Wrong place, wrong time on Depot plan

Since the 1970s there has been talk of developing the vacant former railroad yards around Saranac Lake’s Union Depot train station. In the late 2000s, the village developed a “vision concept” depicting the Depot area as a residential neighborhood sprinkled with mixed-use buildings: commercial downstairs and residential upstairs.

It’s a great idea, but so far this village hasn’t been ready for it, economically.

We will be ready when one or more developers is confident enough to get going on it, when they decide that the demand is strong enough that their investment of millions of dollars will pay off.

That hasn’t happened yet, but we may be getting closer. A developer looking around the village now would see some signs of an upswing, such as the reborn Hotel Saranac, a growth in food and drink offerings, and a solid Main Street. But there are still plenty of vacant storefronts on Broadway, and the failure of a project to restore the former Dew Drop Inn is discouraging, no matter where or whether you lay blame.

Still, it’s important for village officials to lay some plans for the Depot area in advance, partly to show potential developers what kinds of things would be welcomed and partly to plan infrastructure, such as water-sewer mains and an extended Depot Street.

But it’s a little early to actually build that infrastructure.

That’s one reason we think a village-led project to extend Depot Street should be one of those that does not make the cut for the state’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative. Some DRI projects will have to be cut, since the village has included more than $14 million worth of requests for what will ultimately by a $9.7 million grant package. Depot Street is one, we think, the village isn’t quite ready for. Wait until a developer publicly announces plans to build on such a street first, see what they propose, and then work with them.

Also, we believe the Depot Street plan the village is pushing is flawed. The plan is to extend it all the way to Cedar Street, through a bottleneck beside BluSeed Studios, next to train tracks the state plans to replace with a trail for bikes, snowmobiles and other uses.

First, we fear it would create a terrible traffic tangle. Depot would enter Cedar too close to Broadway — just just a couple of car lengths — and the Cedar-Broadway intersection is already pretty bad since it’s just a couple of car lengths from the traffic light on Broadway and Ampersand Avenue on one side and, on the other, a few more car lengths from three driveways for popular shops. Plus, the rails, which would be a trail, cross in between those driveways.

Another flaw is this plan is that the BluSeed bottleneck looks to us like it is too tight to fit both a road and a rail trail. The trail would need room for two snowmobiles to pass each other side by side — say 10 feet wide. Then each lane of Depot Street would have to be at least 10 feet wide. Then we would need a buffer in between. Orange flagging tape on trees on the hillside opposite BluSeed — which is also the backyards of several homeowners — supposedly marks a property line that seems far to close for all this, but village Community Development Director Jamie Konkoski told us that the orange tape is not official. She said a survey is needed to show where the state right of way actually lies, she said. The village has already commissioned an engineering plan that says all of this would fit — if the village digs out the hillside and builds a giant retaining wall. This might, she said, require knocking down a homeowner’s building that was constructed in the state right of way. Either way, it would be a huge, expensive undertaking.

For what? The village has no promise that spending millions of tax dollars on extending Depot Street to Cedar or anywhere else will lead to development. We completely respect village officials’ initiative in wanting to do something to spur that positive goal, but we think this is a case of wrong place, wrong time.

We think a much better route for Depot Street would be through the Hyde Fuel property to meet Broadway next to Hyde Mobil, opposite Garden Street. This would, obviously, require major cooperation with the Hyde company, but any development of the Depot area would — and that is the whole purpose of this.

Let’s not rush the Depot Street extension into the DRI grant package. Other projects on the list are better investments at this particular time. But let’s keep this on the table and keep talking about it. The village has shown its willingness to take initiative to make something of the Depot area. It would be good to see land owners and developers do so, too.