After six years, 18 planning board appearances, reviews by no fewer than six city, county and state agencies and a failed court attempt to block it, the Irish Cultural Center of the Hudson Valley cleared one final hurdle Monday night when the City of Kingston Planning Board issued final site plan approval.
The vote was met with cheers from the 20 or so supporters of the center who sat through the four-and-a-half-hour meeting to witness it. The unanimous decision by the board marked the end of a long and contentious approval process for a project that met strong opposition from some neighbors who expressed concern about the building’s scale and its impact on a largely residential street.
The proposal calls for the creation of a three-story, 16,000-square-foot building at a vacant lot at 32 Abeel St. (The site sits atop a steep slope above the Strand and only two stories will be visible from Abeel Street.) The building would house an authentic Irish pub, a 171-seat theater, classroom and office space and a small gift shop. Supporters of the project say it will provide a central location to plan and perform ICCHV programs, ranging from traditional Irish music, dance and sports to the annual Shamrock Run and the Hooley on the Hudson.
From the start, the project has been dogged by opposition from neighbors who say the proposed building is simply too big and that a lack of parking spots would lead to center visitors blocking narrow streets and parking in driveways. According to the city’s zoning code, the building should have 55 off-street parking spots. The current design provides for just eight. The planning board agreed to a request to waive the parking requirement based on the site’s proximity to the Dock Street municipal lot and a proposal to use shuttle service for major events at the center.
The ICCHV backers first appeared before the planning board in 2012. The original plan faced stiff resistance from neighbors and skepticism from the planning board. In 2016, the group returned with a new design that decreased the footprint of the building on the 0.43-acre lot by adding height. The new plan also added a few parking spots and eliminated a proposed banquet hall at the site.
But the changes failed to placate neighbors who brought an Article 78 proceeding challenging a zoning board ruling that determined the site could be considered part of the West Strand business district, based on its connection to the Strand via a steep footpath. The challenge was dismissed by a state Supreme Court judge.
The plan hit another snag in late 2017 when the city’s Historic Preservation Landmarks Commission denied the center a “notice of action” sign-off in a divided vote. The commission sided with critics of the plan who said the proposed design was too bulky and out of proportion with surrounding buildings in the historic district. The decision put the project on hold until city attorneys ruled that the ICCHV could appeal the decision to the city Zoning Board of Appeals. The ZBA heard the appeal and overturned the HPLC ruling.
ICCHV supporters who spoke at Monday’s planning board meeting noted that the project had been reviewed by no fewer than six separate agencies including the ZBA, HPLC, the state Historic Preservation Office, the Kingston Historic Area Commission and the Ulster County Planning Board. The project has comes before the Kingston Planning Board 18 times since 2012 and members of the board have made two on-site visits to the property.
“The Irish Cultural Center of the Hudson Valley has been in from of the planning board since 2012,” said supporter Katie Dwyer. “I don’t think anyone can claim that they have not given proper time or attention to the project.”
ICCHV attorney Ron Pordy issued a point-by-point rebuttal of opponents’ arguments against the project, noting, for example, that dozens of projects had received the same or far larger parking variances than the one sought by his client. Pordy accused the opposition of using “red herrings, issues that don’t exist, that are only in people’s imaginations” to delay and attempt to derail the project. “There has been an ongoing attempt to demonize this project,” said Pordy.
Those speaking in opposition maintained that the project was still too big and inappropriate to the neighborhood. Owen Harvey, who lives next door to the site and was a plaintiff in the failed Article 78 challenge, said the plan ran counter to a neighborhood revitalization adopted in the 1990s that gives precedence to water-based activities in development. Barbara Scott said that despite the redesign, the proposed building was still too big. “The objection has always been the size of the building,” said Scott. “Not the organization, not the proposed uses.”
In discussing the resolution, planning board members acknowledged that parking was an issue in the neighborhood, but sought to shift responsibility for the issue to city officials who they said had the ultimate responsibility of expanding parking to keep up with an expanding business sector.
“Any new development that’s putting properties on the tax rolls is a positive thing for the city,” said board member Robert Jacobson. “But the Common Council has got to step up their game… we need this stuff done for the city to continue to grow.”