Governor Andrew Cuomo has released the latest in his competition-based municipal aid packages, and it’s gotten some heads turning in New Paltz. The so-called Downtown Revitalization Initiative, or DRI, will award $10 million to one and only one applicant in each of the state’s ten regional economic development councils (REDC). That structure differs from the annual round of funding, which pits the ideas put forth by each of the REDCs against the others; in this case, it’s communities in each region vying for the dollars. New Paltz the village will be making such an application, but it will be with the full and unambiguous support of both the town government and the administration of SUNY New Paltz, as well. Representatives of all three recently gathered at the Mudd Puddle to discuss how they’re working together, and what a revitalized downtown in New Paltz might look like.
Village Mayor Tim Rogers called it a “Hunger Games” approach to providing funding, because it pits communities in the region against each other, and he knows that there’s a lot of competition. Yonkers, Newburgh and Poughkeepsie are all in the region, and compelling proposals may be submitted for any or all of those cities. What might work in favor of the New Paltz bid is the incredibly short time frame: a draft of the application will be discussed at the joint town-village board meeting on May 19, with a public hearing scheduled for May 25, and the deadline for submission just two days later. The decision will be made during June, and the money will start flowing in July. It could be that a smaller community such as New Paltz is more nimble, thus leading to a stronger application in the short time allowed for submissions.
The New Paltz community has ways to address the various criteria laid out in the DRI application. Among others, the winning community will have a “vibrant, year-round downtown” that is “compact, with well-defined boundaries,” and “that are able to capitalize on prior, or catalyze future, private and public investment in the neighborhood and its surrounding areas. Local leaders believe that New Paltz fits well into these requirements, and have crafted a proposal that defines the target area for investment as being the village-owned properties which are now the sites of the Village Hall complex and municipal parking, the so-called “pit” property adjacent to both, and the stretch of Plattekill Avenue between the Village Hall and municipal parking entrance.
In broad strokes, the vision would achieve goals such as walkability and job creation by transforming how those properties are used, along the way addressing a number of community needs. It begins with the pit, where the principals of Lalo Group have already proposed condominiums and a hotel. Recent modifications to that proposal would keep both buildings to six stories, and reorient them to allow for a pedestrian concourse between downtown and the college. That project is one college administrators think is a good fit with the university because not only will there still be demand for hotel space after the Hampton Inn opens near the Thruway, there’s also a need for convenient faculty housing which the condo units might meet.
According to Shelly Wright, SUNY’s Chief of Staff and Vice President for Communication, college administrators immediately recognized how the opportunity to make a more vibrant, year-round destination out of New Paltz would be important for the college’s long-term goals. As evidence of that interest, it’s SUNY money that is paying the outside planner who is assisting with the DRI application. Getting buy-in from university officials is also important because it shows that the plans are anchored by a regional institution.
Talks about a joint municipal center to house town and village offices have stalled largely because the price tag is more than taxpayers can afford. That would be resolved quite easily if that $10 million is awarded: Village Hall would be replaced with a two-story structure, the first floor of which could be rented to businesses and the second story — all 20,000 square feet of it — would have all the local government offices in one place. An ideal tenant for the first floor would be a grocery store, further reducing the need for car trips by nearby residents.
That’s made possible in part because fire station 1 would become a thing of the past. NY Rising money is already committed to building a new station west of the Wallkill, on the land of the village’s water treatment plant, and station 2 on Henry Dubois Drive will be improved to become the main station. It’s a better location for accessing more of the town, and it’s easier to reach for the volunteers, as well.
Supervisor Neil Bettez, who estimates nine out of ten of his own car trips are to the nearest supermarket, sees benefits for the entire town that go beyond reducing traffic congestion. This plan would fill in empty space that’s been targeted unsuccessfully for development since the 1960s or earlier. That increase in density, he said, is what’s needed to ensure efforts to protect open space in New Paltz are successful. “People have to live somewhere,” he said. “There’s a lot of people within walking distance,” he said, and once fully implemented, the plan could lead to the creation of over 100 jobs.
Where the municipal lot is now, there would be a row of buildings Rogers envisions as a “tech village” that could attract tenants suitable for the Start-Up NY program, which offers ten years without state taxes of any kind — including property, sales and income — to eligible businesses. To qualify, the company must partner with SUNY New Paltz, something which is challenging without any new spaces in which to house these firms. The lost parking would only be moving a short distance; 700 spaces would be available underneath the hotel and condo project. With walking, biking and stops on the already-existing Loop Bus in the mix, theoretically cars could stay in those spots much longer than people park their vehicles between trips now.
Village planner David Gilmour sees the DRI application as an opportunity to create a sense of place where none presently exists, and he’s confident the exercise will be hugely beneficial even if New Paltz isn’t awarded the money. If the community does win, however, up to $300,000 of the total $10 million will be reserved for strategic planning, to work out the specifics of a plan which at first pass will be just seven pages long. Richard Winters, Community and Government Relations Associate at the college, is optimistic because the proposal shows that New Paltz is “ripe for opportunity.”
This grand plan, however, is really just intended to be an anchor itself. DRI funds are intended to stimulate and leverage other funding sources, public and private, and Bettez said that the entire downtown area of the village would benefit in time from those improvements. Rogers stressed that the idea is “not growth for the sake of growth,” but a plan to reduce congestion while improving accessibility and opportunity for residents. Local arts and historical resources could easily be woven in as those additional funding sources are identified. That’s something which will require significant public input, something that has been precluded thus far by the short application deadline.
Rogers said that feedback is encouraged, and opportunities to invite it will begin with the public hearing on May 25. Should the money be awarded, he hopes to include representatives from the Chamber of Commerce, non-profits, arts groups and other entities into the process of creating this revitalized downtown area, and building upon it going forward. That will include, added planner Gilmour, consideration of such things as green infrastructure, complete streets, resilience to flooding and other ways to improve connectivity and job creation. It might even spur the push towards joint comprehensive planning which is now in its earliest stages.
This summer will either be the start of some very significant changes in downtown New Paltz, or at the very least will be the start of important conversations including stakeholders not obligated to work together. Bettez believes that this collaboration might continue regardless, because momentum behind the right ideas will carry along future elected and college officials, even if they aren’t as warm to working together as the present batch.