By Rebecca Martin
For those who were not around during the most recent renovation of the Pike Plan (2008 – 2011 -ish), I recall the following article written by Steve Hopkins who at the time was the current (or outgoing) editor of the Kingston Times. He did a great job capturing the essence of the feeling then.
With the Pike Plan being discussed by the council and, a recent Kingston Times poll, it seems like a good time to share some of the information we have from back then to provide some historical context.
“As deputy director of planning for the county at that time,” says Jennifer Schwartz Berky, a Kingston city resident, “the building owners came to me to get advice about the canopies before Norman Mintz came to consult for RUPCO. They were concerned about the costs (they pay a special assessment), the leaks caused by the junctions with their buildings, and the lack of visibility for their businesses because of the canopy. I contacted the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and their experts told me — in no uncertain terms — that they consider these 60s and 70s canopies across the country to be, by and large, detrimental to the functioning of commercial districts. What began as a response to competition from malls ended up as blight, and they expressed surprise that we hadn’t taken ours down yet, citing numerous examples of business districts that revitalized in part BECAUSE they took theirs down. Norman Mintz understood this, and we still see one another occasionally as professional planning and urban design conferences. He was disappointed that his advice wasn’t taken. In the late 19th century, the design of the 20-and 25-foot span of storefront, with large plate glass windows, often with recessed entrances to add more surface area, was a costly innovation that brought light into the spaces and allowed for the maximum merchandising display. The canopies obscure this feature of the Victorian commercial districts in terms of a very significant aspect of their design. Look around at any vibrant commercial district: their storefronts and facades are critical to their character and identity. They are easier to remember, brand themselves, and can be found by visitors. It is a shame that we have to rehash this debate.”
Given what it would cost to fix the rehabbed Pike Plan – only a decade old and in many places already falling apart- and the costs of removing the canopies for the buildings and streetscapes to be restored to their original glory – I personally hope that the city will find its way to the latter.
Thanks to Steve Hopkins for allowing us to repost his article here.
By Steve Hopkins
(This article is a repost that was originally in the Hudson Valley Chronic, Vol. 2, No.3, April-May 2009)
It’s a hot time in the old town of Kingston, as tempers are flaring over the apparent inevitability of a $1.8 million renovation project to bring the Uptown district’s “Pike Plan” — the deteriorating 1970s-era covered canopy that lends a seedy, anachronistic Neo-Colonial “character” to the former Dutch stockade area — into the 21st century. Tom Hoffay, Uptown’s Second Ward alderman who serves on the Pike Plan Commission at the behest of Mayor James Sottile and who is spearheading the push to get the canopy renovations over and done with before the end of 2009, has said, to the derision of some, “The train has left the station.”
But by the time you read this article, a group of insurgents may have succeeded in throwing a legal monkey wrench into the wheels of the “unstoppable” juggernaut. The litigation, under consideration by a growing and increasingly vocal band of disgruntled property owners headed (reluctantly, he says) by Wall Street real estate broker Jon Hoyt, would target the Pike Plan Commission itself as being, in its current incarnation, illegal under the city’s municipal code — therefore rendering it at least temporarily powerless to impose the project as well as unauthorized to have taken out a controversial $100,000 bond it floated in the owners’ names to jumpstart the process.
The “Pike Plan,” for those unfamiliar with Kingston esoterica, was named for a now-obscure watercolorist named John Pike, a mainstream painter with a long, odd history of commercial and military work before settling in Woodstock in the 1960s to teach his successful proto-realism technique to budding commercial artists referred to him by ad agencies and corporations. While living in Jamaica in the ’30s, he painted murals, did advertising for the rum industry and designed stores, nightclubs, and theaters (in Kingston, Jamaica!) in the signature Euro-Caribbean plantation-influenced style that would later show up to keep shoppers’ heads dry in Kingston, NY. Trained as a military pilot, he served in the Psychological Warfare Branch of the U.S. Army in Egypt and Italy, doing God knows what until he was shipped off to the Philippines, where he headed a unit of the Combat Art Section of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which someone thought necessary to bring in to record the American occupation of Korea in 1945. Those paintings are reportedly still being maintained somewhere in the bowels of the Historical Properties Section of the Defense Department.
Pike also did paintings for the U.S. Air Force in France, Germany, Greenland, Ecuador, Columbia, Japan and Formosa, from the mid-’40s to 1960, as well as paintings, illustrations and covers for Colliers, Life, Fortune, True and Readers Digest; and advertising paintings for Alcoa, Standard Oil, National Cash Register, Equitable Life Insurance, General Tire International, and so on. He was also one of two official artists hired by NASA to render the Apollo moon sh
But calling his eponymous Pike Plan “historic,” in the sense of requiring the excruciating and expensive restoration of every rotten, worm-eaten timber in its shoddily-built fake façade, is a stretch. From the canopy supporters’ point of view, it’s about the money, which is the true driver of this train. The renovation plan, although put into motion and shepherded by the seven-member Pike Plan Commission, is being funded by the usual inedible bouillabaisse of federal, state and borrowed money, headed by $860,000 in earmarks painfully extracted from the federal government by an increasingly exasperated U.S. Rep. Maurice Hinchey, whose contribution has been held captive by this long, drawn-out process since 2006. The proposed project languished in limbo for a year or two as a preliminary study performed by urban designer and “Main Street” marketing guru Norman Mintz (who famously said that the canopy should be taken down until he was shushed by city officials and preservationists) failed to provide the necessary impetus to spend the money on the big fix. Even now, as timelines are being drawn, little is known about just how much “renovation” will need to be done to implement the designers’ vision, which includes skylights and possibly a more open and sustainable support system than the rotting columns barely holding the thing up today. Bidding has not even begun on the project, and building owners are understandably pointed in their criticism of the Pike Plan Commission’s unwillingness to plan for the event of serious cost overruns, a distinct possibility judging from the massive can of worms — or termites, more likely — hiding behind the thin fascia of the 13,000-square-foot wooden structure.
The project is being designed under the aegis of a NYC consulting firm with a wider role in the efforts to re-imagine Kingston: The RBA Group, which is under contract to the city to implement its Uptown Stockade Area Transportation Plan in conjunction with a bewildering array of public planners and quasi-public agencies. The mayor’s economic development director, Steve Finkle, is involved, as are Ulster County Planning director Dennis Doyle and Rural Ulster Preservation Company (RUPCO) executive director Kevin O’Connor, as well as representatives from Scenic Hudson and the Kingston Uptown Business Association (KUBA). All of them want to see the money spent and the myriad projects concerning Uptown revitalization and transportation tinkering completed, if only in some of their minds to ensure that Kingston doesn’t screw up the possibility of getting even more money, especially given the current loosey-goosey stimulus package climate.
Further confusing the chain of command, RBA is abetted in the Pike Plan portion of its work by a small consortium of subcontracted local architects that includes Brad Will of Ashokan Architecture and Robert Young, a Pike Plan Commission member who since he got the job has recused himself from participating in votes and meetings pertaining to the project.
Showdown at Backstage Corral
What exists of the Pike Plan Commission held court at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, April 7 in the Wall Street storefront of Backstage Studio Productions, owned by Teri Rossin, one of the more vocal opponents of the canopy renovation. Among the commissioners at the table facing a glowering group of building owners sat the beleaguered Hoffay, Dream Weavers business owner Dominick Vanacore, the lone project critic on the commission he in fact chairs; Carter Hastings, the canopy project’s main champion among building owners; and Suzanne Cahill, director of the City of Kingston Planning Department.
Among the owners present, Jon Hoyt did most of the talking, at times going almost mano-a-mano with Hoffay. Of great interest to this observer was the attention paid among the insurgent contingent to remarking on who wasn’t there, including the Godot-like figure of Mike Spada, who owns one of the larger yawning, empty holes under the Wall Street canopy, the former Woolworth’s building. Spada has been reported as being in favor of ripping the Pike Plan down, and had promised at least one of the insurgents he would be there to lend his support, until he realized he had a doctor’s appointment. His presence would certainly have bolstered their argument in the face of a united front of officialdom. The two-story Woolworth’s property, blessed with a large off-street parking lot in the back, has also been rumored as a site for relocating a number of county offices.
Whether or not a lawsuit is filed, the insurgent contingent maintains that the existing Pike Plan Commission is not legal. In making their charge, they cite the following paragraph in Kingston’s municipal code:
“There is hereby created in the Office of the Mayor, of the Executive Department, a Commission to be known as the Pike Plan Commission, which shall consist of seven members appointed by the Mayor. Of the foregoing members of the Commission, the City Planner of the City of Kingston and the Mayor or his designee shall be perpetual members. A local architect shall be appointed to serve on the Commission for a term of two years. The remaining four members of the Pike Plan Commission shall be members of the business community who have business interests located under the Pike Plan Canopy and/or property owners who own real property under the Pike Plan Canopy. These four members shall be appointed, one for a term of one year, one for a term of two years and two for a term of three years. No such member shall serve for more than two consecutive terms. Following these initial terms, all future terms shall be for a period of three years.”
So how does the current commission stack up to the above? For one thing, say critics, Carter Hastings has long out-stayed his welcome. Since his final regular term as a representative building owner ran out, he has been serving at the behest of the mayor until the canopy project is over, “in the interest of continuity.”
Hoyt was the first to bring it up. “Carter, I apologize,” he began. “I like Carter, and I trust his judgment and everything, but there are some people who think that you’ve been on that Pike Plan Commission for a long time, and that you have exceeded the two-term limit.”
“I have. You are correct, OK? I have,” said Hastings, a bit defensively. “And I started four years ago on this project. OK? Four years ago. And when my last term went out, the mayor appointed me — what word am I looking for? — I am basically serving at the pleasure of the mayor, and by law, that is allowed. I want to conclude his project. I want to see it go right to the end. Because I have been here for a long time, and I have spent many, many hours, and many, miles. OK? Time with people … a lot of people have spent a lot of time on this project, and I would just like to see it out. I didn’t necessarily ask the mayor to do this; he did it on his own, and it was under the law.”
The detractors, however, maintain that Hastings’ continued presence on the commission alone is enough to render it illegal. In addition, they say, having an architect on the commission who is being paid to design the project renders that position effectively empty as well, with no architect even pretending to act in the interest of property owners.
Hoffay had done his best to ward off an insurrection by reporting on the status of a request by Vanacore and others for more equitable representation by property owners on the Pike Plan Commission. He said the original state statute as adopted by the city calls for all seven commission members to be appointed by the mayor, and that the Common Council is in the process of amending local law to provide for elections for four of the seven, to come from the ranks of building owners. He said, however, that no matter what, the commission will remain in its current state until attrition requires an election, and that the mayor in fact would retain the right to reappoint any one of the existing commissioners for one additional two-year term, which would give Mr. Hastings at least one more crack at completing his dream project.
But Hoffay’s explanation didn’t deter Hoyt from his goal of laying the groundwork for legal action. “Carter’s here because he was appointed by the mayor,” said the broker, who is also an attorney. “As I understand it, from the 1984 resolution passed by the Common Council, [the Pike Plan Commission should consist of] the city planner, an architect, the mayor or mayor’s representative, and four, basically, stakeholders. I assume that you’re the mayor’s representative. But how is Carter the mayor’s representative, and you’re the mayor’s representative?”
“I’m the designee of the mayor because the mayor cannot attend the meeting,” said Hoffay. “The mayor has asked Carter to stay on as an appointed member because he has the ability to appoint, in spite of the fact that he has served the two terms, because he has been so integral to the process.”
“I appreciate that,” said Hoyt. “But that’s not what the resolution says. I appreciate that, and I appreciate Carter’s work, and I believe that Carter is an intelligent individual who’s put a lot of effort into this. I’m just saying that there are a lot of people who are a little bit frustrated with the way the entire process has been handled.”
Hoyt also leaned hard on another of the insurgents’ main points: that they’ve never been properly consulted or communicated with, despite the commission’s contention that legal notices were posted in the Daily Freeman. “I think perhaps, because there are so few people involved — this is not like a citywide thing,” said Hoyt. “There are so few people involved, that it seems there could be a compiled list [of owners to contact], and that minimally, moving forward, it’s not enough to say ‘OK, we put it in the paper, you didn’t show up; you’re apathetic, so we’ll make your decisions for you.’ So if you’re going to authorize, say, a $100,000 bond, when there are so few people involved, what does it take to reach out and go after them and say: ‘Hey, I want your input; what do you think about it?’ And I am less of a position than I am for a process. And the process as I see it has failed along the way.”
Hastings pushed back hard at Hoyt’s aggressive lobbying on behalf of the insurgent owners. “Here’s what I’m getting at, people. I just want to be clear,” he said. “I know most of you, and I respect your ideas and your concerns and everything. But here’s what really bothers me, OK? I’ve been on this commission for four-plus years; I’m not really sure even how long it’s been. Every year when the tax bills go out, there’s a little cover letter that goes with the tax bills. It explains to you what’s going on, we give out our cell numbers, office numbers, if you have any concerns please call us. We also in those letters tell you that the meetings are posted in the paper. They’re the first Tuesday of the month, they were at 9 o’clock at City Hall. And what really bothers me is I’ve gone around to several people, OK? Including you …”
Hoyt: “Absolutely, no question …”
Hastings: “OK … and as of two months ago, you had a whole different tune, and you’ve had a different tune for the last three years. And now all of a sudden it’s like a total turnaround. And I understand, like I said, everybody’s frustrations, but where was everybody three or four years ago, when these things were … we had press conferences in the Freeman, we had a lot of things going on. And I just don’t understand where everybody was. Now all of a sudden the train’s left the station, and now everybody’s like, ‘Whoa, we think we should rip it down.’
No shrinking violet, Hoffay managed to re-convey his message while answering Hoyt’s list of concerns. “You’ve said a lot of things, and I want to address the process issue. Because I came late to this process. This started five years ago; I came on as an alderman less than a year ago, so I sort of walked into the project. And it took me a while to catch up with where they were in the process. I think the first thing that it took me a while to understand, because as a resident of Kingston, when Jen Ringwood was the alderman here, I was always pushing her, saying, ‘How come we’re not doing this? How come we’re not doing that?’ And she’s like, ‘The process is very slow, this has got to be done, that has got to be done.’ It has been a complex, complicated process. And it’s complicated for a number of reasons, one of which is the funding sources that are being used. This is not a straight-out, one-shot funding source, and we have to go by the calendars of the different sources. The biggest part of the grant, the part that’s actually going to pay for the construction of this, is the grant that Congressman Hinchey was able to secure for us, and it’s not just between the congressman’s office, or us, or the city; it’s going through the New York State DOT. So every one of those regulations become a hoop that the commission has to jump through.
“And in addition, as you know, Rural Ulster Preservation has got a $200,000 grant that they have dealt with the state on. And they have had to renew that and hold that for us. Against a lot of pressure to let that grant go, they have held on to that for us, because of our commitment to the process. So I think it’s fair probably to look at this and say, ‘Well, you guys were very funding-oriented’ during the process. And that’s what I get from it.
“These guys became very technical-minded, very much looking at these funding sources — ‘Can we get that approval? Can we hold onto it? Can we meet this objective?’ They did have, however, from everything that I’ve been able to reconstruct from talking with Kevin O’Connor, who is really very important to the beginning of this process, to Sue [Cahill] and others, and I was at, already during the last year, now two public hearings on it — they have had a number of public sessions right from the very get-go when Norman Mintz was brought in. RUPCO essentially paid for that, and got that whole process started.
“In the last year, in the 11 months that I’ve been the alderman, I have heard the complaints about the process from the point of view of the stakeholders themselves. And that’s what we’re trying to do with the legislation, to make this more user-friendly. I mean the Common Council, which also approved the bond, represents much bigger areas in the city. Everybody in the council has huge numbers of either residences, businesses, or a combination thereof. And they try to have a public dialog — through residents’ associations, through public meetings, through individual meetings — it’s work, in the sense that you’ve got to be proactive with it. And it’s possible that the commission in the past, at a certain point, became pretty focused on holding onto this funding. This is a relatively big amount of money that has been pledged to this project; we’re talking a cumulative $1.8 million of money coming in, for electricians, carpenters, painters, architects, being spent locally. This is a big sum of money. And it’s taken apparently a lot of work on the part of the commission to hold that funding in place.”
By this time Hoyt’s tactic of disarming his foe with faint praise before firing another volley was becoming apparent. And Hoffay, for his part, was losing patience. The discourse became heated. “The funding efforts are to be applauded,” said Hoyt. “But if it’s for building a bridge to nowhere, it is a frustrated effort. The research that should have — that may have — preceded this, and the input from the stakeholders who are paying the freight …”
Hoffay: “No, they’re not. And that’s an important point.”
Hoyt: “The bond …”
Hoffay: “The bond is for $100,000, out of $1.8 million. It’s a $100,000 contribution. That’s not even … that’s half of what RUPCO’s putting into it. So, you have to put this thing in …”
Hoyt: “For a bridge to nowhere, it’s meaningless.”
Hoffay: “The definition of a bridge to nowhere is a definition we could all argue about. We could have this discussion …”
Hoyt: “But that research should already be in …”
Hoffay: “And as you say, it may have been done already …”
Hoyt: “How many towns and cities have these ’70s arcades?”
Hoffay: “Jon, this is an argument we’ve had, and we could continue to have all day long. But let me just point this out to you. Under the state-authorizing legislation for the Pike Plan Commission, and in the legislation itself, it specifically says that the obligation of the commission is to the maintenance and repair of the Plan. That’s the stated obligation of the commission itself …”
Hoyt: “We’re way beyond repair …”
Hoffay: “And we are now to the point that we expect, within 60 to 90 days, to have work begin after a five-year process, with $1.8 million to be invested, primarily by taxpayers who had nothing to do with the plan, and by groups that are not under the plan.”
‘Not an option’
Hoyt was not done. He wanted to revisit the question as to whether any research was done concerning whether a sidewalk canopy is even a good idea or not. In a missive he had passed around before the start of the meeting, he alluded colorfully to this line of inquiry. “Is the effort to rebuild or reconstruct the Pike Plan the result of studies of sidewalk arcades and their effect on business districts or, rather, having grant monies available and finding a use for these grant monies?” he wrote. “Proper marketing and planning would involve the appropriate research preceding the decision-making. What other towns and cities can be cited that have such sidewalk canopies which were fads if the 1970s that did not appear to receive widespread acceptance? Locally, Woodstock, New Paltz, Stone Ridge, High Falls, Rosendale, Saugerties, Highland and Marlboro seem to be surviving without sidewalk canopies. Moving on to larger cities and a larger search area, do Beacon, Newburgh, Albany or any other cities in the region have sidewalk canopies? Does New York, London or Paris have sidewalk canopies? It rains frequently in Seattle; does Seattle have sidewalk canopies?”
Hoyt pressed the point further in the meeting. “Was there any exploration as to the availability of grants to remove the arcade?” he asked.
“No,” said Cahill, the city planner.
Hoffay: “Well again, that would be contrary to the express duty of the commission. You see if the Pike Plan disappeared tomorrow, there is no commission.”
Hoffay: “Well, you may say that. But there’s a group of business owners, as opposed to building owners, who want to form a business improvement district. And the new legislation is designed to take this commission in that direction. But under the existing legislation, it’s clear that if the plan did not exist, then there would be no commission and there would be no BID. So, you sort of have to choose. We’re at a point now that the money has already started to be spent, let’s be clear. The grant is being drawn down on. We’re paying RBA, we’re paying some architects. We’ve already paid out a considerable amount of money. Yes, you’re right. After five years of studies, and funding, and meetings, and public hearings … Boom. Sixty to 90 days from now, the carpenters will be here.”
Hoyt and Teri Rossin both reiterated that they had been told early on that tearing down the canopy was not an option for historic reasons, that it was a protected structure.
“There were people four or five years ago that discussed taking down the Pike Plan,” said Rossin. “And we were told, in this room, ‘That is not an option. You cannot take it down.’ We were told that. And so the reason people have been as apathetic as they are, is because they were told that there were no other options. And it wasn’t true, flat out. … We were told things that weren’t true. The studies that were done … Norman Mintz came in and he was paid, I don’t know, $100,000 or something like that, to give ideas about what should happen Uptown, and he said the first thing that should happen is to tear down that thing, and he was told that wasn’t an option. We have a statement from him that says that.”
“Taking it down was not even an option,” said Hoyt. “That’s the way it was explained to me. So then it was simply a question of, rather than having the storefronts look like cave entrances, to try to get as much light coming through as possible. So I didn’t think taking it down was an option. That’s my fault; that’s my lack of understanding and lack of getting involved.”
Hoyt summed up the thoughts of the insurgents, who would later convene to plot strategy and consider legal action. “Just one quick one, please if I could. And then I’m shutting up, and I won’t say another word for the rest of the day, to anyone. If this thing looks like it’s going to get rammed through, or whatever it’s gonna do — some people think it’s rammed through, some people will find it’s the end of a long, orderly process — fantastic. If we could do two things for me, I’d be so happy. Number one: establish that this is a reconstruction as of 2009 or 2010, whenever it’s completed, a reconstruction. So that somewhere down the road, when somebody says, ‘You know something? It’s gotta come down,’ that there’s no argument that this is in some way a ‘historic’ façade or historic structure, or anything of that nature. Let’s get the ‘historic’ right out of it. Also, since this will not be the result of a design by artist John Pike, could we rename it something else? And that also will help get rid of this continuum that could lead down the road where someone could say, ‘Oh, this is historic, you can’t touch it.’”