Proposed POMCO signs and parking lot

This letter was sent to me by James Creveling, who has been vitally interested in development in Eastwood for many years.  James has a BS in Environmental Studies and has completed coursework, with a focus on land use and design issues, for a Masters of Regional Planning (MRP), University at Albany.

As you may know, the Planning Commission is holding a public hearing at their June 8 meeting about a new POMCO development.  It includes a resubdivision, a project site review, and sign waivers.

FACTS

The project involves demolishing the buildings between Walgreens and POMCO’s “Ausman” building on the NW corner of North Ave.  Also to be demolished is the house at 119 North Ave.

In the space between Walgreens and the “Ausman” bldg., POMCO proposes a new 2 story building — office space on the second floor, and a parking garage (17 spaces) on the first floor, car entrance in the rear.  There will be no gaps in the “street wall” of building facades.  The rear lot area, including the demolished 119 North Ave. lot will be parking lot and connect with the Walgreens lot.

The resubdivision combines 5 parcels into 2: 1 Walgreens and 1 POMCO.  There are two (2) proposed signs: one wall sign on the James St. (south) facade, above the 2nd floor windows (3′ x 9′ “POMCO”); and another wall sign on the rear, parking lot (north) facade, also above the second floor windows (2′ x 6′ “POMCO”).

MY OPINION

This project has many positives, including a two story building replacing buildings that need attention.  Parking is in the rear (and inside).

There are also negatives or concerns.

  • A house is lost, and remaining houses are encroached by parking lot(s). There is more parking than required, arguably more than needed (especially when combined with Walgreen’s), but apparently what POMCO wants.
  • Awnings would be nice.
  • The signs are not large, but are too high, and unnecessarily so.  They may be acceptable, but for what reason is unclear – “practical difficulties” are not apparent.
  • The sign in the rear is not allowed, but may be justified — but would seem to be “needed” to locate an entrance, not ID the whole building.
  • My main concern is how the first floor addresses the sidewalk..  The building comes to the sidewalk, has windows, and puts parking in the rear (and inside), but it still essentially turns its back on James St. Having the first floor used as a parking garage means all the first floor windows either look into the garage or are not transparent glass.  The building’s first floor offers no interaction between the building’s interior and the outside sidewalk.  This is a nearly 100′ length (95′?).  The one door proposed on James St. is a single, small door, with little articulation as an entrance, and leads into a stairwell space where one can access the garage, the stairs, and the first floor of the “Ausman” bldg.  It has the appearance of an “emergency exit only” door, and that may be what it is.

The proposal has some major positives, but the relationship between the sidewalk and the building — especially the first floor — is not trivial.  POMCO may want 17 indoor parking spaces, but this design’s effect on the street is unfortunate, to say the least.  It’s not a blank wall, but there will be only that one small (exit?) door, and it appears that the “windows” will provide little interest to the pedestrian.

On its building to the east of North Ave., POMCO fairly effectively created the appearance of multiple, narrow facades using varying colors, awnings, windows, rooflines, etc..  For the new building west of North Ave., I haven’t seen a color rendering, but I’m not sure it tries to continue that effect.  The new building attempts to mimic the “Ausman” building in some ways.  The new facade has several “steps” or “zig0zags” to it — I guess because the “Ausman” bldg is 6 or 8 feet closer to James St. than the Walgreens.  This may achieve some of that breaking up of the long facade, but it alone seems inadequate, and I’m not sure there are any other methods being employed to that end.

SIGNAGE

The signs are contrary to the Overlay, thus the waiver application. The James St. sign is just in a location (above the second floor windows) that violates the regulations — without any real justification.  It could be above the first floor windows, above the door for example, but they may not want anyone actually using that door.  They’re proposing a number of “gooseneck” lights between the first and second floor windows, as exist on their other buildings.  They could provide exterior lighting for a sign, either wall or projecting (nicer than interior-lighted signs).

To my knowledge, neither the Sign Code nor the Overlay say anything about internally-lit vs. externally-lit signs, though external lighting is arguably nicer.  The locations of the signs are higher than permitted in the Overlay regulations without strong justification.  Surely signs at the top of the building would identify the whole building as POMCO better than a lower sign would, but that does not seem to constitute the “practical difficulties” required in the Code.  Is it worth arguing to bring the signs down to the first floor?  Maybe it is if only for the precedent.

The rear facade doesn’t face a street so a sign would not be permitted under the Overlay.  Even though the whole building(s) is POMCO, and there’s just one entry visible from the parking lot, it’s understandable that an identifying sign would be desired on the rear of the building.  The application states that both signs are “to be seen from a distance,” and their location is “a natural” because of the space created by the shape of the roofline.  Though this sign is only 12 sq. ft., this location seems intended to be seen from Eastwood Ave..  A sign simply marking the entrance door would seem more appropriate.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The underlying zoning does have parking requirements:  minimum number of spaces per square foot of a use.  I don’t have exact numbers, but a Zoning Office employee estimated the requirement for this proposal to be no more than 30 spaces.  The plan shows at least 30 spaces outside, plus 17 inside.  In combination with Walgreen’s larger-than-required lot, it looks like a lot of parking.  Also, the abundant parking in the rear could offer more greenery/screening for the neighboring residential property(ies).  Of course, they are also owned by POMCO, but they are still residential.

The indoor parking is a surprising feature on James St., and it’s interesting that POMCO desires it enough to commit half this building to creating 17 spaces.  It’s not the parking per se, but its location that bothers me.  Long facades with few if any entrances are not good for the street. Office use in the first floor is OK, but often not as engaging of the street as retail (the neighboring Walgreen’s notwithstanding).  A parking garage in the first floor is a problem.  Even better (big) parking garages have other uses lining the sidewalks.  Syracuse University is fronting one of their new garages with other uses.

As I’ve said, the project is a welcomed idea, but there should be a better way.  In the design, POMCO fulfills its internal program wishes, but fails some basics of urban design.  Its inward attention fails James St.  The “dead” first floor along the whole facade is antithetical to pedestrian-oriented design. The Overlay requires clear glass on the first floor, but clear glass would only provide a view into the garage.

Even with a parking garage in the first floor and up to the sidewalk, I think the new POMCO facade will be no worse than the Walgreen’s — maybe better.  But is that good enough?  Is that the standard?  Is the garage necessary?  Can it be reduced, or pushed back, or put below grade?  Can the design be changed to put some office or retail in at least part of the facade along the sidewalk?

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