By Kevin O’Connor, CEO RUPCO
Kitty McCullough’s recent article on RUPCO’s newly proposed mixed use project — to build new housing while relocating the Center for Creative Education and providing space for other civic needs like a tech incubator and a café/bakery — references a vague disconcert on the part of some residents. We recognize this malaise all too well. In fact, we understand it and see it nearly every time we propose new housing. It’s that age-old part of human nature: fear of change.
Kitty laments the lack of citizen and stakeholder engagement in the recent development of the City’s Comprehensive Plan and towards creating a sustainable and equitable vision for Midtown’s revitalization. Of course, we agree that community input is vital to creating plans and visions, but we must point out that this year, there is a special urgency to this project:
This year, the Governor has announced a ONE-TIME, $1.5-BILLION, that’s right, a $1.5-Billion competition called the Upstate Revitalization Initiative, (URI). What does that mean for Kingston and the local region? It means that 7 regions of the State (including the Mid-Hudson Region) will compete for access to this $1.5-BILLION; ONLY 3 Regions will win $500-million each. While the URI applications are not due until this October, our MidHudson Region (MHR) has made it clear that MHR projects seeking these URI funds need to apply in this year’s Consolidation Funding Application (CFA), due July 31, just 34 days from today. Like it or not, we – RUPCO, the City of Kingston, the Mid-Hudson Region, New York State for that matter — are in competition to win funding and attract jobs – two things that are CRITICAL to any undertaking or desire for community revitalization. The clock is ticking.
While we welcome public input and citizen engagement, frankly we believe the project is — as Kitty first surmised — a “no-brainer!” Simply put, adding housing density (people) in the center of the City’s downtown district, providing mixed use for cool civic uses – not meant to compete with Broadway commercial but at the same time, adding people to support Broadway’s commercial businesses – in a Midtown-sensitive, highly efficient “Net Zero for Living” design is what every city comprehensive plan aspires to do. It is Urban Planning 101.
To understand the timetable for this project in context, it’s important to know that in May 2015 RUPCO negotiated an agreement to acquire the property with the owner. At that time, RUPCO submitted an application for site plan review plus a Special Use Permit under the City’s mixed-use overlay district, and also a zoning change (from 0-2 to C-2) to permit the residential use. The review of this application is presently underway. The Zoning Change is being addressed by Laws & Rules Committee of the Common Council, which has already referred the application to the Ulster County Planning Board for comment, and to Historic Landmarks Preservation Commission and to the City Planning Board for review. The City Planning Board declared itself lead agency for a coordinated environmental review under SEQRA. Upon approval of the zoning change, the proposal will be returned to the Planning Board for approval of the site plan and Special Use Permit. These actions will involve public meetings, published notices and public hearings to provide for public participation and input.
Indeed, Ulster County’s Planning Board (UCPB) has already weighed in and found numerous areas of consistency and agreement with the City’s latest planning efforts. In the UCPB Recommendation Letter #2015-061:
“Accordingly, the UCPB looked for consistency in this document and found multiple areas of agreement as follows:
- Goal 8: Promote a new planned commercial node in Midtown centered around Education, the Arts, Entertainment and Ethnic Diversity;
- Objective 4.4: Increase population density in main street areas and neighborhood centers through zoning for mixed use.
- Strategy 1.1.1: Concentrate residential density around three mixed-use cores of the City.
- Strategy 1.1.2: Require affordable housing for any new or expanded residential building ordevelopment project.
- Strategy 1.1.5: Allow mixed-uses in the C-2 Districts.
- Strategy 1.1.6: Abandon Mixed-Use Overlay District in favor of City-wide standards for adaptivereuse and affordable housing.
- Strategy 4.4.2: Encourage mixed use developments on large undeveloped greyfield sites withinthe City in order to strengthen the fabric of neighborhood centers.
- Strategy 5.1.9: Encourage human-scale infill development to present a continuous façade alongcommercial corridors throughout the city, with purposeful placement of public squares or marketplaces to add texture and diversity to the streetscape.”
More recently, RUPCO has increased its focus on the City of Kingston following the loss of SCORE, a non- profit Neighborhood Preservation Company that previously served Kingston. Our concern is demonstrated by our multi-year effort to gain control of The Lace Mill – a once-derelict structure — and restore it to artists’ housing as a creative placemaking approach to community revitalization. In developing The Lace Mill, RUPCO hosted countless meetings and building tours with artists and art- related groups to ascertain a local-artist vision of what The Lace Mill could be and to best serve the community. As the project now comes to fruition with the first residents moving in, the overwhelming response from the community has been amazement as to the transformative aspects of the project.
Additionally, we’ve demonstrated our commitment to Kingston by partnering with the City to secure and administer $700,000 in federal HOME funds to help folks buy and repair homes exclusively in the City of Kingston. When this funding is utilized, nearly 30 first-time homebuyers will call Kingston their home base. In 2013, RUPCO collaborated with the City of Kingston Office of Community Development and Midtown’s Everett Hodge Center (Kingston Cares) on a Community Impact Measurement Survey (CIM) to study and evaluate housing and mixed-use (commercial/residential) properties within two low- moderate income census tracts (#9520 and 9521) in Midtown Kingston. We discovered that this neighborhood is in transition, home to 24.8% minority population (African American and Latinos of any race). Within this target area, a majority of housing units were built between the 1920s and 1940. Many of these older homes suffer from structural deficiency and poor maintenance. Accordingly, RUPCO set out to collaborate with residents, artists and other stakeholders in the emerging local creative economy to preserve an historic structure, to stabilize the neighborhood, to develop sustainable housing, and to identify opportunities to transform the neighborhood with both new and improved housing opportunities. This involved forging new strategic partnerships with community organizations like the Center for Creative Education. In devising our latest concept, RUPCO was also able to rely on its participation in the visioning sessions for The King’s Inn site. In 2010, Chuck Snyder and Guy Kempe of
RUPCO participated in the design charrette for The King’s Inn site (615 Broadway) which, prior to demolition in 2011, was one of the City ’s most notorious derelict properties. Teams of architects, community members, city officials and business leaders came up with 20 assorted concepts envisioning a re-birth of the property. Many of the concepts developed had elements in common with our vision for revitalizing Midtown: apartments, retail establishments, affordable work spaces for artists and retail space, possibly in newly constructed buildings. RUPCO has, in fact, developed this concept starting with CCE’s need for a new location and based on the concept on decades of experience in community building, recent and local design charrette input, and access to the most innovative community development responses from around the country.
Kitty also poses several questions:
Is this the best way to address affordable housing in Midtown? First, we are always thrilled when anyone mentions affordable housing and suggests that they want to join the conversation about how to affect it. Second, the need for affordable housing is tremendous and it exists in every community in the United States. Kitty points out the poverty rate in the City of Kingston but fails to mention that, too often, the existing Midtown housing stock (typically in privately owned, 1-to-4 unit buildings) traps people in unaffordable, inefficient housing plagued by environmental hazards including gas leaks, lead, mold, radon and vermin. Almost without exception, this housing stock is inaccessible for those physically disabled or frail elderly. Do these housing conditions need to be addressed? Yes. Do these housing units often offer buying opportunities for first-time homebuyers or other young professionals moving to the area? Yes. Do these housing units answer all of the City’s housing needs? Of course not! In 2009, RUPCO was one of several entities that participated in a landmark housing needs assessment for the three Counties of Ulster, Dutchess and Orange. The study, written by economist Jeffery Carr, demonstrated the need for affordable homeownership and rental housing for every municipality in the three Counties. The Tri-County Housing study forecasts the affordable gap for the years 2010, 2015 and 2020 and called for a “to be built” number to help alleviate the gap. The study recommends that over 900 units of new rental housing be built in the City of Kingston by 2015. At 61 new rental units, this proposal is a mere drop-in-the-bucket compared to the need, but will help the City of Kingston remain competitive in the Hudson River Valley for job creators who recognize the need for a broad range of affordable housing units.
Kitty also questions the $18.9-million (not $20-milllion as stated) spent on The Lace Mill to create 55 units of housing, suggesting that this money could simply be spent on rehabbing Midtown homes. This naïve view is understandable due to Kitty’s lack of knowledge regarding how State, Federal and private funding streams specifically target housing projects. We believe any serious concern for housing conditions in the City of Kingston should invest time in understanding how funding for these types of programs work. Illustratively, the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, governed by IRS rules, requires the investors who purchase the credits to own the property for a minimum period of 10 years. Therefore, the funding only works for single-entity-owned housing and does not work for rehabilitating scattered site, individually owned properties.
For those who question spending millions on The Lace Mill or new housing in Midtown, we’d like the record to be clear. The idea that this is public money can be misleading. The main funding sources for The Lace Mill again include the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (created by Congress in 1986 under President Reagan), along with federal and NYS Historic Tax Credits. While the allocation of tax credits comes from federal and state governments, private investors purchase the credits with private money. Morgan Stanley invested $14 million to purchase the tax credits allocated to The Lace Mill and entered into a limited partnership with a RUPCO-controlled entity to own the property for the minimum 10 year period. Public allocation of tax credits? Yes. Private investment? Yes. City of Kingston property tax dollars? NO!
Of course, we understand that some people may not agree with current tax policy at both the federal and state level of granting tax credits for the purposes of building houses, eliminating blight, or preserving historic properties. But it is current policy and it has been in effect at the federal level since 1986. It is important for people to understand that the funds directed toward The Lace Mill were already appropriated for very limited and specific purposes. If we hadn’t brought them to Kingston, they would have been awarded to Rochester, or Binghamton, or Wyoming. The same is true for the funding we are seeking for the new Midtown project. The money has already been appropriated for very specific, limited uses and if we don’t apply or win, the funding will simply go to other parts of New York State. Fortunately or unfortunately, the time is now for the City of Kingston to step up and compete for the largest pot of money ever available in New York State. With your support, we have 34 days.
Kitty wonders if RUPCO will consider attracting other public funds to assist with Broadway corridor revitalization. Of course! RUPCO is adept and has a long track record of helping communities to articulate their vision and attracting funding to help create the vision.
Finally, Kitty raises an important issue about where, when and how we create affordable housing. On the one hand, we need to be mindful that for too long, zip codes have been social determinants for life outcomes. As a society, we are and have been segregated by poverty and race. Families have been unable to access opportunity when they are trapped in neighborhoods riddled with crime, poor schools, lack of jobs, etc. It is valid to point out that, too often, affordable housing is concentrated in cities while neighboring towns and suburbs avoid building their fair share of affordable housing. RUPCO takes a back seat to no one on this important issue and successfully fought for 10 years to locate affordable housing in the Town of Woodstock. In recent years, RUPCO has built or serves as manager for senior housing in Rosendale, Lloyd, Marlboro and Milton; built new affordable, homeownership in Ellenville; and proposed new intergenerational housing in Saugerties.
In Kingston, RUPCO’s work has been fairly nuanced including the restoration of buildings like The Stuyvesant and Kirkland to mixed-use; homeownership at The Pettit House; artist housing at The Lace Mill; and now proposing mixed-income housing in Midtown. RUPCO has been careful not to concentrate poverty but rather to affect revitalization and community uplift by eliminating blight, preserving historic buildings, and creating new housing that contributes to the diversity and economic vibrancy of the City.