The plan to convert a vacant and aged county-owned office building in Kingston into apartments for low-income seniors came to an abrupt halt last week. A sharply divided Kingston Common Council voted five to four in favor of the Alms House project on Flatbush Avenue, but a supermajority of seven votes was necessary to change the zoning from single-family to multiple-residency housing.
The law requires that at least three-quarters of the city legislative body must vote in favor a project if 20 percent of those owning land within 500 feet of a proposed zoning change sign petitions against it. Nineteen verified signatures were filed just prior to the vote. Fewer than two dozen property owners had leverage over more than 8,000 others in the city. Those ratios need to be adjusted, in my view.
Council passage would have cleared the way for consideration of the RUPCO proposal by the city planning board.
The county government had offered the property for commercial sale more than two years ago. There was barely a nibble of interest, and no complaints from the neighborhood. Earlier this year the county legislature voted to convey historic status on the circa-1870 main building. RUPCO, which specializes in historic rehab and reuse, was on board. The non-profit developer offered $950,000 for the property.
Despite the site’s location on one of the busiest commercial corners in Kingston, access and egress were problems.
There may still be hope that Kingston’s booming Uptown commercial real estate market may yet flush out a cash cow from points south. Hope, however, is not a plan. Booms often go bust after a while.
The Kingston-based regional builder of low-income housing came up short on this $14 million project, but RUPCO has several others on the drawing boards. Agency leaders say they’re keeping all their options open. I don’t think that suing the city, a past and future trading partner, should be one of them. Better to take the lumps and sulk for a while, secure in the knowledge of having made a valiant effort on behalf of a beleaguered constituency. RUPCO tells us there are over 1,000 applicants for such housing.
RUPCO is very good at building low-income housing. In this case, they proved not so good at building a consensus. The agency and its supporters were preaching to their choir. Other voices, some quite vocal, were in play. Shifting the client mix from low-income people and seniors to seniors came only after the opposition had hardened. The revelation that no low-income housing except for RUPCO projects had been built in Kingston since 2001, compared to some 500 units built outside the city, came too late to influence the outcome.
Nearby homeowners to the 15-acre parcel were immediate winners, of course. But “No RUPCO. No Alms House” lawn signs were scattered around the city. There are few things closer to the heart than home and hearth.
Top-level leaders got an unofficial DNE (Did Not Engage) rating on this one. Mayor Steve Noble took no stand on the project itself. Like Alderman Bill Carey, he recommended commercial rezoning. County Executive Mike Hein, who put the property on the market two years ago and stood to gain a nice windfall, went silent as the controversy played out.
We expect our leaders to step up to the plate on important issues affecting their constituents. These guys stayed in the dugout.
The media did a credible job of reporting pros and cons, but readers sometime turn on reporters, as in “would you want one of those projects in your neighborhood?” Given RUPCO’s record of managing its properties, I’d have an open mind. Experience should be a teacher.
Based on years of reporting on similar non-profit projects involving mentally or physically challenged clients and seniors taxed out of their homes, I’ve rarely heard a peep of protest a year later. I expect the Alms House would have melded into its neighborhood in short order. But that’s for the next go-round.
Polling and trolling
The Siena College Institute put out one of its regular polls on the state of public affairs this week. To no surprise, the Cuomos, father and son, are not all that popular. The polls showed Andrew Cuomo’s popularity ratings dropping nine points since May to barely bearable 52 percent. Meanwhile, naming the Tappan Zee Bridge after late governor Mario Cuomo isn’t getting much traction. People apparently have long memories. Mario Cuomo wore out his welcome (“ABC: Anybody But Cuomo”) in1994.
Siena polls deal in large part with state issues and personalities, but polls are really nothing more than snapshots in time. Please consult the last presidential election.
For real insight, I commend our own assemblyman, Kevin (“The Seer”) Cahill. When former Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver was convicted of high crimes and misdemeanors in federal court in 2015, I rang up his once-and-future local ally for comment.
“It will be overturned on appeal,” Cahill said without hesitation.
“But what about the evidence, the $4 million, influence peddling?” I asked.
“Juries rule on facts,” said Cahill, a non-practicing lawyer. “The appeal will be based on the judge’s improper charging of the jury.”
That’s exactly how it came out last week. Though judging the evidence against Silver compelling, a federal appeals court overruled the conviction based on the judge’s charge. Federal prosecutors say they will retry the case.
The slippery Silver sliding out of this one has caused widespread statewide dismay, even rage. “I will not obey the laws of a corrupt government,” howled to heaven one angry man.
But not the clairvoyant Cahill.
Deputy Democratic Elections Commissioner Ashley Dittus will be elected to succeed retired commissioner Victor Work when party committee members convene to fill the vacancy at Best Western Plus in Kingston on July 27. Work’s term expires at the end of next year.
Citing health reasons from a nasty fall at his home in March, Work, 74, retired last week after seven years on the job.
Dittus at 31 would be the youngest commissioner ever. In a relatively short time, she has paid her dues. Hired as a county elections staffer in 2010 two years out of college, she ran a “decent” (her word) race for Hurley town board in 2013 and was named deputy commissioner last year. She is secretary to the county Democratic committee.
She holds a degree in diplomacy and international relations from Seton Hall University (‘08). Overqualified? Perhaps, but her cordial, helpful manner puts people at ease. She is by any fair definition a worker bee.
An election commissioner’s first duty is to protect the interests of his or her own party. A rap on Dittus could be that she might not be tough enough to counter the slings and arrows of partisan politics. But then, we hear that from time to time about her affable counterpart, Republican Commissioner Tom Turco. Personally, I’d rather deal with doves than hawks.
Dittus gets a nice bump in salary, to $79,435 from $61,779. With that kind of inflated paycheck and Cadillac benefits, the stampede has already started to replace her as deputy.
The legislature, which typically rubberstamps Board of Elections appointments of either party, is expected to act at its regular meeting on Aug. 15.
They’re not calling it the “Ellenville 500,000” just yet, but by my reckoning half a loaf of the million dollars promised by the county almost two years ago is about all that’s been dished out so far. For sure, the money, to be reimbursed to the county with good-neighbor funding when the new casino goes online in Monticello, is going for worthwhile causes. Shadowland Theater and the refurbished former village library got $100,000 each, with another $100,000 going for a marketing campaign, curiously dubbed “Find Ellenville.” A $150,000 grant will link the village to the town via an existing rail-trail.
While a village-town committee makes recommendations, most understand this is a top-down operation with orders coming from headquarters in Kingston. For struggling Ellenville, gift horses are always welcome.
Meanwhile, five-term Ellenville county Legislator T.J. Briggs seems to have settled on his political future. After months of what he called “back-stabbing screwyness,” Briggs says he’s running for town board. Recall that the man some residents now call “the wanderer” announced more than a year ago he would be running for town supervisor this year. Toward that end, he gave up his seat in the legislature only to be denied the Democratic nomination for supervisor, which went to Al Perry.
It got worse when Briggs tried to circle back on his old seat in the legislature. Former town councilman John Gavaris, the man nominated to replace him as legislator, refused to step aside.
The smoke having cleared, Briggs, 60, can pause and reflect. “On the town council, I’ll be one of five equal voices, and maybe we’ll get some things done,” he said. “Supervisor was a full-time job. I’d be running around all the time. I don’t know why the hell I didn’t think of this before.”