These projects include a top-to-bottom renovation and restoration of Saranac Lake’s iconic Hotel Saranac, a new 120-room Marriot Hotel and convention center in downtown Lake George, and the new 90-room Lake Flower Inn on the shores of Lake Flower in Saranac Lake.
As a package this marks one of the biggest investments in tourism facilities in the Adirondacks since the expansion of the Sagamore Resort in the 1980s or the expansion of the Crowne Plaza in Lake Placid in 2004.
Two of the projects are in line for significant state funding. The Hotel Saranac is approved for $5 million in grants and tax abatements and the Lake Flower Inn is scheduled for a $2 million state grant.
These projects all involve various levels of Hamlet area renewal and transformation of existing developed sites. They differ in natural resource impacts and in how they will affect community character. The impacts range from modest to significant.
The Hotel Saranac project is largely a renovation and restoration of the existing landmark historic building. It’s a long distance from either Lake Flower or the Saranac River, so there are no controversial water quality issues. It needs various local permits, but not a permit from the Adirondack Park Agency (APA). Roedel Companies purchased the hotel last year and has since been awarded $5 million in state grants and tax credits for the restoration.
The Hotel Saranac has long dominated the skyline of Saranac Lake and for decades was owned and operated by Paul Smith’s College where it was a cornerstone of the community. A private owner operated the hotel for the past seven years before closing it pending a sale.
In addition to a major renovation of the hotel, the new owners should include some serious stormwater upgrades. The site provides opportunities for capture and infiltration devices and various Low Impact Development techniques. The only significant environmental issues for Roedel Companies are to improve stormwater management and energy efficiency.
The Lake George Marriot Project
In Lake George, a local developer and business owner has received approval from the Village of Lake George to build a six-story, 120-room Marriott Hotel on Canada Street, next to the high school. The project also needs an APA permit because of its height. This hotel will be built where a string of restaurants now stand, including the legendary the John Barleycorns bar. The developer bought up all the buildings and consolidated a large parking lot in the back of these properties between Canada and Ottawa Streets so that he can build this hotel. This location is across the street from Lake George in a part of the Village with chronic stormwater problems.
The Village Planning Board vote for approval was 3 to 2. The exterior design was changed to add some Adirondack façade features. At six stories it’s higher than any other building around it, including the three-story high school or even the historic courthouse with its clock tower. A mile south of the Marriott site is the five-story Fort William Henry, which expanded 10 years ago under an APA permit. In many ways the Fort William Henry Hotel is in a much more visible location, yet it’s on a larger tract of land, nearly 15 acres, and far from the road. Other less conspicuous hotels are four stories tall in other parts of Lake George.
The new Marriott will bring a major change to Canada Street, now dominated by a string of one and two-story buildings. The visual simulations prepared by the developer show limited impacts in various across-the-lake views. The most jarring views are the simulations from just south of the project on Canada Street or a point just north of the hotel across the street from the school.
Local concerns have focused on the massive change in scale from the existing row of two-story restaurants to a long monolithic six-story hotel. Local residents argue it’s simply too big and disrupts community character.
Here’s what one Lake George resident wrote about the Village approval:
Very disappointing decision. I would hope that anyone who is concerned, whether they are for or against this project actually go to the site and stand there in front of Barleycorns or one of the other 2 story buildings there. Then picture something that is 3 times higher !!! Need another perspective…the high school gym is about 2.5 stories high. Picture something that is going to be over twice as high as that standing next to it. It simply does not fit in the village, especially on the postage stamp piece of property they are trying to shoehorn this thing into. Yes, [the developer] has a right to use the property he purchased, but not to the detriment of all who love and live or visit Lake George. This project is a monstrosity and I can only hope the APA (omg of all organizations) will have the common sense to say no.
The APA also needs to look at ability of the Lake George municipal sewage treatment plant to handle the estimated 10,000-20,000 gallons of effluent that will be generated daily by this hotel, as well as stormwater pollution issues. The Lake George sewage treatment plant is an infiltration plant with no discharge to a water source. The Village has operated a plant and various treatment beds at the south end of town near Northway Exit 21 for decades. For many years, there have been complaints about inadequate treatment for nutrient control, namely phosphorus and nitrates, that leach into Lake George. High nutrient loading at the south end of Lake George is the principal cause for the formation of the annual “dead zone” hypoxic area that forms each summer and fall in Lake George.
A recent study funded by the Department of State (DOS) looked at stream discharges to Lake George from around the lake. Loading at a significantly higher rate than any other stream in the basin, West Brook was found to be the biggest single source of nutrient loading to Lake George.
One thing that sets West Brook apart is its location downslope from the sewage treatment plant, about 1/3 of a mile away, so the plant leaches nutrients into it through the groundwater. The study funded by the DOS (and the APA should make sure that they get this compete study from the DOS) is based on multiple samples from West Brook at natural locations on the flanks of Prospect Mountain west of the Northway and then downstream in the Village before and after Route 9.
The samples show how urban impacts can change water quality. The water values from the natural part of the stream flowing off of Prospect Mountain (Gage Brook) are high, but then the impacts from the Northway, sewage treatment plant, Route 9, and the Village’s urbanized zone dramatically degrade water quality. The biggest single impact for nutrient loading is, however, when West Brook absorbs leaching groundwater from the sewage treatment plant.
The chart shown here shows how West Brook loads a disproportionate amount of nutrients to Lake George compared with other streams as well as how the headwaters of West Brook are vastly cleaner than the stream waters after the area downslope of the sewage treatment plant.
Another issue facing the Marriott is that as the Village grew over the years, a stream running to Lake George was slowly encased, put in a pipe, and covered over. Other facilities have likely linked to this stream for stormwater relief (straight piping to an underground stream is hardly enlightened stormwater management). The stream enters Lake George across the street from the Marriott on the Marine Village resort property, which is also owned by developer of the Marriott. During storms the stream runs black as it gushes into the lake. The new Marriott is proposed to be built atop this long covered up stream. This is an issue for the APA to investigate.
The proposed Marriott has a large parking lot in the back of its proposed 6-story building. What if the hotel included a two-story parking garage and then put hotel rooms and conference center facilities over the parking garage? In this way, could the whole building be lowered to a 4-story, rather than 6-story building? That opens up an option to move the restaurant to a large roof that could be designed as an attractive green roof with outdoor seating. It would provide stunning views for patrons of Lake George and Prospect and French Mountains, yet not be nearly as disruptive in size and scale as the current design.
The Lake Flower Inn Project
The proposed Lake Flower Inn is a $15 million, 90-room luxury hotel that will replace three long-operating motels squeezed together on the shores of Lake Flower in Saranac Lake between Lake Flower Avenue and the lake. In place of three motels built perpendicular to the lake, the Lake Flower Inn will build one long building that faces onto Lake Flower Ave.
The developers state that they will retain almost all of the mature trees on the property; move the building further from the lake than current buildings; create more green space between the inn and the lake than currently exists; improve stormwater management; and operate a year-round facility that will both draw people to the community and provide year-round jobs. The Inn will also enable people to reach it by boat and dock at its restaurant for dinner.
The Lake Flower Inn developers argue that their architectural design incorporates design features from the heyday of great hotels on the Saranac Lake chain of lakes.
The developer proposes to build the driveway and all patios and walkways with pervious pavement to enable the capture and infiltration of stormwater. Currently, the Department of Transportation (DOT) straight-pipes stormwater into Lake Flower through drains beneath the existing motels. The developers state they will fix all existing stormwater problems.
Like the Lake George Marriott, the Lake Flower Inn project has prompted concerns about its changes to community character. The Adirondack Daily Enterprise has featured pieces where people argue that a four-story building over 250 feet in length is out of scale with the area. One commenter said that the Inn’s design is similar to the great wall of Dannemora Prison that towers over Main Street in the Village of Dannemora. You can read other letters of concern in The Enterprise here, here, and here. Saranac Lake Village Mayor Clyde Rabideau penned a supportive piece here.
In addition to walling off the lake with a project too big for the site, the other issue that has raised hackles in Saranac Lake concerns parking. The developer proposes to raze an existing building and build parking lots north of Lake Flower Avenue. This means that pedestrians will be crossing one of the busiest intersections on Lake Flower Ave. See more design plans and renderings here.
The Lake Flower Inn will also have to contend with issues around new development in a designated flood zone. See a report here about these issues with the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA).
The Lake Flower resort was also awarded a $2 million grant by the state. One has to wonder about the impact on the regulators at the APA of a grant from the state’s Economic Development Council, which is heavily controlled by Governor Cuomo.
In light of the Governor’s influence over the APA’s recent classification of the former Finch lands, does his approval of the Lake Flower Inn make the project in its current design a foregone conclusion? Will the APA subvert its regulations and limit the scope of its review in order to, as critics have argued, shoehorn a size 10 project into a size 6 site?
Considering Alternative Uses
The common environmental factor for these three hotel projects is that they need to upgrade stormwater management. But after that, the individual issues vary. In addition to what was discussed above, I think it’s also fair to add another consideration to natural resource and community character impacts: an evaluation of the alternative possibilities for the properties in question.
Given the historic nature of the Hotel Saranac and how it has dominated the skyline in the Village of Saranac Lake for decades, I think that it’s fair to argue that the hotel is the highest and best use of that site. A town park or an amphitheater or some other use doesn’t seem to provide the community the same level of engagement or value as the Hotel Saranac.
What about the Lake George Marriott? It is clearly a huge new structure bigger than anything else on Canada Street (Main Street) or anywhere else in Lake George. What if this site were dedicated to another purpose, such as a park or other publicly beneficial facility ? While I can hear murmurs of “it could have been a casino”, I don’t see a viable alternative vision other than smaller scale (and lower height) commercial use. The finest municipal park in the Adirondacks is Shepard Park in Lake George Village (though there is also a good argument that Arrowhead Park in Inlet is the best), which is also attached to the Lake George waterfront and walkway. This is a terrific and heavily used public amenity. The walkway also connects to the state’s Battleground Park and Million Dollar Beach, two other fine and highly accessible public amenities.
Given the wealth of other public amenities easily accessible to downtown Lake George, the use of the Marriott Hotel site for something other than commercial activities is not a major consideration. The issue becomes one of scale and one of the ability to handle stormwater and sewage treatment.
The Saranac Lake Waterfront
Finally, what about the Lake Flower Inn? Here, an alternative to commercial use has long been considered. The idea that this site should be transformed to a public park has been a part of Saranac Lake public life for more than 100 years. A park along the Lake Flower waterfront has been an article of faith of the Village Improvement Society of Saranac Lake, which turned 100 years old in 2010.
In 1908, the Olmstead Brothers, the firm of Frederick Law Olmstead, architect of Prospect Park and Central Park in New York City, among many others, made a study of Saranac Lake. They recognized the immense public values of the Lake Flower waterfront as a community asset. A member of the Olmstead team wrote more than 100 years ago: “I was struck almost immediately with the potential value of Lake Flower and its immediate surroundings as public property.”
Imagine a public park along the Saranac Lake waterfront for nearly three-quarters of a mile, from the band shell under the pines at the Main Street intersection all the way to the ice cream shop. Linked by an attractive and accessible walkway, it would be heavily used and redefine and dominate the community aesthetic of Saranac Lake.
A public waterfront, like the one in Lake George, provides free and easy access to the casual visitor and local residents. Moreover, by reducing the commercial strip that so dominates the waterfront, it would be a beautiful declaration of community character and community public values. Unlike the Hotel Saranac or the Lake George Marriott, there is a compelling, rival vision that is worthy of millions of dollars in public investment. This public asset would also provide long-term community benefits.
Village of Saranac Lake Mayor Rabideau does not see the viability of a park:
“The notion expressed by some that the three existing motels should be bought, knocked down and grassed over is simply not realistic. The village cannot afford the $2 million to buy the property, nor the $500,000 to turn it into a park, nor could it afford to lose the current $56,000 per year in property taxes from those properties. Everyone is entitled to express their opinion, even our friends who live outside the village, but we must consider the critical fact that what happens with this property will directly affect the pocketbooks and wallets of Saranac Lake taxpayers for years to come.”
As a basis of assessment I think we can summarize these projects. The Hotel Saranac project doesn’t raise any major issues, other than perhaps stepping up its stormwater management planning. The Lake George Marriott has real issues with scale, stormwater and sewage treatment, but it’s not on the lakeshore and is within a highly commercial zone.
The Lake Flower Inn is proposed on a narrow lakeshore lot between the lake and the highway with attendant impacts. The developers believe their project will have less of an environmental impact than the three existing facilities and the current inadequate stormwater management of the DOT. They state they will retain most of the mature trees on the site and build a beautiful building. At $15 million, it’s a major investment in Saranac Lake. But the Lake Flower Inn also proposes to wall off the lake with a building that many in the community feel is too big for that lakeshore site. Plus, its parking lot plan further complicates a busy intersection. In the end, the Lake Flower Inn precludes an opportunity to build a waterfront park, which would create a beautiful new, enduring public asset for the Saranac Lake community.
The Village of Saranac Lake still needs to act on the Lake Flower Inn application. The APA is in the process of gathering further information on the Lake Flower Inn and Lake George Marriott as part of its project review. Neither project has a complete application at this time. More information will be available to the public to further evaluate these projects in the months ahead.