The New Riverfront
Inside the great Hudson Valley waterfront development rush
By Steve Hopkins
The sound of heavy construction is ringing again on the banks of the Hudson River — but this time it’s homes that are being built, not factories.
Dozens of large waterfront housing projects are either under way or on the drawing boards in communities from Yonkers to Kingston. Hundreds of smaller projects, from cliff-top single-family homes to medium-sized subdivisions, are going up as fast as inundated local planning boards can approve them. Up and down the river, newly formed coalitions of residents and environmental groups are trying to have a hand in the review process, exploring factors such as traffic, density, green space, sustainability, and effects upon adjacent communities. Whether you’re for or against it, the impact of all this development is sure to be significant, and will change life in the Valley for the foreseeable future.
If residential development on the river can be considered a problem, it’s a welcome one compared to what came before. Not so long ago, the Hudson waterfront was a dirty, dangerous place, dominated by failing factories on the shore of a river that — having suffered through a century and a half of abuse — had become a toxic industrial sewer.
Thanks to the efforts of environmental groups and increasing help from the state and federal governments, those days are finally gone. Over the last 20 years, as the Hudson was allowed to clean itself, people have slowly become reacquainted with its glorious waterfront through the creation of new parks and the restoration of historic buildings. Villages, towns, and cities have developed waterfront revitalization plans. People are swimming in the Hudson again. Recreational boating and tourism have soared, along with the sale price of existing homes, especially those with river views.
During the mid-1990s, the newly invigorated Hudson Valley began to attract more and more people from New York City and environs — moneyed people, who came in even greater numbers after the terrorist attacks of September 11, and helped fuel one of the hottest real estate markets in the nation.
Once the old housing stock was snapped up, attention turned to development in formerly undesirable areas, including long-neglected post-industrial riverfront properties. Ned Sullivan, president of the Poughkeepsie-based river advocacy group Scenic Hudson, estimates that more than 15,000 units of housing are currently either under review or under construction along the river.
The largest of these are the $200 million, 850-unit Harbors at Haverstraw in Rockland County; and Lighthouse Landing at Sleepy Hollow, a massive 1,250-unit project on the site of an old General Motors plant. But so far, the mother of them all is The Landing at Kingston and Ulster. That proposal calls for 2,182 units and 200,000 square feet of commercial space to be built on 524 acres along a mile-and-a-half stretch of Kingston’s Hudson River waterfront.
Harbors at Haverstraw, the big luxury project going up just south of the middle-class Village of Haverstraw, is the work of Westchester-based Martin Ginsburg of Ginsburg Development Companies (GDC). It’s his most ambitious riverfront effort yet.
Ginsburg has thus far deflected most local criticism and the efforts of citizen and environmental groups to influence the planning process. “It’s a mixed-use development, in that we are incorporating a number of public amenities, including some restaurants, a garage, a museum, a ferry pier, a spa and an inn,” he says. “There’s going to be a mile and a half of promenade along the waterfront. There will be marinas and kayak launches and an estuary park.” And, perhaps, even a slip for cruise ships.
Haverstraw Mayor Francis “Bud” Wassmer considers the project his brainchild. “I was born and raised in Haverstraw,” says Wassmer, who remembers the village of his youth during the late 1940s as “Boomtown, U.S.A.,” even after the 42 riverfront brick factories had disappeared. “It really broke my heart when the village started to go into a tailspin.”
Wassmer was elected in 1995, and went right to work. “I started meeting with developers with the idea of converting those old industrial sites to beautiful living space,” he says. “I met with Martin Ginsburg in December of 1997, and by this time I had worked up a slide presentation to show my hopes and dreams for the revitalization of our downtown and our waterfront.”
According to Wassmer, Ginsburg saw his vision. “I said, â€˜Martin, look at our waterfront. Each of these old industrial properties are peninsulas. Nobody else has this on either side of the river.’ I said, â€˜You do this project, this will be your crowning achievement; this will be almost a template for waterfront development anywhere.’ I could see his eyes light up.”
What sets the Haverstraw development apart is its pedestrian-friendliness and its easy access to the metropolitan transit network via ferry service to the Metro-North station in Ossining. “You can live in Haverstraw, walk to the ferry, and in effect, walk to your job in New York City,” says the mayor. “Because it’s a walkable community, and because we have the ferry, we are reestablishing ourselves as a transportation hub, which is consistent with smart-growth communities,” he goes on. “Just the opposite of urban sprawl, where every hillside is covered with single-family houses, and everybody above the age of 16 has their own car. This kind of community makes total sense — and it’s really a joy to live here.”
There are plans, already partly implemented, for the $14 million promenade to link up with hiking trails that wend their way to the park in town and also connect with a planned birdwatching area in a wetland at the project’s southern end.
Ginsburg’s take on development seems to resemble that of an environmentalist. “I think that river towns… are realizing the potential of the Hudson River as a transportation corridor, as a tourist destination, and that’s really what we’re trying to do in Haverstraw,” says Ginsburg. His company has already built waterfront projects in Hastings, Dobbs Ferry, Yonkers, and Ossining (all in Westchester), and is planning another for Yonkers, more in Sleepy Hollow and Poughkeepsie, as well as “master-planning the waterfront” in Peekskill.
Ginsburg’s town houses and condos don’t come cheap, and are commonly snapped up by wealthy empty-nesters. “The price range in Peekskill is from the mid-300s to 600 [thousand dollars],” he says. “In Haverstraw, we are from around $300,000 to a million.” The 44 waterfront town houses in Sleepy Hollow called Ichabod’s Landing are “all in the million-plus price range.”
Like all big developers, Ginsburg does market studies. But he tends to trust his experience in the region to tell him when, what, and where to build. “There are really a relatively limited number of areas where you have the old industrial sites that are conducive to fairly intense redevelopment.â€¦ And the other areas — the natural, beautiful areas of the Hudson River — should be left the way they are,” he says. “You don’t want to change the appearance of the Highlands of the Hudson River. You don’t want to see condominiums climbing up the
Of course, just because Martin Ginsburg isn’t doing it doesn’t mean somebody else hasn’t. Ned Sullivan’s “virtual tour” slide show of aerial photos shows one particularly galling example: Corbin Hill in Fort Montgomery near the Bear Mountain Bridge and West Point. From across the river at Governor George Pataki’s house in Garrison, this housing complex looks like a raw wound in the green, undulating Hudson Highlands. “The landscape that defined America has been scarred forever here,” says Sullivan. “And if people don’t get involved, it’s going to be death by a thousand cuts.”
Slow Boat to Nirvana
Other public officials with vision have had a tougher row to hoe than Mayor Wassmer. In Sleepy Hollow, Westchester County, an empty General Motors plant sat idle from the time it closed in 1996 until it was demolished in 2000. In 2001, tired of waiting for GM to do something with the 97-acre waterfront site, Mayor Philip Zegarelli forced action by exercising the village’s option to buy the property, offering $12 million. That didn’t happen; GM and its developer partner, Roseland Property Co. of Short Hills, New Jersey, came up with enough of a preliminary plan to assuage the mayor. The village released its option in 2002, and things have been crawling along ever since. “There have been a lot of different proposals,” says Zegarelli. “We’re close, hopefully, to deciding what the whole package is going to look like. The final component will be a resolution as to what the amenities package for the village will be and what the total number of units at the site would be.”
The village, the developer, and the environmental people seem to be working together more smoothly in Sleepy Hollow than in any other community dealing with major development. Despite this cooperation, the GM/Roseland proposal has not been immune to a numbers game. The developers initially wanted 1,564 units, says Zegarelli. When that was rejected, they came back with “1,250 mixed, with a lot more town houses and condos versus apartments. I think it’s going to end up in the 1,100 area.”
The lower the number goes, the fewer senior and affordable housing units are in the package, which is another bone of contention. Still, Zegarelli is confident and upbeat. “You name it, it’s there,” he says. “Condos, apartments, town houses, business, a hotel — and the entire shoreline is going to be either parkland or open space.”
In case anybody ever wants to spend the money, there is also vacant space left in the plan to restore the flow of the Pocantico River; it was buried beneath the GM plant and other downtown development long ago. Scenic Hudson has a design to bring at least some of it back to the surface, coursing through the property amid surrounding green space, and is helping Zegarelli lobby for more affordable and senior units in the mix. “I’m born and raised here, so I’m very excited,” says the mayor.
Getting from here to there
Development in Kingston, which has been losing population over the last 20 years and is checkered with empty urban spaces crying out for reuse, is getting particularly hot, especially along its two waterfronts.
The former Tilcon cement plant property where AVR Realty of Yonkers is proposing to build The Landing is more than the industrial moonscape that the developer makes it out to be. The topography is dramatic, with soaring limestone cliffs, caves, man-made quarry lakes, and breathtaking Hudson Valley views. Since the cement operation closed, much of the 524 acres has become a home to birds and wildlife (including teens, who have painted every slab of cement with graffiti murals). It’s a wild, modern-day Jurassic Park.
AVR has dubbed its project “The Landing at Kingston and Ulster” because it straddles a portion of the neighboring Town of Ulster as well as a significant hunk of Kingston’s river frontage. It’s slated to include a waterfront pedestrian path, a marina and boat launch, a canoe and kayak launch, and waterfront shops and restaurants. The site is adjacent to another large riverfront proposal to the south, which was recently placed before the beleaguered city planning board: 369 housing units and 60,000-square-feet of commercial/office space at an old brickyard. Its developer, 771 Polaris Ltd. of Ohio, has named it Sailor’s Cove.
In addition, retired Brooklyn attorney Robert Iannucci has been quietly buying old industrial properties along the shore of deepwater Rondout Creek, which empties into the Hudson south of where the Sailor’s Cove and The Landing projects are planned. He is interested in creating a vibrant, mixed-use development that complies with the city’s recently completed waterfront plan. It might include a working steamboat-building museum; a sort of Mystic Seaport for tugboats, barges, and other river transportation; shops and restaurants; and, of course, scores of additional condos on a former industrial site on a peninsula in the creek.
If approved and constructed as planned, The Landing and Sailor’s Cove could increase the population of Kingston by 20 to 25 percent over the next 10 to 15 years. That’s 5,000 or so reasonably wealthy souls transplanted to what (until recently) has been some remarkably resilient blue-collar soil. This change in demographics is what motivates both the project’s boosters and its detractors. The former point to a potential annual tax windfall from a largely childless population, while the latter fear that a ripple effect of escalating rents and property taxes eventually will price Kingston’s blue-collar core right out of the housing market. Critics are also concerned that both projects are far too large for their locations and would overwhelm the city’s sewer system and local roads.
Primarily a real estate firm that owns and manages commercial properties, AVR cut its residential developer’s teeth in Newburgh and Fishkill, where it has completed 260 units with another 250 underway. Two subdivisions in New Windsor in Ulster County are in the planning stages. Although admirable, AVR’s inclusion of features meant to satisfy the expected call for public access hasn’t been sufficient to ward off criticism. A coalition called Friends of Kingston Waterfront (FoKW) is spearheaded by Scenic Hudson and includes other river advocacy organizations, including Hudson River Heritage,
Clearwater, Riverkeeper, the Sierra Club, Sustainable Hudson Valley, and local groups Friends of Historic Kingston and Friends of Rondout. The aim of the coalition is not so much to oppose the project as to encourage the developers and the planning board to accept ideas culled from hundreds of hours of community meetings.
FoKW recently submitted its own alternative to AVR’s proposal. Among other things, it called for a sharp reduction in the number of units (to 650); smaller, shorter buildings; and the creation of two central mixed-use community “nodes,” one of which would be shared with Sailor’s Cove. The FoKW plan assumes that both new neighborhoods would blend architecturally with the 19th-century urban feel of the community.
Naturally, this sort of second-guessing is not welcomed by the developer or Kingston Mayor James Sottile, who supports the project. Reported as less than enamored with Scenic Hudson’s role during the long and divisive comment period, Sottile has softened his tone of late. “I think the process so far has been a positive one,” he says. “I think the project that will be approved here will be a much better project because the public participated at the level that it did.”
Indeed, AVR has acquiesced to scaling back the density somewhat, perhaps to the 1,750-unit range, although there are indications that the planning board may require the count to go lower.
The developer bristles at being told what to do by a community coalition. “The fact of the matter is, Scenic Hudson is Scenic Hudson. Friends of Kingston Waterfront are Kingstonians,” says Dan Simone, AVR’s director of design development. “There are a lot of valid ideas, which we will definitely draw from. But I’m not embracing Scenic Hudson’s plans for the site, because they’re not builders and developers.
“We understand the desire of a lot of people to keep this historically tuned in nature to the City of Kingston,” adds Simone. “But we don’t think that recreating the past necessarily complements the past, because how they did it 100 years ago or 200 years ago, we could never do it today. We’d be kidding ourselves.”
Deborah Meyer DeWan disagrees. The former director of Scenic Hudson’s Riverfront Communities Program and a longtime Kingstonian says: “There are other options than cookie-cutter, easy-to-build blocks of condos, but that requires people who are willing to make the investment and show some imagination. I believe communities have a lot more power than they utilize to shape development and to inform developers.”
Against the odds
The business of building housing in the Hudson Valley is indeed being modified by pressure from activists and local municipalities. Some projects are more immune to tinkering than others. And some have persevered despite the sort of pounding that must have made the developers want to pack up their shovels and go home.
One such project is Hudson Park, a 266-unit rental property built — after many years and much wrangling — by Collins Enterprises near the historic Main Street Pier in Yonkers. The nine-story structure is set back from the waterfront to accommodate a park featuring a walkway and sculpture garden. A second phase of 298 units in two buildings is in the approval stage. The original plan called for six 38-story towers and no public riverfront access. Scenic Hudson sued and Collins settled, allowing the river advocate to become a partner in designing the development that exists today.
Ginsburg’s Livingston Ridge in Dobbs Ferry took more than a dozen years to get through the approval process. Village officials had to contend with the planned siting of 24 luxury town houses and condos on a steep slope overlooking a riverfront park, which obscured the views of the project’s neighbors. Also in Dobbs Ferry is The Landing, 104 luxury town homes and a private beach on 45 acres. Built by developer Louis Cappelli’s Summit Residential, the project survived a furious protest by the Friends of Wicker Creek Archaeological Site, who were angry that the development was too close to a place where numerous Indian artifacts had been found.
In Ossining, Cappelli and Ginsburg are teaming up to build 150 upmarket condos and 10,000 square feet of retail space on just four and a half acres, an announcement that is already setting off a small firestorm of opposition.
Then there’s Somerset Development’s Esopus Lake project in Ulster County, which seeks to piggyback on approvals for a similar development proposed more than 10 years ago by Ken Silver of Woodstock. The weak local economy of the mid-1990s scotched the earlier effort, and the new team has positioned itself as the model of all-inclusive planning. They held a weeklong design “charrette” about a year ago, coming up with a neo-traditional cluster of 360 housing units on a 345-acre site once in the running for the United Nations headquarters. Late in 2005, Somerset raised the ante to 520 units.
Which brings us back to Kingston, where residents like Ann Loeding are attempting to maintain a sense of history, culture, and community in the face of The Landing project.
Loeding lives with her partner Gary Matthews, a railroad engineer, in the cement company’s old headquarters, on a small street not far from where The Landing might be. A tugboat captain, she and Matthews are restoring a tug they dragged up from the Rondout Creek. She was originally dead-set against any development on the riverfront, but changed her tune when her group, Friends of Rondout, joined forces with FoKW.
“I now see that development, if thoughtful and appropriate, can be good,” says Loeding. “This development, however, is neither.” She has suggested creating a trail that would connect Kingston’s two waterfronts. “This is all Newark Lime & Cement Company stuff down here; it was one of the biggest cement companies in the country,” she says. “All this history is stuck back in the woods. If we want to base our new economy on tourism, well, we have it here. All you have to do is link it together in such a way that people can see it.”
Loeding is not from Kingston; she and Matthews moved up here 13 years ago from Brooklyn. Once outsiders, the couple are now Kingstonians through and through. Their commitment to their adopted community suggests that an influx of 5,000 luxury condo owners in town might not change Kingston’s soul after all.