construction: Michelle Corbett and Michael Pape.
Photo: Ten Cume
Brush and Building Permit
obstacles stall development of a highly anticipated Saratoga
Springs arts district
the time the wine started flowing and the hors doeuvres
circulating at the Beekman Street Artists Co-ops
official grand opening two weeks ago, sculptor
Amejo Amyot was more than ready.
and the other half-dozen or so other artists whove 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.
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 halls byzantine construction-approval
process, is palpable.
building department could effectively ruin what we want to
do on the street, she says.
isnt 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.
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 DeRossis
Restaurant at 68 Beekman in February as a home and pottery
studio and immediately applied for a building permit, expecting
theyd have it by June. The plan was to do the work themselves,
Corbetts summer vacation.
its September, and were still waiting for a permit,
Corbett said last month. The winters coming, you
want to close up the building. You cant put up new windows
apartment in Schenectady packed up and all their pottery-making
equipment in storage, the couple comes up every weekend to
do what they canclean out the debris, fix up the exterior,
build a fenced garden out back.
Weve done everything by the book in terms of what
the city wants, and now were waiting. Its crazy,
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.
dont want to lose your property to the bank because
of something you have no control over, she says.
supposed to be this way. For years, the 60-year-old Amyot
had been laying the groundwork for what she hoped would turn
the citys 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 citys repository
for newly arrived immigrants (first Irish, then Italian) and
low-income families and transients.
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 Septemberwell
after Saratogas track season tourists had fledbefore
she could bring tenants into the two adjoining retail spaces.
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.
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.
we first started the process of creating an artist district
we knew thered be problems, he admits.
artists blame the citys approval process itself. Painter
Rich Ricciuti, who runs a construction business with his son
Nicholas, bought the building next to Corbetts and Papes
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
have been to the zoning board for a special-use permit and
to the design-review committee for an architectural revieweach
step costing $500and still havent gotten a building
permit. In other towns, they say, the whole process takes
anywhere from 30 minutes to two weeks. Its
scary, says Nicholas Ricciuti.
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 weve done it for other people,
so we thought we could do it.
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 engineers drawings,
wouldnt let Amyot open her Co-op until she rebuilt the
handicapped ramp her architect designed. She feels Biffers
demands go beyond whats really necessary.
dont want to compromise safety, Amyot says, but
theres a lot of leeway between bringing a building up
to code and making it so overprotective that its not
did not return Metrolands phone calls, but his
boss, Mayor Ken Klotzwho is up for re-election in a
few weekschalks up the building-department delays to
short staffing and the incredible growth of building
projects in town.
did our best to get behind [Amyot] and expedite where we could,
Klotz says. Within the context of being fair to everybody,
were doing everything we could do.
and the other building owners in the Beekman Street Art District
hope its true.
key that people see progress continuing, says Corbett.
I would just hate to see the momentum of the project