Plans by RUPCO to build supportive senior citizens housing at the site of the former Kingston alms house are on hold after a divided Common Council Tuesday night denied a zoning change that would have allowed the housing nonprofit to move forward.
The vote came one week after opponents of the plan invoked a rarely used section of the City Charter that requires a seven-vote supermajority of the nine-member council to enact a zoning change if enough immediate neighbors of the property in question object to it. Council members Lynn Eckert (D-Ward 1), Doug Koop (D-Ward 2), Rennie Scott-Childress (D-Ward 3) Nina Dawson (D-Ward 4) and Steve Schabot (D-Ward 8) voted to approve the zoning change. Majority Leader Bill Carey (D-Ward 5), Tony Davis (D-Ward 6) Maryann Mills (D-Ward 7) and Minority Leader Deborah Brown (D-Ward 9) voted against it. Because of the supermajority requirement, the motion failed. For now, the parcel will continue to be zoned for single-family residences.
Wednesday’s vote was an unexpected twist in RUPCO’s efforts to transform the vacant former alms house, most recently used for county offices, into “Landmark Place,” which provide permanent supportive housing for vulnerable populations, including the recently homeless, disabled, mentally ill and those suffering from substance abuse disorders.
The plan calls for RUPCO to purchase the site at 300 Flatbush Avenue from Ulster County, which once used the building to house its Health Department offices — for $950,000. Millions more would go into transforming the circa-1870 Italianate structure into 34 studio apartments. A new building at the site would hold another 32 one-bedroom apartments. The entire complex, RUPCO officials have said, would be tied together in a campus-like setting and equipped with community and program space, on-site security and medical staff and other amenities intended to support residents.
RUPCO has also offered a payment in lieu of taxes deal which would have generated about $66,000 annually from the building, which is currently off the tax rolls. RUPCO officials initially planned to make just 32 units restricted to those aged 55 and up. In response to community concerns about quality of life and neighborhood safety, and citing the urgent need for more senior housing, the agency announced recently that all units would be reserved for seniors.
The change did little to tamp down a groundswell of community opposition to the plan. Opponents offered a range of reasons; some said that the county had not done enough to market the site for commercial use. Others complained that the proposed RUPCO project was located close by two other low-income housing developments and would contribute to a concentration of poverty in the area. Others took issues with the county for failing to consult with residents or city officials before making the deal with RUPCO. Much of the criticism focused on the prospective tenants of the site and fears of their potential impact on safety and quality of life.
“If this was truly senior housing, nobody in this room would be against it,” said Paul Casciaro, who lives adjacent to the property and has been a vocal critic of the RUPCO plan. “But this is low-income or no-income housing, it’s a homeless center.”
On Wednesday, the Common Council met to consider the zoning change the project needed. Currently the parcel is zoned for single-family residences; the proposed change would open it up to development as a multi-family dwelling. The measure seemed assured to pass — that is, until last week when opponents of the plan filed a petition with the city invoking the supermajority rule. The rule states that if 20 percent of property owners adjacent to or with frontage 100 feet from the proposed rezoning object to the change, the council needs seven votes, rather than five, to enact it. On Wednesday, Common Council President James Noble said that city attorneys had vetted the petition and determined that it met the supermajority threshold.
In debating the measure, supporters of the zoning change noted that any feasible use of the site would require new zoning for the parcel and argued that it would be inappropriate and probably legally actionable to deny the change for Landmark Place, only to approve a similar request for some future project.
“This needs to be rezoned,” said Schabot. “If we don’t rezone it, we might as well put a condemned sign on it because I don’t think that anyone is going to come forward to do anything with it without rezoning it.”
Mills, one of Landmark Place’s most vocal opponents, sought to cast the issues as purely administrative and not based on the project’s merits. Mills argued that the city was currently in the final stages of a years-long effort to revamp the city’s zoning code in accordance with its new comprehensive plan. No zoning changes, she argued, should be approved until the work was complete and the new code in place. Carey, meanwhile, said he had no issue with the Landmark Place proposal. His objection, he said, was based on his belief that the site would be better off if was zoned commercial. Carey described the site as a “potential goldmine” that could generate significant income for the city if put to commercial use.
“This has nothing to do with the project, this is strictly about the zoning,” said Carey. “Zoning it [for multi-family residential] puts a lid on potential growth.”
But Dawson echoed project supporters who argued that the debate over the zoning appeared to be a back-door effort to scuttle the RUPCO plan. They point to the timing of the petition, which was delivered to city officials just days before a key committee vote on the proposal and too close to the council vote for RUPCO to adequately respond. Scott-Childress said that the timing of the petition made it “appear obstructionist.” Dawson also raised the prospect of gamesmanship by opponents seeking to delay if not derail the RUPCO plan.
“If zoning really is the issue, it seems that there’s a lot of games and tactics to delay this,” said Dawson. “If we are doing this as a tactic to stall this, then shame on us.”
The rejection of the zoning change means that Landmark Place can’t move to the next phase of the approval process, site plan review by the city’s planning board. It is unclear how RUPCO will respond to the setback. In previous communications with the city, RUPCO attorney Michael Moriello suggested that the city could leave itself open to a discrimination lawsuit under federal fair housing law. In a letter, Moriello argued that on-the-record statements by opponents of Landmark Place and Mills in particular showed a clear bias against the plan based on the profile of prospective tenants.
The agency could also challenge the validity of the petition. After the vote, asked if RUPCO would pursue a legal remedy to the impasse, CEO Kevin O’Connor would only say, “We intend to look at all of our options going forward.”