Old county jail property may be used for housing; hearing set for Aug. 11

Legislators are considering a scheme to sell the portion of the Golden Hill county property that includes the old jail to a developer for the purpose of creating housing. It would involve transferring the parcel to a local development corporation (LDC) created for the purpose of identifying an appropriate developer to utilize it. Five “site concepts” have been received for converting the land to mixed-income housing. The Aug. 11 public hearing is needed before a determination can be made that the land is no longer needed for county purposes.

According to David Donaldson, the board of this LDC would have five members, with two selected by legislators, two by county executive Ryan, and “one from the outside.” Proceeds from the sale would flow back to the county, Donaldson explained, but the structure allows more input into how the land would be used. Using the bidding process, “Anybody can get it. We have a purpose, [and] that’s for housing.”

Referencing the “terrible housing crisis in Ulster County at all levels,” John Parete said that “really looking at” how to re-purpose that tract of land to help residents who are “really in difficulty.” Parete said those groups include senior citizens, those in the workforce, and people with a variety of special needs.

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Brian Cahill, who chairs the legislative committee charged with overseeing housing, said that “everybody’s talking about affordable housing” in Ulster County, but there just isn’t enough of housing in general to go around. Cahill said that there is a high demand for housing of all kinds, ranging from workforce to middle-class homes to townhouses that senior citizens might use to downsize their lives and remain in the area as they age. Citing the speed at which the E-Square building in Kingston was filled up, Cahill observed that “the housing need is not going to go away. There is such a shortage that we could just go on building, and building, and building.”

Cahill said that the LDC board members would make the decision on whether the property gets sold at all after considering the concepts submitted. Pricing of the land could be a “little bit of a wash for the county” by keeping it low enough to provide an incentive to move ahead with whatever proposal is accepted. “It will cost millions to knock down the old jail” and develop needed infrastucture, in Cahill’s opinion. “We’re not looking at dollars, we’re looking at change.”

The most likely scenario is that the jail would be torn down to make room for new construction, although Cahill said that he believes one developer would like to reuse that structure if selected. Donaldson said that the five proposals will not be opened and reviewed until the LDC is formed and its board members named.

Parete said that, if the LDC is established and the land transferred as a “first step,” options for moving forward could include creating a housing authority, or providing some form of incentives to the developer ultimately selected. “Usually [developers] look for consideration to be able to build and rent at less than market value, and often they get a tax break anyway,” Parete explained. “It’s been sitting there pretty much empty since 2006. It’s about time we start to think about what is going on.”

Cahill praised the work of Evelyn Wright, who as the county executive’s deputy is spearheading this effort from that branch of government. The legislator described housing as a “major priority” for all county leaders, evidenced by the level of cooperation between legislative and executive personnel. Pat Ryan was the one who asked legislators to consider resolution 179, which among other things directed an inventory of county-owned lands to ascertain which parcels might be useful in advancing these housing goals; that resolution was passed in May.

That this is only a first step was made clear by the legislators reached for comment. “It could be that nobody’s interested,” said Parete. “I really don’t know what’s going to happen.”

“At this point anything could happen,” said Donaldson.

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