Hugh Reynolds: Center of attention

Ireland's ambassador to the U.S., Anne Anderson, speaks at a ceremony announcing the plans for the Irish Cultural Center of the Hudson Valley back in 2014. (Photo: Phyllis McCabe)

Ireland’s ambassador to the U.S., Anne Anderson, speaks at a ceremony announcing the plans for the Irish Cultural Center of the Hudson Valley back in 2014. (Photo: Phyllis McCabe)

“Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” — Lawrence Peter Berra (1925-1915)

 The late great Yankee catcher and manager’s classic malapropism referred to restaurants, but it could have been Kingston’s burgeoning downtown Rondout section.


The question before the city planning board is this: Can this once desolate, boarded-up waterfront area of the city, lately thriving thanks to bold entrepreneurs and massive infusions of government money, absorb what might be its biggest development in recent history?

As it does with so many other projects pitched for crowded urban areas, it comes down to sufficient parking. Will the 16,000-square-foot Irish Cultural Center, proposed for a two-acre lot on Abeel Street between the Wurts Street bridge and Broadway, provide enough parking for upwards of 400 guests? The quick and simple answer is of course not, but this is no simple controversy.

Before beginning, disclosure is in order. Being of Irish ancestry on my mother’s side, I have been for at least a decade a dues-paying member of the Ulster chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, which is sponsoring the cultural center. Along with almost every other member, I voted for it when first proposed three years ago. Like other members, I donated $100 toward a building fund that eventually topped $30,000. Promoting ethnic culture sounded like a good idea at the time. It still does, but some serious questions have been raised about how the city review process has been carried out.

For what it’s worth, I’m not an active member. I usually attend meetings before and after the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in March and the Hooley on the Hudson on the Sunday preceding Labor Day. I know and like a lot of the guys (this is a men’s organization, but with an active auxiliary) and I appreciate the many hours put in by AOH leadership to bring this project to where it is.

In the interest of getting first-hand information, I attended last week’s regular meeting of the AOH. I had several questions about the ICC, though discussion spread to other areas.

What’s with the size of this building, it seems to have grown quite a lot, I asked project coordinator Bob Carey. What I understood to be a 9,000-square-foot building now seems to have expanded to about 16,000 square feet, on the same site.

It was always about 15,000, Carey replied, to include two stories of 4,500 square feet above ground and a 6,000-square-foot basement built into rock facing the Rondout Creek.
Some “squaring up of plans” added another 1,000 feet or so, he said. All told, the proposal before the city planning board call for a building larger than City Hall itself.

Prefacing my next question with “I only know what I read in the papers,” I said it seemed that the planning board had cut some corners or ignored some regulations in processing the AOH application. Critics have raised questions of zoning, frontage setbacks, its location in an historic district, the very address of the building. I didn’t use the phrase “preferential treatment” — I wanted to get out of there alive, after all — but such was implied.

These things don’t get challenged unless opposition comes forward, Carey replied, and that’s what happened. One of the city’s leading contractors, Carey has much experience before city planning boards.

The next day I asked City Planner Suzanne Cahill the question in a different way. The ICC application was treated no differently than any other, she said. Running that answer past a skeptical editor, I got back, “Expect anything different?”

Well, yes and no. Cahill, no relation to Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, an AOH member who has secured over $2.1 million in state funds for the project, is demonstrably hard-nosed when it comes to planning board applications. Reverently referred to as the “queen of planning” by City Hall denizens, she has been known to dictate the height of shrubbery on new developments. Quite frankly, from that source I expected something a good deal stronger on the subject of planning board efficacy.

Mayor Steve Noble (he is not an AOH member) apparently feels strongly both ways, as Yogi’s teammate, the late Billy Martin, used to say. He likes the project, he says, for its cultural and tourism potential, but expects the planning board to follow the law. To the mayor, those two positions are not exclusive, apparently. I sense a signal to the planning board.

Parking, the aspect of the controversy that almost anyone can relate to, elicited a broader response from my fellow club members. The half-acre site offers 18 spaces, with an additional 23 on an ICC-owned vacant lot across the street. City code requires a minimum of 58 spaces — critics contend almost three times would be required under commercial usage. The planning board, some supporters insist, had not been imposing parking restrictions on other new projects, so why was the ICC being singled out? Former Irishman of the Year Kevin Ginty, a chief fund-raiser for the ICC, had spoken to this subject at a previous (public) meeting. Other noted that new businesses were “springing up every month” in Kingston’s crowded uptown Stockade District, yet no one was calling for more parking. Left unsaid was that those businesses were moving into existing buildings. Some noted that UPAC, that jewel of central Broadway, barely has enough parking for a half-full house, much less its 1,500-seat capacity.

Some of this thinking colors neighborhood opposition. We were here first, we’re overcrowded already, so why add more, goes that line of reasoning. In other words, will the last person to enter please turn out the lights?

As for immediate next-door opposition, I feel their pain, but they bought a $300,000 residential property next to a vacant lot with a huge sign (with an architect’s rendition) announcing the future Irish Cultural Center.

As in any controversy, some elements are just laughable, like ICC sponsors in an attempt to beat zoning regulations (residential versus commercial) declaring its address as being down the hill on West Strand, rather than Abeel. And with Company Hill Path between their property and the Strand. As fig leafs go, that doesn’t offer much coverage.

The AOH seems fully committed to this project, its opponents equally dedicated to stopping it. Serious legal questions have been raised over the planning board’s review, so it’s likely a judge will have the last word. That will take time and time is expensive for all parties concerned.

The AOH might begin considering some alternatives. The Abeel Street (West Strand?) site was chosen for its historic significance. Corporate offices of the Delaware & Hudson Canal were located there, thus “Company Hill Path.” Many a local Irish family can trace its roots to the immigrants (men for the most part) who labored on the D&H and trudged up Company Hill to collect their pay from their WASP overseers. The AOH has created a small park where the D&H building once stood.

There may be other places nearby on the historic Rondout where a 16,000-square-foot building could be erected with plenty of parking. The long-vacant area between the Trolley Museum on East Strand and Broadway comes to mind. Fifty years ago, the Daily Freeman, then located at the foot of Broadway, considered building a new plant on that five-acre site.

There is of course the problem with the $2 million in hard-lobbied government money. Would the state be open to a change in plans? Perhaps. We seem to have friends in Albany.

To my AOH mates, fierce defenders of all things Irish, this might sound like giving up after a long fight, but let us keep the prize in focus. The ICC remains a very good idea, to which I would add a rooftop ballroom (with retractable roof) where we could jig and step-dance under the stars. The present proposal rests on shaky ground with miles to go before we dig, if ever.

 More parking

Work is progressing nicely on reconstruction of a city-owned public parking lot on North Front Street. When completed, probably next month, it will add a few more spaces with better drainage, lighting and marking. But might the administration think outside the box on this project?

It’s probably too late, but why not build a two or three-tiered parking garage to be financed with a newly-created city parking authority, its revenues dedicated to paying off bonds and maintenance? Such a plan could double or triple badly needed Stockade parking in the emerging “new Kingston” and without direct cost to taxpayers.

Just a thought.

Courting the votes

In another one of those time immemorial city-county conflicts, Kingston legislators are fighting a rear-guard action with their country colleagues on rewording a November referendum on relocating Family Court from rental space in Uptown Kingston to the county-owned Business Resource Center in the Town of Ulster.

The wording on the ballot, approved last month by the legislature in an overwhelming 18-4 vote, is decidedly persuasive and blatantly partisan in detailing all the advantages of the move. Conspicuously absent is that it could cost taxpayers upwards of $8 million to rehab the BRC for court purposes.

There are 6 comments

  1. Steven Lance Fornal

    Good article, Hugh. But I have to wonder about this line: “As in any controversy, some elements are just laughable, like ICC sponsors in an attempt to beat zoning regulations (residential versus commercial) declaring its address as being down the hill on West Strand, rather than Abeel.”

    People writing about that particular aspect stated that the Zoning Enforcement Officer had determined that the building would be allowed under the West Strand Development standards. That means the ZEO’s determination had to be challenged within 60 days which, from my research into this received a response that, yes, that determination was challenged and the ZBA will have to rule on that determination.

    Also, unless written into the City’s zoning code that the Planning Board has authority to alter parking space requirements, then the ZBA would have to rule on the parking space aspect also.

    Now, here’s another story for you to look into. The Synagogue across from the park on Lucas Avenue recently was sold to a Neon Light manufacturer. But, ONLY after receiving a Use Variance (as the buyers required prior to purchase). Seeing as in NYS the first and foremost criteria required for a Use Variance is to prove with competent financial information that said building would not be able to receive a “reasonable return” from EVERY use allowed within that zoning district.

    Even a residential use of that building would’ve brought in enough to assure a reasonable return. The ZBA granted that Use Variance in defiance of NYS law. While they may argue that the building was a special case because it was so unusual, the reality is that said building would’ve made an awesome residence if not another allowable use building.

    This is an intriguing question and might make a good article.

  2. Hillary and Owen Harvey

    Thank you to Mr. Reynolds for this fair presentation of the ICCHV situation. We completely agree that, like the proposal itself, the issues surrounding it go beyond what meets the eye.

    Though we may be most consistently present at City Hall and in the press, we are not the only ones, by far, who are raising legitimate questions about the current ICCHV proposal. It’s just we (in partnership with a neighbor) who, at the suggestion of multiple city board members, have hired a lawyer to help us understand the process because it so lacked transparency and consistency. This is not simply a neighbor vs neighbor issue, just as this is “no simple controversy”.

    As Mr. Reynolds writes, the project has grown. That large sign we saw on the adjacent property showed the rendering of a building design that has been updated twice just in the year and a half since we first researched the ICCHV proposal prior to bidding on and purchasing our home. Yet it remains there, advertising the center.

    But the real issues at play, Mr. Reynolds highlights here. It’s that as the building grows and uses for it are changed, the available parking shrinks and the obligation to make up for that lack is placed upon the shoulders of the city and its taxpayers.

    It’s that though the ICCHV is in no way a renovation project but is a completely new build, the ICCHV would like to follow the parking requirements for adaptable reuse projects rather than those for new construction. An influx to the neighborhood of cars for 400 people goes far beyond the impact that a new restaurant in an existing building in the Stockade district would bring, and it deserves appropriate scrutiny. That’s why the regulations for such a proposal are different.

    It’s also the fact that the city is being asked to changes laws, zoning codes, and even addresses to accommodate a proposal that doesn’t fit this historic neighborhood, despite the overwhelming burden that that places upon businesses, home owners, and visitors to the Rondout. As it is reported here, the city’s procedure is currently open to developers who know how to work the system in their favor, unless opposition comes forward. Part of what we neighbors are working towards is supporting the city in strengthening its process so that there will be no need for conflict with impacted neighbors.

    We especially appreciate Mr. Reynolds disclosure of his own involvement with the AOH as connections to prominent members of the community, politicians, and city officials have been a concern to many who are watching this process. This makes clear that many, including members of the AOH, are only still learning the new details of this proposal. That’s why coverage of the ICCHV situation is so necessary. As Reynolds writes, we only know what we read in the papers. And we thank him for devoting some of his column to this investigation.

  3. Heather

    It’s strange that the ZEO granted this parcel, which is entirely in a different zoning district mind you, the zoning of the are it quasi-fronts upon (uphill and on a trail, not Dock street). Usually if a right-of-way..even if it is the company path is a normal separation of zoning districts. You don’t get a zoning just because you front on it. You get it because your parcel is in it and typically that carries to the street or right-of-way centerline…

  4. Chris Hagel

    I found this article fair and appreciate Mr. Reynolds for explaining the situation to your readers. In actuality, if this ICC building were to be just a cultural center ie: museum, library, classrooms, displays, etc, they would only be required ton have 57 parking spaces.
    Since it is a banquet hall, an entertainment/music center and a pub totaling the capacity of 430 people…parking requirement is 151 spaces.
    Right now they have 18 spots (and that includes parking for employees plus deliveries and bands whose sound systems and instruments would be too heavy to carry from another location.
    I do not know who decided that there is a West Strand sub area? It sounds like a convenient way to circumvent the residential status of this block….the actual and legal address is 32 Abeel Street.


    Fear not. When this project is struck down, RUPCO can swoop right in and build an affordable housing mega complex. They’ll write a grant and 300 million dollars will mysteriously appear. Parking spots? Zoning? Adequate utilities? Doesn’t matter…Kevin O’Connor, playing a modern day Moses, can part the sea of red tape to clear the way for any affordable housing project.

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