COLONIE — The project at the former Hoffman’s Playland is on hold — again — because of questions over a suitable public benefit for a project of this magnitude, the degree of density and the financial viability of the proposed luxury senior apartments.
Developers of the mixed use retail/senior housing project were visibly not happy when the Planning Board refused to vote on whether or not to recommend a zoning change to allow more density, but attorney Donald Zee, citing fragile contractual obligations, said he hopes the board will consider the project again as soon as possible.
The plan was scaled back a bit since June, the last time it came before the board, but board members questioned whether or not the $300,000 public benefit proposed by the developer was enough considering the size of the project.
“The $300,000 might not be an adequate number. It might be a little light. In my opinion, that conversation should continue,” said board Chairman Peter Stuto said. “My sense is there are still a lot of questions to be answered and I’m not prepared to vote. The height [of the buildings] I have to think about and the density is a little too high and I want to think about it and sleep on it.”
A public benefit can be calculated based on the allowable density compared to the density requested and Stuto said one calculation, based on 37 single family homes, which is permissible under the current zoning, compared to the total units proposed equals a public benefit of some $1.4 million. While it is hard to directly compare the two since there is retail associated with the project, Stuto said even if its cut it in half, the public benefit is $700,000, far more than the $300,000 proposed.
The developers had proposed building $200,000 worth of sidewalks along Aviation Road and then kick in another $100,000 for projects not yet determined. But the board, and some residents, questioned whether or not that was enough and whether the benefit money should be closer to the project.
“I would like to strongly encourage the neighborhood be included when you determine what a public benefit should be. We have to live with this. We are the ones who will not be able to get out of our driveways,” said Amy McCain, a Homestead Drive resident. “I do, personally, believe that sidewalks down to Fresh Market would be an extremely positive benefit for this area.”
Zee said it is hard to discuss the benefit without knowing what the Planning Board was recommending to the Town Board, if anything. The Planning Board must make its recommendation to the Town Board regarding the requested zoning change, from Neighborhood Office Commercial Residential to a Planned Development District, which will allow more density.
“Our initial proposal was to put in sidewalks along Aviation for $200,000 and town said it is insufficient so we offered an increase,” he said. “We believe it is appropriate to sit down and talk to them about the public benefit but we can’t begin that discussion until we know what gets to the Town Board, and if it gets a recommendation or not.”
Ultimately, the Town Board will decide the appropriate public benefit but it will rely on any input from the Planning Board. Local developer Thomas Burke, who owns several Dunkin Donut franchises, would build and operate the retail section and Sage Life, a Pennsylvania based senior housing provider, would build and operate the residential section.
While the meeting room was packed with residents, only a handful spoke and none in favor of the project. Concerns cited included traffic and whether or not the buildings could be seen from the residential neighborhoods behind Hoffman’s to the west of Route 9
Some on the board were concerned about the town’s ability to support luxury senior housing.
“It’s pricy, and I understand its luxury but do you really think the residents in independent living are going to support your restaurants based on their health issues and their income,” said Planning Board member Louis Mion. “I talk to a lot of people, and one of the biggest complaints I hear is there is not enough reasonable housing for seniors. When you start talking about $4,000, I don’t know if this town can support it and my biggest fear is that it won’t support it and we end up with an empty building.”
Kelly Andress, the founder and president of Sage Life, said monthly rents would start at about $3,000 for independent living and increase to about $6,000 a month for memory care, where residents need more hands on support. The average age of residents will be between 71 and 82. She staunchly defended, with words and cash, a marketing study which shows people want this type of living arrangement.
“We are the owners and operators, which is very unusual. Most of the time you are not talking to owner/operators. You are talking to third party managers or non-profits. We are the ones you will be talking to six years from now,” she said. “We believe there is a market here, and we are willing to put tens of millions of dollars behind that presumption.”
The plan is break the 8.4 acres of land into two plots. Along Route 9, there would be a two-story, 26,000-square-foot of retail with two restaurants, down from 30,000-square-feet from the last time it was in front of the board. The number of restaurant seats would decrease from 400 to 340 under the latest incarnation.
Behind that would be a four-story, approximately 70,000-square-foot building for senior housing. Under the plan, there will be 177 total beds, with 85 earmarked for independent living and 92 for assisted living. Of the latter, 20 beds would be set aside for those requiring memory care.
Between the two buildings there is proposed an open piazza for light entertainment, recreation cultural events and community space. Below half of the residential building would be a parking garage.
The land is currently zoned NCOR, and has been owned by the Hoffman family for some 90 years. That designation allows a host of different projects, but the current plan would require a PDD designation, which allows more residential density that zoning allows.
If it was strictly residential, the current density restrictions would allow 37 single family homes on the site. If it were strictly commercial, developers could build a 140,000-square-foot commercial building.
Traffic is an issue along the Route 9 corridor, and, Zee said, if the entire site were developed as retail there would be 347 trips generated during the peak evening hours. Under the current plan, he said there would be 136 trips during the peak evening hours of about 4 to 6 p.m.
“That is one of the reasons David Hoffman was happy to have such a proposal come forward, because of the nature of the development and that it would not have such a traffic impact,” Zee said.
Others interested in the site include gas stations, fast food establishments and convenience stores which, Hoffman said, would not fit into the character of the neighborhood or something he wants on the land his family has owned for some 90- years.
“It has taken us five years to get to this point in the development process. Progress has been slow and methodical,” he said during an impassioned speech to the Planning Board. “Many plans were rejected because we wanted a legacy for our family and a development the Town of Colonie would be proud of. Retirees living there will find every amenity easily located within walking distance and underground parking will be a huge benefit during the winter months. Surrounding businesses will benefit from this economically and it will compliment Newton Plaza and the Village of New Loudon. Family memoires will live on in a different form. Residents who once came to the Playland as children will live on the land of their childhood memories.”
The land has been vacant since the Hoffmans retired in 2014.
This is the second time the Planning Board opted not to vote on making a recommendation, either pro or con, to the Town Board and it is the second time the developers scaled it back a bit.
When it was first proposed in November, 2018 it included 200 units of senior housing and 30,000-square-foot of retail space.
The design — both architecturally and conceptually — would follow the lead of the Village at New Loudon, located directly to the north. Like this proposal, that development has high end retail along Route 9 with apartments behind.
Those apartment are marketed to young professionals and not seniors, though, and some on the board questioned whether or not the seniors would be willing and/or able to support the retail and restaurants.
“I don’t think the commercial, the retail or the restaurants, is relying on my residents nor am I relying on the retail and the restaurants,” Andress countered. “Rent includes food and some hands on care and it includes underground parking and activities and transportation and maintenance free living. Just because it’s expensive doesn’t mean it’s not a good value.”
The proposal includes two curb cuts onto Route 9. While they would not have a traffic light to assist drivers getting on the heavily travelled Route 9, there would be access to a light at the Village at New Loudon which is currently under construction.
“At the end of the day, this creates far less traffic than alternatives,” said Planning Board member Steve Heider. “It’s unrealistic, though, to think you are putting 37 homes in there so this is the most attractive officer. I do question the building height and whether a four story building will not be visible from Route 9.”
It is not known when the project will be back before the Planning Board. The developers had initially hoped to break ground by fall, 2019.