Backers of the plan to build an Irish cultural center in a residential neighborhood in the Rondout District say they plan to appeal a city commission’s ruling that the building, as currently designed, conflicts with the area’s historic character.
On Sept. 25, the city Historic Landmarks Preservation Commission voted 4-3 to deny an application by the Irish Cultural Center of the Hudson Valley. Unless the commission signs off on the design, a building permit can’t be issued.
The vote marks the latest setback in ICCHV’s years-long effort to win approval to build the proposed center on a vacant lot at 32 Abeel St. At the heart of the debate are concerns by neighbors and area residents that the 16,000-square-foot building, which would house classroom space, an auditorium and a pub, is simply too big for a parcel bordered by single-family homes in a residential neighborhood.
The proposed center has been the focus of an unsuccessful lawsuit challenging a city zoning board of appeals decision to allow the project to be included in the Rondout’s commercial district, based on its connection to the Strand via a steep footpath. The project has also been subject to reviews by six different agencies, including the city and county planning boards, the ZBA and the city’s Historic Area Commission. Last year, responding to concerns by planning officials, the ICCHV carried out a redesign that removed a proposed banquet hall. More recently, backers of the plan responded to concerns that the design was “too industrial” and out of step with the neighborhood’s historic character by incorporating a brick and bluestone façade, shifting solar panels to be less visible from the street and adding more historically appropriate exterior details. Earlier this year the city planning board issued a “negative declaration of environmental significance” to affirm that the project was in compliance with applicable regulations. Indeed, the review process has gone on so long that one project opponent, Owen Harvey, worried that commissioners might simply approve the plan out of sheer fatigue.
“Fatigue is understandable, I know as this application has been a long process,” said Harvey, who lives adjacent to the site, at a Sept. 14 meeting of the Historic Landmarks Preservation Commission. “But an opinion of ‘good enough’ cannot be the outcome. Too many lives will be impacted by this project.”
At the same meeting, architect Brad Will sought to convince the commission that the most recent design was indeed appropriate for the historic district. Will noted that last year, the city’s Historic Area Commission had vetted the project based on a 43-item development policy checklist and found only one issue — scale — that was applicable and had not been addressed.
Will, according to minutes of the meeting, pointed out that the ICCHV had responded with a new design that reduced the structure’s width and height. Will added that after abandoning the “modern Irish” design deemed too industrial for the area, he had turned to local sources of inspiration — renowned 19th century architect Calvert Vaux and the no-longer-standing D&H Canal Paymaster’s House.
HLPC members were split in their responses to Will’s presentation, according to meeting minutes. Commissioner Jane Birmingham said that she did not think the bluestone façade was appropriate. A second commissioner, Julie Edelson-Safford, expressed concern that the scale of the design was “imposing,” disrupted the continuity of the streetscape and that two faces of the building had two different looks. Commissioner Scott Davies, meanwhile, said that the varying façades should not be an issue since it would be nearly impossible to find a vantage point where both would be simultaneously visible.
Later, Birmingham asked ICCHV members if they had considered reducing the size of the building. According to the minutes, they responded by saying that they had already reduced the size of the building in the redesign. They also noted that by law they had a right to build a far larger structure and that the current design was consistent with the center’s needs.
After the “no” vote at the Sept. 25 meeting, ICCHV Executive Director Bob Carey said in an email that the group planned to appeal the commission’s decision to the city’ ZBA.
“At this time we are considering all of our options,” Carey wrote.