What the Irish Cultural Center of the Hudson Valley will be may hang on whether, in the context of the city’s zoning law, “West Strand” is a street or an area.
The answer will determine whether a zoning change for the center, which has become a controversy in the Rondout, will be permitted.
Two attorneys, one representing the ICCHV and the other neighboring residents who oppose the project’s size and planned commercial uses, explained their interpretations of the city’s zoning code at the Zoning Board of Appeals meeting held in City Hall on Sept. 20.
The ZBA must decide whether it will uphold the determination, issued by city Zoning Enforcement Officer Joseph Safford back in June, that the ICCHV property abuts West Strand and therefore is zoned commercial. Safford’s determination is being challenged by the neighboring residents, who hired Rhinebeck-based attorney Warren Replansky to appeal it. They claim the property is on Abeel Street, which is zoned residential — a zone which wouldn’t permit several commercial uses envisioned for the center by its organizers.
“This is complicated, said Larry Wolinsky, special counsel to the ZBA, at the conclusion of the two-hour meeting, which also included testimony from Safford and comments from the public. “Some issues need to be researched and we’ll have a hard look at it,” Wolinsky said.
The board did not indicate when it would make a decision, but the Kingston Planning Board is holding a public hearing on the project at City Hall on Wednesday, Oct. 5, at 6 p.m.
The address for the ICCHV property is 32 Abeel St/, which is zoned residential. At issue is whether the southern boundary of the proposed cultural center, which aligns Company Hill Path, can be interpreted as being adjacent to West Strand, which is zoned commercial. Company Hill is separated by West Strand by a steep hillside of city-owned land. The commercial zoning determination is essential to the project, which would be a 16,889-square-foot building with a variety of commercial uses, including a 185-seat theater, an 80-seat restaurant, pub and tea room and a 150-seat banquet facility.
In support of his determination, Safford presented the board with two maps, presumably tax maps. According to Safford, the maps indicated that the “last third” of the property line along Company Hill Path abuts West Strand.
But Replansky said the zoning law clearly stipulates that 32 Abeel St. is not in the allowable commercial zone and that “no determination had ever been made by the Zoning Enforcement Officer that all … these uses were … permitted in the RT Rondout District zone in which the property is to be located.”
Replansky cited Section 405-19(B)(1) of the city zoning code, which only designates properties that have “direct frontage on Broadway between Spring Street and Dock Street and on the West Strand” for more intensive commercial uses in the RT Rondout District. He said that the survey map prepared by the ICCHV as well as the deed for the property indicates “that 32 Abeel Street does not have direct frontage on West Strand Street.”
ICCHV’s survey and deed of the property clearly show the property’s entire southern boundary abuts Company Hill Path, he said. Replansky added that the argument by ICCHV attorney Ronald Pordy that the zoning law defines West Strand not as a street but as a “sub-area,” which includes the city-owned Company Hill Path and other city-owned properties adjacent to West Strand, is false.
“Contrary to Mr. Pordy’s assertions, there is nothing in the city’s zoning law which creates, or is defined as ‘West Strand Area’ or ‘West Strand Sub-area,’” Replansky said.
Furthermore, because the boundaries of a West Strand sub-area are not defined in the zoning law, “it would be impossible for anyone to determine if a property had direct frontage on the ‘West Strand Sub-area’ or ‘West Strand Area,’” he added. Replansky said that historically “West Strand” has been used to refer to West Strand Street and cited several examples.
The ICCHV’s interpretation of the zoning law to allow more intensive uses of any properties that abut the undefined sub-area of West Strand “would lead to absurd results and would set a dangerous precedent,” Replansky concluded.
In their questioning of Replansky, two board members noted that 50 Abeel St. functioned as a restaurant and club for many years, even though the block is zoned residential. (The building was recently converted by developer Mike Piazza into rental units.)
Replansky responded, “If not carefully vetted, then [a nonconforming use] might get permitted.”
He said the appraisal for the ICCHV property performed prior to ICCHV’s purchase characterized the block as “residential, a mix of single and two-to-four family dwellings.” Furthermore, he said the ICCHV’s initial plans placed the entrance on Abeel, “which is where the parking is and where buses will drop people off.”
ICCHV attorney Pordy told the board “it’s very clear there are two sub-areas in the zoning code — that is the word contained in the code. Section 405-19(B) states: ‘Uses permitted by right, A building may be erected, reconstructed … or used, and a lot or premises may be used, for any of the following purposes by right in each of the two sub-areas designated, subject to the conditions established.’
“The language clearly does not limit this sub-area to West Strand Street … if ‘street’ was meant it would have been reflected in the code,” Pordy said. He also said that Company Hill Path “is a sidewalk, which follows part of the street.”
“The sub-area is all city-owned land, from Company Hill Path down to the water,” Pordy said. “We abut that property … there’s no doubt it provides direct linear access to West Strand. Pedestrians can access the ICCHV on Company Hill Path. If that doesn’t constitute direct frontage, we don’t know what does.”
Pordy added, “The entrance to the building from day one was designed for the main entrance to be on West Strand.” He further noted “Abeel Street is not a residential neighborhood. It’s mixed use, from Broadway to beyond the [Wurts Street] bridge.”
Pordy also claimed that “this property was included in the Brownfield Opportunity Area,” an area of former industrial properties targeted for development by the city. “The city has been studying this for years and years, and this property was considered in the first phase of that development,” Pordy said.
Asked by board members about the various applications and whether any changes had been made to the project, Pordy said no.
He did mention one change: “The building was originally 15,000 square feet and has been enlarged by 1,880 feet,” he said, explaining that the original plans “were drawn up by architecture students and it was decided professional architects should be brought in. In order to accommodate all the uses proposed, the building needed to be larger.”
He also said there was a discrepancy in the original application that described the building as approximately 9,000 square feet, due to the exclusion of the basement level. “In certain instances basements don’t get figured into the square footage,” Pordy said. “That was updated pretty early in the process, to clarify that it really was 15,000 square feet from the get-go.”
Six members of the public briefly spoke. Merle Borenstein, owner of the Armadillo restaurant on Abeel Street, said that “32 Abeel Street is the legal address [of the ICCHV property] to the best of my knowledge.”
She said that when Mike Piazza converted the former restaurant at 50 Abeel to residential units, “he was told he could not put a bar in the property.” She said the ICCHV “is not in the Brownfield Opportunity Area,” as Pordy claimed. And she said she was concerned that if the ICCHV is zoned commercial, “what happens to the property if it doesn’t come to fruition? Does another commercial property go in, maybe a factory?”
Owen Harvey, one of the neighbors who is retaining Replansky, read from the 405-19RT zoning law governing Abeel Street between Broadway and Wurts, which specifies the only allowable uses are “one, two and three family dwellings, a professional office, studio or home occupation of a resident of the buildings, limited to no more than 30 percent of the floor space and employing no more than one non resident,” along with places of worship and schools. “A review of the historical deeds show no reference to this property fronting West Strand. It’s always been referred to as being on Abeel Street,” he said.
Ruth Bendelius, who sold the four parcels of land to the ICCHV in 2013, said the largest parcel had no access from Abeel Street, so “there obviously is access to West Strand.”
But Hillary Harvey, wife of Owen Harvey, said there was “no stairway or access point from the retaining wall off Company Hill Path” to the property, unlike some of the other properties, which have stairways from the path, she said. The four parcels “had always been residential properties” and “if you look at the geography and history of the property it’s very clear the intended uses align with the address along 32 Abeel.”
Tom Hoffay, grants director for Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, who obtained $1.5 million in grant money for the ICCHV, said “the definition [in the zoning code] of what’s allowable on Abeel Street would preclude the conversion of the synagogue [at 50 Abeel], which in its present use has more than three residencies.” Hoffay said the main entrance to the former restaurant as well as an art gallery and café on Abeel was “largely through Company Hill Path.”