Members of the public had a chance to voice their views and ask questions about the proposed residential and commercial project planned to be built on the former Chalmer’s property on Bridge Street in Amsterdam at a public meeting at the Amsterdam Housing Authority community room Wednesday night. Stacy Kaplowitz of KCG Development and Bill Teator of DEW Ventures presented an overview of the project at the start of the meeting. Mayor Michael Villa, Montgomery County Executive Matt Ossenfort, Congressman Paul Tonko, and Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara were also in attendance. Alderman Chad Majewski opened the meeting and asked attendees who wished to speak to raise their hands and wait to be called on before speaking, however the rules were broken from the very beginning of the public comments section, and people spoke out of turn and interrupted each other frequently throughout the meeting.
Many people at the meeting took issue with the target demographic of the project. According to Kaplowitz, 80% of the planned 132 apartments will be income restricted, with the upper limit ranging from $27,060 to $83,590 based on family size. Rent will start at $650/month for the income restricted apartments, and $1100/month for the remaining “market rate” apartments with no income restrictions.
The first commenter of the meeting said that she sees a need for high-end apartments for those looking to downsize later in life.
“Nobody returns to Amsterdam,” she said. “For the past 25 years Amsterdam has kind of been a laughing-stock, and I fear, Mr. Mayor, that we may be shooting ourselves in the foot.”
Another attendee cut in and argued back and forth with the first speaker for some time.
“You have to start somewhere,” said the second speaker. “Amsterdam has given up so many opportunities for the past 25 years. Nobody has shown any interest in Amsterdam since the Amsterdam Mall.”
Another attendee who resides in Amsterdam recounted an experience he had on a job interview in Albany. The interviewer didn’t realize that the commute from Amsterdam was shorter and easier than someone coming from Saratoga Springs.
“We need people to realize Amsterdam’s affordable, Amsterdam’s safe, and Amsterdam’s a great place to live and grow,” he said. “That’s what we need first. We have enough people who have the resources, God bless them, to buy a luxury condo somewhere…”
Another interjected, “Well it won’t be Amsterdam.”
Another attendee spoke up next and said, “When we heard about the apartments I was excited thinking we could possibly live there.”
“You’re building a place I can’t live,” he continued. “My understanding is there’s no laundry facilities in the apartments. You’re on prime real estate on the river and you have no balconies.”
“You’re taking a prime spot and you’re putting a second-rate facility in it,” he added.
After the meeting, Kaplowitz said that she would look at the idea of adding individual washer and dryer hookups within some of the apartments but expected the shared laundry rooms on each floor to stay. She said that the idea has worked well in other projects as it gives residents the chance to meet and socialize with other renters on the same floor.
Another attendee said, “I don’t feel that you’re ever going to bring new people into this community, you’re just going to relocate what’s here. Leaving two family houses vacant that are already supporting the low-income community that we have. We already have 300+ vacant houses in this city. Landlords that have bought property up here and rent to low-income families, they’re going to be devastated.”
After the meeting, Kaplowitz said that their marketing studies have shown a regional demand for affordable housing.
Section 8 Vouchers
One attendee said that he was concerned about the fact that renters with Section 8 vouchers would be allowed to rent at the complex.
“That is the biggest thing. And people are so concerned. If you read, and I’ve checked, and I don’t think you can deny anyone with Section 8 and that has many people very very afraid about having this prime piece of real estate with less than top shelf, prime housing to go with the restaurant, the bridge and the revitalization of the south side.”
According to Kaplowitz, all apartment complexes are prohibited from excluding Section 8 vouchers and so she had no control over that aspect.
He continued, “You have control over Section 8 by setting the rates of the apartments. If you’re going to offer 650 per month apartments, people making 30,000/year are going to be able to afford it. But if the apartment rates started at $1100, they are going to have to be making much more money, and the Section 8 is going to provide a third of what that is.”
“So that Section 8 resident would not be able to live there,” said Kaplowitz.
“That’s fine!” he replied. Many in the room applauded and voiced agreement.
He added, “I emphasize with people who can’t afford housing and I think Amsterdam does as well. I think we have gone overboard to provide that. “
Another said, “We have over a thousand units that have to do with low-income housing. Now what all these projects have done is destroy that tax foundation of this community.”
The comment was also met with applause.
Kelly Quist-Demars, constituent representative for Congressman Paul D. Tonko and city resident said “One thing I love about this city is its passion and commitment to its history and who we are as a people. And I think anything you hear from us today is that passion, it’s not elitism, it’s not classism, it not that we don’t want people here, we don’t want workforce people here. It’s just that we want to get this right.”
Quist-Demars said that her parents and other retirement-age friends are looking for maintenance-free, single story structures which she suggested should be the target demographic for the project.
Another attendee said he felt the planned 166 total parking spaces on the site, with 74 of those spaces located on the ground floor, under the four residential floors of the building, were not nearly enough to accommodate the residents of the building along with the additional guests at the restaurant/banquet hall which has a planned capacity of 300 people in the banquet hall and 150-175 in the restaurant. He thought there should be at least 700 parking spots to accommodate residents, diners, and staff. Festivals, such as last year’s ItaliaFest, which had people parking in the streets, would present even more problems.
“We have a serious parking problem down on the south side right now and that’s not being addressed at all. We have no idea where these cars are going to go,” he said.
Mayor Michael Villa
Later in the meeting, Villa addressed the steps he is taking to address the parking issue.
“To say that we need 700 parking spots is unrealistic, he said. “Even if you have a banquet with 300 people, 300 people don’t drive individual cars to a banquet.”
“We’ve been working very closely with Santos Construction and with Alden Equipment. Both are property owners directly across the street from this project. Both own significant space over there. They have given us permission to utilize space that will come down from the existing parking lot that we have across from Mary Jane’s [market on Bridget St]. That parking lot has been extended,” he said.
The additional lots could add just over 100 spaces in addition to the existing public lot which has about 40 spaces.
He added, “When we have an event on the south side, whether we use Chalmers or not, you are never going to have enough space when you put almost 10,000 people there for ItaliaFest. It’s just unreasonable to think that you’re going to have 10,000 parking spaces. So do we address or adjust where we have events? That may be a possibility.”
“All I here are the negatives of this project and no one is looking at the positives of this project,” Villa continued. “This land has been vacant nearly seven years. The previous administration, when the last developer failed, said this will be a hole in the ground forever. But we have a $30 million investment coming into the city of Amsterdam.”
“We need building blocks. We are not going to get four aces right off the bat. This is a key component to Amsterdam beginning to show itself, to grow itself, to become attractive to outside people who are not already here.”
“To say that is a negative project is simply not looking at the whole picture. Is everything perfect? Is it the Bellagio? No. But this is a key component to what Amsterdam needs. We need housing.”
Congressman Paul Tonko
Tonko, also a city resident, said he was disappointed the straight-lined design style of the project didn’t compliment the curves and flowing style of the Mohawk Valley Gateway Overlook pedestrian bridge.
“[The bridge] is a transformational piece and should be the epicenter of our comeback design as a community. I’m just wondering why we wouldn’t offer a panoramic view from the banquet hall that really utilizes the best view from the inside out. When you bring people to a banquet hall for a wedding or retirement party, you are getting introduced, perhaps, to our community, why would we not want to showcase the beauty of that unique bridge,” said Tonko.
“I’m very disappointed that the bridge wasn’t given the respect it deserves. I don’t mean that as a criticism of your work, I just don’t think the awareness was there,” he added.
He also questioned why the parking lot, rather than the building, was placed closer to the river.
Teator responded and said that the design team considered the bridge an important asset to the area, and designed the site so that pedestrians coming off the bridge on the south entrance could turn right and continue walking along the river and through the public space on the property where there could be a farmer’s market or other vendors.
He also said that the Army Corps of Engineers needs to have access to the retaining wall on the north side of the property, and the building was positioned so as not to block access. Earlier in the meeting, he said that the building’s L-shape was designed and positioned to give the best views of the river to the most number of apartments.
Teator pointed out that there were large floor to ceiling windows on the north side of the restaurant/banquet hall facing the river and the bridge, and added that he would look into the idea of elevating the building to improve the view.
Kaplowitz said, “We want this to be something we can all be proud of. We want to make sure we are celebrating that pathway. We spent a lot of time talking about this with our design team and internally. But it’s important for us to come out here and hear it from people that are outside the project team. So this is part of that engagement process.”
Jim Glorioso, candidate for Montgomery County sheriff and a city resident said, “I think a lot of people here are frustrated because probably the involvement – we should have seen it last year – the communication – because a lot of people have been invested here a long time and feel left out.”
Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara also pointed out the importance of community involvement in the design process, citing his experience from his former occupation as a civil engineer.
“Public input is the most important part of the design process,” he said. “A lot of times I’d have my designs completely technically correct, but that’s not the most important thing. There are ways we can address all the comments, all of everybody’s concerns and come up with an even better design. That’s how the process works.”
Kaplowitz said, “We’re going to do what we can to make this as attractive and marketable and financially feasible as we can and we’re going to do that with transparency. For those of you who felt there hasn’t been enough, we hear you and we will be more transparent.”
Additional comments after the meeting
Rick Insogna and his father Rob Zyzes Sr., who are partners in a new construction project across the street from the Chalmers site were also in attendance. The two expect to lease or sell the nearly completed 2,200 square foot building to a restaurateur.
Asked for his thoughts on the meeting, Insogna said, he thought the opportunity for the public to voice concerns was important, but also thought it was important to be supportive and positive toward the developers with respect to their desire to bring in residents and build the economy.
Asked about the target demographic of the project, he said, “The beauty of private investment is that they’re the ones taking the risk. So it doesn’t really bother me if that’s what they think is going to generate revenue for them. I’m sure that they did their homework and feel it’s the best opportunity to be profitable and bring people to the area.”
Montgomery County Executive Matt Ossenfort, who is also a city resident said, “I think it was a productive meeting. There were some positive comments. The only part that troubles me is when we start talking about ‘those people’ and I think that’s very unfortunate and I think we’re better than that.”
“There’s a positive dialogue about the design and maybe some things that can be tweaked or changed and I think that’s great. But above all, I think most people understand this is a good project and we’re tweaking at this point.“
“When I’m in our six-county [Mohawk Valley Regional Economic Development Council meetings] discussing this project, we are the envy. People are very excited for us to have a 20+ million dollar project going in our downtown, new housing in our downtown. I think this is going to be highly successful. I do think the public portion is important. But I think we’re on the right track.”