An open and shut case

An open and shut case

Photo by Shannon Straney 

Covering 10 dynamic blocks of Albany, Lark Street is home to unique bars, eateries and galleries that bring the city to life. There is something cozy about the area, with a cobblestone road leading you into blocks of residential brownstones peppered with colorful cafes and boutiques. It’s the “Village in the City,” a stomping ground for leisure, art and—when the sun hides itself away—a bustling nightlife.

But it’s in danger.

A rezoning proposal calls for 24-hour businesses—such as the Dunbrook Mobil station or Market 32—and bars with last call at 4 AM to start closing at 2 AM. The multicultural restaurants and cafes near residential areas that make Lark Street a hub for cuisine would close at 11 PM. Businesses would have two years to transition, but Lark Street Proprietors say the loss of hours would deliver a devastating blow in convenience and entertainment for community members.

The proposition for Lark Street is part of a citywide ReZone Albany project that aims to redistribute regulation of building codes, parking rules and other district ordinances. According to Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan, this has not been done in 50 years and is in desperate need for an update.

“The zoning for Lark Street right now is that all businesses have to close at 11 PM. Clearly, we don’t want to keep that,” Sheehan said. “The reason being that Special Use Permits have been given to some [businesses] but not others. There’s no consistency.”

According to the New York State Senate, the Special Use Permits (SUP) allow businesses to seek authorization from a village planning board to override local zoning laws as long as it “will not adversely affect the neighborhood.” However, the process of obtaining a SUP can be lengthy and could deter future prospective business from investing in the community.

“One thing stood out loud and clear [in the proposal], new businesses coming in are looking for clear rules and certainty about what the competitive environment is like for an investment,” Sheehan said.

When the consultants created the proposal, they fully expected that there would be comments from the community. The trouble lies in the decision-making.

“Obviously, we have establishments that are open 24 hours like Market 32 that we don’t want to close at 2 AM. But with Lark Street zoned at ‘everything closes at 11,’ do we make it anything goes? With the proximity of residence, that didn’t appear to be an option. If we say, ‘all can stay open until 4 AM, there’s gonna be pushback from the community,” Sheehan said.

Lark Street is made up of areas called Mixed-Use, Community Urban (MU-CU), Mixed-Use, Neighborhood Center (MU-NC) or Mixed-Use Neighborhood Edge (MU-NE) in the ReZone District draft. The battle for balance all comes in the name. Citizens in residential areas surrounded by high traffic businesses could be fed up with late night noise, inebriated patrons urinating in their gardens (a common complaint, according to Sheehan) or bottle-littered streets in the morning.

Dan Atkins, acting chair of the Lark Street Business Improvement District (BID) board, disagrees; arguing that in a meeting Tuesday night, residents such as Washington Park Neighborhood Association president Jessica Neidl, actually spoke up for businesses that have been thriving in their community for decades with late hours, calling the rezoning regulations “unfair.”

“We have been grappling with balance in the neighborhood for years. Yes, sometimes 4 AM bars are a problem, but that being said, reverting to 2 AM is not the answer.”

Some have suggested a complaint-driven code that would allow a business to stay open until 4 AM until they receive a certain number of complaints. However, there are already nuisance criteria in place for businesses, and leaders like Sheehan fear a complaint code will lead to targeting.

Lark Street is not the only area in Albany with residents mixed into its social scene. Regulation for areas like the Warehouse District aim to maintain the residential and entertainment balance and in district areas such as Central Avenue, the regulation even claims to encourage the “vibrant mix of residential and non-residential uses” of the neighborhood. So what makes Lark Street different?

“For a long time—we’re talking from the ’70s , ’80s, ’90s—Lark Street was ‘it,’ and with so many other areas developing downtown, that’s not necessarily the case anymore. There is a very diverse mix of residence in Lark Street. It’s a dense, intimate environment. People want to live here because they can walk everywhere and they want to live in an area that the city may be more prone to protect because of historical buildings,” Neidl said.

When a community is this populated—with residents and patrons alike—compromise is key.

“What it really comes down to is density and uses—how a community operates. In reference to the Warehouse District . . . the [density] issue didn’t come up,” Sheehan explained.

Communities depend on local business to maintain a stable environment. Shorter business hours inevitably means less customers; less customers means less foot traffic in the area; less foot traffic means emptier streets; and an emptier street means a decline in property investment, employment opportunities and community safety.

“The safety of the neighborhood is what makes Lark so great,” Atkins said. “Turning the lights off so early at night could affect the walkability of the neighborhood.”

An online petition started on Nov. 10 has assimilated over 2,500 digital signatures and counting, halfway to its 5,000-signature goal.

“With every roadblock that the city puts in our way, we run the risk of diminishing and eventually extinguishing the flame of what we feel is a shining example of the city of Albany’s heart, soul, and appeal,” it reads.

The petition calls for Mayor Sheehan and the Albany Common Council to reevaluate the zoning draft in consideration of the effect it will have on the businesses of Lark Street and its surrounding neighborhoods. The focus now is that this proposition is, in fact, a draft; and open to the public for this very reason: for citizens to stand up for their neighborhood and for community survival.

“This is not about stomping out business. We had to put the proposal out there and get some feedback and dialogue,” Sheehan said.

In the meantime, Lark Street BID will hold a ReZone Albany discussion Nov. 28 at 200 Washington Ave., a former KeyBank branch at the corner of Washington Avenue and Lark Street.

One Reader Response

‘“The safety of the neighborhood is what makes Lark so great,” Atkins said. “Turning the lights off so early at night could affect the walkability of the neighborhood.”’

I love these thinly veiled appeals to urbanist sensibilities – consistently in this debate (the 2am closing time demand is not altogether new), words like “walkability” and other folks ignorantly lifting quotes from Jane Jacobs have been bandied about.

A 2am closing time, for instance, doesn’t impact the street’s walkability anymore than the street’s narrow sidewalks or its heavy traffic do. I could really careless about a 2am closing time, as I don’t live in the neighborhood, but the BID and its affiliate businesses would better off making a more nuanced argument rather than acting like Chicken Littles.

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