A proposal to create a blend of cultural attractions and subsidized housing at the site of a former welfare motel has run into a buzz saw of criticism from mayoral candidates and Midtown business leaders who say that the city is already carrying more than its fair share of affordable housing.
The former King’s Inn was shut down by city building and safety officials in October 2007 after multiple code violations. In July 2010, the city took title to the property in lieu of unpaid taxes. Since then, a steering committee of city officials and neighborhood stakeholders has sought to tear down and redevelop the blighted building in the heart of the Midtown business district. Backed by a $100,000 bond for asbestos removal and a commitment by the U.S. Army National Guard to tear down the structure this fall, demolition seems a done deal. But redevelopment of the site has stalled after a nationally distributed “Request for Proposals” failed to get a response.
Chris Silva, executive director of Bardavon/UPAC Theaters, sits on the Kings Inn Committee. After seeing the lack of response to the initial RFP, Silva reached out to the nonprofit development group Safe Harbors on the Hudson for help. The Newburgh-based organization is credited with turning the run-down drug-infested former Newburgh Hotel into an anchor for the city’s downtown in its new incarnation as the Cornerstone Residence, which blends ground floor art and performance space with supportive housing for artists, veterans, seniors, the disabled and the formerly homeless. Bardavon/UPAC is working with Safe Harbors to renovate a large theater inside the building and provide programming and job training at existing arts spaces there.
Silva and Safe Harbors Executive Director Tricia Haggerty Wenz collaborated with architect Richard Vitto to come up with a similar concept for the Kings Inn site. The proposal calls for two three- or four-story buildings connected by a courtyard garden. The ground floor would include retail and arts exhibition space while the upper stories would hold 40 to 50 one and two bedroom apartments. The proposal also calls for art studio space, a day care center, 24-hour security and front-desk services and on-site job training and cultural programming provided by UPAC.
The idea, Wenz said, is to create a vibrant entertainment district centered on UPAC which would draw people and money to Midtown while providing safe, clean affordable housing for vulnerable populations.
“We just thought that an arts district on Broadway would work really well,” said Wenz. “It’s a way to bring in cultural tourism and effect change in that neighborhood without pushing anybody out.”
But a chorus of critics, including four candidates for Mayor and the head of a Midtown business group, has rejected any plan for the King’s Inn site built around low-income housing.
“I would rather see a hole in the ground there than a housing project,” said Rich Cahill Jr. who is seeking the GOP nomination for mayor. “(Safe Harbors on the Hudson) has an excellent reputation but Kingston is different from Newburgh and Kingston has been inundated with low-income housing.”
Another GOP mayoral contender, Common Council Minority Leader Andi Turco-Levin (R-Ward 1) pointed to a 2009 study which found thatKingston, which holds 13 percent of Ulster County’s population, had 42 percent of the county’s subsidized housing. Turco-Levin added that the Broadway corridor needed more commercial development.
“This plan just doesn’t seem to be in line with what the neighborhood needs,” said Turco-Levin. “Maybe somewhere else, but not along the Broadway corridor.”
Alderman Hayes Clement (D-Ward 9), who seeks the Democratic Party nomination for mayor, said there’s a key difference between the Cornerstone Residence and the King’s Inn proposal — the Newburgh project transformed and improved existing low-income housing while the Broadway proposal would add to the population of poor residents in Midtown.
“They took an existing welfare hotel with existing tenants and rehabbed it in a very nice way,” said Clement. “Here, they are talking about increasing the poverty base in a critical section of Midtown.”
This spring, Democratic mayoral hopeful Shayne Gallo kicked off his campaign in front of the King’s Inn, describing it as a symbol of the blight that needed to be reversed before the city could spur economic development. In a statement regarding the Safe Harbors proposal, Gallo said that it was too soon to tell whether the plan was the best the city could do with the site. Gallo advocated proceeding with the demolition work, investing in making the site “shovel-ready,” addressing quality-of-life issues in the neighborhood and then producing a new RFP with an eye towards attracting commercial investors.
“Now that we own the property, we cannot afford to simply give it away,” Gallo wrote. “We need to return the property to the private sector where it can once again become a viable business property that generates needed tax revenue and employment opportunities in our city.”
Wenz and Silva said that they were disappointed by the immediate negative reaction to the proposal and believed that it was based on a misconception about the project’s goals, which include commercial development along with housing.
“People hear affordable housing and they have this image of people hanging out in front of a building and crime,” said Wenz. “But what we are doing is trying to create a beautifully designed building that will offer people opportunities and at the same time create some vibrancy downtown.”
The Business Alliance of Kingston has come out against the proposal. In a letter addressed to Wenz, BAK President Patrice Courtney Strong wrote that the proposal “lacks the optimism that that we have tried so long to reignite in the residents of the City of Kingston.”
But Silva said that the business group and other critics had failed to see the potential for a major redevelopment project next door to UPAC which serves as an anchor for the entire Midtown business district.
“It’s politically volatile, we get it, but that doesn’t mean the plan doesn’t have merit or that it’s not serious,” said Silva. “Why do people think UPAC would want a crack house two doors down? Wouldn’t we want to see the best use for the site?”