By Kathryn McCullough
Over the past month, I’ve brought up the RUPCO project with everyone who doesn’t bring it up with me first. I initially expected that the project would seem a “no brainer” to most people, so I have been surprised to hear that “it just doesn’t sound right” to most of those I meet. My biggest concern is that the RUPCO project makes assumptions about what will benefit Midtown revitalization — without public input — and will spend another $20 million in public money to take Midtown toward their assumption.
The residents and many of the stakeholders of Midtown were ineffectively engaged in developing the Comprehensive Plan’s Midtown vision and they’ve been invited to play little to no role in the Midtown vision that RUPCO is pursuing with this project. In communities leading revitalization around the US, community development organizations help to make sure the public is involved in this kind of decision making.
We need a sustainable and equitable community-based vision for Midtown revitalization. All of Kingston needs Midtown to succeed and all of Kingston needs an opportunity to understand and to weigh in on what is implied in the Midtown vision being actively pursued today. Forging a community-based vision requires informed public engagement. In turn, building informed public engagement requires leadership. The bowling alley project offers an opportunity to look to RUPCO and the City to help provide that leadership.
Both RUPCO and the City could work to help Kingston taxpayers and residents get up to speed, not just about the project, but about the issues involved in Midtown. As our community development organization, RUPCO can help us build our capacity to play an informed role in determining what kind of revitalization is right for our city. Those of us who follow KingstonCitizens.org have a continued leadership role to play as well. We can understand how this single project can provide a “threshold opportunity” for us as Kingston residents and stakeholders to bring the public into the loop for planning and decision making overall.
1. Is this project the best way to address affordable housing in Midtown? Some refer to Kingston as a barbell, two communities connected by Broadway, a traffic corridor. Historically, Midtown was the center of wonderful neighborhoods whose residents could walk to work and shopping. It was connected to Uptown, the Albany Post Road, the Wilbur Road, early trading villages to the inland south, and Rondout by many spokes radiating out through those neighborhoods. Some of us look at the homes in Midtown neighborhoods and see blight. Others look at them and see a thin veneer of deterioration, schlock materials and poor workmanship over wonderful, high-quality, traditional family homes in potentially walkable neighborhoods — the kind of neighborhoods highly sought after by relocating young professionals.
The proposed new construction will leave those existing neighborhoods derelict. It will leave them “as is,” working against overall security and property values in Midtown as they do today. Could it make more sense to ask RUPCO to help us develop more extensive affordable homeownership programs that can help Midtown neighborhoods become walkable and safe?
Kevin O’Connor noted that Kingston has received $700,000 over the past three years to assist first-time homebuyers. For me, this begs the Question: Over this same period, RUPCO used $20 million in public money to create 55 affordable rental units at the Lace Mill ($363,636 per unit), and they now propose another $20 million for new construction of 61 affordable units where the bowling alley stands. Many elderly and lower income homeowners struggle to maintain their homes; in turn their homes become shabby and discourage new homebuyers from investing in our neighborhoods. How many homes could be rehabbed by $40 million dollars spent for affordable homeowner and maintenance assistance programs? What kind of impact would there be on safety, home sales and assessment values if $40 million helped to rehab 116 or more existing Midtown homes?
At one time, there were no buyers for the huge Victorian homes along Albany, Elmendorf, Downs and O’Neil, so they were chopped up into rentals largely held by absentee landlords. Today Kingston realtors tell us there is growing demand for large homes such as these. What could it do for property values and public safety to woo our wonderful homes back from the absentee landlords? Midtown has street after street of vintage homes of all sizes and there are growing numbers of buyers for them at all income levels house-hunting in the Hudson Valley now. This funding ratio of $700,000 / $40 million – would a community based vision for Midtown seek a different balance? Would an informed public, fully in the loop, ask RUPCO to shift their vision and the balance of their effort?
2. The proposed bowling alley project will include commercial space. The commercial vacancy rate in Midtown is more than 25%. Two years ago, Friends of Historic Kingston hosted a Preservation League program on re-deploying upstairs space in commercial districts. Putting tax subsidies to work making a plan for commercial corridor revitalization in Midtown and rehabbing the underused upstairs spaces along Broadway would be more complex than building a single new construction.
We have to ask: Could maximizing these existing properties add more, sooner to assessment values, safety, and consumer traffic on the streets? Could RUPCO help us attract public funds to create dozens of commercial rehab projects, building wealth for numerous investors, helping many families build their businesses and creating a great many more ongoing construction jobs than a single new construction project will? Could RUPCO help us leverage federal and state tax funds to work with our merchant associations, elected officials, and community groups to woo new employment clusters and incubate household shopping, daily office needs, an Arts District with entertainment attractions, and destination shopping strips in charming Victorian blocks linked to the new Greenline Trail and surrounding, newly revitalized, walkable Midtown neighborhoods? Wouldn’t leveraging a higher level of private investment be of greater benefit to Kingston’s economy?
3. Kingston has 25% of Ulster County’s population and 58% of it is “affordable housing”. A professional friend explained to me how federal funding requirements can lead to and perpetuate such imbalance, exacerbating the concentration of poverty that those federal funding programs were designed to address. Six of Kingston’s eight census tracts qualify for federal subsidies. Do we want to concentrate new affordable housing projects in Midtown in ways that miss the opportunity to maximize equity and revitalization?
In cities across the country, large community development organizations that tap Federal and State funds as RUPCO does are taking a more broad-based approach to revitalizing urban neighborhoods. In the cities leading the way to new, successful, sustainable economic development, there are new models for neighborhood development and commercial revitalization that are drawing on new strategies instead of developing single, large, new construction projects such as the one proposed for the bowling alley site. Can RUPCO help us move on from a 20th-century model to a sustainable, equitable and effective strategy more suited to the heart of 21st century Kingston?
Kathryn McCullough is a longtime champion for the pivotal role the arts & cultural heritage play in building vibrant, prosperous communities. Since moving to the Hudson Valley in 1994, she has served as Director of Manitoga/The Russel Wright Design Center, Development Director for the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Capital & Planned Giving Manager for Scenic Hudson, Interim Director for The Woodstock Guild and Paramount Center for the Arts and Downtown Manager for MainStreet Hammonton, NJ. She believes that the Hudson Valley’s picturesque 19th-century streetscapes, historic buildings and iconic landmarks are ready made resources for developing places that attract “creative talent” and that today’s entrepreneurial startups will cluster in our redeveloped 19th century commercial and industrial corridors if economic development incentives are targeted there rather than to exurban sprawl.
“Kingston Planning Board Recommends Re-Zoning to Allow Apartments at Mid-City Lanes Site.” in the Daily Freeman VIEW