Large crowd supports New Paltz theatre proposal

Pictured is the proposed site for the black box Denizen Theater. The site is located just north and adjacent to the upper parking lot at Water Street Market. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

Considerably more people in favor of the black-box theater, recently dubbed “the Denizen,” showed up for the second session of the public hearing on the proposal than did the last time. That prompted New Paltz Village Planning Board chairman Michael Zierler to point out that these decisions are not made based on the number of people who like a given project, but through the “rather mundane” process of addressing impacts. This project, for a 50-70-seat live theater, which will be the site of performances about half the weeks of the year, is getting significant scrutiny because it abuts a residential neighborhood, and board members must ensure that “people enjoy living here” when new uses are approved.

From Karma Road, across the street from Water Street Market, owner Seth Branitz has seen that part of the village blossom over the past ten years. “There was no downtown west of Neko Sushi,” he recalled, and some questioned why he and his wife would even open up shop there. Activities at the market itself have transformed that, Branitz believes, and a theater would only make it better, because it would “contribute a vibrancy . . . which is sorely lacking” in winter especially.

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Branitz also said that, as a longtime observer of parking across the way, he thought the planned use of the Water Street Market lot seemed appropriate.

As mayor, Tim Rogers doesn’t get a vote on any project before the planning board, but as a village resident, he was quite clear in his testimony, saying, “I am very supportive of this project.”

Calling Water Street Market a “crown jewel of this town,” Will Hermes said that the Denizen Theater could become the “cultural heart” of New Paltz. He characterized the project as “modest in scale.”

Where most of the speakers during the first public hearing session were concerned that the scale was too large, these and many other comments made clear that there are a lot of New Paltz and nearby residents who disagree. The value of the theater as an arts center was brought up again and again during the hearing.

Regarding parking, architect Richard Miller acknowledged that during August it’s possible there won’t be enough spots during a performance. He proposed that employees be directed to use municipal parking, but Rock & Snow owner Rich Gottlieb has gone a step further by offering a ten-year lease of spaces in his lot during the evenings, for which he will be paid a dollar a year.

Peter Muller, who owns the adjacent rental property, read remarks provided by their attorney which questioned the value of additional parking at Rock & Snow, and the access planned via a right-of-way over their lot in general. Having overflow parking across Wurts Avenue would simply encourage people to walk that way, which is a liability concern because it’s poorly lit and narrow. The Rock & Snow lease could theoretically be terminated in the future, as well.

Muller’s spouse and co-owner of the New Paltz Living rental property questioned how snow plowing would be managed. Additionally, she suggested that spaces in the Water Street Market lot may have been added to through creative re-striping, resulting in her belief in undersized spaces and illegally narrow aisles.

Board members like the west-side access, Zierler said during application review later in the meeting, and characterized the issue regarding the right-of-way “a legal matter.” He specifically urged the parties “to work this out.”

The assertions about the number of parking spots at Water Street Market will be verified, however. Zierler said that he was mindful any approval not be to the “detriment” of market tenants.

“Are we going to approve this with no parking?” asked board member Rich Steffens. Eight to 12 spots on the 12 Main Street lot itself will be replaced with this new building, and all the parking needed will be at the market, which presently has the same owner as the theater property, Harry Lipstein. Steffens said that the arrangement appears no more permanent than the lease for Rock & Snow spaces. “Neither option is forever,” he said.

Fire safety is another issue: fire chiefs have long known that they cannot access the upper Water Street Market lot with a fire truck. For the theater, stand pipes and sprinklers are being proposed to mitigate that concern.

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