Over the past 50 years, America has been radically reengineered for the car. Expressways, massive suburban sprawl and parking lots have fragmented and attenuated the old urban fabric of gridded streets and sidewalks where kids once played freely outside and people walked to work and school. We’re now paying a stiff price for all this “progress”: The national child obesity rate is off the charts and the nation suffers 365,000 estimated annual deaths related to inactivity and poor nutrition – morbidity causes second only to tobacco.
Rail-trail advocates argue that the solution isn’t just creating more recreational facilities and once-a-year “walk to school” days, but reconfiguring the transportation pathways in our towns, cities and countryside so that bicycling and walking become as routine as getting into the car – and hopefully replace those motorized sets of wheels much of the time. Such an initiative is underway in Kingston, where the Kingston Land Trust, the Cornell Cooperative Extension and the city’s Economic Development Office have launched the Kingston Greenline, an emerging bike- and pedestrian-friendly network of trails and streets that eventually could link the inner city to the rail trails in Hurley and Rosendale.
“In Kingston there’s a unique opportunity because the rails converge. We could become the nexus for a trails and transportation network,” said Tim Weidemann, co-chair of the Rail Trail Committee at the Kingston Land Trust (KLT). In the past five years, the notion of rail trails as “linear parks offering recreational opportunities for the community has been expanded to interconnect them, which increases the tourism draw, because long-distance trails support bike-touring vacations,” he explained. Such connections also provide communities with “nonmotorized transportation routes, which are safe and accessible and therefore encourage people to make trips on foot or by bike.”
The first phase of the Greenline is Kingstoncentric; it’s Ulster County’s first in-city trail. The 1.5-mile former rail line starts on East Chester Street, a block or so from Broadway, and gently descends, at a very walkable three-degree grade, towards the Rondout Creek waterfront. The city’s acquisition of $1.6 million in grants is funding not only the design and buildout of the trail, but also a “Complete Streets” treatment of a small area of Midtown that connects to the trail.
This extension will create a transition from the traffic-free trail to the district’s mostly bleak trafficked streets. Converting rails to trails within the city limits is “challenging,” Weidemann said, given the urban environment and the fact that portions of the rail corridors have disappeared entirely. By installing bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly amenities such as benches, plantings, improved crossings and sidewalk cafés on adjacent streets, those gaps can be bridged and the trail in essence extended to areas where there are stores, loft buildings, post offices, schools and other destinations that will encourage more daily, routine usage.
As the hub for five railroads (one of which, the CSX freight line, is still functioning), Kingston was once a bustling transportation center. Tourists disembarked from huge Hudson River dayliners to board trains taking them to hotels in the Catskills. Coal, bricks and other materials moved in and out of the city on railcars and barges, and people crossed the river by ferry to Rhinebeck.
Weidemann got interested in creating a rail trail when he and his wife were working as caretakers at a church in Kingston’s Rondout section. One day he discovered an abandoned train tunnel located just down the hill. Built in the 1860s, it “was this amazing treasure that needed attention,” he said. Weidemann joined the KLT and a group of other enthusiasts who began lobbying for the conversion of the in-city rail line into a trail.
A grant from the Hudson River Greenway paid for the initial feasibility study, after which Gregg Swanzey, Kingston’s director of Economic Development and Strategic Partnerships, obtained $1 million in funding from a variety of grant sources. The sale of the steel rails for $90,000 to the Iron Horse Preservation Society, which removed them along with the ties, covered the cost of grading the trail last fall. Volunteers have lugged out tons of debris and trash (and continue to clean up the railbed). The additional $600,000 in funding are being channeled through the Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Complete Streets program.
Saratoga Associates, a landscape architecture, architectural, planning and engineering firm, has been retained to design the trail, including lighting for the 250-foot tunnel, six street crossings, pocket parks, fencing and amenities such as benches, signage and plantings. KC Engineering and Land Surveying will do the civil engineering and Hone Strategic, LLC is serving as the liaison with city officials and community stakeholders. Saratoga Associates, KC Engineering and Hone Strategic will present preliminary design alternatives and get public input at a Community Design Workshop for the trail’s Midtown and Rondout sections on Monday, July 27 at Immanuel Lutheran Church, located at 22 Livingston Street. There will be sessions from 3 to 5 p.m. and from 6 to 8 p.m. (with pizza and refreshments from 5 to 6 p.m.) and a visit to the nearby Hasbrouck Tunnel, which is part of the route for the trail. Construction blueprints for the design will go out to bid by the end of the year, with construction due to be complete by the end of 2016.
Still to be determined is whether to pave the surface with asphalt, which makes it easier to navigate with wheels, or stick to stone dust (already applied on some sections), which has a more natural look and costs less to maintain. Another option to be considered is removal of a portion of the roof of the tunnel to bring in more natural light. (The oldest section of the tunnel, which is built of brick and has an arched ceiling, would remain intact.) The trail also crosses several trestles, including a high bridge over Route 9W, which might be covered in decking.
While rail trails are usually located in verdant natural areas, the Kingston rail trail starts in Midtown and passes backyards in a former predominantly Polish neighborhood before curving around a low-income housing project and terminating at East Strand, near the Hudson River Maritime Museum. With its low grade, the trail will be an appealing alternative to walking up the hill of lower Broadway and also enable residents from the city’s two housing projects in the Rondout to walk to Kingston High School on a mostly traffic-free thoroughfare, noted Weidemann.
The Complete Streets portion of the plan would extend from the trailhead at East Chester to Cornell Street, with the exact route still to be determined. The area is anchored by the live/work lofts of the Shirt Factory and the soon-to-be opened Lace Curtain Mill artists’ housing project. The area will connect with the improvements planned for Broadway, the primary corridor that runs through Midtown and connects Uptown with the Rondout. A Community Design Workshop on Building a Better Broadway will be held on Thursday, August 6 at the Ulster Performing Arts Center at 601 Broadway, from 3:30 to 5 p.m. and from 6:30 to 8 p.m. VHB, UCTC’s design consultants, will present the current “preferred alternative” and get public feedback.
At the other end of the trail, East Strand, which leads to Kingston Point Park and North Street, Delaware Avenue and Kingston Beach, will also get a bike lane or other Complete Streets treatment. This terminus is near the commercial area of the Rondout, enabling walkers and bicyclists to stop for a meal or drink. North Street connects to the site of the new AVR housing development, which will front a new promenade along the Hudson River, whose construction is to be jointly funded by AVR and the city. The promenade would constitute a significant addition to the bike path, and its views and cooling breezes will doubtless make it a popular destination. Seniors who no longer drive would have a safer route to Broadway and its drugstores, while getting more exercise and a mental health benefit. (Recent studies indicate that regular exercise helps prevent dementia and mental illness.) But getting more exercise is by no means the sole benefit of the trail. At the groundbreaking ceremony last October,trail supporters talked more about how they were looking forward to interacting socially with neighbors and friends on the trail. Weidemann said that trails are also an economic development tool, not only improving real estate values but also spurring the formation of businesses, such as bike rental companies and cafés.
As mentioned, the ultimate goal is to connect the inner city with walkable or bikable access to two other trails in the county: the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail, which currently starts at Rockwell Lane, off Route 32, a mile or so southwest of the city and travels to Wallkill; and the O & W, which runs from behind the Super 8 Motel on Washington Avenue and connects to the Hurley trail along Route 209, which threads back into the woods and extends west through Marbletown.
Within the city itself, the KLT is also setting its sights on another portion of abandoned track in Midtown, which travels from Cornell Street to Kingston Plaza, passing through a series of tunnels underlying the traffic intersection at Route 587. The railway’s lease with the Catskill Railroad is up next May, after which the KLT and the city hope to convert the derelict road into a trail. “We’re talking about a cost-effective way to make a pedestrian route from Uptown to Midtown. If you take out the rails and ties, surface it and add lighting, you build a linear park in a vicinity where there are no city parks,” Weidemann said. Furthermore, with the proper design, the trail would help combat crime in the area. “The city had a workshop a year-and-a-half ago about environmental design for crime prevention. If you design public spaces appropriately, we can use design to reduce crime.”
To build support for the Greenline and raise awareness, in the warm-weather months Weidemann has been conducting popular walking tours on the third Sunday of the month. Each tour has a theme – historical, cultural, environmental or a combination – and ends at the Kingston Wine Company for a tasting. Tours depart at 9:30 a.m. from the Kingston Wine Company. The tours attract dozens of people and highlight one of the supreme pleasures of living in Kingston: exploring its layered landscape of industrial ruins, wildlife-rich shores where nature has encroached and historic architecture, by turns funky and dignified – followed by a café au lait or almond croissant in a nearby café or bistro that’s as alluring as any place in Williamsburg or the Village.
Kingston Greenline Community Design Workshop for Midtown and Rondout Sections, Monday, July 27, 3-5 p.m., 6-8 p.m., Immanuel Lutheran Church, 22 Livingston Street, Kingston.
Kingston Greenline Community Design Workshop: Building a Better Broadway, Thursday, August 6, 3:30-5 p.m., 6:30-8 p.m., UPAC, 601 Broadway, Kingston.