New Paltz town and village boards discuss plans for a shared municipal center

Proposed floor plans for the municipal center to be built where the New Paltz Town Hall now stands, on the corner of North Chestnut Street and Veterans Boulevard.

Proposed floor plans for the municipal center to be built where the New Paltz Town Hall now stands, on the corner of North Chestnut Street and Veterans Boulevard.

The public got its first peek at plans for a municipal center to be built where the New Paltz Town Hall now stands, on the corner of North Chestnut Street and Veterans Boulevard. No decisions were made at the joint town-village meeting on December 1, which means that the floor plans are a bit vague in places, because architect Joe Hurwitz still doesn’t know if he’s designing offices for village use, or not. Nevertheless, he was able to show a floor plan for the proposed three-story structure, and explain the challenges of fitting on a building on that long, narrow site.

Where the old Town Hall had its main entrance facing North Chestnut Street despite carrying a Veterans Boulevard address, the new building will resolve that dissonance, with the door on the south wall, towards Moriello Park, while a “pocket park” will be on the Chestnut side of the structure. The fact that the jointly-owned park is adjacent to this lot is critical to make the design work, as it will be necessary to borrow some property there to allow for sufficient parking at the municipal center. Presumably, that detail will be easier to iron out if the Village Board signs on to the project, something which mayor Tim Rogers has made clear that he supports.

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Hurwitz called this an “almost impossible site,” and said that he found himself “fighting for every bloody inch of width,” because there’s a right-of-way along the entire property which is used to access the neighborhood behind the community center. The overall design is “on the edge of what’s feasible” for the constraints of the property itself. He expressed hope that space could be found — either on this lot or in Moriello Park itself — to put in a formal walkway of some sort for those residents and to improve pedestrian access to the community center. The grade of the slope also presented challenges, because it rises about six feet, half the distance to conveniently make a second-floor entrance on one side. Instead, he created a “sally port” which is halfway between floors and allows access to either one via a half-flight of stairs or by means of a chair lift.

Even without knowing how many people will be working within, Hurwitz had enough information to find innovative ways to comply with requirements of the police department and justice court, while at the same time ensuring that space will be used in multiple ways whenever that’s possible. For example, a flexible space on the second floor will include features for court use on one end and municipal meetings on the other. Meetings could be conducted while court was in session, and with movable walls each use could be given the amount of space that’s needed. A third room could even be created in the middle for a third function, such as police training sessions; 700 square feet of space that’s reserved for that purpose in the present police headquarters will be pared down to 300 here, and could be put to other uses when the police do not need it. Similarly, the basement will include a fitness center, which is expected to get use from police officers, but could also be made available to other personnel in the building. Because it will already have showers, the fitness center can be used as an emergency shelter, as well. Most of the basement will be taken up by file storage, particularly for the courts, which are “overwhelmed with records” according to Hurwitz, some of which must be retained for 50 years.

Police and courts fit seamlessly together in this design. The aforementioned sally port will provide authorized access to each, as the justice court will be directly above the police department. The main entrance to the police will be on the ground floor, and visitors will not be able to pass into that area without first being challenged by the dispatcher to determine their business. Incarcerated defendants can be brought up to court through the sally port when it’s their time to appear. The justices will park their cars adjacent to the police vehicles and their chambers will be next to the exit which brings them out close by for security reasons. A separate booking entrance will be used for what Hurwitz called “difficult defendants.” In a tacit acknowledgment of gender disparity on the force, the plans call for 30 men’s lockers, eight for women and no spaces for persons who don’t identify as either.

Sharing the lower level with the police — but completely separate from those operations — will be offices for building, planning and assessment. “I won’t divide [the space] until I know if the village and town are sharing, or not,” Hurwitz said, but assured the gathered board members that there would be room for all the necessary personnel in the final plans. “I can work anything out,” he said. Visitors will have the choice of turning left for their building and land-related needs, or right to speak with someone in the police department. Upper floors will be accessible via stairs or elevator, but all other entrances to the building will be carefully controlled to prevent unauthorized access.

The third floor’s layout is “somewhat blank,” pending a clear path forward either with or without the village, but it does include corner offices of exactly the same square footage, which presumably will be occupied by the supervisor and mayor, respectively. Above that, the roof will include solar panels, complementing the geothermal energy system which will also be part of the building’s design.

For this to officially become a joint project will require action by each of the two boards at their separate meetings, as well as some convincing of the public that this is the best way forward. Two men who spoke during public comment each expressed concerns about how the space, as well as the bills, would be shared; village resident Ira Margolis thought the financial split would be unfair for the remaining town taxpayers, while town building committee chairman David Lent, who does not live in the village, felt that residents of that municipality are the ones who would be paying too much.

“I just don’t think it’s fair,” said Margolis, that 75% of the money for the new building would come from the town’s A fund, with village taxpayers supplying the remainder, because “they pay 75% of a lot of the village’s expenses now.” The A fund is already split according to assessed value of land in the town, so that 25% of it comes from owners of property within the village and 75% without. Margolis further thought that giving the village an equal share of decision-making authority — something which has been contentious around the table during joint board meetings — was problematic and recommended that the village rent space from the town instead.

Lent argued that the split was unfair for village residents because of the actual space to be used by each municipality. “I’ve analyzed the tentative plans,” he said, and found that the village’s “space for departments outside of the police and courts is grossly overstated. The village will use 15-20% of the building. If this is so, village taxpayers are going to pay, over 20 years, $3-6 million in village taxes more than they should.” Lent was also skeptical that sharing offices among people with similar duties would be helpful to members of the general public, who might not appreciate that village clerk employees cannot issue hunting and marriage licenses, nor can staff of one building department work on permits for the other. “You don’t expect to demean them by wearing signs that say, ‘town business only,’ or ‘village business only,'” he said. Further, he anticipated that such an arrangement could lead to friction between the two staffs, saying, “If you believe they all will work together without issues, you also must believe in Santa Claus and the tooth fairy,” and suggesting that former mayors, and other former supervisors, might disagree. However, he implied that the real source of the friction would be that two groups of people would be working together for different employers, saying, “If the Village Board really believes that this co-mingling of town and village employees is really the way to go, then you ought to stand by your convictions and vote to call a permissive referendum to dissolve the village at your next meeting.”

The plans have also been likened to a marriage. Lent compared the process to a reality television program in which “persons who have never met get married and then decide how they’re going to live together.” Village trustee Don Kerr built on the wedding analogy, noting that seating charts — or in this case, office allocations — can be particularly contentious and recommended starting those conversations immediately. That got a response from incipient town supervisor Neil Bettez, who said that one does not generally prepare seating charts “before you get engaged.”

The arrangement now under discussion would be to create a local development corporation, or LDC, which would become the developer and landlord. Its board would include an elected representative from the town and another from the village, two members appointed by the town and village boards respectively, and a fifth member to be appointed jointly by those two bodies. An area of contention repeatedly brought up by Lent and other members of the town’s building committee is the fact that this concept appears to be moving forward without careful consideration. “What discussions have taken place?” asked Lent, as the four-member executive committee meets in secret.

“The 50/50 management via LDC was discussed at length,” Rogers said, but each step of the process going forward will be taken with attorneys close at hand. “I feel very strongly that this is an important project, a unique opportunity to work together and share space. The luxury of two buildings can no longer be afforded.” As for the tensions Lent imagined if two groups of employees are expected to work side by side, he said, “People come to my office every day looking for town services, and I have to send them to Clearwater Road,” the distant spot where the temporary town offices have been located since the mold-ridden Town Hall was vacated. “I’m sure the same happens at the town offices.”

Town council member Dan Torres noted that LDCs have transparency issues which the state comptroller has raised, but that the intent in this case is to resolve those through by-laws which are more stringent than the law requires.

Meanwhile, village planner David Gilmour is working on obtaining a grant from NYSERDA that, according to Rogers, could provide “a few hundred thousand dollars” toward the project. The application is due by December 31, after which that money for energy efficiency will no longer be available.

The individual boards will consider authorizing the creation of an LDC, as well as the drafting of an intermunicipal agreement, at separate meetings in the coming weeks.

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