill? 

GUILDERLAND — Regal Cinemas wants to make one of its theaters at Crossgates Mall 25 feet taller than it is now, to accommodate a 50-foot IMAX screen. 

The theater is now 46.5 feet above grade, and Regal wants one auditorium to be raised by 24 feet, to 70.5 feet, to create a true IMAX theater upstairs, according to Pyramid’s application. 

Regal is seeking an area variance, not for the theater’s footprint, but for its height. Pyramid owns the property, and Regal is a tenant, but with Pyramid’s approval the company can make modifications to the structure. 

“The town should consider the precedent this would set for other properties on the Ring Road,” said a member of the Albany County Planning Board this week at a meeting at which the matter was considered.

Guilderland created a Transit-Oriented Development zone, or TOD, in the area around the Crossgates Mall in 2018. This district is intended to promote walkability and use of public transportation and to reduce traffic on Western Avenue by concentrating a mix of commercial and residential development away from the town’s main thoroughfare, Route 20, with easy access onto highways. The tallest allowable building height in the TOD, depending on distance away from a residential district, is 55 feet. 

Area variances for a footprint are very difficult to get. The town has recently granted two area variances for height, both to age-restricted independent-living apartment complexes: to the Hiawatha Trails project on Route 155 and to Riitano Senior Living on Johnson Road, according to Jacqueline M. Coons, Guilderland’s chief building and zoning inspector.  

Laura Travison, the senior planner for Albany County, said this week that she will consult with the Pine Bush Preserve Commission about whether there might be detrimental effects on the Karner blue butterfly — listed by the federal government as an endangered species — and the area known as Butterfly Hill. That area was set aside just north of Crossgates Mall as a butterfly habitat in the 1980s, when Crossgates was built in the Pine Bush, a globally rare pine barrens.

Butterfly Hill is owned by Pyramid, and overseen by the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, according to Christopher Hawver, executive director of the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission. 

The county board said it wants an opinion from the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission before deciding its stance. 

The Pine Bush is an ecologically rare pine barrens, and the Karner blue butterfly, which lives in pine barrens, is in danger of extinction. Habitat loss is one factor in its endangerment, according to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. 

Travison told the Albany County Planning Board at its meeting on Nov. 21 that, when she contacted the commission’s board members to ask what they thought about the proposal, they had not heard anything about it.

The board also decided that Travison would ask the commission members if they thought that the area-variance request should be included in the environmental impact statement that Pyramid, the mall’s owner, is currently being required by Guilderland to complete about its potential development in the area. 

Hawver told The Enterprise on Friday that the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation had had a concern in the late 1990s, when Pyramid expanded the mall and built the movie theaters. 

“DEC had a concern,” Hawver said, about shading on the Butterfly Hill and how it would impact the butterfly’s lifespan. The butterfly’s food source, lupine, needs sunlight, and the butterfly itself does too, Hawver said. 

Karner blues feed on the nectar from many different kinds of flowers but their larvae need wild blue lupine leaves to survive, so dense stands of lupine are essential for their existence, according the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Spokesman Kevin O. Frazier of the DEC’s Region 4 office said that the Crossgates 1996 expansion plan was reduced in height to minimize shading of Karner blue habitat areas. The DEC required this for potential impacts on Butterfly Hill, he said. He added that lupine generally grows well in full sun or partial shade but, since the original theater had been reduced in size to minimize shading, a new proposal to increase the height would require the DEC review to determine potential impacts. 

Frazier also noted that, under the conditions of its permit, Crossgates Mall, since 1996, had contributed $10,000 per year toward habitat management. The amount was increased in 2017, due to inflation, to $15,750 per year.

The commission’s technical committee, a subcommittee of the board, will discuss the issue at its meeting on Dec. 3, Hawver said, explaining that the subcommittee meets monthly, mostly to consider development projects “with an eye toward how to balance economic development and Pine Bush conservation.”  

Hawver also passed the information on to the state’s DEC and the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, both of which oversee Butterfly Hill, he said. 

Lynne Jackson of Save the Pine Bush, a long-time advocacy group instrumental in forming the preserve, said this week that she was concerned about the cumulative effect of ongoing development and expansion within the Pine Bush on the Karner blue. 

To survive, she said, the butterfly needs a corridor of contiguous areas of Pine Bush land.

Pyramid is also currently applying to the town for permission to build a complex of 222 apartments and townhouses west of the mall, on Rapp Road, and a Costco on Route 20 on 16.5 acres extending eastward from Rapp Road. Crossgates built a hotel on Western Avenue in front of the mall last fall, and an environmental scoping document filed with the town of Guilderland shows Pyramid is analyzing another 90 residential units.

Jackson expressed concern about the effect of a taller theater on the lupine that is essential to the butterfly’s reproduction, since lupine needs sunlight to grow. 

She said she would like to see a copy of the State Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, or SPDES, agreement that Pyramid has with DEC, in order to know more about what are the company’s agreed-upon responsibilities with regard to Butterfly Hill. 

“We have not seen that permit,” Jackson said. (Click here to see the permit.)

Earth is in the midst of its sixth global extinction, she said, with species disappearing every day. “People think of the need to protect animals like lions, but we don’t have those here in Albany. We do have the Karner blue. We need to save the rare species we have here.” 

In the late 1990s, when Pyramid expanded the mall and built the movie theaters, Save the Pine Bush sued unsuccessfully over the expansion and its anticipated effect on the Karner blue. 

Regal is doing a renovation of its Crossgates Mall theaters, Pyramid announced in July.  

It plans to equip at least some of its theaters with 4DX technology that will provide “immersive” elements including rain, lightning, snow, and bubbles. 

At Crossgates, Regal will also introduce ScreenX technology that uses additional projectors and screens to extend the movie along the theater walls, surrounding theater-goers with a 270-degree panoramic view. 

The marketing and communications department of Regal Cinemas, at its corporate headquarters in Knoxville, Tennessee, could not be reached by press time for comment on the area-variance request. 

Conservation director’s view 

Neil Gifford is the conservation director of the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission. He sent The Enterprise a copy of Pyramid’s application for the taller theater, and a copy of the original SPDES agreement that Pyramid has with the DEC, dating from 1996. 

The commission did not comment when the town passed the new zoning district known as the TOD last year, he said. 

Development around the mall is not necessarily a bad thing, he said, adding, “The devil’s in the details. It all depends on exactly what’s going to be built.” 

Limiting development to the area around the mall seems less problematic than extending it to other parts of the Pine Bush study area, Gifford said. The preserve proper now extends over 3,300 acres, and the commission wants to raise that to 5,000.

The study area is much larger, and comprises all the lands that the commission recommends for partial or full protection. The study area extends from Fuller Road on the east to the Albany/Schenectady county line on the west and from Western Avenue on the south to Central Avenue on the north; the study area is 13,000 acres, Gifford said. 

In the Pine Bush and in Wilton, Gifford said, the butterflies are doing well, as a result of extensive work to support their populations. The commission has worked to create a corridor for the Karner blue to travel, which includes easements behind the Daughters of Sarah and Avila developments, set aside by the properties’ owners as part of the mitigation for the developments. 

The Butterfly Preserve, he said, is not just on Butterfly Hill but extends for about 20 acres, all the way along the power line corridor, on both sides of it. 

Pregnant females have also been captured and their offspring raised to butterflies and then released along the corridor, Gifford said. All of these efforts, he said, have extended the butterfly habitat from 13 acres near Crossgates Mall to a total of 700 acres.

The corridor extends along the edge of the parcel adjacent to the proposed apartments, at the corner of Rapp and Gipp roads, Gifford said; Pyramid has agreed to maintain a 200-foot buffer along the edge of this parcel, even if it proposes development later for the rest of the parcel that Gifford said was about 20 acres. 

Pyramid has submitted a shade analysis for Butterfly Hill that Gifford said relies on the idea that shade from the taller theater will fall on an area already shaded by a tree canopy. However, Gifford said, part of the management plan for the hill over the next few years involves taking down many of those trees, to get rid of the canopy, and planting more lupine. 

Even with the canopy, he said, the shadowing effect is less than it would be with a solid building, Gifford said, adding, “We would need to take a look at the shade analysis.” 

Pyramid’s application also says that only about a quarter of the butterfly preserve’s area is ever exposed to shadow cast by any part of the theater building. 

Gifford explained that Pyramid has already suggested adding about 8 acres to the preserve of land north of it, as part of its mitigation for the proposed apartments on Rapp Road. 

The company cannot “double dip,” he said, and claim that that proposed additional eight acres of butterfly habitat would also mitigate a higher theater. But what Pyramid could do, he said, is put in more money to support management efforts. 

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