Themes of responsible, “smart” growth took center stage Tuesday as Mayor Steve Noble delivered his third annual address to the Common Council. The mayor expressed optimism about a wave of new private-sector investment and grant funding surging into the city, and acknowledged concerns about gentrification and displacement of established city residents and institutions.
“Our city is growing. And growth can sound scary sometimes,” Noble said. “It might seem easier to remain still, and keep things the way they’ve always been … but that’s how cities crumble.”
Over the course of a 27-minute speech delivered to an enthusiastic crowd, Noble laid out priorities for 2019 including the creation of a new office of grants management to handle a three-fold increase in grant funding from $8.8 million in 2016 to $36.3 million currently. Among the beneficiaries of that largesse, Noble said, would be Dietz Stadium, where plans call for $2.5 million in repairs and upgrades from the $10 million state “Downtown Revitalization Initiative” grant obtained by the city last year.
Noble also pledged “significant movement” on development of The Kingstonian, a large-scale mixed-use development at the corner of Wall and North Front streets in Uptown. DRI money is expected to offset private-sector costs to develop the proposed retail, hotel, condo and parking project. DRI money will also fund restoration projects at Frog Alley and at the Volunteer Firefighters Museum on Fair Street.
Addressing policy goals for 2019, Noble focused in on housing issues. In recent months, concerns over gentrification and housing affordability have spurred an outpouring of activism, including the recent formation of the Kingston Tenants Union to advocate on behalf of the 56 percent of city residents who live in rental housing. Last month, Common Council Majority Leader Rennie Scott-Childress proposed creating new committee on the council to address housing issues. In his speech, Noble acknowledged the anxieties of many long-time city residents feeling the pinch from the real estate boom.
“I’m conscious of the fact that it is becoming increasingly harder to afford to live in our area,” said Noble. “Rents are going up. Houses are selling for record-high prices. Opportunities for home ownership feel out of grasp for so many.”
Noble laid out a response that included using the city’s newly created land bank to create affordable owner occupied housing. Last year, the land bank took possession of 36 properties held by the city for back taxes. This year, Noble said, the bank would begin the work of rehabilitating them and marketing them at affordable prices for first-time homebuyers.
We’ll take on gentrification
Noble also promised “meaningful, realistic policies” to address gentrification and displacement. Noble said that he planned to work with the city’s Human Rights Commission to develop legislation at both the city and county level to address the exploitation of tenants and substandard housing. Noble said among the issues he hoped to address legislatively were “income source discrimination” — the practice of landlords refusing to rent to people using federal Section 8 housing assistance vouchers. Noble also took aim at absentee landlords who allowed their properties to deteriorate to the point where city inspectors were forced to condemn them, leaving tenants homeless. Noble also made reference to landlords who exploited tenants based on their immigration status or evicted renters for complaining about substandard conditions.
“These practices need to end. Access to safe and sanitary housing isn’t negotiable,” Noble said. “Affordable housing doesn’t scare me. Knowing that some of my constituents — our neighbors — are at risk of homelessness or displacement — that’s what scares me.”
Before being elected mayor in 2015, Noble worked as an environmental educator for the city and volunteered on a number of sustainability initiatives. Noble promised Monday to continue the city’s ongoing effort to protect natural resources, develop plans to prepare for climate change and move towards more energy efficient infrastructure. Plans include completing an open space plan for the city, installing new electric vehicle charging stations and developing a composting plan for municipal waste. Noble said efforts to create a “greener” city would extend to Kingston’s parks where a $100,000 capital investment plan will fund upgrades at Kingston Point, Barmann Park, Hutton Park and the city’s dog park.
Noble spoke of progress on the Broadway Streetscape project, a multi-million initiative in the works for three years that bring handicapped accessible curb-cuts, synchronized traffic signals, bike lanes and other improvements to the Broadway corridor. Noble said he expected the project to go out to bid later this year. Other infrastructure improvement projects in 2019 include completion of a storm sewer in Midtown to alleviate flooding beneath the Broadway overpass and paving 15 city streets.