ALEMBIC DOWN AND OUT
By Edie Johnson
It’s been 2 years since The City of Newburgh put out an RFP (Request for Proposals) that bundled two historic sites – the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) and The City Club – together with a 2 acre parcel – a part of the larger 31 acre grassy knoll left behind from urban renewal that constituted the Leyland/Duany proposal of 2008 – at 2 Montgomery Street. By bundling the historic sites together with the potentially very profitable lot with spectacular river views, it was hoped that the historic structures would be saved.
But the city put out the RP shortly before the holidays, gave only a two month deadline for the response so it received only three responses.
The city accepted Alembic Community Development’s proposal for a project that included supportive housing for the disabled, affordable and market rate housing, and commercial use. Alembic would pay $300 for the site and would make $8M in fees.
The proposal proved to be immediately controversial.
Landlords, business owners, and homeowners cried foul. At a time when the city still cannot afford to pay many of its own bills yet imposed high taxes, they said that the city should not give away its most valuable real estate without getting real income from it in return. While no one is opposed to affordable housing, the city must first put itself on sound economic footing before it can embark on worthy social goals. They argued that a better place to start on the affordable housing problem would be to go after the slumlords, enforce building codes and revitalize the already existing but distressed housing stock.
But supporters argued that the city was suffering from a shortage of quality affordable housing and needed this project. They accused detractors of racism and insisted that the poor deserved a room with a view too.
However, in the spring, HUD issued a directive to The Newburgh Housing Authority (NHA), saying that the census tract that included the proposed development site already had too much low income housing, and said that the NHA should be directing the use of Section 8 vouchers to the surrounding communities of New Windsor and The Town of Newburgh.
Both sides marshaled their supporters to city council meetings that sometimes degenerated to angry shouting matches.
Given the important and complicated issues involved, it was ironic to see the issue go out with a whimper on a technicality.
On Monday, the Council passed Resolution No. 303 – 2018, which rescinded Resolution No. 246-2017 and rejected all proposals received for the redevelopment of the DRC, City Club and 2 Montgomery Street by a vote of 4 in support, 2 in abstention, and 1 against.
Councilperson Grice said that he would like to see housing legislation emerge as a way of clarifying the playing field before the city embarks on new housing initiatives. For Councilperson Jacobson, the numbers just weren’t there. Councilperson Sofokles said that Alembic was welcome to put forward a new proposal for the next RFP, but that it was time to move forward. The mayor promised to go after slumlords, was saddened by the way the process tore the community apart, and hoped for a time of healing.
Councilwoman Mejia was the sole vote against the resolution to kill the Alembic proposal. It was a letter from the lawyer of one of the property owners that pointed out that in order for the council to sell any city owned property, city law required that 4/5 of the council had to approve. With 7 members, that meant 6 had to give the thumbs up. It was on this sword that the deal was finally impaled.
She by closed saying that she wasn’t going away and quoted Caesar Chavez: “Si se puede!” to the roars of her supporters, many if not most of them from Community Voices Heard (CVH).
But the people of the community who pay the bills felt they were not included. One of them suggested that moving forward, it might be best that the council take heed of one of Caesar’s other quotes: “If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him… the people who give you their food give you their heart. They can start by visiting some of the homes of people who opposed the project, homes that people are restoring with their own sweat, and begin the conversation that makes Newburgh a place for all stakeholders, where ‘Si, se puede, porque aqui escuchamos a todos los que representan el Pueblo.’ (yes, we can, because here we listen to everyone).”