Plans to greenlight the demolition of the old Ulster County Jail in order to make way for the affordable housing development planned for Golden Hill in Kingston have stalled. The legislature’s Energy, Environment and Sustainability Committee last week halted a proposal to bankroll the demolition with $1.5 million of the county’s total allocation of $34.4 million in federal ARPA funds.
Two skeptical members of the committee, Joe Maloney and Phil Erner, asked wide-ranging questions that went beyond the narrow scope before them: whether to adopt a negative declaration of environmental impact, thus allowing the project go forward.
Deputy county executive Marc Rider and planning director Dennis Doyle, who had been invited to the session, were placed on the defensive.
A vote to move the environmental measure forward was deadlocked. Members Erner and Maloney voted against the negative declaration of environmental impact. Committee chair Manna Jo Greene and member Gina Hanset voted in favor. The fifth member of the committee, Eric Stewart, was not present at the meeting to cast the tie-breaking vote.
It is expected that a floor vote to get the proposal out of the committee and onto the floor will be scheduled for the monthly legislative meeting on Tuesday, May 17.
Who should pay for what?
Matt Colangelo, a resident who lives below the location of the proposed development raised the question of whether ARPA funds should be used for this demolition when the RFP (Request For Proposal) for this project required the developer to pay for the demolition. Why was the county paying for all of it and the developer, Pennrose, paying zero?
A November 6, 2020 press release from the county executive indicated that Pennrose would be “responsible for” demolition of the old jail.
The use of ARPA funds to demolish the jail was made two months before the selection of the developer was even announced with the passage of a resolution amending the capital plan to reflect the ARPA infusion to the county.
The cost for demolition of the jail in 2020 was estimated at just under a million dollars. The amended 2022 capital plan showed the estimated cost had risen by a half-million dollars.
At the committee meeting, Rider noted that the proposal has been passed by four different committees so far.
County staff grilled by the legislators described the current price of construction as extremely high. They blamed delays in approvals from the legislature plus supply-chain issues and costs related to the pandemic.
The jail demolition project requires no new materials. But its estimated cost has gone up half a million dollars.
A deadline approaches
Deputy executive Rider seemed frustrated at times with comments by residents regarding water runoff, the presence of asbestos in the jail, and the lack of public involvement in the design process.
“The only thing I want to say is that some of the comments that were just raised have nothing to do with SEQR (State Environmental Quality Review),” said Rider, clearly mildly irritated. “There are no negative environmental impacts from the demolition of the jail. If asbestos is already there, it will be remediated.
“I would just strongly urge the committee not to postpone this. Whether or not you pass it, there are deadlines that are approaching for funding sources in June for the developer, and they will need to show support, or not, through a negative declaration.”
Mild irritation was nothing compared to the positively abrasive line of questioning which legislator Joe Maloney had in store.
It began innocuously enough. Maloney asked for the date of the appraisal made and the value of the property where the Golden Hill apartment complex was to be built.
After some silence, Dennis Doyle took the question.
“I’m not sure what this has to do with the resolution,” he said.
“We’ve invited you in here to talk about a lot of topics because I don’t think a lot of these topics have been talked about,” replied Maloney.
“We anticipated the value of the [demolition] project was somewhere around 1.6 to 1.8 million…,” offered Doyle.
“Who did the appraisal?”
“The appraisal was done by the developer.”
“The person that we’re going to sell the property to did the appraisal themselves?”
Maloney continued to press, attempting to establish how the cost estimate of the demolition was arrived at and who had provided the estimate. Doyle referred Maloney to the existence of prior quotes submitted in the past for which he did not provide specifics.
How these projects work
Question by question, Maloney zeroed in on the developer.
It was brought to light that Pennrose had hired the consultant to perform the water runoff study, hired the team to perform the traffic study, and put together the community forums, which as Maloney pointed were not the same as the public hearings promised by former legislator David Donaldson.
After a series of answers, Maloney began to lose his composure.
“Who did this runoff study?” Maloney asked. “Was it an independent firm of some sort?”
“I believe it was Chasen,” answered Rider.
“It is. It was Chasen,” confirmed Doyle.
“Was Chasen one of the original developers here?”
“They’re a consultant,” answered Doyle. “An engineering consultant.”
“Hired by whom?”
“They’re hired by the developer,” said Doyle.
“Here we go,” fumed Maloney. “This is what I mean. We get our appraisal done by the developer. We get our runoff study done by the developer. The traffic study. And these people that are eventually going to make money off this are the ones that are telling us that everything is fine …. You know, I say, who’s Chasen? And you say oh, they’re a consulting company, and I say oh, who were they hired by? Oh, the developer! I always have to press and ask and peel away a little further and then we get a different story….
“First of all, that’s county property up there, these residents are already being washed away. So we can take ARPA funds and make a sweeter deal for the developer and get rid of the jail for them? But we can’t take money and make it right for these people who live there? These were reasonable questions. And there was a traffic study? Who did the traffic study, Marc?”
Rider began to explain. “This is how these projects work,” he said.
“No, it’s how it works in this administration, apparently,” interrupted Maloney. “It’s not down the road from your house. C’mon, guys, if we had a thousand independent members of the community listening to this back and forth, do you think they’d be concerned?”
Erner provided his perspective. He felt that the county shouldn’t be taking public property and turning it over to private developing interests at all.
“I think that property ought to remain public,” he said, “and with the possibility of the future residents who will live there to have either the public, the community, as their landlord, if that’s how it has to be, or at least an equity opportunity so that they can become homeowners and not have to rent to this developer that we’re giving this public property to.”