Fourteen years ago, Kingston Landing Development, LLC (KLD), a subsidiary of AVR Realty, closed on a 500-acre site along the Hudson River that was an abandoned cement works. The company planned to construct 1,658 housing units on the land, two-thirds of which is located in the City of Kingston and the remaining acreage in the Town of Ulster. After a multiyear review, the project was approved, but the development never got off the ground, and now the Scenic Hudson Land Trust – which played an important role in the KLD’s review process, successfully prodding the developer to incorporate areas of open space in the final plan – has secured the rights to purchase the property.
The property is spectacular and for a long time has functioned as an off-limits recreation center for trespassing ATV drivers, who roar around the moonscape quarries on warm days. Other classes of trespasser are hikers and birdwatchers, of which, I confess, I am one, drawn every spring to the forested ridge overlooking the quarries, which has an abundance of vernal pools from which wood frogs have begun to quack. They’ll be followed later in April by the silvery lilt of returning wood thrushes. In May, pairs of breeding Baltimore orioles and rose-breasted grosbeaks can be seen flitting along the tops of the aging elms. Yet another attraction is a couple of ancient cars mysteriously marooned in the forest, including a De Soto, which each year becomes more covered in vines.
The not-for-profit environmental organization, which is based in Poughkeepsie and has established a number of public-access preserves along the Hudson River, is currently assessing the property, which is scattered with industrial ruins, and raising funds. If the purchase goes through, it would most likely be this summer, said Steve Rosenberg, executive director of the Scenic Hudson Land Trust and senior vice president of Scenic Hudson, Inc.
The property includes more than a mile of Hudson River frontage. “It’s remarkably diverse and complex,” said Rosenberg. “It’s quite natural and beautiful. We see this as an opportunity to take a scarred landscape and work with the community to develop a vision for how it can be transformed into an outstanding recreational and tourism-supporting resource.”
He added, “There are very few parcels over 500 acres with waterfront, and we’re guessing this is the only one mostly within the limits of a city. It lies immediately across from the 16-mile Estates District [now part of the Hudson River National Historic Landmarks District] and has tremendous potential for contributing to the educational, social and historical fabric of the community, which is of great importance to us and our mission.”
Rosenberg declined to state the proposed purchase price, and a call to Kingston Landing Development vice president Thomas Perna by this reporter was not returned. In a Scenic Hudson press release, Perna was quoted as saying in part that KLD “is excited by Scenic Hudson’s interest in the property and will be working closely and diligently with all concerned to move this acquisition forward.”
Kingston mayor Steve Noble lauded Scenic Hudson’s proposed purchase. “Taking 500 acres of previous industrial land, as well as beautiful forest with unique quarries, and getting it into the hands of the public to turn it into an urban recreational area would create a destination for those in the whole region,” he said.
Noting that KLD currently pays $66,000 annually to the city in property taxes, Noble suggested that the economic activity resulting from the new Scenic Hudson preserve would make up for the loss of that revenue. “It would drive tourism to Kingston. People would spend money at local shops and restaurants, and this would also continue to help the value of properties around it,” he said. Just as importantly, “It would improve the quality of life of residents who live here now.”
Noble speculated that the housing crisis of 2008 might have changed the model for the KLD project, which included hundreds of condominiums. “The market couldn’t support that type of housing, mostly because the site includes a huge amount of infrastructure, including all new sewers and roads,” he said. In contrast, a park would have a far smaller environmental footprint, possibly incorporating solar power and composting toilet facilities, he said.
Prior to becoming a cement works in 1957, the property had supported brick manufacturing and ice harvesting. The Hudson Valley Cement facility closed in 1985 and was purchased by Tilcon Minerals, which used a former mule barn as an office, before being bought by KLD in 2005. Noble said that he doubted if there would be an issue with hazardous waste. “During the environmental review process [for KLD], I don’t believe they found a lot of hazards,” he said, adding that “Scenic Hudson is spending the next 100 days on due diligence to make sure there are no hidden surprises.”
Given the scale and complexity of the project, Scenic Hudson would likely take a phased approach, with a priority being a mile-and-a-half promenade along the Hudson River, “which is already approved and mostly designed,” said Rosenberg. “It would be great to advance that” if possible while other portions of the site are under development as a park.
The walkway was planned under the previous city administration, which had acquired grant funding for the project, and the developer was supposed to match. Noble said that the city still has access to the $1.2 million state grant to build a stone-dust path, with another $200,000 in funding available to pave the trail. (The pathway would be part of the Empire State Trail, a planned 750-mile paved trail in New York State announced by Governor Cuomo in 2017.) Brenna Robinson, director of the city’s Office of Economic and Community Development, said that the state has extended the timeline for the grant, which would need to be matched by the city.
The walkway would connect with East Kingston on the north and with North Street in the City of Kingston on the south. Although North Street, which leads to the Hutton Brickyards event venue, is currently not accessible to the public, Noble said that the city-owned road would be open during the day and necessary repairs made to it once the promenade along the river was built.
Scenic Hudson’s plan for the park would include some type of conservation and interpretative signage or other programming preserving its industrial history, said Rosenberg. “Part of the job we’ve undertaken is to get our arms around the property and understand the scope and scale of the remaining infrastructure,” he said. “It’s all part of the package of conserving the historic aspects.” Another former industrial site owned by Scenic Hudson is the West Point Foundry Preserve at Cold Spring, which dates back to well before the Civil War. The organization worked with an industrial archaeologist as part of its commitment to “the community to get a better understanding of that history” before “landing on a specific approach or way of thinking about the site.” He said that collecting stories from people who worked at the cement works might be part of the historic preservation effort.
Besides the mayor, “Officials within Kingston have expressed great support,” Rosenberg said. “We are looking forward to working with the community once we determine if we are in a position to proceed to develop that vision together. We are raising the funds necessary to complete the purchase, reaching out to potential philanthropic supporters. We believe it’s achievable.”