NEWBURGH AT CROSSROADS
Alembic Project protesters and picketing firefighters pack the Activity Center
By Edie Johnson
Newburgh council meetings, especially the ones on hot topics, are always an odd and sometimes touching mixture of heated debate, intellectual proffering and assertions of the need for continued brotherhood and unity. This one varied from intellectual discussion of sustainability and focused problem-solving to the beginning of a shoving match that very nearly erupted into a brawl. Chief Doug Soloman and several officers urged activist Omari Shakur and some protesters who were arguing about whether the debate was race-related or not to settle down. Shakur later apologized for his outburst to his “brothers in blue”, who then stood among the protesters for most of the remaining meeting. About 100 speakers each stood and gave a 3-minute perspective. It included a young challenged man who works at Target and is nearly blind. He wants to know how people like himself will able to live in Newburgh in decent housing. His mom very nervously spoke in Spanish, so he returned and put his arm around her to help give her the courage to continue. The Alembic Project Manager and Architect were there to listen after meeting a deadline last Thursday to resubmit a reasonably finished proposal.
This particular session was designed as an opportunity for the public to give their views on the current status of a 3-part proposal for renovation of the Dutch Reformed Church, a Civic Center, and a high-density rent-affordable housing complex planned for a 2-acre site at 2 Montgomery Place, part of a much larger 31-acre tract of undeveloped city-owned property near the downtown area that overlooks the Hudson River and was once the subject of a much larger proposal by Duany Partners and the Leyland alliance 10 years ago.
“Waterfront is Prime Property, We will not Allow It.”
Opponents posed several arguments for this plan that has been around in various iterations for about 18 months. Complaint #1 was that despite the project being one with the potential to bring in the 2nd largest tax benefit in the City, it would still “only” be ($330,000) into the city coffer and by the end the developer walks off with $8 million. By the time added infrastructure costs are considered in the mix (roads, fire protection, schooling, EMS, DPW, health services), it would very likely be “net negative” i.e. would not provide any significant earnings. Add to that the likely PILOT benefits the Alembic company would get, and the “Net Negative” would be even larger. They demanded a FULL Fiscal Analysis for a tweaked project that would come out “net tax positive”. Complaint #2 was that the proposal was too complex and diversified and that each portion should be separated out and rebid. Complaint #3 was that the City needs decent jobs more than it needs more affordable housing, and that in fact this proposal includes mostly units that would not be affordable to many in need. In fact, several speakers said they wondered who in the world would rent a unit at over $3,000/month that would have neighbors with criminal records and some with charges of past sexual abuse, when for that monthly payment you could own a fancy house outright. They suggested that many of the “upscale” condo units would never be sold, and that the buildings could well end up being filled by the poor from Middletown, Port Jervis and elsewhere in the state under Section 8 housing plans. Former mayoral candidate Gay Lee said “For too long Newburgh has been the dumping ground for Orange County. They (the poor) come here because we have Social Services. We must put an end to this. Waterfront is prime property and we are not going to allow it.” Take any couple of blocks that are already in the downtown area. The City currently owns 700 abandoned buildings. Renovate those. Start by showing us what you can do there. We can’t be the City of Neglect anymore.”
But while some felt one of the most beautiful remaining sites in the City should be saved for a more fiscally positive project, others said, “Why shouldn’t the poor have a beautiful river view?”). Complaint #4 was that the process was flawed from the outset, and that the original RFP’s (Requests for Proposals) were sent out during holiday weeks, and did not even reach many potential developers in time for a response. #5 A group of professional organizers that calls themselves “Community Voices Heard” wanted assurances that the project would include ongoing training for workers from the City of Newburgh, the kind that would improve their lives in the long term.
#6 The time frame is unrealistic. With this proposal scheduled for buildout over 10-15 years, they said “By then many of us won’t even be here.”
Others told of the need to “make things right” because of the sins of new urbanism in the past, particularly around the 2 Montgomery site where ultimately homes were replaced with what became urban slums. The council, they said, should also consider the tax losses that the City incurs because of expansions at Mount St. Mary College.
In all, about 90% of the speakers were against the Alembic Project as currently designed.
Mayor Torrence Harvey forewarned the speakers that this was a “Listening Session”, and that no responses would be given from council members. He also noted that this new board will be taking its time to review the proposal and discuss their feedback intently, and that the council would NOT be taking a vote on Alembic any time soon.
(Photo by Brian Wolfe)