Sunday, January 14, 2018

Homes vs. vacation & short-term rentals

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following column appeared in the Friday, Jan. 12 edition of the Finger Lakes Times newspaper in Geneva, NY.

Homes versus vacation rentals

By Michael J. Fitzgerald

Economic progress in Watkins Glen, NY is colliding with a growing housing shortage, a byproduct of a village-wide rush to convert homes to seasonal vacation rentals.
In the last few years the homes-to-vacation rentals phenomenon has pulled as many as 30 units out of the housing stock in the hamlet of just 1,900 people. Another 30 units of housing are predicted for conversion in the next two years.
Even a small apartment atop a former health food store is now in the short-term vacation rental pool after years as a year-round residence.
For owners of Watkins housing – and investors looking to make a profit – the math is hard to argue with.
Renting a house (or part of a house) to vacationers on a short-term basis is considerably more lucrative – and often less risky – than leasing to a permanent, year-round tenant.
But not having sufficient, affordable non-vacation housing may be keeping out some of the very people Watkins Glen needs most to support its growing prosperity – the workers.
In recent years new restaurants have been popping up in the downtown. Most report they are doing a brisk business. The 104-room Harbor Hotel is booked solid nearly year round and winning awards for excellence. A slew of other successful tourist-related businesses are making a go of it well past normal summer-visitor months.
These enterprises all need workers who in turn need a place to live within a reasonable distance from the village – or in the village. Plus young professionals moving into the area need housing, too.
Watkins’ economic growth includes a $10 million Downtown Revitalization Grant from New York State, the proceeds of which are the topic of sometimes-heated public discussions on how best to spend the state’s money.
High on the discussion list is a proposal from the Watkins Glen Housing Authority to build 50 units of affordable housing on two separate parcels. One project is proposed for a vacant lot across the street from the 48-unit Jefferson Village apartments near the shore of Seneca Lake. A second project is proposed for closer to Watkins Glen High School.
But the WGHA has struggled with internal squabbling that kept the proposal from moving forward until last week.
Given how fast year-round housing is disappearing – plus the current opportunity to get major projects funded – moving forward quickly is critical.
One oft-stated misconception is that Watkins Glen DRI officials can dole out the $10 million to projects they deem worthy. But NY state officials ultimately decide what projects to fund based on their potential to revitalize the village.
Boosting affordable housing stock is a good bet.
A second misconception is that the WGHA proposal is to build low-income units, often referred to as Section 8 housing.
It’s not.
The WGHA is proposing affordable housing, something that would rent for roughly half of the $2,200 to $2,500 rents charged by a recently constructed – and mostly vacant – apartment complex adjacent to the Elks Club.
There have been few takers for those new apartments. Rents are likely too high given prevailing village wages.
The WGHA’s modest proposal to provide reasonably priced, affordable housing might be just that – too modest. The proposed apartment and townhouse-style units are probably insufficient to counter the continuing momentum of homes-to-vacation rental conversions.
Perhaps additional units could be added.  Or another affordable housing proposal from a developer could surface while the DRI advisory group ponders a long list of ideas the village hopes will snag the state’s blessing and be funded.
In the meantime, Watkins Glen and the DRI might consider using this paraphrase in their application to the state, a spin on a famous line from the 1989 film, “Field of Dreams.”
“Build it and they will come.”

 Fitzgerald has worked at six newspapers as a writer and editor as well as a correspondent for two news services. He splits his time between Valois, NY and Pt. Richmond, Calif. You can email him at and visit his website at

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Letter writer shares Seacliff Dr. safety concerns



   Recently, while driving up Seacliff after turning off Canal, some lunatic in a SUV tried to pass another car on one of the downhill blind curves.  Fortunately, all three were able to stop without a collision.  
     The fact that we had to stop to avoid collision tells you about all you need to know about the incident.  
     My primary intent in relating this is to emphasize the danger associated with the very bad proposal to create an entrance to the Quarry project off Seacliff Drive. No one can account for all bad drivers.  However, we can create roadways where the chance of incidents are reduced.  
     Allowing high-traffic entrances off a curving road with blind turns invites the chance of accidents.  
     My incident occurred in broad daylight.  Had it occurred at nighttime, well, draw your own conclusions.  Additionally, my incident caused me to ask why Seacliff Dr. is not a no-passing zone.  
     If this incident causes others to ponder the above issues, I encourage them to pass their opinions on to the appropriate parties.  
     I have.

Don Ellis
Brickyard Cove

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

A Q&A about new Pt. Richmond apartments

 EDITOR’S NOTE: The following interview/question & answer session with  David Trachtenberg, architect of the under-construction Point Richmond Business District housing development was conducted by Laura Paull, a Pt. Richmond resident and journalist.

By Laura Paull
Special to The Point website

The Point, a new downtown housing project, has been in the works for several years. But many Point Richmond residents suddenly had questions when the developers broke ground this winter:
Why were fences going up? Did anyone know what was going on behind Mechanics Bank?
As residents watched the structures rise steadily through the winter rains, the project became the frequent subject of conversations in the Natatorium across the street. The ladies in the locker room wanted to know:
Would the units be affordable? By whose definition? Would there be senior housing? What about the homeless? And who could possibly live next to those screeching trains?
A simple question about the development posted on Next Door Point Richmond June 20 blew up, as it is sometimes said in social media. At the time of this writing, it had 82 comments.
This question and answer with architect, David Trachtenberg of Berkeley was to see what answers he could provide. This is not an investigative piece. Many aspects of the project were not included in this short conversation. But one point he made clear in the interview was that this project was viewed, debated, and approved overwhelmingly by the Point Richmond Neighborhood Council, under the leadership of PRNC Vice President Jordan DeStaebler, three years ago, and pushed for approval from the City of Richmond Planning Department.

LAURA PAULL - Many people are concerned about how this housing project is going to change the “look” of historic Point Richmond. Who designed The Point, and who owns it?

David Trachtenberg: My company, Trachtenberg Architects, designed the project. The ownership entity is Point V Apples LLC, a Tiburon-based California Foreign Limited Liability Company.  The Managing Partner is Integrated Property Company, and the Design-Builder is WEST Builders, Inc.

LAURA PAULL: You have a reputation as an architect sensitive to social issues and community concerns. What was the concept you were going for with the project?

David Trachtenberg: This project, though privately owned and not government subsidized, responds to the overall need for more rental units in Point Richmond. We had many large, well-attended community meetings before launching the design stage. The Point is based on the principle of the “pocket neighborhood. It’s pedestrian oriented and designed to foster a sense of community among the people living there. The housing units are focused inward toward a shared commons. Cars are all parked at the front edge of the project, in this case behind the Mechanics Bank, rather than at the doorstep of each dwelling.  This allows the project to preserve precious site area for people rather than for driveways and garages.

LAURA PAULL - What were the particular challenges of this site?

David Trachtenberg - This site, right at the main entrance to the town, is an oddly shaped piece of surplus railroad land bordered on two sides by active railroad tracks. It’s near the freeway. The bus stops right in front of it and the elementary school is across the street. But mainly the triangular shape of the site was a challenge, and the potential noise, and the need for it to look like an attractive welcome to Pt. Richmond.

LAURA PAULL: So how did you deal with these issues architecturally?

David Trachtenberg - In keeping with the small town character of Pt. Richmond, these will be two and three-story buildings, not all the same height. All of the units have small private outdoor or rooftop gardens. For the ambient noise, the buildings will have quadruple pane windows and spray foam acoustic insulation on all exterior walls and attic spaces.  People are already managing to live in older Pt. Richmond dwellings right near the train tracks, and our buildings will be far quieter for residents.

LAURA PAULL:  So what are we going to see when this project is completed this fall?

David Trachtenberg - There will be a total of 27 residential rental units on the site, including 12 one-bedroom apartments on the ground floors, and 15 two-or three-bedroom apartments on the second and third floors.  The building design is that of traditional party-walled row houses. At the entry of the site is a walled parking court for 30 cars. 
This opens into a triangular shaped interior garden commons, defined on two sides by the row houses. The open end of the triangle faces south to catch the sun and frames a view of the historic Natatorium and the hills beyond. This inward facing scheme provides the residents with a sense of community and provides a peaceful respite from the outside world.
The front of the project at the intersection of S. Garrard and W. Cutting contains 1,130SF of ground floor commercial space.  The architecture of this piece of the project recalls the civic scale and proportion of the Natatorium across the street so as to mark this important gateway to Point Richmond. 

LAURA PAULL: Is there any variance in cost, i.e. are any of units designated as low-income or below market rate?

David Trachtenberg: The developers opted to pay a significant sum, around $450,000 to the City's Housing Trust fund in lieu of providing below market rate units on site. Many locals encouraged us to pay the fee, citing that Point Richmond had a fairly large number of affordable housing buildings around the downtown area. 

LAURA PAULL: What would you say to local concerns about the project’s impact on the quality of life in the Point: increase in traffic, parking, pedestrian safety?

David Trachtenberg: It’s a fairly small project that provides its own parking for residents. We've taken a disused, brown field site and transformed it into much needed, well -located housing.  I think people are going to come to like it.

Friday, May 26, 2017

The fuss about 'Hamilton' is well-deserved

By Michael J. Fitzgerald

The award-winning stage musical “Hamilton” is one of those clever shows that remain cemented in your consciousness well beyond the confines of the theater and last strains of music.
Nearly a week after seeing the play in San Francisco, the song “The Room Where It Happens” still rings in my ears.
Lin Manuel Miranda
It’s not just the catchy hip-hop lyrics, stunning dance choreography or haunting tunes. It’s how pertinent this Broadway snapshot of historical events from 200-plus years ago is today.
The life and times of Alexander Hamilton are likely hazy for people who haven’t been swept up in the mania generated by this musical or history buffs immersed in the founding of America.
To many people, he’s just the guy on the $10 bill.

But Hamilton was a key figure in the American Revolution, credited with creating the foundations of our modern banking and financial systems. He died famously in a duel fought with pistols with political rival Aaron Burr on July 11, 1804.
That’s an exceptionally bare-bones description of a very complicated life, detailed in an excellent 2004 biography written by award-winning author Ron Chernow.
It was Chernow’s book that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to spend six years writing the lyrics, music and pulling together the show that has been racking up an impressive stack of awards.
But the Hamilton tale reaches far out of the late 18th century into today’s headlines, featuring a racially diverse cast (reflecting 21st century America) emphasizing Hamilton’s humble early life and struggles.
He was born on the Caribbean island of Nevis. Illegitimate, and orphaned in his early teen years, he was a scrappy survivor using his writing skills to essentially pen his way out of poverty.
The play makes much of his intensity, offering in one pivotal scene that he authored 51 of the 85 documents we know as The Federalist Papers.
It also points out that Hamilton — and many other key figures in the American Revolution and among those drafting the U.S. Constitution — were immigrants.

“Immigrants! We get the job done!” Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette shout at one point in a song. The line gets a huge roar of approval in every “Hamilton” performance.
Chernow writes in his biography: “He embodied an enduring archetype: the obscure immigrant who comes to America, recreates himself, and survives despite a lack of proper birth or breeding,”
The heady victory of the colonists over the British gives way to darker scenes in the latter part of the musical. Political struggles among Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, take center stage.
If you follow today’s news from our nation’s capital, much seems hauntingly familiar.
Not much has changed politically in the last two centuries.
That the nation’s capital is Washington D.C. — and not then-favored New York City — is a product of Hamilton’s aggressive politicking. He engineered a compromise so the federal government would assume states’ Revolutionary War debts in exchange for locating the capital somewhere in the then-agrarian states of Maryland or Virginia.

Throughout the musical, Aaron Burr is ever-present, always in competition, never quite achieving the fame, fortune, or power that Hamilton garnered.
And Burr jealously competed for attention.
The Burr-Hamilton duel — one bit of American history still taught in schools — was preceded by a less-famous volley of pistol shots, resulting in the death of Hamilton’s oldest son, Philip.
Philip’s duel was over an insult spoken about his father by a political supporter of Jefferson. Philip died from a bullet wound he received at the same Weehawken, N.J. dueling area where his father would die three years later.
Maybe one of the most important lessons from “Hamilton” is that the history taught in most schools is a sanitized version of what really happened as our nation was being formed.
“Hamilton” is changing that.

Fitzgerald worked for six newspapers as a writer and editor as well as a correspondent for several news services. He splits his time between Valois, NY and Pt. Richmond, Calif. You can email him at and visit his website at

Friday, May 5, 2017

Golden Age of full employment for lawyers

(EDITOR'S NOTE: This column first appeared in the Finger Lakes Times newspaper in Geneva, NY)

By Michael J. Fitzgerald, columnist

The Donald Trump administration may one day be remembered as the Golden Age of full employment for lawyers.
In the 100-plus days since he took the oath of office, lawsuits and legal motions have flown like confetti at a New York City ticker-tape parade, keeping attorneys, judges, courts, legal staff — and the media — scrambling to keep up.
In just the first 10 days of the administration, 41 lawsuits were filed naming the new president. Many were related to his immigration ban. But there were others alleging violations of the emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution, suits to protect sanctuary city status and others against relaxing mining rules that will result in pollution of waterways.

Expect this tsunami of lawsuits and legal challenges to continue for the balance of Trump’s time in the White House, possibly including an epic legal blizzard if enough evidence is amassed to prompt Congress to vote for impeachment.
More important than these numbers, however, is that the new Trump administration is actually hashing out legal disputes via the legal system.
So far, anyway.

In the first days of Trump-as-president, much of the nation held its collective breath over whether he would try to bulldoze over the courts claiming his presidential power trumps (pardon the pun) any challenge to his authority.
Given his flamboyant rhetoric on the campaign trail last year, that fear was not ungrounded.
The pivotal moment came Feb. 3 when a federal judge blocked enforcement of a presidential executive order to implement a travel ban for residents of seven predominantly Muslim nations.
Although the president responded to the judge’s order with characteristically acerbic tweets, he didn’t attempt to enforce his executive order through extralegal means that could have triggered a national crisis.

Trump’s grudging recognition of the court’s authority — again, so far anyway — seems eerily reminiscent of staunch segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace standing in an auditorium doorway in 1963 at the University of Alabama to block the entry of two black students.
Gov. George Wallace, flanked by police
A federal court had ruled that segregationist policies that kept blacks from enrolling at the university were illegal.
After a long, tense confrontation Wallace, flanked by Alabama State Police, finally stepped aside, averting a national crisis.

In the Finger Lakes, groups like Gas Free Seneca and others use the legal system to protect the environment and promote a vision for the region.
Those who disagree with the vision of these groups — and/or believe many environmental safeguards are unnecessary — have their own legal knights on the courtroom chessboards, jousting via legal argumentation.
Peaceful protests are the norm. And civil disobedience is peaceful — and legal — too.
But 100-plus days into the new administration, there are troubling signs the president’s legendary impatience has reached its limit, with his legally questionable initiatives stalled under judicial review.
Adding to his frustration is that even with a heavy GOP majority in both houses, Congress seems hapless at passing Trump-supported legislation.
In speeches and interviews, the president has been speaking ominously about a need to consolidate power by changing legislative rules, like dumping the filibuster.
It’s making people nervous about what might happen in a major national emergency.

One fear is that Trump might attempt — by invoking national security — to suspend key democratic freedoms such as the rights to peaceably assemble, of free speech, and to have a free press.
Such a move, of course, could also suspend judicial power and get rid of those pesky lawsuits blocking Trump’s first 100-days worth of pending dictates.
A lot of lawyers could find themselves suddenly out of work.
And regardless whether you support the president or not, we could all find ourselves living in an unrecognizable United States of America.

Fitzgerald worked for six newspapers as a writer and editor as well as a correspondent for several news services. He splits his time between Valois, NY and Pt. Richmond, Calif. You can email him at and visit his website at