Over the past few years, several promising new developments have taken place in Saranac Lake that have been largely non-controversial. The community welcomed the long-awaited opening of both the Community Store and the Carousel. It applauded the Trudeau-Clarkson affiliation and other efforts aimed at making Saranac Lake a regional hub for the biotech industry. Most recently, there was enthusiastic approval for plans to renovate the Hotel Saranac and restore it to its historic place as a vibrant, downtown hub.
Although momentum is in the direction of growth, that does not automatically mean that every new development proposal is a step in the right direction. In particular, the proposal for a hotel on Lake Flower needs to be examined with a critical eye.
People are attracted to Saranac Lake because of its natural beauty and small-town charm. This is our brand, and we should value and protect it whenever we consider any new proposals for development in the village. It is important to carefully evaluate whether the proposed Lake Flower hotel adds to or detracts from the qualities that make Saranac Lake a desirable destination in the first place. Is it the right project, in the right place, at the right time?
Although I try to follow all the reporting on the hotel in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise and regularly listen to North Country Public Radio, I still had only a vague idea about what the entire project would look like. The only picture I had seen was a small sketch showing one view of the hotel building as it would look from the lake. How would it look from the road? Exactly where would parking be located? I wondered if the hotel would occupy the site gracefully or if it would appear to be shoehorned into a site that was too small for it.
Fortunately, the village has a wealth of material on file that is available to the public, including a detailed site plan showing the footprint of the building and the location of parking. One picture is worth a thousand words, and in this case the pictures were not reassuring. The long, rectangular building is fronted by a 99-car parking lot that occupies almost the entire length of the site along Lake Flower Avenue. The plan does not specify any vegetative screening between the parking lot and the road, but instead calls for an "architectural screening element," which I assume means a fence. The only significant green space is located behind the hotel for the private use of the guests.
Judging from the sketch of the building, the four-story, 80,000-square-foot hotel looks uncomfortably similar to prisons I have glimpsed while driving past. There has been a lot of discussion about the height of the building, which was reduced from five stories to four, as if that concession made all the difference. In my view, a four-story, uninterrupted wall is little better than a five-story wall. To give an idea of the height of the building, a balloon was floated at the site for a short time. However, a balloon bobbing about in the breeze represents about one-billionth of the mass of this hotel and in no way conveys the impact of a building this size.
Of course what makes the scale of the building so critical is its prominent location close to the road and on the shore of Lake Flower. About a year ago, a short distance from the site of this proposed hotel, the owners of Gauthier's Saranac Lake Inn put up a fence on part of their lakefront property. A public outcry ensued, with angry complaints that the fence blocked the view of the lake. As a result, the fence was dramatically scaled back. I am puzzled why the hotel, which would dwarf the fence by comparison, has not produced a similar uproar. I suspect it is because the fence was a physical reality while the hotel is still just a proposal. We should be extremely cautious before approving this hotel. A fence can be modified; a four-story building cannot.
Zoning for this location limits the height of buildings to two stories, but because this project is being reviewed as a planned unit development, or PUD, the developer does not have to seek a variance from the rules that apply to other residential or commercial projects in this zone. The idea of a PUD is to allow for flexibility in development - for example, allowing residential units to be clustered on smaller lots while providing for a larger, open common space. There are cases, however, in which the PUD designation has been criticized as merely a tool to selectively evade zoning laws.
In any case, a PUD requires that in return for concessions, the developer must provide a common space for the public benefit, to be maintained in perpetuity. The Lake Flower hotel developer plans to meet this requirement by including a rather large, 40-table restaurant on the site, separate from the hotel, which will be open to the public. In addition, there will be 12 boat slips for "semi-public" use located near the restaurant, which would be convenient for boaters who want to dine at the restaurant. A high-end, waterfront restaurant and several boat slips would serve a rather narrow segment of the populace. It may meet the letter of the law, but whether or not it compensates the public for the increased traffic congestion and negative visual impact of a four-story building and parking lot is debatable.
Before circumventing zoning regulations to accommodate the developers, we must ask if this project is really in the best interest of the majority of people who live, work and do business in Saranac Lake. A resort of this type may or may not be what Saranac Lake needs right now, but I believe it is out of place in this location. It could be a giant step in the wrong direction, detracting from the unique character and charm that make Saranac Lake a desirable place to live, as well as to visit. I'm sure there are other perspectives on this project, and I hope they are aired. Let's just be sure we look before we leap.
Rosalie Fontana lives in Saranac Lake.