Major construction along the Broadway corridor, more civilian oversight of city police and new laws to fight rising rents are part of Kingston’s 2020 agenda, according to Mayor Steve Noble and leaders of the Common Council. The initiatives, which will be rolled out in the coming months, reflect a boom in state grant funding, as well as a response to increased concerns about affordability and longstanding tensions between Kingston cops and the city’s minority communities.
On Broadway, construction is expected to begin this spring on two projects that will fundamentally change both the look and traffic flow through the heart of Kingston. A $12 million project, delayed for some years but now expected to begin this year, will replace the intersection of Col. Chandler Drive, Albany Avenue and Broadway with a traffic circle. The project is overseen by the state Department of Transportation and will be funded entirely with state and federal highway funds. A related city-funded project calls for the replacement of water and sewer infrastructure beneath the construction site. The project is expected to take two years to complete.
In a separate initiative, the city will oversee the “Building a Better Broadway” project. The proposal is funded with $2 million in state grant funding and another $1 million from city coffers. The project calls for a complete redesign and upgrade of Broadway between Col. Chandler Drive and Grand Street. Noble said the project had already been put out to bid and work could begin as soon as March and the bulk of the work is expected to be done this year. The project includes replacement of all sidewalks on Broadway, synchronized traffic signals, new lane designs to make left turns easier and safer and the installation of a bike lane.
A separate project will realign the intersection of Broadway, Grand Street and Pine Grove Avenue by demolishing the former Planet Wings. That project, paid for with $450,000 from the city’s reserve fund and additional grant funding, will allow drivers to drive directly across Broadway without having to make two turns. New streetscape reconstruction projects on Franklin and Henry streets and Foxhall and Flatbush avenues are currently in the design phase with construction expected to begin next year.
In his State of the City speech, Noble acknowledged that 2020 was likely to be a year of disruption and delays along the Broadway corridor. But, Noble said, the end result would be a faster, safer and more modern route.
“Whether you drive a car, walk, jog, use a wheelchair, skateboard or ride a bike, this Broadway will be built for everyone,” said Noble.
On the legislative front, city residents can expect new laws governing housing and a new civilian board to advise the city’s police commission. Incoming Common Council President Andrea Shaut said she plans to establish two three-member subcommittees that would be charged with examining housing and policing. Shaut said the new subcommittees would examine legislation and best practices in other communities and serve in an advisory capacity to the council’s four standing committees as they weigh new legislation.
“This is not adding another layer to the process,” said Shaut. “They will operate in parallel with the standing committees doing research and helping get information to them.”
One early legislative effort is likely to be the establishment of a nine-member civilian advisory board to the city’s Police Commission. Noble mentioned the proposal in his State of the City Address and both Shaut and Council Majority Leader Rennie Scott-Childress (D-Ward 3) have signaled their support. The board would include representatives from each of the city’s nine wards, appointed by the Common Council. Currently civilian oversight of the Kingston Police Department is handled by a police commission made up of the mayor, the police chief and four appointees chosen by the mayor. Under the city charter, that commission has sole authority over hiring, firing and discipline, and setting departmental policy.
The new proposed board would serve in an advisory capacity to the commission by investigating civilian complaints and passing along recommendations for discipline.
The plan comes at a fraught time for police community relations. Kingston cops have been working without a contract since Noble took office in 2016 and union representatives have cited officers’ dissatisfaction with a perceived anti-police attitude at City Hall. In November, Kingston PBA President Brian Aitkin said that rank-and-file city cops had largely pulled back from some proactive policing measures like field interviews and traffic stops out of sense that officers could not count on support from their command and elected officials. Meanwhile, the activist group Rise Up Kingston and others have accused city officials of not doing enough to address racial profiling and other police misconduct.
Rise Up Kingston late last year submitted a more sweeping package of legislation to be considered by the Council. But many of the provisions were rejected because they would require changes to the City Charter via a public referendum or because they might be construed as an effort to meddle with ongoing arbitration over the union contract.
“We don’t want to do anything that even appears to diminish the power of the PBA or alter the provisions of the contract,” said Ward 3 Alderman Rennie Scott-Childress, the council’s majority leader. “We want [The PBA] to be our partners in thinking about what makes for excellent policing in the City of Kingston.”
Noble acknowledged the tension between his administration, the police and police reform advocates in his New Year’s Day speech. In it, Noble recounted walking past a poster accusing him of turning his back on the police, then arriving at City Hall to find protestors taking him to task for failing to fully embrace their police reform agenda. Noble said he believed hoped the new advisory board, along with a proposal for mandatory training for police commissioners, would address some of those concerns.
“Some of the concepts that have come up would require a charter change,” said Noble. “Whether the Council decides to go down that road or not is up to them. But in the meantime, I think this is something we can do now to make progress towards some of those goals.”
Another legislative priority shared by Noble and council leaders is enactment of new rent regulations under the Emergency Tenant Protection Act. The ETPA was signed into law last year. The new legislation gives upstate communities with a residential vacancy rate below five percent the option to impose caps on rent hikes. The law only applies to rental housing with six or more units built before 1974.
If the Common Council votes to enact the ETPA, and Noble signs it into law, County Executive Pat Ryan would have to appoint a board composed of representatives of every community in the Ulster County that chose to opt into the program. That board would meet annually to set a cap on rent increases. In other communities with rent control, that cap is typically between 1 and 3 percent. A rental vacancy survey commissioned by the city last year was due to be completed later this month. The results will go to the Common Council which is expected to make a decision on whether and how to enact the ETPA.
But while Noble and Shaut have both signaled support for new rent regulations, Scott-Childress said that there was not a consensus on the council regarding the legislation.
“That’s probably going to be somewhat contentious on the council,” said Scott-Childress. “I’m not sure we’re all on the same page there.”
City officials point out that even if the Kingston does opt in to the ETPA, the rent regulations will only cover a portion of tenants living in large apartment complexes. Actually slowing the pace of gentrification and preserving housing affordability will likely require a range of new strategies, from regulation of short-term rental properties to programs to induce developers to create new housing.
Redoing the zoning
The city recently issued a request for proposals seeking a consultant to begin the process of completely rewriting Kingston’s zoning code. Noble said the zoning code changes, which are likely to be a few years off, would encourage the development of more and more types of housing in the city. Noble said that the city would also continue programs like the Kingston Land Bank aimed at getting city residents out of rental units and into their own homes. “2020 is going to be a very busy year in terms of housing policy,” said Noble.
Even more significant change could be on the horizon if the council opts to reopen the city charter. The charter, which is effectively the city’s constitution, was passed hastily in the 1990s following an abortive effort to shift to a city manager form of governance. In recent years activist groups, and even Noble at times, have complained that the document gives too much power to the mayor. Shaut said at some point during her four-year term, she hoped to appoint a commission to study the charter and recommend potential changes.
Any change in the charter will require a public referendum. Shaut said that she had no specific agenda for charter changes, but she believed the document was past due for review. “Typically a charter is looked at every six or seven years, ours hasn’t been looked at in 25 years,” said Shaut. “Even if we just have a committee look at it and say, ‘We don’t think we need to make any big changes’ I think it’s time to take a look at it.”