Battle lines were drawn in the matter of the city’s most divisive development proposal in years when more than 200 people turned out for a public hearing Wednesday night on the proposed Kingstonian project.
While members of the city’s business community came out strong in support of the proposed housing, parking and retail complex in the Stockade District, affordable housing advocates and other activists called for the city’s planning board to reject the $52 million project, claiming that it would fuel gentrification and lead to Kingston’s poorest residents being pushed out of their homes.
The proposed Kingstonian project would occupy two sites on either side of Fair Street extension in Uptown Kingston. One site, on the corner of North Front and Wall Streets would hold 129 units of market rate housing and a 420-space indoor parking structure. The plan states that 250 of those parking spots would be set aside for the public. On the Fair Street side, a brick warehouse owned by project co-developer Brad Jordan would be converted into a 32-room boutique hotel. The proposal also calls for 8,000 square feet of retail space, an open-air plaza and a pedestrian bridge linking the site to Kingston Plaza. The project headed up by Jordan and Poughkeepsie-based JM Development Group is funded with $46 million in private investment and another $ $6.8 million in state grants.
The April 10 hearing before the planning board at City Hall comes as the board is weighing the scope of the environmental review process for the Kingstonian. Developers are currently compiling studies of the project’s potential impact on traffic, archaeological resources and other issues brought up since the project was first proposed in 2017. The board could accept those studies as sufficient and allow the project to proceed with what’s known in state environmental quality review act parlance as a “negative declaration of environmental impact.” Alternatively, the board could issue a “positive declaration” and require developers to produce a full environmental impact statement (EIS). The EIS process would allow the public and involved agencies to identify potential negative environmental impacts from the project. Developers would then have to provide answers, backed by data, addressing how all of those impacts would be eliminated or mitigated. The process typically takes several years.
The hearing before a packed house in the Common Council chambers was preceded by a rally on the City Hall steps where about 60 Kingstonian opponents voiced objections to the project and called for more resources to be directed towards affordable housing. The rally included speakers from the activist groups Citizen Action of New York State, The Kingston Tenants Union and Rise Up Kingston. Speakers argued that the development was geared towards wealthy outsiders who would inevitably push out longtime city residents and businesses.
“We demand that the planning board take into account how the Kingstonian will affect real Kingstonians,” said Rise Up Kingston organizer Lisa Royer.
Inside the council chambers, where activists marched in chanting, the “The rent is too damn high!” JM Development principle Joe Bonura Jr. kicked off the hearing with a presentation highlighting changes to the project made based on input from historic preservation groups and other community stakeholders. Bonura said the exterior changes were modeled on Uptown landmarks, including the Montgomery Ward store that once occupied the site and the former Stuyvesant Hotel on nearby Fair Street. Bonura also stressed the Kingstonian’ status as an “urban infill project” that would simply restore a parcel that had been built upon previously and said the Kingstonian would fill a “missing tooth” in the neighborhood’s architecture. The site, which in addition to Montgomery Ward once housed a city-run parking structure, has been an open-air city-owned parking lot since 2009 when the aging garage was torn down due to safety concerns. Three previous efforts to redevelop the site failed for lack of interest from developers.
“We feel that we finally have the right team and the right project to make something happen,” said Bonura.
Supporters of the plan included representatives from the Ulster County Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Kingston Uptown Business Association who said the project would bring new consumers, new revenue and new vitality to the neighborhood. Several supporters said that the Kingstonian would provide needed housing for its target demographic, seniors looking to “age in place” and young professionals. Supporters of the project also warned that an exhaustive environmental review taking years to finish could kill the project — and send the message to other developers that the city was not interested in their business.
“This is Kingston’s Amazon moment,” said one Uptown property owner referring to the internet retail giant’s recent withdrawal from a plan to locate a headquarters in New York City. “We don’t want to repeat that, where 1,000 vocal opponents killed 25,000 six-figure jobs and 100,000 other jobs.”
Most of the speakers either called on the board to support the project, or reject it. One of the few who addressed the issue of the scope of the environmental review was Giovanna Righini. Righini resigned her post on the City’s Heritage Area Commission to protest Mayor Steve Noble’s decision not to reappoint two members of the Historic Landmarks Preservation Commission who had publicly argued for a full environmental impact statement. At the hearing, Righini argued that the Kingstonian’s size and potential impact on the neighborhood demanded a more exhaustive review process.
“It is important to allow public participation in anything that affects the community on this grand of a scale,” said Righini. “It is just as important in helping the developers to get it right.”
Some opponents of the plan, meanwhile, called on the board to reject the Kingstonian proposal outright. Others demanded that affordable housing be included in the project. Several noted that the project would only contribute to an ongoing crisis of affordability in the city in general and Uptown in particular.
“This is not being built for us,” said Kingston Tenants Union co-founder Rashida Tyler. “We need equitable development, we don’t need enclaves. Luxury housing is not a necessity. Sorry.”