West Hurley Elementary developers square off with residents

Engineer Richard Praetorius points out wells and septic. (Photo by Violet Snow)

Neighbors of the long-vacant West Hurley Elementary School finally met face-to-face with the developers who are seeking to buy the school buildings and convert them into 46 one-bedroom apartments, to be rented at market value. A substantial audience crowded into the West Hurley firehouse on April 17 to ask questions and express, in most cases, objections to the proposed project, which they fear will have negative effects on well water, stormwater, traffic, and the environment.

Kerry Danenberg and Kenan Gunduz were unable to answer many of the questions posed, saying they are still doing studies in preparation for purchasing the property from the Onteora Central School District for their Cedar Development East II project. Danenberg and Gunduz own homes locally but are based in Brooklyn, where they have developed apartments and a brewery/sound studios/performance space in the neighborhood of Bushwick.

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Danenberg, with his wife Sarah sitting beside him, expressed nervousness about facing a hostile audience, who had spoken out against the project in recent weeks. He described his career as a builder and talked about the couple’s house in High Falls, showing pictures of their son engaged in beekeeping and their daughter with a rescue horse. He went on to rebut the reports of residents of a property he developed on Bleecker Street in Manhattan, saying the tenants who opposed the renovation had fought back by reporting existing violations in the building and then refusing admission to the people who were coming in to fix them. “It was all a game not to pay rent,” said Danenberg. He was about to have his legal team detail the alleged impropriety of the violations, but audience members urged him to move on to answering questions. 

Gunduz described the current project’s goal as “to build good-quality, market-rate housing. We’re not seeking subsidies or any public money. We won’t go outside the building envelope, but we’ll revitalize two buildings and return them to the tax rolls. It will be environmentally sound. We have a team of local professionals working on engineering, and we’re working with county and state authorities to get us answers.”

Peter Humphries, virtually the only neighbor to express support for the project, said the area is lacking in rentals, and locals are getting pushed out. “I would hope you listen to everybody, follow the rules, respect our land, and give people who need it a place to live. It’ll increase values and make the area more thriving.” 

Bob Bloomer observed that when he went to put in a house in 2007, he drilled a well that was over 360 feet deep. The test well recently drilled by the developers went beyond 450 feet. He posed numerous questions on why the project needed a third well, how big the septic will be, and other topics from drainage to asbestos. 

Gunduz said the existing wells had been shown to yield insufficient water for the project’s use plus a required backup. Saugerties engineer Richard Praetorius said the septic system will not increase in size, based on flow estimates that include the use of water-saving devices. When asked about the location of the wells and septic, Praetorius removed two cakes from a table in the front of the room and removed the tablecloth, which was printed with a map of the property and surrounding area. Two men held up the tablecloth as he pointed out the locations.

Paul Weinschenk spoke about devastation to his property following a storm and said drainage is already poor in the area, with an undersized pipe passing under Route 28. He fears the project would make the drainage problem even worse. Other neighbors spoke of wells running dry in response to various changes, and one said her water system lost pressure on the day the developer’s well was drilled.

“Do you realize one single aquifer is supplying all our wells?” asked Jana Martin. “We have a  lot of serious concerns about the environmental and community impact. We don’t believe you’ve done your due diligence yet. If something comes up, how are you going to review it and make sure the community, who took time to come out, are going to be informed and involved?”

Michael Moriello, attorney for the project, said various agencies will participate in the design and permitting process, and the developers will be submitting information to the town planning board. “There will be public hearings, but we’re still doing studies. A hydrogeologist has been hired, an endangered species expert, an archeologist, an architect. The studies will be vetted by the planning board and the public.” 

Speaking from the heart

When asked what portions of the 36 acres of woods on the site would remain untouched, Gunduz replied, “We’re committed to doing it, but we can’t answer that yet.” He said the developers are aware of the asbestos and mold problems in the buildings and plan to hire experts to do the remediation. Questions regarding traffic, specifically along the narrow road that passes through the neighborhood enroute to the school, remained unanswered, as no traffic study has been done. State transportation officials have made it clear that a back exit to Van Dale Road is impractical due to topography.

Bill McKnight inquired whether the developers had plans to build beyond the apartment complex, referring to rumors about email conversations with town supervisor John Perry about “a beer hall, music venue, and brewery.” 

Gunduz replied that as there’s no road access to the back part of the acreage, “there’s nothing we’re considering at the moment. If anything else is planned, it would have to go through the same public review process.”

Perry clarified that the developers had asked him if there were locations in town such as an old barn that might be suitable as a beer garden. The supervisor conferred with the town’s code officer and building inspector, but he said town officials did not “conspire” with the developers.

When asked what the rent will be, the developers said they don’t know yet, but it will be market-rate.  

Towards the end of the meeting, Bob Biamonte said, “People here spoke from the heart, and those folks really helped us see we’re about to make a huge mistake.” He referred to the developers’ presentation earlier that mentioned a change in plans for a Brooklyn project that ended up becoming an arts center. “Maybe you gotta rethink this one. There are just too many problems. Re-approach us with a different plan. We don’t believe this makes sense.”

There are 2 comments

  1. Peter R Baker

    I was on the original OCS Advisory Committee tasked with review of the West Hurley campus. There were a few proposal made but nothing concrete. One that I thought served the community best consisted of re-purposing the Levin to a Community Center. The Center wasn’t completely defined but some of the suggestions were a food pantry, a satellite medical clinic, a satellite town office, senior activities, after school activities and meeting room(s). The property to the back of the Levin building could be groomed to include walking trails with exercise stations along the way.

    Because of its age and architecture it was felt that HISTORICAL status should be applied for. It was suggested that the building be re-purposed as a museum for local community history and natural history.

    The committee was disbanded before anything was decided on.

    As an individual I strongly believe that the Ryan building would best serve the community in a “historical” capacity as a small museum with a historical designation. The Levin building has more options available, senior apartments being but one of them.

  2. Jane Martin

    It was great to see the Woodstock Times at this meeting. A few things need to be clarified, however. The 431 Bleecker Street building in question is not in Manhattan, but in Brooklyn. The building remains fraught with dangerous building code violations, as do many other Danenberg and Gunduz properties. The “reports of residents of a property he developed on Bleecker Street” (actually, he didn’t develop it, he bought a functional building with tenants and proceeded to run it into the ground and terrorize the tenants) are actually detailed and documented code violations, not hearsay. We stopped Danenberg from running down the clock on an hour-long meeting because we wanted to know about his intentions with West Hurley Elementary, not listen to him scapegoat his own tenants for scapegoating him — which they didn’t. That ongoing rent strike at 431 Bleecker St. is an effort to hold him accountable — after countless, less drastic efforts have not worked. Now, instead of fixing the building, he is counter-suing those tenants.

    What if something went wrong at Cedar East — would he blame the tenants here too? He apparently considered all of us so outside his target demographic for his “market rate” rentals that it did not even occur to him that some of us, or at least our friends and relatives, might wind up being prospective tenants as well.

    Moment after moment, including the fact that he brought those gigantic sheet cakes, Danenberg proved himself tone-deaf and clueless. By the end of the meeting, that seemed to be the point. The takeaway was that Danenberg and his team came up to ply the town of West Hurley with two sheet cakes (one chocolate, one vanilla), plonked on a tablecloth printed with that unviable site plan, which we then had to move in order to actually discuss the site plan. They had few answers to our many questions, knew less than many at the meeting, and the only things they were well rehearsed at were trying to present themselves as people who “loved the country.” And Danenberg made sure to tell us he was just a humble weekend carpenter — as if to “relate” to all of us humblefolk. They also made sure to use the word “transparent” a lot, as if somehow we would not see through it.

    Were Cedar East were allowed to go forward, it would be a disaster — as many at the meeting spelled out for the developer, citing massive water, drainage, road, septic and other issues. Those reassurances that “experts” are reviewing aspects of the development ring hollow: the “endangered species expert” is someone he hires frequently — anything but impartial; the archeologist is so poorly acquainted with the area that he designated quarry tailings as an unusual archeological find. Behind the curtain, despite those cakes, Cedar East would be a mistake for Hurley — Bob Biamonte was right in that regard. But please let’s not invite Danenberg to come back with a Plan B, unless it involves his giving up Cedar East entirely. Leave the West Hurley Elementary School to those with better ideas and a community-oriented, environmentally responsible approach.

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