A request for a zoning change by developers of the Kingstonian complex could give the Common Council an opportunity to bring more scrutiny to bear on the proposed residential, commercial and hotel complex.
But council Majority Leader Rennie Scott-Childress said he sees the request by JM Development Group LLC as an “administrative issue” — one that shouldn’t affect the course of an ongoing planning board review of the project.
The proposed Kingstonian project would replace a municipal parking lot that sits between Schwenk Drive and North Front Street in Uptown Kingston with a three-story building holding 129 units of market-rate housing placed atop a 420-space parking garage. Across Fair Street Extension, plans call for reworking a historic brick warehouse into a 32-room boutique hotel and commercial space. The two sites would be joined by a public plaza on what is now the Fair Street Extension, linking Schwenk Drive with North Front Street. The project by Orange County-based JM Development Group and Kingston Plaza owner Brad Jordan is expected to cost $53 million. Some $46 million of the total cost will be borne by developers while $6.8 million in state grants will pay for the removal of existing infrastructure and other prep work at the site. The project is currently under review by the city’s planning board.
The zoning issue came up relatively late in the review process when developers realized that one section of the project, a parcel at the corner of Fair Street Extension and Schwenk Drive, was not included in the city’s “Mixed Use Overlay District.” The district covers a portion of Uptown Kingston and was enacted in the late 1990s to help revitalize the neighborhood by encouraging the development of ground-floor commercial space with upper-story residential units. The parcel in question, which once was home to Elena’s diner, was instead zoned as a standard commercial space. Developers have asked the Common Council to expand the overlay district to include the parcel.
“In my opinion, this is pretty much an administrative move,” said Scott-Childress, D-Ward 3. “The petitioner simply wants to see a consistent set of rules and sees the overlay district rules as not posing a problem for what they’re trying to do.”
Shaut: ‘I have hesitations’
But Alderwoman Andrea Shaut (D-Ward 9) said she has concerns about both the project and the zoning change request. Shaut is chair of the council’s Laws and Rules Committee that will vote on the zoning change. She is also running unopposed for the position of alderman at large this November. Shaut said that she remained concerned about the lack of an affordable housing component in the Kingstonian proposal. She also questioned why developers had not brought up the zoning issue earlier in the process.
“I have hesitations, personally, about just going ahead with the rezoning,” said Shaut. “But I’m keeping an open mind.”
Shaut said she was waiting to hear from the public, the planning board, developers and other involved agencies expected to speak at a Monday, Aug. 12 public hearing on the zoning change before forming an opinion. The hearing is set for 6:30 p.m. in council chambers at City Hall, 420 Broadway.
According to City Planner Suzanne Cahill, a vote by the council on expanding the overlay district, however, will need to wait until after the planning board determines how to proceed with its state-mandated environmental quality (SEQRA) review of the project. The board must determine whether to accept a series of studies on the potential environmental impacts of the project and how any adverse effects could be mitigated. If the board votes to accept those studies as sufficient, they will issue a “negative declaration of environmental significance” and the project can then proceed to site plan review and eventual approval.
Alternatively, the board can issue a positive declaration of environmental significance. That would trigger a more extensive — usually years-long — review process entailing multiple rounds of public comment and further studies.
The board has previously asked JM Development Group to prepare studies on the project’s impact on the city’s sewer and water systems, traffic, geology and possible archaeological resources at the site. The board also asked the developers to look into possible impact on wildlife and plants and to prepare a visual impact analysis to give an idea of how the buildings would look from various points around Uptown Kingston. Developers are expected to present the results of those studies and hear comments from the public, the planning board and other involved agencies at a second public hearing scheduled for Monday, Aug. 19 at 6 p.m. at City Hall. The board could vote on the environmental significance issue then, or at a later date.
A controversial proposal
The Kingstonian has faced opposition from local activist groups who worry that the development will speed the pace of gentrification in the city and object to the lack of affordable housing in the proposal. Other critics have taken issue with the look of the project and its potential impact on the city’s most historic neighborhood.
Some opponents are looking at the zoning issue as a potential lever to make changes in the proposal. But Scott-Childress said that he did not believe the zoning request was an appropriate vehicle to seek alterations in the project. He compared the issue to a similar zoning change requested to clear the way for RUPCO’s proposed Landmark Place low income housing proposal. In that case, opponents of the plan unsuccessfully lobbied the council to deny the change in an effort to kill the proposal.
“Some people want to see this as a proxy for doing something else,” said Scott-Childress. “It’s the same thing we saw with Landmark Place. We didn’t want to use [a zoning request] as a means of signaling approval or disapproval from a particular project in that case, and I don’t think we should in this case either.”