After a year-long, pandemic-caused delay, the City of Kingston is moving ahead on two projects designed to making walking and biking safer and greener on two Midtown streets that have long suffered neglect. Located near George Washington Elementary School, whose students regularly walk to the Everette Hodge Center for an after-school program, Franklin Street is having its sidewalks replaced and trees planted in the “Complete Streets” project. Henry Street is getting the same in its “Safe Routes to School” project. (The streets run parallel to each other and are located a block apart.) The two projects are described on the Engagekingston.com site, including timelines, with construction due to begin on Henry Street in the spring and on Franklin next summer.
“We are making investments in infrastructure across the City of Kingston, and especially in the heart of our Midtown community, to provide safe, equitable streets to all who travel there — students on their way to/from school, those biking or using public transportation, and communities that have been historically underserved, including people of color and those with disabilities,” wrote Mayor Steve Noble in an e-mailed statement. Alluding to controversial aspects of the projects, which have prompted some pushback from the public, he added, “In order to make these vital improvements, change is inevitable. But I believe these systemic changes in the way we approach our roads will be for the greater good for the entire community.”
Franklin’s “Complete Streets” Project
At a public meeting held at the Everette Hodge Center on October 6, city engineers and representatives from consultancy M.J. Engineering unveiled a blueprint for the preliminary plan. It’s being funded by a $750,000 grant through the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Climate Smart Communities initiative, matched by $750,000 from the city. New five-foot-wide concrete sidewalks will replace existing ones between Broadway and Pine. Between Pine and Wall, an area that’s in the Fair Street Historic District, the surviving historic bluestone sidewalks will be repaired and preserved, as is required by the city in such a district. Parking, which is currently allowed on both sides of the street, will be confined to the north side, allowing for two wider lanes of traffic (currently, in places where cars are parked on either side of the street and two cars are attempting to pass each other, one has to stop to allow the other to pass); alternate side of the street parking will go into effect on snow days. New crosswalks and bike shared-lane markings will be painted on the street.
Numerous trees — the plan shows 44 of them, although the locations and total number are still being determined — will be planted on the grass buffers between the sidewalks and street. The plan shows all of the 14 existing trees, most of which are mature maples, eliminated, although Kingston communications director Summer Smith said some will be preserved (the plan is still in the preliminary stages). The new concrete sidewalks also will necessitate the removal of fences, hedges, shrubs and other landscaping embellishments on many properties that encroach onto the city’s right of way, which extends 25 feet from the center of the street; the nine feet that extend from the curb will be occupied by the grass strip and sidewalk. Owners would be responsible for re-installing or replanting these features on their properties.
The public submitted comments on the plan to the city through the first week of November, which were posted on the EngageKingston website along with the results of a survey conducted on the project and a blueprint of the plan itself. Substantial areas of historic bluestone sidewalks in good condition survive along much of the street between Clinton and Wall, and some residents expressed concern about the planned removal of them on the block between Pine and Clinton, which is outside the historic district, as well as the destruction of the trees. (Indeed, the shady block between Pine and Fair is one of the most pleasant in Midtown thanks to the lush canopies of the tall maples and a magnificent oak, fronting well-kept historic homes.) Thirteen of the 20 respondents in the survey checked off providing better pedestrian and bike access as a top priority, 12 checked off preserving bluestone, 11, planting more trees, and seven, more on-street parking.
One resident of Franklin told this reporter accessibility was her priority. She said that there were many more pressing issues confronting the city than spending money on bluestone preservation. However, another person’s comment, posted on Engagekingston, suggests the two issues aren’t mutually exclusive. “ADA compliance is very important,” this person wrote. “My husband uses a wheelchair and going over bumpy ground is difficult. That said, surely the historic and enduring city of Kingston, full of artists and concerned citizens, can come up with a solution that saves the beautiful bluestone for [the] often maligned midtown area. We need to add to the beauty of Kingston not take away from it!”
Resident Elizabeth Michel said one of the things that attracted her to the house she recently bought on Franklin Street was the bluestone sidewalk. Michel planned to repair her asphalt driveway and remove the portion that covered the bluestone and called the city to find out if she needed a permit — only to discover the city planned to remove the bluestone sidewalk. Michel posted on Next Door and heard back from other residents who shared her concerns. “We have discussed ways to respond to this,” she said. “We would like more resident participation in the planning process and final design.”
Kingston has formed a Project Advisory Committee consisting of residents, business owners and other neighborhood representatives for the Franklin and Henry Street projects. The PACs have met to review the plans for both projects, but the meetings are not open to the public, so their input is unknown.
In response to the public feedback, the city is considering alternatives. Smith noted in an email that the city is requesting the consultants to submit a cost estimate for preserving the bluestone sidewalks between Pine and Clinton. The bluestone alternative would be presented to the Common Council, which would then decide whether it wanted to issue an additional bond to fund the preservation. To accommodate the existing bluestone, the city is also considering reducing the planned five-foot-width of the new sidewalks to four feet. While initially the public was told five feet was required for ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance, Smith wrote that the ADA requirement could be met with four-feet-wide sidewalks with a five-by-five-foot “passing/turning zone” installed along the sidewalk every 200 feet.
Smaller ornamentals, such as Japanese maple, native dogwood, plum, crab apple and redbud trees will be planted on the south side of the street under the utility lines, while larger thornless honey locust, green vase zelcova, and American elm are planned for the north side, which has no overhead electric lines. Smith said the new trees will have a one-year warranty from the date they are planted, guaranteeing that the contractor will be responsible for watering them the first year. The plan is expected to be finalized in the spring.
The Henry Street Project
The Henry Street “Safe Routes to School” project, which is funded by a $1.3 million grant through the New York State Department of Transportation’s Alternatives Program and $335,000 from the city, has changed significantly since the plan was first introduced at a public meeting held at George Washington school in March 2019. Originally designed to get bicyclists off the street by means of an eight-foot-wide shared pedestrian “side path,” that idea was scrapped as too expensive and ultimately unworkable. A new, less ambitious plan was announced at a Zoom public meeting December 16, 2020, consisting of two new six-foot-wide concrete sidewalks; bicyclists under age 12 would be directed to ride on the sidewalks, while older cyclists would still be consigned to the street. Participants at the meeting were told they could ask a question, but the virtual format was not conducive to the kind of in-depth engagement people had with the project manager, engineers and consultants at the Hodge Center for the Franklin St. project.
In addition, no public survey was conducted for the Henry Street project, and the public has not yet seen the plan; nearly a year after the public meeting, a blueprint for “Safe Routes to School” still has not been posted on the Engagekingston website. Yet implementation of the project is further along than Franklin Street: Smith noted the plan had been finalized and letters were already being sent to property owners about their encroachments — fences, steps, shrubs, and the like — on the nine-foot right-of-way. Meanwhile, the cost of the project has ballooned to $2 million, due to increased construction prices that have occurred in the three years since the grant was received. (The Franklin Street project will also cost more than the allotted budget for a similar reason, Smith noted.)
Smith and Greg Krupp, project manager for both projects, provided some information on the Henry Street plan via email. All existing nine trees, including two mature maples on the north side of the street whose rounded canopies, untouched by Central Hudson, provide luxuriant shade in an otherwise barren, sun-baked stretch of street, will be preserved. Twenty-five new trees will be planted, with the species to be determined in consultation with the Tree Commission. The street would retain its current configuration of parking on both sides and two-way traffic. A bike shelter would be added at the school.
As on Franklin, much of Henry Street’s sidewalks between Fair and Clinton consist of historic bluestone. Lobbying by the public to save them — the initial plan called for the replacement of all historic sidewalks with concrete — and the subsequent discovery that the Fair Street Historic District extended between Wall and part of the block toward Pine on the north side of Henry compelled the Common Council to pass a resolution to bond an additional $115,000 to preserve that portion of bluestone sidewalk, along with a small area across the street that still supports a limestone hitching post. (Full disclosure: this reporter was one of those lobbyists.)
The slabs will be reset in a bed of stone dust or polymeric sand, which will be above a layer of concrete, according to Krupp. This will allow the slabs to be removed and reset in the future if need be, he said.
The most intact and best preserved stretches of bluestone sidewalk on Henry are located on the block between Pine and Clinton — but unlike the situation on Franklin Street, the city is not considering an alternative to preserve it. The south corner of Clinton and Henry is particularly striking: Joe Tremper, who has owned the property for over 50 years, has beautifully maintained the bluestone retaining wall, topped by a perfectly manicured lawn and bordered by several small street trees and a bluestone sidewalk that curves from Clinton around to Henry. Last June, he wrote a letter to the city protesting the removal of the stone sidewalk. The hefty bluestone slabs in front of his property will be removed and reset further down the block (the patches of asphalt and cement in the Fair Street Historic District area on Henry will be replaced with this historic bluestone to harmonize with the existing stone).
That bluestone retaining wall extends almost the entire length of the block to Shryver Street. In fact, Henry between Clinton and Fair is particularly rich in bluestone detailing. Numerous sets of solid bluestone steps, bordered by walls of mortared stone, lead up to porches or down to basements. There is a carved freestanding round step, placed in front of a tall, narrow set of stairs, that’s miraculously still in place after 140 years (a photo from Picturesque Ulster, published in 1893, of Henry Street shows bluestone sidewalks and curbs bordering a dirt roadway; evidently installation of the sidewalk predated the paved street).
Smith wrote that the step, hitching post and other artifacts would be removed and given to the property owners. The hope is that the city will maintain close oversight during the construction process so that the many historic elements giving the street its unique character do not get unnecessarily destroyed, removed or stolen.
Smith conceded that much of the bluestone infrastructure encroaches on the right of way and will be compromised and possibly damaged by the new poured-concrete sidewalk. “The plan attempts to work around most of the bluestone retaining walls and stairs,” Smith wrote. “However, the excavation will be very close to some of the walls/stairs that are within the City’s right-of way, and those in deteriorated condition may be affected by the construction.”
Both projects demonstrate the difficulty and complexity of making sidewalks ADA compliant in a historic city that retains much of its original sidewalk infrastructure and intimate scale predating the automobile age, in which rows of houses cluster close to the sidewalk, leaving little room for grass strips, trees and buffers such as hedges and fences if sidewalks are widened. The new form-based zoning code which consultancy Dover, Kohl & Partners has been commissioned to draw up for the city will address such issues, and some have been calling for the city to delay the projects until the code has been made into law, a process that hopefully will happen next summer.
In an email communication Krupp sent to this reporter last October, he noted that “ADA [compliance] is our biggest restriction and our biggest challenge. The Complete Streets Advisory Council is proposing a sidewalk district that would fund sidewalk work differently. This could potentially allow us to look at different solutions than redoing an entire street on a grant budget. Sidewalks could be redone on a block by block basis, and be more sensitive to the needs of the adjacent landowners.”