Despite delays, Kingston’s Irish Cultural Center gets another reprieve from building safety

The excavated site of the Irish Cultural Center in Kingston. (photo by Dion Ogust)

Neighbors refer to it as “the pit.” Excavated two years ago, the site of the Irish Cultural Center of the Hudson Valley (ICCHV), at 32 Abeel Street in Kingston’s Rondout, is an eyesore for those who venture up Company Path and has been a safety hazard for the neighboring properties. First proposed in 2011, the 16,000-square-foot structure, which would include a pub, exhibit space, 171-seat theater, and classrooms, is yet to be built.

A couple of times, its backers have gone through the process of approval, only to fail to properly renew or apply for the required building permit — and then got a reprieve from the city. The latest instance of this occurred in March, when the building safety department extended the ICCHV’s building permit, even though the ICCHV hadn’t done any work on the site, as the city code requires.

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The ICCHV received its building permit on June 18, 2019. According to City Code Chapter 172, Article 172-5:I, work must commence within six months of issuance of the permit, or the permit will be revoked. The ICCHV hadn’t done any work by mid-December, when six months had passed. The building safety and city engineering department extended the permit to June 17 of this year.

The decision to extend the permit was documented in a letter dated March 10 from Stephan Knox, city building safety director, to William Kearney, president of the ICCHV. Knox wrote that neither his department nor the city engineering department could confirm that work had been done at the site since issuance of the permit, and he cited the code that required this. But because “a review of building department files has not revealed an instance of its usage” — Chapter 172, Article 172-5:I was put on the books less than two years ago — Knox wrote that his department had determined “it would be unfair to arbitrarily enforce said Article by invalidating the building permit #19564 at this time.”

Meanwhile, the silt fencing at the site has collapsed in places. Temporary metal fencing along the perimeter has not been replaced after more than a year. A section of city-owned historic bluestone retaining wall along Company Path that collapsed due to the excavation still has not been repaired, as the Kingston planning board had required.

A group of citizens sent a letter to Common Council president Andrea Shaut on April 22 asking why the law wasn’t followed (this reporter was one of the signatories on the letter). The Common Council’s laws and rules committee discussed the building-permit extension at its May 20 meeting. Members of the committee agreed to investigate once it had more information.

Why wasn’t the law enforced?

“This is the first time we know of that the law was not enforced,” said Shaut at the meeting. “If the law is not strong enough to be enforced, as lawmakers we should consider amending it.”

Reynolds Scott-Childress, Ward 3 alderman, and Jeffrey Morell, chair of the committee and Ward 1 alderman, agreed to follow up by examining the legislation and contacting the building department for more information.

In a subsequent email, Morell wrote, “If it was a requirement for any new portion of the code to have a precedent in order to be enforceable, then no new portion of the code would be enforced, so I’m really interested to find out why he [Knox] came to this conclusion. And, if we find out that this portion of the code is in fact arbitrary, then we as lawmakers have a responsibility to look into amending it.”

In their letter, the residents challenged the city’s reasoning for extending the permit. “New codes could never meet this criteria,” it said. “The same is true of codes which are updated, since they obviously would have no precedent of usage either.”

“Building Safety isn’t following the law,” said Barbara Scott, a signatory of the letter. “Nowhere does it say these things are up for a discretionary decision. And they didn’t spell out their criteria as to how they came to that decision. It’s especially egregious because of the lack of straightforwardness the ICCHV developers have shown.”

ICCHV neighbors Owen and Hillary Harvey chose to bring up the issue with the Common Council, in the form of the letter, reasoning that as the city’s legislative body it is the Common Council that decides if a law is enforceable or not. “If there are safety laws in Kingston that are not enforceable, then the public is not safe, and the [Common] Council as the legislative body has the oversight to address that,” Owen Harvey wrote in an email.

‘Everything’s set’

Kingston assistant corporation counsel Dan Gartenstein’s contention that work was done on the site “is not factual,” Owen Harvey told this reporter. The March 10 letter to the ICCHV signed by Knox points to the ICCHV’s notable lack of progress, he said.

Knox’s letter to ICCHV’s Kearney acknowledges continuing hazards. “Regular inspection of the site, particularly following rainstorms, is still required with any severe erosion issues corrected immediately,” he wrote. “Site safety also remains a concern so security fencing must also be inspected frequently for stability.”

The building permit extension follows a string of decisions made by the city to approve the cultural center, located in a historic district. Though Abeel Street is zoned residential, the zoning board of appeals gave the ICCHV a zoning variance, claiming it abutted West Strand, which is zoned commercial (the site is adjacent to Company Hill path, which climbs the city-owned slope of land above West Strand). The city planning board gave the project a parking waiver, allowing it to have a fraction of the parking spaces a structure of that size would normally require. The zoning board of appeals overruled the city’s Historic Preservation Landmark Commission’s rejection of the ICCHV’s plan, which had been based on the building’s large size and failure to conform to the historic character of the area.

ICCHV president Kearney maintained the project was on track. “Everything’s set,” he said. “As soon as the state lets us” — presumably this week; the state’s prohibition on construction and other activities due to the Covid 19 virus will be lifted on May 26—“we’ll be ready to go on Phase One,” for the foundation and the building (an extension of the permit, which is for the foundation, would be required for the building). Kearney declined to provide details, beyond mentioning the ICCHV would apply for LEED certification. He said the project was “fully funded.”

Tom Hoffay, grants director for assemblymember Kevin Cahill, confirmed that the state assemblyman was still committed to helping fund the project. “Our office has been working closely with the Irish Cultural Center of the Hudson Valley to advance their project and secure the state grant for which they successfully applied some time ago,” Hoffay wrote in an email. “We are pleased to learn that the planning process and construction preparation is advancing, that they are seeking the highest level of environmental recognition for their project — LEED status =- and that they are proceeding apace, particularly in view of obstacles that they have been obligated to overcome by individual opponents of the project.”

Hoffay said he fully expected that the state grants secured for the organization will be fully awarded at the appropriate time. “Assemblymember Cahill continues to have full faith and confidence in ICCHV president William Kearney, as well as the almost exclusively volunteer team of professional contractors who are demonstrating great patience and fortitude in sticking with this project,” he said.

Rondout resident Scott had a different view of the project. “The general problem is the ICCHV has not operated in good faith. They haven’t been willing to negotiate in terms of what the neighborhood would like to see. They’ve never had enough money to make this a reality. This has been a fantasy project.”

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