Monday, March 31, 2014

Peter Bauer:
Considering Three Hotel Projects in the Adirondacks

hotel-saranacThree major hotel projects are moving through the state and local regulatory processes here in the Adirondacks.

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.

LakeGeorgeMarriottThe 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.

West-Brook-TSP,-N-ChartsOne 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.

Lake-Flower-Hotel-1Like 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.


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Peter Bauer is the Executive Director of Protect the Adirondacks.He has been working in various capacities on Adirondack Park environmental issues since the mid-1980s, including stints as the Executive Director of the Residents' Committee to Protect the Adirondacks and FUND for Lake George as well as on the staff of the Commission on the Adirondacks in the Twenty-First Century. He also worked at Adirondack Life Magazine. He served as Chair of the Town of Lake George Zoning Board of Appeals and has served on numerous advisory boards for management of the Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve. Peter lives in Blue Mountain Lake with his wife and two children, enjoys a wide variety of outdoor recreational activities throughout the Adirondacks, and is a member of the Blue Mountain Lake volunteer fire department.Follow Protect the Adirondacks on Facebook and Twitter.

15 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    As far as “walling off” the view of the lake. You can’t see Lake Flower from that road now. True, this would be higher but you still can’t see it now.

    These projects all cluster development inside hamlet areas. As long as they can build them in a way that doesn’t have negative environmental impacts I think that environmental groups should support them all.

    The idea of comparing a hotel with a prison wall is nice rhetoric but it isn’t at all the same thing.

    Was looking a book with some older photos of Lake Flower last night. The lake is far less developed than it was in the past. In fact we now have a public park where there was a big hotel around the turn of the century. Plus all the land from there to where this hotel will be is already publicly owned land. This is just a few hundred feet farther.

    Also, the boathouses that blocked the views on the other side of the lake are gone and will never be back.

  2. Running George says:

    These capitalists do love their corporate welfare!

  3. Will Doolittle says:

    As Paul says, most of the Lake Flower waterfront on that side of the lake, as you enter the village, used to be developed. It was covered with buildings, driveways, parking lots, etc. Sometime in the ’70s, I believe, those were all torn down and made into a long stretch of park. The section in the bay, where viable motels were operating, was left private. That has been commercial land for decades, and has afforded no public view or access. So the new motel wouldn’t change things along the lakeshore, and the situation will remain as it is — which, in terms of beauty, public access and views, is much better than it was 40 years ago.

    • Paul says:

      Also, there is a much more open view all along Lake Flower from the tennis courts to the “ice cream store” that Peter mentions now than even 40 years ago. So folks driving in from that direction have a better view than was there in the past. That road was lined with tees along the shore that are gone now. As some will remember that is when the “river rats” lost their rope swing!

      That “view shed” is now permanent.

    • Paul says:

      “The section in the bay, where viable motels were operating, was left private.”

      True, but some of it was also taken by eminent domain (I think it was done this way?). The original Keough Marine in the building that sat over Pontiac Bay was razed (very close to where the ice palace is built now) and it moved down the street to where the marina is currently. Are they the next private business that some would like to see razed so that we can have the “park” go a bit farther?

  4. Jim says:

    The PUD concept of private gain (through lifting zoning restrictions) balanced by public benefit needs to be realized as well the PUD concept of real evaluation of alternatives. Most of the old Adk hotels didn’t impact a community entry nor block a neighborhood; alternative forms with the similar private gain would result in a public benefit of preserving an important community entry and minimizing impact on the background neighborhood.

    Put another way, a plan which provides an applicant with a private gain above that of the existing zoning, without a public benefit at least as equivalent, may be challenged as spot zoning.

    It is also encumbent on the village to require a developer to provide specific information of his/her ability to complete a project, similar to that required for subdivision improvements, such that the community is not stuck with a project gone sour. A part of this could be to ensure that the structure could be convertible to other, related uses, particular in such an important location with very limited shoreline remaining.

    Of course, the flood plain issue needs to be resolved in any case, and other forms for the project may help in that regard. This kind of design process and assessment is what PUD is all about and is owed to the community.

  5. ethan says:

    What you fail to discuss, or indeed mention, is that all of these projects involve economic development (something all but few would agree is necessary for the Adirondack Park to continue to have a thriving local population) WITHIN existing hamlets.

    There are many reasons, perhaps, to support or oppose these projects and as I’ve not personally reviewed the issue I’m taking no opinion on these specific projects. But as a general rule, the bar for opposing development within an existing hamlet should always be far higher than for opposing development outside the hamlets (or to put it more naturally, perhaps: the bar for supporting development within a hamlet should be lower — and we should be more willing to compromise — than for development outside hamlets).

    You do a disservice when you discuss these projects without pointing this out. I, by the way, am a committed conservationist who wants future generations to enjoy a park as beautiful as the one I am fortunate enough to experience. But to reflexively oppose all development, even when it’s within a hamlet, is foolish and short-sighted.

    All of these are hotel developments that if successful will bring more people to the Park to enjoy its beauty. What are we protecting this park for if we don’t want people to experience it? The bar for opposing such development within an existing hamlet should be even higher than for opposing other forms of development (say, a brewery) in the same spot.

    • Peter Bauer says:


      Thank you.

      No mention of economic development? See the 3rd paragraph: “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.”

      No mention of Hamlet areas? Try the 5th paragraph: “These projects all involve various levels of Hamlet area renewal and transformation of existing developed sites.”

      As to whether PROTECT supports or opposes these projects, that’s not the point of the article. The point was to bring to the Almanack forum, which is Park-wide, the breadth of issues around these major developments that are being actively debated in the Saranac Lake and Lake George communities.

      Please note, PROTECT is on record with an endorsement of the Hotel Saranac project:

      On the other two, any position for or against is premature. A great deal of information still needs to be organized and submitted to fully evaluate them. These are big projects that will have major impacts on these communities.

      As a rule, PROTECT generally does not get involved in projects in Hamlet areas, but the Lake Flower Inn and Lake George Marriott are major projects that we believe merit scrutiny.

      Last, the issue here is not with development, but with pollution. If the Lake Flower Inn and Lake George Marriott go forward, both should be regulated in such a way as to ensure they are environmentally benign. Lake Flower is a stressed lake and Lake George has experienced a steady downward trend in water quality.

  6. Paul says:

    “On the other two, any position for or against is premature.”

    Peter you say this in your article.

    “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.”

    Clearly you don’t support the project.

    • Peter Bauer says:

      If you read the letters in the Daily Enterprise, and there are more than I linked to, the biggest issue is the size of the building on the 3-acre project site. The three current mostly 1-story motels are configured differently and much smaller in scale. The letter writers from Saranac Lake point to the 300-foot long 40-foot high design as their biggest objection. “Walling off” may not be artful, but it evokes the major change in that site with this proposal.

      • Paul says:

        Peter, yes, I have read those. I was just pointing out that PROTECT appears to raise the same objections, or at least you do personally in this article.

        The maps that you have supplied (thanks) show well what the plans are. If you look now at what is currently there. You can see first that you cannot see the lake from the road. And that the current set up has buildings closer to the water on the whole:

        The proposed layout appears to perhaps even have more green space than is there now.

        Also it looks like the lake might be even more visible from the ends of the property which are now blocked off by the motel that is currently at the back of Pontiac bay:

        But, yes, the new building will be higher. But the point is you can’t see the lake now anyway so nothing is being “walled” off compared to what is there now.

        Thanks again for the info at your site.

  7. Peter Carey says:

    I wholeheartedly agree that the Lake George Marriott project definitely needs further scrutiny as to size, placement of rooms, conference center and parking. Your suggestion that an enclosed parking garage with conference rooms and hotel rooms atop thereby reducing the height of the project is an excellent idea. As a yearly visitor to LG with my family for the last fifteen years after a twenty year hiatus ( I spent summers in Ti as a youth) I have watched in dismay as several smaller businesses and restaurants have been forced out by what I call the Disneyfication of LG village and surrounding areas. I.e Johnny Rockets/Six Flags as well as several national hotel chains building and or expanding while several smaller family owned hotel/motels have seen declining business (Scotty’s Motel comes to mind). A building twice the size of the next highest in the immediate area seems to me to be a case of the developer/owner trying to outdo everyone else and be the “big man on campus” to coin a phrase. Overall I Believe that a building of this scope would ultimately be detrimental to smaller hotel owners in the area along with being unsightly and a detriment to the quality of the water in the Lake.
    Peter Carey Brewster, NY

    • M.P.Heller says:

      Mr. Carey makes some excellent observations in his comments above. It is true that the structure as proposed will overshadow anything else in its vacinity by a tremendous height. Also of particular interest is that the proposed facade of the building is not a traditional Adirondack style facade, but rather a poorly adopted western style, and the character of the building would be inappropriate in its current design on the main street of an Adirondack village.

      Moreover the issues of height, visual impacts, and storm and waste water management are the crux of the objections I have heard regarding this project. It is true that the waste water treatment plant in Lake George Village is taxed to its limits already. On very busy holiday weekends this system cannot keep up with demand as it is, and adding a large hotel complex with banquet facilities and restaurant options is only going to serve to further overwhelm the water treatment plant and as a direct result of that will increase the amount of harmful runoff into the West Brook basin, one of the main feeder tributaries to the southern basin of Lake George. This increased nutrified runoff will further exacerbate the issues facing Lake George with regard to declining water quality. Additionallly, the site sits atop a little known underground stream which flows directly into Lake George. Without mitigating storm water runoff in an appropriate manner, this project threatens to have a severe impact on the water quality of Lake George from TWO different streams which run directly into Lake George.

      While the Lake George Village Board may have been dazzled by the proposal, it falls flat when it comes to local residents. Residents want to see change for sure. Appropriate development which removes anachronistic businesses and breathes new life into our community is what is desired, not mammoth box style hotels with little style and negative environmental impacts on our natural resources. Please take some time and write the APA if you have concerns about this project going forward. You don’t need to live in Lake George for your opinion to be taken into account by the APA, you just have to have a love for our park, and a couple minutes to write to the APA telling them how this project as proposed needs major changes before it can be approved. Your efforts may prevent other such projects from taking hold not only here, but in other Adirondack communities as well.

      As an aside to Mr. Carey above, Scotty’s Motel has been sold, and will be rennovated this spring.

      • Paul says:

        The new design for the hotel in Saranac Lake looks a lot better than the motor-lodge hodgepodge they have going there now with the three existing motels.

        The flood zone problems they have with that site are the real problem at this point. I am not sure that I agree that they can be revised just because they added a few new flood gates in 1987. That lake has some serious flooding problems even with more water being discharged into the river.

      • Peter Carey says:

        Thank you for the additional info regarding the APA taking non resident views into account. I was not aware of that. As a long time visitor to LG with my family every summer I do have a love of the lake and everything surrounding it. As I boy I frequented Ticonderoga every summer and I now spend 7-10 days at Scotty’s every summer for the last fifteen years. I was aware of the sale and have already spoken with the new management regarding the renovations and am certain they will do all they can to keep the area in a condition which will not only allow longtime visitors to feel at ease and able to enjoy a place they have come to love but wil attract new visitors to the area as well. My family and I look forward to our annual visit this July now more then ever.
        Thank you again for your information regarding the proposed projects.
        Peter Carey

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