The Kingstonian — a proposed mixed-use development in the heart of Kingston’s Stockade District — cleared a significant hurdle this week when the city’s planning board ruled Monday, Dec. 16 that developers had adequately addressed in their paperwork the project’s potential negative environmental impacts.
The “negative determination of environmental significance” under the State Environmental Quality Review Act will let developers to avoid a more detailed years-long vetting process. But challenges remain for the controversial proposal, including potential legal action over a zoning official’s determination that the project is exempt from some rules that guide development in Uptown’s Mixed Use Overlay District (MUOD).
The Kingstonian proposal would replace a municipal parking lot bounded by North Front Street, Schwenk Drive and Fair Street Extension with a new building containing 143 apartments, a 400-space parking garage and ground-floor retail space. Across Fair Street Extension, a brick warehouse would be demolished to make way for a 32-unit boutique hotel and additional commercial space. The two sites would be connected by an open-air plaza which would replace Fair Street Extension. An elevated walkway across Schwenk Drive would connect the project to Kingston Plaza.
The project was designed in response to a request for proposals issued by the city, which has sought to redevelop the parking lot site for over a decade. JM Development LLC, headed by Kingston Plaza owner Brad Jordan and New Windsor-based developer Joe Bonura Jr. have lined up $46 million in private investment for the project. Another $6.8 million will come from state grants.
Since it was unveiled in 2018, the proposal has undergone a series of changes including major changes to the look and design of the buildings and the inclusion of 13 units of affordable housing. At the direction of the planning board, the developers have also carried out studies on potential negative environmental impacts from the project and how they could be mitigated. Among the studies submitted to the board were examinations of the Kingstonian’s visual impact on the surrounding neighborhood as well as its likely impact on traffic, sewer and stormwater infrastructure and potential archaeological resources.
But throughout the process a small group of activists have vigorously campaigned for a positive declaration of environmental significance, arguing that the project’s size and location in the city’s most historic neighborhood merited a more extensive examination of possible harm. Others have expressed outright opposition to the proposal, citing concerns that the development of market-rate housing in the area would accelerate “gentrification” — the displacement of existing residents and businesses.
At the Dec. 16 planning board meeting, just a handful of opponents were on hand to observe the proceedings, which played out with little discussion among board members. Board Chairman Wayne Platte Jr. said the studies submitted by the developers, the changes to the design and the inclusion of affordable housing had allayed his concerns about the proposal. Board Member Mary Jo Wiltshire cited the proposal’s broad support among Uptown business owners and potential to improve two underutilized parcels in the neighborhood.
“A new hotel, an open-air plaza and space for new businesses is a very positive thing for Uptown Kingston,” said Wiltshire.
With the environmental review complete, the planning board’s next task is site plan review, where members will examine details of the design and the construction process. The Kingstonian will also face scrutiny by the Kingston Common Council, which will weigh a request by developers to expand the Mixed Use Overlay District to cover a small portion of the site which is currently located in an adjacent commercial zone.
The developers will also have to convince the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals, and potentially a judge, that the Kingstonian belongs in the MUOD at all. One legal opinion by a lawyer working for the activist group Kingstoncitizens.org and another by a lawyer working for real estate developer Neil Bender argue that the language of the MUOD prohibits new construction in the zone, which was created in the early 2000s to promote adaptive reuse of existing buildings in Uptown Kingston. Both attorneys also argued that the Kingstonian should not be exempt from MUOD rules which mandate all new residential development in the district include at least 20 percent affordable housing.
Bender, who owns four properties in the MUOD as well as an extensive portfolio of real estate in Manhattan and Rhinebeck, has filed an appeal to Kingston Zoning Enforcement Officer Eric Kitchen’s determination in September that the Kingstonian was permitted in the MUOD, and the 20 percent affordable housing rule only applied to adaptive reuse, not new construction.
Attorney Victoria Polidoro, arguing on Bender’s behalf, wrote that if allowed to stand, Kitchen’s ruling would render the city’s zoning code meaningless, encourage property owners in the MUOD to demolish historic properties to make way for more cost-effective new construction and place owners of existing structures in the district at an unfair disadvantage compared with owners of vacant lots. The Zoning Board of Appeals is expected to rule on Bender’s motion early next year.