Developers have been eyeing the land adjacent to New Paltz Village Hall, nicknamed “the pit,” for decades. It’s one of the largest parcels remaining in the village that is neither protected from being built upon, or already has structures in place. That’s because the pit is well-named, and like other tracts that remain vacant of bricks and mortar, is a difficult one to build safely, and particularly in conformance with current zoning rules. Luis Martinez, president and CEO of Lalo Group, is considering a proposal which won’t even be possible unless he can convince the Village Board to change the law, and he’s taking the time to get community members used to the idea. Thus far, the steps he’s taken with his consultants have included a preliminary presentation to the Village Board and a discussion with the Planning Board to get a sense of whether it would be possible to get their support, and an interview with the New Paltz Times to share his vision.
The scope of “the Gunks,” as the project is called, is grand: 81 condo units in an eight-story building on one side of the property, a six-story, 96-room hotel complete with spa, 400-space parking garages topped with green roofs, a public walkway through the property to Hasbrouck Park, and a reflecting pool. It may be the largest project yet proposed for this piece of land, which contains some not-insignificant challenges such as a considerable change in grade and an underground stream which flows somewhere through the parcel. Martinez said that the scale is necessary to make the business case. However, as a longtime New Paltz resident — he attended high school here — he said he has no intention of simply building the Gunks and walking away. “I’ll be the owner and operator,” he said, and while he will hire a contractor to manage the day-to-day operations, “it won’t be a chain hotel,” because he’s mindful of how his neighbors feel about corporate presences in the village; nor will it be priced to compete with Mohonk Mountain House. Once the project is up and running, he intends on hiring local people for jobs where possible; he’s also looking at the Williams Lake Project (WLP) as a model for how to ensure nearby residents are first in line for the construction work, calling such a deal “feasible” in this case. For the demolition of the Williams Lake Hotel and building a new resort on that property, WLP signed a landmark labor agreement that gives preference in hiring and materials to companies in Rosendale itself, where the project is located, and then Ulster County, and finally the Mid-Hudson region. Local businesses won’t be competing on price alone to provide materials or labor for that project. In addition to sourcing materials locally, Martinez said that he wishes to pursue LEED certification for energy efficiency, and hopes to see more than 50% of the building materials come from recycled sources.
As with any project larger than a single-family home in New Paltz, this one has raised concerns over traffic. There are design elements already in place to address those worries, Martinez said, but should the project move forward, he will work with the Planning Board to ensure appropriate mitigation. “I don’t think it’s going to be an issue,” he said, in large part because guests and residents are likely to walk and leave their vehicles in their underground parking spots much of the time. “They’ll leave their cars to eat,” he said, and visit local attractions. Truck traffic to such large buildings could be another issue entirely, one that Martinez says is easy to imagine when driving on Main Street early any morning, where they tend to be double-parked for unloading. The Gunks will have an interior loading dock big enough for two 18-wheelers and another truck besides, keeping them from clogging traffic. With entrances onto Hasbrouck, Elting and Plattekill avenues — connecting to different levels of the buildings, thanks to the pit’s grade change — he believes that the automotive traffic will be sufficiently diffused. It would, however, entail one of those entrances going through the municipal lot; while that’s an impact some board members think needs further study, it also makes it possible for the complex to offer some additional public parking.
Martinez believes that this proposal will fill both housing and lodging needs in the village. There are condominiums in the village, but he thinks there are young professionals who would prefer to own something here in New Paltz — at a cost of $2-300,000 — rather than spending three- or four-million dollars for something similar in New York City. The village does have an affordable-housing law, and although Martinez’ attorney initially suggested that they might ask for its requirements to be waived for this project, they’ve since signaled a willingness to work with the board. On the hotel side, a location adjacent to SUNY New Paltz will not only appeal to parents wishing to attend graduation ceremonies, but could provide a convenient location for any number of conferences. Again, Martinez anticipates that the location would minimize guests driving to sessions on campus, which they are likely to do if they choose to stay at the Hampton Inn, now under construction uptown. He described the condos and hotel rooms as “market rate,” drawing a distinction from the term “high end,” which has been associated with the project by observers.
The history of the pit
That the pit is a challenge for builders is evidenced by the number of projects which have been proposed for that site over the years. The parcel was once slightly larger, and town historian Carol Johnson has an aerial photograph of the site before the current Village Hall complex was built on the flattest section. The town and villages offices were both there until the town needed more space, and purchased the American Legion hall on North Chestnut Street, according to former mayor Tom Nyquist. That building is the one presently slated for demolition and replacement, due to mold which caused health problems for town employees. The town did leave behind the courts and police department, and while the police moved to rented space several years ago, the courts still remain, a testament to the enduring power of sharing municipal space.
Nyquist and former village Planning Board chairman Bill Schnitzer both recall a 1969 project called Huguenot Square. Nyquist thinks it was the “most interesting” proposal he’s yet seen, as it would have added on a “lovely business addition” to the village, along with 291 underground parking spots. Schnitzer found the proposal in his files and donated it to the Haviland-Heidgerd Historical Collection. Nyquist’s observation that “the architect took quite a bit of time” with the plans seems spot-on: what was produced was a bound booklet which included illustrations, demographic and economic data for the region, and fold-out plans of the project, which was supposed to share the land with a new post office.
That project never got off the ground — Nyquist believes it wasn’t financially feasible — and in 1986, Holly and Carol Reissner proposed a four-story building with 54 condo units and 84 apartments. An article at the time quoted village officials as being concerned over the “gross overdensity,” then-deputy mayor Nyquist was concerned that to change the law to allow it would constitute spot zoning, and Karl Budmen, who later went on to chair the Zoning Board of Appeals, wanted to wait for the master plan to be revised before thinking seriously about the project. According to that news coverage, the master plan from 20 years prior recommended the space be a “village green or park.” The Reissners eventually came down to just 22 units before the project was ultimately scrapped. According to the report, earlier projects for the pit included a hotel, the aforementioned shopping mall, senior citizen housing, apartments and office buildings.
One of the most ambitious projects thus far came from Peter Bienstock, who in 1998 proposed to erect nine buildings totaling 323,000 square feet, and including offices, light industrial, warehouse space, and 900 parking spaces, as well as a restaurant. More recently, about ten years ago, an affordable housing complex idea was bandied about.
Martinez understands the challenges of building in the pit, both the physical and the political. “I know I will hear negative things,” he said, but he is hopeful that his plans to incorporate green infrastructure and concepts like a promenade to allow pedestrians to pass through from downtown to Hasbrouck Park might open some minds. Some of the earliest online discussions, after the first proposal was made in August, included allegations that the opposition was racist in character. Martinez is not willing to label it as such. “It depends on how you take it,” he said, but ultimately, “I love working in New Paltz.” Having lived here for over 23 years, he believes that opposition is more likely to be political in nature, and he said he will “do as much as I can” to allay concerns.
Among those concerns is a case against Sergio Raymundo, who in his capacity as a construction manager for Lalo was charged by the state’s Attorney General for allegedly failing to pay some $800,000 in wages to employees on another project. “That case is being settled,” Martinez said, and stems not from intentional theft, but the responsibility a general contractor has for the actions of subcontractors; New York is one of the few states which makes the general contractor so liable, Martinez said. Several other contractors were also charged, he pointed out, and it’s since been determined that the discrepancy was “really only $52,000.” The attorney general’s press release after the charges were filed asserted that Raymundo had allegedly signed false checks to conceal the facts of the case. Martinez did not return an e-mail asking for clarification.
Whether the Gunks will be built, in the form now proposed or another, is impossible to say unless and until a formal request to the Village Board for a zoning change is made. If that happens, the process is likely to unfold slowly and go through many iterations. What is certain is that the pit, so long as it is empty, will continue to be mostly overlooked by residents and eyed by intrigued developers.