“Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” — Lawrence Peter Berra (1925-1915)
The late great Yankee catcher and manager’s classic malapropism referred to restaurants, but it could have been Kingston’s burgeoning downtown Rondout section.
The question before the city planning board is this: Can this once desolate, boarded-up waterfront area of the city, lately thriving thanks to bold entrepreneurs and massive infusions of government money, absorb what might be its biggest development in recent history?
As it does with so many other projects pitched for crowded urban areas, it comes down to sufficient parking. Will the 16,000-square-foot Irish Cultural Center, proposed for a two-acre lot on Abeel Street between the Wurts Street bridge and Broadway, provide enough parking for upwards of 400 guests? The quick and simple answer is of course not, but this is no simple controversy.
Before beginning, disclosure is in order. Being of Irish ancestry on my mother’s side, I have been for at least a decade a dues-paying member of the Ulster chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, which is sponsoring the cultural center. Along with almost every other member, I voted for it when first proposed three years ago. Like other members, I donated $100 toward a building fund that eventually topped $30,000. Promoting ethnic culture sounded like a good idea at the time. It still does, but some serious questions have been raised about how the city review process has been carried out.
For what it’s worth, I’m not an active member. I usually attend meetings before and after the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in March and the Hooley on the Hudson on the Sunday preceding Labor Day. I know and like a lot of the guys (this is a men’s organization, but with an active auxiliary) and I appreciate the many hours put in by AOH leadership to bring this project to where it is.
In the interest of getting first-hand information, I attended last week’s regular meeting of the AOH. I had several questions about the ICC, though discussion spread to other areas.
What’s with the size of this building, it seems to have grown quite a lot, I asked project coordinator Bob Carey. What I understood to be a 9,000-square-foot building now seems to have expanded to about 16,000 square feet, on the same site.
It was always about 15,000, Carey replied, to include two stories of 4,500 square feet above ground and a 6,000-square-foot basement built into rock facing the Rondout Creek.
Some “squaring up of plans” added another 1,000 feet or so, he said. All told, the proposal before the city planning board call for a building larger than City Hall itself.
Prefacing my next question with “I only know what I read in the papers,” I said it seemed that the planning board had cut some corners or ignored some regulations in processing the AOH application. Critics have raised questions of zoning, frontage setbacks, its location in an historic district, the very address of the building. I didn’t use the phrase “preferential treatment” — I wanted to get out of there alive, after all — but such was implied.
These things don’t get challenged unless opposition comes forward, Carey replied, and that’s what happened. One of the city’s leading contractors, Carey has much experience before city planning boards.
The next day I asked City Planner Suzanne Cahill the question in a different way. The ICC application was treated no differently than any other, she said. Running that answer past a skeptical editor, I got back, “Expect anything different?”
Well, yes and no. Cahill, no relation to Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, an AOH member who has secured over $2.1 million in state funds for the project, is demonstrably hard-nosed when it comes to planning board applications. Reverently referred to as the “queen of planning” by City Hall denizens, she has been known to dictate the height of shrubbery on new developments. Quite frankly, from that source I expected something a good deal stronger on the subject of planning board efficacy.
Mayor Steve Noble (he is not an AOH member) apparently feels strongly both ways, as Yogi’s teammate, the late Billy Martin, used to say. He likes the project, he says, for its cultural and tourism potential, but expects the planning board to follow the law. To the mayor, those two positions are not exclusive, apparently. I sense a signal to the planning board.
Parking, the aspect of the controversy that almost anyone can relate to, elicited a broader response from my fellow club members. The half-acre site offers 18 spaces, with an additional 23 on an ICC-owned vacant lot across the street. City code requires a minimum of 58 spaces — critics contend almost three times would be required under commercial usage. The planning board, some supporters insist, had not been imposing parking restrictions on other new projects, so why was the ICC being singled out? Former Irishman of the Year Kevin Ginty, a chief fund-raiser for the ICC, had spoken to this subject at a previous (public) meeting. Other noted that new businesses were “springing up every month” in Kingston’s crowded uptown Stockade District, yet no one was calling for more parking. Left unsaid was that those businesses were moving into existing buildings. Some noted that UPAC, that jewel of central Broadway, barely has enough parking for a half-full house, much less its 1,500-seat capacity.
Some of this thinking colors neighborhood opposition. We were here first, we’re overcrowded already, so why add more, goes that line of reasoning. In other words, will the last person to enter please turn out the lights?
As for immediate next-door opposition, I feel their pain, but they bought a $300,000 residential property next to a vacant lot with a huge sign (with an architect’s rendition) announcing the future Irish Cultural Center.
As in any controversy, some elements are just laughable, like ICC sponsors in an attempt to beat zoning regulations (residential versus commercial) declaring its address as being down the hill on West Strand, rather than Abeel. And with Company Hill Path between their property and the Strand. As fig leafs go, that doesn’t offer much coverage.
The AOH seems fully committed to this project, its opponents equally dedicated to stopping it. Serious legal questions have been raised over the planning board’s review, so it’s likely a judge will have the last word. That will take time and time is expensive for all parties concerned.
The AOH might begin considering some alternatives. The Abeel Street (West Strand?) site was chosen for its historic significance. Corporate offices of the Delaware & Hudson Canal were located there, thus “Company Hill Path.” Many a local Irish family can trace its roots to the immigrants (men for the most part) who labored on the D&H and trudged up Company Hill to collect their pay from their WASP overseers. The AOH has created a small park where the D&H building once stood.
There may be other places nearby on the historic Rondout where a 16,000-square-foot building could be erected with plenty of parking. The long-vacant area between the Trolley Museum on East Strand and Broadway comes to mind. Fifty years ago, the Daily Freeman, then located at the foot of Broadway, considered building a new plant on that five-acre site.
There is of course the problem with the $2 million in hard-lobbied government money. Would the state be open to a change in plans? Perhaps. We seem to have friends in Albany.
To my AOH mates, fierce defenders of all things Irish, this might sound like giving up after a long fight, but let us keep the prize in focus. The ICC remains a very good idea, to which I would add a rooftop ballroom (with retractable roof) where we could jig and step-dance under the stars. The present proposal rests on shaky ground with miles to go before we dig, if ever.
Work is progressing nicely on reconstruction of a city-owned public parking lot on North Front Street. When completed, probably next month, it will add a few more spaces with better drainage, lighting and marking. But might the administration think outside the box on this project?
It’s probably too late, but why not build a two or three-tiered parking garage to be financed with a newly-created city parking authority, its revenues dedicated to paying off bonds and maintenance? Such a plan could double or triple badly needed Stockade parking in the emerging “new Kingston” and without direct cost to taxpayers.
Just a thought.
Courting the votes
In another one of those time immemorial city-county conflicts, Kingston legislators are fighting a rear-guard action with their country colleagues on rewording a November referendum on relocating Family Court from rental space in Uptown Kingston to the county-owned Business Resource Center in the Town of Ulster.
The wording on the ballot, approved last month by the legislature in an overwhelming 18-4 vote, is decidedly persuasive and blatantly partisan in detailing all the advantages of the move. Conspicuously absent is that it could cost taxpayers upwards of $8 million to rehab the BRC for court purposes.