Saratoga Springs arts district plan draws foes
Critics say residential atmosphere at risk
Updated 11:12 a.m.
SARATOGA SPRINGS A proposal to expand the Beekman Street Arts District has some neighbors on Saratoga Springs’ West Side organizing opposition, saying its growth could harm the area’s residential feel.
Supporters of the plan — including Mayor Joanne Yepsen — said it could boost the fortunes of an established arts destination without affecting the neighborhood’s residential atmosphere.
The Beekman Street Association’s proposal would expand the area where art studios and other commercial uses are allowed by adding parts of Grand Avenue and Oak, Ash and South Franklin streets.
That would more than double the arts district’s size, which is enough to concern residents who fear what is now a residential area will fill with bars, restaurants or tattoo parlors.
“I like that I live in a residential neighborhood near Broadway, but I don’t want to live on Caroline Street,” said Frank Capone of Grand Avenue, referring to the city’s downtown bar district.
The proposal to expand what is generally considered a successful arts district along lower Beekman Street is currently under review by the city Planning Board.
Yepsen noted that she’s been working to improve the Beekman Street area since she was elected a Saratoga County supervisor in 2006. She became mayor in January.
“It will remain primarily residential, and I’m sensitive to residents’ concerns,” she said Wednesday.
City Principal Planner Kate Maynard said the Planning Board hasn’t reviewed the latest proposal, which was revised in January.
A presentation planned for Wednesday’s Planning Board meeting was postponed until March 12 to give the association time to respond to the concerns, said Stephanie Ferradino, the association’s attorney.
“This has been changed four times already in response to neighbors. They’ve been very thoughtful about listening to comments,” Ferradino said.
Only a City Council vote can change the area’s zoning to expand the existing arts district, but the council has asked the Planning Board for an advisory opinion.
“From the city’s perspective, we are working to see what the root issues are raised by the Beekman Street Association and what the direct and indirect consequences are,” Maynard said.
The current proposal is scaled back from an initial expansion request that the city reviewed in November.
To its backers, the change would be about creating more places where artists and craftspeople could work and sell their products.
The expansion would be about “attracting neighborhood-scale activities that complement the development of this creative arts community,” according to the application narrative.
Ferradino said the rents in the district are high, and expanding it should allow rent for artists to come down through competition among landlords.
Under the association proposal, small commercial establishments would be allowed without further city planning review. That includes studios, galleries, and retail establishments of up to 2,000 square feet; restaurants with less than 40 seats; and offices of up to 2,000 square feet on upper floors. Ferradino said the goal is to keep artists’ costs for getting city approvals down.
Any larger commercial use — first-floor offices, bed-and-breakfasts or rooming houses and any business that has outdoor entertainment — still would be required to get a special permit approval from the city.
The proposal would also allow for higher housing densities if the housing is for resident artists.
“It’s kind of a live-in artist proposal. I think it will blend in nicely with the residential area,” Yepsen said. “It’s already mixed-use there. What we’re trying to encourage is more artists.”
She said the expectation is that conversions to commercial use will take place within existing housing, not that there will be new commercial construction. The city’s Design Review Commission would still oversee any exterior changes.
Opponents are skeptical that the conversions of existing residential to commercial uses can be limited to arts studios and similar low-impact businesses. They also point out that nothing proposed will increase the amount of parking in the area, just a few blocks west of Broadway.
“Without city oversight and it being switched from residential to commercial … it could really end up being very seedy over here,” said resident Maureen Curtin of Grand Avenue.
The arts district around Beekman Street was established in about 2000, and it includes a grouping of studios along with restaurants and boutique businesses. Their activity is generally considered to have brought new vitality to the West Side, though many businesses there have struggled since the recession.