Saratoga Springs Mayor Joanne Yepsen held her first town hall-style dialogue with city residents Tuesday evening, where community conversation was not dominated by casinos for a change.
At the town hall meeting, hosted by the mayor’s office at the Principessa Elena Society on Oak Street, Saratoga Springs residents spoke their minds on a small variety of topics, including two questions about casinos. But the majority of discussion focused on other issues. The change in focus comes just weeks after the Saratoga Springs City Council adopted a measure against New York’s casino gambling law, and Yepsen herself said city government is ready to move on.
"I think the casino issue is clearly not over, but we're in a different phase of it right now. And the process is going to continue and we'll stay on top of it, but meanwhile there's a lot of other business that has to be taken care of," said Yepsen.
The conversation was mainly focused on issues related to the proposed zoning changes on Beekman Street and the surrounding area, a plan that was rejected last week by the city’s planning board.
The changes would allow some exemptions for commercial projects to operate along Beekman Street, an area that is being transformed into an arts district.
Many speakers were concerned about parking issues, saying new restaurants or stores would impact neighbors on busy nights.
City resident Phil Diamond was hopeful the plan can be revisited.
“Commercial and residential can work well together if it’s done right and done in a planned way,” said Diamond.
City resident Brian Carroll said he was concerned about potential noise issues related to studio space given to artists in the residential area.
“People with schedules like firefighters, policemen, hospital workers and factory workers – they work. And when they come home from work in the morning and put their kids on the bus and lay down to take a nap to go to work in the evening, they can’t up put up with the commotion of somebody selling bongo drums next door, or cars pulling in and out because somebody’s art studio has moved in next door,” said Carroll.
City resident Bonnie Sellers took issue with an idea to give housing preference to artists.
“I know everybody’s heart is in the right place, but you can’t chase people out of their houses,” said Sellers.
The push to transform the area into an arts district has come from the Beekman Street Association. Stephanie Ferradino, a volunteer with the association, said 10 years ago, neighbors would be having a much different conversation about the area.
“It was a very unsafe neighborhood, there were illegal activities, boarded up houses. All of that changed because of the artists, because they came here and expanded and fixed up the neighborhood,” said Ferradino.
Ferradino said the next proposal to encourage more artists to live and work along Beekman Street on the city’s resurgent West Side will consider the community’s feedback.
“I think the next proposal will allow artists studios and artists galleries in the overlying area and it will keep all of the business uses subject to special use permit or site plan,” said Ferradino.
Mayor Yepsen added she thinks a new plan can be worked out, as it goes back to the drawing board.
"We need customers down there for artists to survive, and we need intriguing places for artists to be to attract those customers," said Yepsen. "So it's sort of a vicious circle right now but I do believe that we can come to a different plan that will include more residential input and that we are limiting the geographic area."
The first-term Democratic mayor said she would like to continue holding more community dialogues outside the confines of public comment periods and city council meetings.