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Under construction: Michelle Corbett and Michael Pape.
Photo: Ten Cume

With Brush and Building Permit
Construction-approval obstacles stall development of a highly anticipated Saratoga Springs arts district
By Kathryn Ceceri

By the time the wine started flowing and the hors d’oeuvres circulating at the Beekman Street Artist’s Co-op’s “official” grand opening two weeks ago, sculptor Amejo Amyot was more than ready.

Amyot and the other half-dozen or so other artists who’ve set up studios in the modest 1836 Federal-style house on what was once one of the most rundown streets in Saratoga Springs have been set to open their doors since at least July.

But days before the reception for photographer Robert Davis’ views of Tuscany in the front parlor gallery, Amyot was still scrambling to satisfy the city building inspector and get her certificate of occupancy, which arrived just in time. Her frustration, after months of navigating city hall’s byzantine construction-approval process, is palpable.

“The building department could effectively ruin what we want to do on the street,” she says.

Amyot isn’t the only one who feels this way. Of the nine artist-owned buildings in the Beekman Street Art District, created by the city planning board as a pilot effort to bring small shops and restaurants back into formerly mixed residential and commercial areas, the co-op is only the second to open for business.

One block down, other artist-owners are deeply worried about getting their projects started before winter. Teacher Michelle Corbett and her husband Michael Pape purchased the former DeRossi’s Restaurant at 68 Beekman in February as a home and pottery studio and immediately applied for a building permit, expecting they’d have it by June. The plan was to do the work themselves, during
Corbett’s summer vacation.

“Now it’s September, and we’re still waiting for a permit,” Corbett said last month. “The winter’s coming, you want to close up the building. You can’t put up new windows without permits.”

With their apartment in Schenectady packed up and all their pottery-making equipment in storage, the couple comes up every weekend to do what they can—clean out the debris, fix up the exterior, build a fenced garden out back.
“We’ve done everything by the book in terms of what the city wants, and now we’re waiting. It’s crazy,” she says.

Meanwhile, prospective tenants have moved elsewhere, contractors have gone on to other jobs, and permits and rehab loans have expired, while the bills and the mortgage payments come due. Some owners fear they may lose their buildings altogether. Corbett feels the pressure from her lenders over the lack of progress.

“You don’t want to lose your property to the bank because of something you have no control over,” she says.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. For years, the 60-year-old Amyot had been laying the groundwork for what she hoped would turn the city’s decidedly unglamorous West Side into a kind of SoHo North. As matriarch of the Finearts Initiative for Studios and Housing, or FISH, she persuaded nearly 20 artists to buy homes in what traditionally was the city’s repository for newly arrived immigrants (first Irish, then Italian) and low-income families and transients.

The artists wrote grants that paid for new trees, sidewalks, Victorian-style streetlamps and curbs. Four “drug houses” on the street cleared out, Amyot says. FISH even put out small metal trash cans painted in “sea colors” to keep the area clear of trash from the one Beekman Street business still operating, a pizza shop.
In July, soprano Mary Chen and her husband, bass vocalist Yong Li, opened the 70 Beekman Street Fine Art Gallery, which features works by local and international artists including Chinese-American painter Lu Li Hua. But it was September—well after Saratoga’s track season tourists had fled—before she could bring tenants into the two adjoining retail spaces.

“We missed the whole summer season,” says one of the tenants, Beekman Artisans owner Cecilia Frittelli, who sells upscale hand woven garments and furnishings and handmade jewelry.

The problem, according to city planner Geoff Bornemann, lies in the conversion of residential spaces to commercial use. Stricter safety and handicapped-access regulations make it hard for artists hoping to pull off low-budget, do-it-yourself makeovers, especially without local contractors who know how the system works.

“When we first started the process of creating an artist district we knew there’d be problems,” he admits.

But the artists blame the city’s approval process itself. Painter Rich Ricciuti, who runs a construction business with his son Nicholas, bought the building next to Corbett’s and Pape’s from Amyot in April. A now-faded drawing on the front of the debris-filled hulk shows the café and art gallery he designed for wife Cynthia, a dietician, and Nicholas, a metal sculptor.

The Ricciutis have been to the zoning board for a special-use permit and to the design-review committee for an architectural review—each step costing $500—and still haven’t gotten a building permit. In other towns, they say, the whole process takes “anywhere from 30 minutes to two weeks.” It’s scary, says Nicholas Ricciuti.

Father and son lean against their pickup truck and look at the wreck across the street. “This is the worst building in the neighborhood right now,” Rich Ricciuti says. “People said we were crazy. But we’ve done it for other people, so we thought we could do it.”

For many of the artist-owners on Beekman Street, city building inspector Michael Biffer is a figure of dread. Biffer rejected the construction drawings Ricciuti did himself, forcing him to spend thousands on an engineer. Then he questioned the engineer’s drawings, Ricciuti says.

Biffer wouldn’t let Amyot open her Co-op until she rebuilt the handicapped ramp her architect designed. She feels Biffer’s demands go beyond what’s really necessary.

“We don’t want to compromise safety,” Amyot says, “but there’s a lot of leeway between bringing a building up to code and making it so overprotective that it’s not affordable.”

Biffer did not return Metroland’s phone calls, but his boss, Mayor Ken Klotz—who is up for re-election in a few weeks—chalks up the building-department delays to “short staffing and the incredible growth of building projects” in town.

“We did our best to get behind [Amyot] and expedite where we could,” Klotz says. “Within the context of being fair to everybody, we’re doing everything we could do.”

Amyot and the other building owners in the Beekman Street Art District hope it’s true.

“It’s key that people see progress continuing,” says Corbett. “I would just hate to see the momentum of the project be deadened.”


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