“If it were the summertime, we hold it at Dietz Stadium and sell hot dogs on the side”
— Hon. Richard Mott, J.S.C., musing about a location large enough to safely accommodate the crowd at the public hearing to revisit the abandonment of the Fair Street Extension.
Out of 136 people who attended the public hearing at the George Washington Elementary School in Kingston last Wednesday night, January 12, those in opposition to the “partial abandonment” of the Fair Street Extension were outnumbered by more than ten to one by those who supported the plan to hand over a public street 400 feet long and over 164 years old to the developers of the Kingstonian.
Some 95 speakers had signed up ahead of time. Those speaking in favor described the gift of public land from the City of Kingston as either a “transfer” or “partial abandonment.” Those opposed used terms like “surrender” and “theft.”
The city will retain ownership of the land underneath the road. Construction on the surface will belong to the developers, who say they intend to create an improved public space for the enjoyment of visitors to Kingston and locals alike. The city’s planning board is conducting site-plan review of their newly revised plans.
Kingston’s Common Council had signed off last year on the transfer of the street. But a state court rescinded the transfer because of technological irregularities and scheduled the January 12 public hearing.
Because of the pandemic, the city government had attempted in the original meeting to accommodate citizens through both an in-public and virtual hearing simultaneously. City communications director Summer Smith confirmed that the process proved too complex for those tasked to ensure the meeting ran seamlessly.
It had been the city government’s bad luck that one of the speakers whose comments were unable to be heard that first night was Kingston school board president James F. Shaughnessey, a staunch opponent of The Kingstonian. The Ulster County Industrial Development Authority had induced the project well beyond the standard payment in lieu of taxes, a substantial diminution of the school taxes the developer would have otherwise have had to pay. Shaughnessey’s opposition was made even stauncher after allies of the developers led a failed attempt to depose the five-term school-board president.
The rescheduled public hearing in the capacious auditorium of the George Washington Elementary School on Wall Street was of sufficient size to accommodate the crowd. It was the latest skirmish in the years-long pitched battle for a group of Hudson Valley residents — JM Development Group LLC, of Poughkeepsie in partnership with Herzog Supply of Kingston — struggling to realize their dream of a $52-million mixed-use development project, retail and restaurant space, rental units and a hotel at a prime location in the Stockade district.
Developer versus developer
Shaughnessey was one of the plaintiffs in this most recent legal sortie seeking a declaration to invalidate the Common Council’s adopted resolution of December 7 “to partially abandon the Fair Street Extension.” The other seven plaintiffs listed were limited liability companies connected to Neil Bender, scion of New York City-based William Gottlieb Real Estate, one of the largest real-estate companies in the Big Apple. Bender, owner of seven properties in the Stockade district, had taken several prior legal actions against the developers of The Kingstonian, who have their own array of LLCs.
A courtroom drama reminiscent of a shiver of sharks in the wake of a chum boat followed. An octet of lawyers were in the courtroom for this most recent lawsuit. The Hon. Supreme Court judge Richard Mott cautioned Barbara Graves-Poller, corporate counsel for the City of Kingston, that the allegations before him “had, quite frankly, a disquieting effect on [his] psyche.” The judge urged the gathered counsels to hammer out their own understanding without the court’s intervention, warning that the alternative was sure to be “protracted and costly to everyone” involved.
Mott left the lawyers alone in his courtroom for an hour to hash out the contours of their own deal. When the justice returned, all had agreed upon a plan to hold the flawed public hearing again — this time, in-person only, a solution that must have pleased Graves-Poller, since further technical difficulties might have triggered yet another replay of the whole sorry courtroom theater. While each previous lawsuit brought by Bender’s lawyers has been dismissed, at least one being referred to as “irrational, arbitrary and capricious,” this one had the judge speaking ominously to defendants’ ears. “Make no mistake about it,” said Mott sternly. “If I find for the petitioners in this case, there will be financial sanctions.”
In any case, the transfer the Fair Street Extension to the developers was rescinded. Another hearing was scheduled.
Some of what they said
At this event last Wednesday, backers of The Kingstonian came out in force to drag Neil Bender though the mud and to attest to the good character of local developer Brad Jordan.
The pro-Kingstonian crowd read from prepared speeches from their cellphones, wherein nostalgia for Woolworth’s, Montgomery Ward, and high-end boutique businesses figured prominently.
Ward Todd of the Ulster County Regional Chamber of Commerce said the “partial abandonment” would result in “… a respite, if you will. To help make Kingston a more pedestrian city.”
Jennifer Fabiano, also with the Ulster County Chamber, invited the crowd to imagine “… walking with two young girls, or a baby, and you need a changing table, or walking with an elderly relative and you need a bathroom …. What do you do?”
Walkability and public restrooms in the Stockade district came up in so many comments that it began to sound like the only way to walk around or to find a public bathroom was to build a parking structure and 142 apartments.
Comments by mayor Steve Noble’s police commission member the Reverend Donald Mapes carried the night, with the crowd breaking out into spontaneous applause. Mapes cast letting The Kingstonian go forward as “taking Kingston out of the Stone Age.” “Just because the city was built in 1654 doesn’t mean we have to live in 1654.” he declared
Opinions against the Fair Street Extension giveaway came largely from legal representatives of Neil Bender. Attorney Victoria L. Polidor of a Rhinebeck law firm employed by Bender chastised the city for organizing “an in-person, super-spreader event,” while Andrew Lessig of the Poughkeepsie law firm Lewis and Greer attacked what he could: The mayor. The transfer. The tax break.
But the crowd seemed to know they were Neil Bender’s lawyers.
One of the only non-lawyer voices speaking against “the handoff,” Cheryl Schneider, seemed rattled as she spoke against the transfer, predicting a $100-million windfall on a $6-million investment by the developers. The room erupted into derisive laughter and began to heckle her before being quieted by alderperson-at-large Andrea Shaut. The crowd continued to talk amongst themselves as Schneider recounted the first colonization of the indigenous peoples of the Esopus by the European settlers. “We are now in the second resettlement of Kingston,” she claimed.
Though Schneider continued to talk after her allotted three minutes were up, it was clear that she had lost the room.
The spotlight now focuses on the planning board, which is scheduled to meet Tuesday, January 18 at 6 p.m. Discussion of The Kingstonian is not on its agenda.
This meeting will be live-streamed at the City of Kingston YouTube channel: For participation, click https://us02web.zoom.us/j/85147428353?pwd=R2Z2cDVHNmdlT2RveVNsbVVkUzdKdz09 Passcode: 3mT783Nv. Or telephone: dial (for higher quality, dial a number based on your current location) US: +1 646 558 8656 Webinar ID: 851 4742 8353 Passcode: 95613657