Between A River and A Hard Place
By Michael Lebron
Newburgh – Three recent City Council meetings have seen heated public commentary over an RFP that bundled three projects together. While there is a lot of support for the restoration of the Dutch Reformed Church and City Club, there is intense debate about what development of a 1.8 acre lot on the south end of Montgomery Street should look like. Two sides claim a moral high ground over the question of what the city’s primary responsibility should be: to provide subsidized housing for the diverse needs of the community, or to build a mix of market rate commercial and residential space to alleviate the tax burden. The RFP attracted only three bids. The city chose to explore a proposal for affordable housing by Alembic Community Development, a group with a solid track record in that arena.
At the February 26th meeting, Jerry Maldonado, husband of councilmember Karen Mejia, invoked Ghandi: “Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilization.” He recalled the history of urban displacement caused by urban renewal, forcing hundreds of poor working class African Americans from the waterfront over 50 years ago and stated that “This City Council has an opportunity to begin to right the wrongs of the past.” As a senior program officer for the Ford Foundation, he has “seen hundreds of development projects across this country and says that the Alembic project represents a model of what good, inclusive development should look like.”
Juanita Lewis, an organizer for Community Voices Heard (CVH), and a former worker for ACORN, which has received Ford funding, continued with this talking point, saying that this is “an opportunity to engage in a community conversation by folks who are still impacted by what happened as a result of 1960s urban renewal.” Left unsaid was The Ford Foundation’s critical, long-term supportive role in the coalition that got urban renewal programs off the ground in the 1950s.At the following council meeting, CVH organized a little over a dozen people who spoke out, united under the banner of “Community Process YES”.But while Hester Street Collaborative has been engaged to organize the community conversations, to date only one community meeting has been held.They did not respond to inquiry about when the next meeting is planned.
Although Alembic supporters argue that the project as currently proposed is a mix of affordable, supportive and market-rate development, Ben Warnke of Alembic stated that “My conversations with lenders and investors suggest that ‘market’ for the neighborhood is at the affordable, subsidized level, or approximately 60% of Area Median Income” ($23,293). Opposing members of the community ask “What good is low rent housing without jobs?”
Chris Hanson –a realtor and City of Newburgh resident for 17yrs – strongly disagreed, however, saying that “Newburgh’s waterfront is at the pinnacle of North American development opportunity & desirability. It is 36 acres of Hudson River waterfront property, in the Metro NY Region, connected to a walkable historic downtown that sits at ‘the crossroads of the northeast’ – the intersection of the river, I-84, I-87, 32, 52, 94, 17-K, 300 & 9W – with access to 2 train lines to NYC, an international airport, and a deep water port. It is a city that is the ‘birthplace of the republic’, ‘the taste-making center of the 19th century’, ‘the birthplace of urban parks’ and the ‘Mecca of historic preservation.’ Over the past decade, about 90% of my buyer clients in the City of Newburgh are from Brooklyn. That’s right: Newburgh’s market is the entire Metro NY Region!”
He went on to say that “This City’s waterfront redevelopment is about bringing 15,000 to 20,000 tax-paying residents back to Newburgh, to be able to pay its firefighters, police and DPW workers, pave its streets, fund its schools and to legitimize expansion of small businesses. Market rate and mixed-income are not mutually exclusive terms. The waterfront is very desirable to market-rate developers. The city just needs to actually market itself to them!”
Michael Muyot, president of CRD Analytics, a sustainability investment firm, says that “The Alembic Project is wrong for Newburgh. As a 21st Century economist, it doesn’t make fiscal or social sense. With 50% of all commercial real estate in Newburgh not paying any property taxes, the last thing we need is to be giving away riverfront property at $300 to Alembic, who would make $8 million and avoid paying any taxes for 30 years. We would be much better off with a Hotel Conference Center because they would pay property taxes, generate ongoing occupancy tax revenue, create real local jobs and attract business people and tourists all year round.”
For the time being, the city is committed to “the process” and is “waiting for the numbers”, something that alarms opponents given Juanita Lewis’s slogan of “Community Process YES”. And so the war of words and signs seems likely to continue. At the last meeting Richard Fricasse led a group of about 50 people waving signs saying “No Alembic: Stop Giving Away Our City” and “Karen Mejia, Stop Dividing Our City”. Mejia has been a vocal proponent of the Alembic proposal. Said Richie: “We are black, white, red, yellow, tall and short. And we all love our Newburgh!”
A petition circulated by opponents of the 2 Montgomery St. proposal had gained 456 signatures as of Tuesday.
EXCERPT FROM PETITION OPPOSED TO PRESENT ALEMBIC PROPOSAL:
We know that you love Newburgh as we do, and, with this letter, we hope to support your efforts. In this spirit, we propose the following actions:
Revoke Resolution 246-201, dated August 14, 2017, which gives the City Manager the authority to negotiate an agreement with Alembic.
Redesign the RFP process to place more importance on economic and fiscal improvement and sustainability for the City and improve the developer selection process.
Form a private-public economic partnership to augment city resources and help to improve the social and economic well-being of Newburgh’s citizens and stakeholders, help carry out the goals of Newburgh’s Master Plan, re-vision the development on the Waterfront, and help guide the City to enduring fiscal health over the next several years through innovative revenue generation.
Develop a new RFP for 2 Montgomery Street and work with private-public partners to stabilized and program the DRC and City Club
(Photos by Michael Lebron)