Of house and home

Back in Kingston’s urban renewal days, officials would rank competing development proposals on something called “best and highest use.”

Something of that review process went on within the county’s Industrial Development Authority (IDA) in regard to the proposed Kingstonian “luxury condo” project in uptown Kingston. By now, we’ve all heard ad nauseum the thumbnail version: In order to finance their $56 million project, developers claim they require some $26 million in tax relief over 25 years from the city, school district and the county, the latter a junior partner to the tune of about 16 percent.

At first blush, even the least progressive of us might blanch at the notion of giving developers almost half their expected project costs in tax relief over a 25-year period. And for “rich people” who really don’t need (or deserve in the eyes of some) tax breaks. In the face of vociferous opposition, developers have offered but small concessions, like reserving about 10 percent of their units for “workforce” tenants.

In the meantime, all three government entities have approved the taxing formula recommended by the IDA, though with a notable lack of enthusiasm.

The other side of that coin, seldom mentioned even by developers, merits further examination as debate over this project, while heated, enters its final stages.

THE QUESTION, GIVEN SCANT ATTENTION, even by developers, is rather simple: How much property tax revenue over 25 years would the property generate as presently constituted compared to revenues from $56 million in new construction? Even with the $26 million in tax breaks.

Located between a 330-car city parking lot, Schwenk Drive, Clinton Avenue Extension and North Front Street, and containing a Herzog’s warehouse, it’s a small footprint for what is planned there. Developers would take the parking lot and replace it with some 400 public-access parking spaces, occupy the short Clinton Avenue Extension and demolish the warehouse. A small diner at the foot of the hill with minimal parking has also been designated.

That property, according to official records, generates almost $30,000 a year in taxes. State-limited tax increases (about the recent rate of inflation) would raise that to about $48,000 over 25 years, say officials.

A county-commissioned study, which takes into account projected profits, concluded that the Kingstonian would generate between $302,000 and $382,000 a year in property taxes at the end of that period. With the mortgage paid off, the IDA says the facility would be paying over $1.5 million a year going forward and that doesn’t include sales tax revenue from its commercial tenants.

On a cost/benefit basis, this project makes sense. But there’s something about a million-dollar tax break from the get-go that sticks in the collective craw. Finesse those numbers to something that less resembles a raid on the public purse and maybe we can get closer to a “highest and best use.”

AT THE BOTTOM END OF THE HOUSING CURVE – as opposed to the swells who may occupy the Kingstonian someday – is something called Accessory Dwelling Units, ADUs in bureaucratic shorthand. Never heard of these things? You will.

An ADU is different than the spare bedroom Aunt Mary rented out to borders after Uncle John died. Sometimes room came with board.

 Built as independent units within existing buildings, over garages, or as a small, self-sufficient addition, ADUs are being promoted by some city officials as a response to the city’s low-income housing crisis. The rationale goes that if a person can’t afford maybe $1,500 a month for a studio apartment in Kingston’s hot to trot housing market, she or he might be able to swing a $700 (or less) ADU a month.

Other than the usual traffic and parking concerns, critics raise some key points. For openers, the legislation being considered by the Common Council’s Laws and Rules Committee is based almost verbatim on draff legislation before the state legislature. It died again in committee this year and won’t be taken up until the legislature’s next session in January. In other words, the local law is based on something that hasn’t been promulgated, and yet some members of the common council would like it to come before the full body this summer. Ready, fire, aim comes to mind.

For another, the city has committed $500,000 to a consultant’s study of the city’s 1961 zoning law (as revised numerous times over the decades) that isn’t due for six months. Something that could profoundly affect city residential zoning should, logically, be sum and substance of any overall zoning study. Ya think? Again, ready (hardly), fire…

CRITICS, WHO CAN GET A BIT STRESSED over the fast-tracking of little ADUs popping up in what are now middlin’ to primo residential districts, predicted at public hearing “the end of single-family housing in Kingston, as we have known it.” Yikes.

The mayor, who supports the concept, says the impact would be minimal, maybe 40 individuals (he advanced initially) to lately perhaps 90 a year. Kingston has about 8,000 residential units, including multiple dwellings. Most of that stock is in owner-occupied single-family homes.

That the city’s planning department and its planning board are in opposition, and not only because of a lesser role if ADUs go through, should raise concerns among alderpersons. These are, after all ,the people on the front lines of city housing, reactive, to be sure, proactive, rarely, but which cannot be ignored. Maybe in examining the big picture, that high-priced zoning consultant should give some attention to why a planning board rarely plans anything.

My advice, for what it’s worth, is to go a lot slower on this one. Rushes to judgment seldom end well and these are hearth and home issues.  ADUs, or anything like it, should be part of a well-considered, comprehensive rezoning plan, not a knee-jerk reaction to an all too real housing crisis.

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