After 20 months of review, hundreds of public comments and a 17-minute reading of the resolution calling for Rupco’s Landmark Place project’s site plan and special use permit to be granted final approval, the crucial number at Monday night’s Kingston Planning Board meeting was three.
That was the number of planning board members that voted against the plan to turn the former city alms house into a complex that would hold (after a new building was put up) 66 units for senior citizens and people with special needs, including the homeless. Landmark Place’s failure to get site plan approval places the project’s future in serious doubt. It’s a strong possibility the agency could file an Article 78 lawsuit against the city seeking to have the vote overturned by a judge.
Tuesday afternoon, Rupco, which paid $950,000 to the county for the building in a sale which closed in April, made the following statement on the planning board’s vote. “The Planning Board’s vote last night was unexpected, unexplained and unlawful. We are reviewing our options,” Rupco CEO Kevin O’Connor wrote in an email.
Voting in favor of it were board Chairman Wayne Platte Jr., whose unenviable job it was to read the lengthy resolution into the public record, and Robert Jacobsen. Voting against it were Vice Chairman Charles Polacco, Bridget Smith-Bruhn and Jamie Mills. No member gave any explanation of why they voted the way they did.
The negative result seemed unexpected by everyone in the Common Council chambers, including the eight or so people from the neighborhood surrounding the 300 Flatbush Ave. alms house site who spoke, most seemingly resigned to its passage, against it.
“We feel this is a good project, but not a good spot,” said neighborhood resident Paul Casciaro. “What the planning board has to decide is do the needs of 66 outweigh the needs of thousands.”
An equal number of people, many of them residents of Rupco housing who described how the not-for-profit housing agency provided them with places to live they could afford, spoke for it.
“There are thousands of homeless people and thousands of at-risk seniors in our community,” said Tasyka DeRosalia, a property manager for Rupco. “The only thing that’s going to fix it is additional housing. That’s the only thing.”
Kingston resident Joe DiFalco urged the board to reject the site plan, saying the city had enough affordable housing as it is. “Make Rupco eat this property.”
There was a bit of foreshadowing, perhaps, from Rupco attorney Mike Moriello. Before the resolution was read, Moriello spoke of a potential “misunderstanding of what the [planning board’s] job entails. It’s not this board’s province to weigh the popularity of a project.”
After the vote was taken, O’Connor, project architect Scott Dutton and Moriello sat stone-faced in defeat. (All declined comment.) City assistant corporation counsel Dan Gartenstein herded the board into a closed-door meeting after the meeting, set specifically to vote on Landmark Place, was adjourned.
Monday’s vote was the latest obstacle for the project. In June 2017, the Common Council was set to vote on a zoning change necessary for the project to move forward to the final stage of planning board review. The site had been zoned for single family use. Rupco lobbied the city to change its status to multi-family to allow the project to move ahead. Backers of Landmark Place argued that a zoning change would be needed for any proposed redevelopment of the site; denying approval to the Rupco project would place the city in danger of a federal housing discrimination lawsuit.
Opponents on the council, including then-Majority Leader Bill Carey, argued that the county-owned site could be put to better use if zoned commercially. Other opponents of the zoning change said they wanted to delay any action until after the city had had time to revamp its zoning code in accordance with a recently completed comprehensive plan.
The zoning change appeared headed for approval by a narrow margin until about a week
before the vote, when neighbors of the proposed project submitted a petition that invoked a little-used section of the city code that requires a seven-vote supermajority on the council to approve any zoning changes that are opposed by owners of 20 percent of the property bordering or fronting on the parcel in question. With little time to vet the petition, city attorneys recommended that the council use the seven-vote standard with the understanding the ultimate outcome would likely be decided in state Supreme Court. The council voted 5-4 in favor of the zoning change, failing to meet the supermajority standard and for the time being shelving Rupco’s request.
Rupco immediately filed a lawsuit challenging the city’s decision to accept the petition and impose the supermajority requirement. In December 2017, state Supreme Judge Richard Mott sided with the housing nonprofit, ruling that the city’s action had been “arbitrary and capricious.” Mott ruled that the petition had been improperly witnessed and that the signatories did not meet the statute’s requirements to invoke the supermajority rule. Mott’s ruling cleared the way for the planning board to finish its review and then vote on Landmark Place.
With additional reporting by Jesse J. Smith.