Members of the public had a chance Monday evening to express their opinions on a proposed zoning change that would help clear the way for the Kingstonian, a large commercial, residential and hotel complex proposed for Uptown Kingston.
The hearing before the Common Council’s Laws and Rules Committee on Monday, Aug. 12 lacked the drama of previous hearings on the Kingstonian project, which have featured bullhorns, chanting crowds and angry exchanges between project supporters and opponents.
But speakers remained divided on whether the project being pitched for the edge of Kingston’s historic Stockade District would contribute to economic growth, or simply accelerate the pace of gentrification.
If approved and built, the Kingstonian would occupy two sites on either side of Fair Street Extension in Uptown Kingston. The corner of North Front and Wall Streets would hold 129 units of newly constructed market-rate housing and a 420-space indoor parking structure. The garage would be operated and maintained by the developers and include 250 public parking spots.
On the Fair Street side, a brick warehouse owned by project co-developer Brad Jordan would be demolished. The new structure would be built to incorporate some elements of the original Kingstonian hotel on the site and serve as 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 New Windsor-based JM Development Group, is being funded by $46 million in private investment and another $ $6.8 million in state grants.
The zoning issue arose earlier this year when the city’s planning board, which is serving as lead agency on the project’s environmental review, pointed out that one parcel on the site sits outside Uptown’s mixed-use overlay district (MUOD). Instead, the former Elena’s diner at 51 Schwenk drive is zoned for commercial use. The overlay district was formed in 2005 to encourage the redevelopment of vacant former department stores and other commercial buildings into mixed residential and commercial uses. The developers have asked the Common Council to extend the overlay district to take in the former diner.
At Monday’s hearing, some speakers noted that the Kingstonian proposal appears to be at odds with the purpose of the overlay district, which was meant to encourage adaptive reuse of existing buildings, rather than new construction.
“It seems to me that that this project as contemplated is well beyond what the zoning of the City of Kingston contemplated,” said Liz Miller. “What was contemplated more was renovating existing small spaces for new uses, not creating massive new structures.”
Sarah Wenk said that she believed city officials were under “enormous political pressure” to get the project approved. But, she said, pushing through the project without adequate review could do irreparable harm to the historic district.
“This project will change the city forever,” said Wenk. “There can’t be a corner cut or a shortcut taken.”
Supporters of the project, including commercial realtor Joe Deegan, cited the potential economic benefits in the form of jobs, investment and new residents of transforming an underutilized piece of Uptown. Jane Eisenberg said that the project would provide badly needed housing for middle-class seniors looking to downsize from single-family homes while remaining in the city.
“For years Kingston was kept stable by retirees from IBM who stayed around because we loved this area,” said Eisenberg. “Now we need housing, we need something with an elevator, we need something with a parking space, we need something with a washer-dryer. And right now that doesn’t exist in the city.”
Any action by the council on the rezoning request will have to wait until the planning board makes a decision on the scope of the environmental review of the project. The planning board will hold a public hearing on that issue on Monday, Aug. 19 at 6 p.m. in Common Council chambers.
Planners have already asked developers to produce a series of studies on how the project might impact traffic, infrastructure and other issues. The board could decide to accept those studies as sufficient and move on to site plan review. Alternatively, the board could issue a “declaration of environmental significance,” triggering a much longer review process with multiple rounds of public comment and further research by consultants chosen by the city’s Planning Department.
Editor’s note – the previous version of this story got a few things wrong: The current Herzog warehouse will be demolished, not converted, and the MUOD law was passed in 2005, not the late 1990s.