Wednesday’s planning board public hearing on the proposed Kingstonian development project in the city’s Stockade District where the haves clashed with the have-nots was unprecedented on a number of levels.
The crowd was huge, almost dangerous to have that many people crammed into one room. At City Hall’s “million-dollar council chambers” they were lined up three-deep around the walls. People poked their heads in from stairwells on both sides of the meeting room. Not many left during the three-hour session.
This was uniquely a crowd largely made up of supporters, many of them wearing “Kingstonian Now” buttons. People will come out at dinner time (the meeting was called to order promptly at an inconvenient 6 p.m.) to protest. Not this time.
There were opponents, of course, maybe 50 or so, in itself a notable turnout for a city planning board meeting. Opponents carrying bullhorns blasted the city’s rents being “too damn high” for working class residents, demanding that a percentage of Kingstonian units be set aside as “affordable housing.”
Pegged at some $56 million, with $10 million already committed by the state, the Kingstonian would transform the under-utilized corner of Fair Street and North Front. Developers are projecting 131 “market rate” units, a 32-room “boutique” hotel and 420 parking spaces, of which 250 would be designated for public use. The old urban renewal era parking garage provided around 130 spaces. Also on the drawing board is some 8,000 square feet of retail commercial space, altogether a mini-enclave within a city.
For Kingston, the Kingstonian represents the biggest private development since Kingston Plaza was created atop of wetlands along the Esopus Creek more than 50 years ago. The business community is on board, as are historical interests.
City historian Ed Ford, after leading the charge on a similar project some dozen years ago on the parking garage site, says now that “this kind of development was bound to come, sooner or later,” adding, “besides, we need the parking.” From a historical perspective, if Ed Ford’s on board, it can’t be too bad.
In fact, it’s not. There are many positives to take from this project. Being called “transformational” by supporters, is, however a bit hyperbolic. One gentrified corner does not transform a city. Neither will setting aside perhaps 10 percent of apartments as “affordable” relieve the city’s pressing housing issues. Waiting lists for truly affordable housing (based on income) – with RUPCO and the Kingston Housing Authority its main providers – regularly top 1,000. Just getting on the list can take years. Ironically, developers via a glossy handout at the planning session, helped make that point themselves. To wit: “Demand for rental apartments in Kingston is among the strongest in Ulster County with a vacancy rate just over 1%. This is considered extremely low. A healthy market has vacancy rates between 5-10 %.” Left unsaid, was that something more than half of city residents live in rental properties, too many in deplorable conditions. There are people behind those statistics and their voices were heard last week. Memo to protestors: Leave the bullhorns in the parking lot.
This is of course a work in progress, there’s time to listen, time to learn, time to tweak. Once the shock wears off it’s possible the haves may actually learn something from the not.