In July 2016, the city of Plattsburgh was one of the first cities in New York state to receive a $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative – or DRI – grant. Much of the development funds target the Durkee Street Parking lot. But controversy surrounds the city’s decision to award a contract to a private developer that will result in the loss of the city’s primary parking lot. Opponents of the plan protested in front of City Hall Thursday evening.
Several designs had been considered for the 3.4-acre Durkee Street parking site adjacent to the downtown. City leaders recently reached an agreement with Prime Companies of Cohoes to build a mixed use commercial and residential center. Nearly 300 parking spaces will be lost and a parking committee is reviewing ways to compensate.
Several groups have formed that are opposed the development plans. Save The Durkee Street Lot protested Thursday evening outside City Hall during the City Council meeting. As they began gathering Councilor Rachelle Armstrong greeted them and Mayor Colin Read came out with a box of Italian cookies. The gestures didn’t diminish Sylvie Beaudreau’s feeling that the development has deviated from its original intent. “There’s some serious problems with the way that the future of this city is being decided. In the beginning we were presented with a plan that seemed to have a diversity of different things that would revitalize that Durkee Street lot that is now occupied by a parking lot and the community was more or less interested in that more diverse plan. And then over time the plans kept shift shifting until suddenly in the end the deal was inked and what we were getting was a plan that only included a real estate development. I fail to see how a real estate development is going to revitalize Plattsburgh. It’s just going to be a building.”
“My name is Liz Allen. I haven’t met anybody who supports this idea. You’re not revitalizing downtown. Walk down Clinton Street. That needs revitalization. A parking lot that we all use to get to our jobs, to get to stores. That does not need revitalization. That’s doing its job. We don’t need apartments and empty retail space. We just we don’t need it. Listen to us. Don’t listen to a corporation that’s all about money.”
Inside City Hall as the council meeting neared its end Ward 3 Democrat Elizabeth Gibbs read a joint council statement regarding the protesters’ concerns. “There is strong support for the thoughtful redevelopment of the Durkee lot. In addition to improving the tax base it will bring in dozens of young professionals, retirees and families to live, work, eat and shop in our downtown. Simply stated the best use of this prime location is not a parking lot. The city is planning alternate parking and plans will be in place before the developers break ground.”
A small group of protesters remained at the bottom of City Hall steps following the meeting. Ward 1’s Armstrong and Ward 5’s Patrick McFarlin, both Democrats, engaged them in a fervent discussion.
Protester: “You are witnessing public opposition to this project and somehow you are stonewalling us and telling us that we don’t have a right to be concerned.”
McFarlin: “What stonewalling have you faced?”
Protester: “The strong groups committee presented a petition opposing the project and this was simply dismissed.”
Armstrong: “What I do mind is that I walked up to you ….”
Armstrong: “Hold on let me just finish! I walked up to you and offered to have the forum that you asked to have when I came out to your protest. But then things got pretty confrontational. I did not do well with that.”
In the midst of the encounter downtown business owner Saverio Minardi arrived and lashed out at the councilors. “I pay $2600 a year extra for that parking lot and now you guys you give it away for a dollar to somebody from out of town. I’ve got tenants. Where they gonna park on top of my building? Sorry we pay taxes. We make your paychecks. You should listen to us.”
McFarlin: “We do listen to you.”
Minardi: “Well apparently not because you guys are going to go and do it anyway.”
McFarlin: “There is going to be more than enough parking for your…”
Minardi: “No there isn’t! We went through the numbers and everything else. There is not enough parking.”
Mayor Read, who did not converse with the protesters, said earlier that the public process has been working well since the grant was announced. “No one’s come to me. There have been a number of public forums which I’ve attended. This is a process driven thing. It’s not run out of my office and I think that process has been working well. By the way we shouldn’t at all underestimate this private partner’s role in making our downtown more vibrant in revitalizing it. Their investment of between 20 and 25 million dollars I understand is the single biggest private investment of any investor of any DRI community in the entire state of New York. So I consider us to be very fortunate.”
Opponents of the Durkee Street development plan to protest in front of City Hall every Thursday during the City Council meeting.
Full text of Mayor and Council Statement provided by the Plattsburgh Mayor's office and Councilor Rachelle Armstrong:
There is strong support for the thoughtful re-development of the Durkee Lot, which represents an approximately $25,000,000 investment in our downtown. In addition to improving the tax base, it will bring in dozens of young professionals, retirees, and families to live, work, eat, and shop in our downtown. But for some, change isn’t easy. We hope those that oppose this project recognize that Council makes decisions within the context of our responsibility to make Plattsburgh economically viable, sustainable, and affordable. As all prior and current City Councils know, the City is constrained by a tax base made up of 35% tax-exempt properties. Relying on 15 years of research producing 18 studies (all listed on the City website), in 2016, the City applied for the New York State Downtown Revitalization Grant. In July of 2016, we were awarded $10 million by the State with the goal of leveraging public monies to obtain private investment. Next, a Local Planning Committee (LPC) composed of local leaders was appointed. The multi-faceted process to select DRI projects included public engagement events and the State’s award was anchored, in large part, on the redevelopment of the Durkee Lot. Simply stated, the best use of this prime location is not a parking lot.
We disagree with the unfounded claim that this project has no public support. This assertion is apparently based upon one public meeting held at SUNY in which participants were asked to discuss the priority project list and then “vote” for their preferences with stickers. During this session, the opposition states that “only 1-2% of the participants ranked the development of the Durkee St Lot (DSL) their top preference.” The group also claims that, “[r]esults were never reported to the State,” and that the LPC’s report, “falsely claimed public support for developing [it].”
These assertions reduce the notion of public support to a limited quantity entirely measured on the basis of feedback from about 40 out of 180 people who attended four Community Workshops—in a City with a population of nearly 20,000 people. Further, this feedback was not the product of formal research methods. These session results were combined with the results of the many other means of collecting public input, such as surveys and focus groups, as well as the 18 studies described above.
Further, there is no evidence that NYS intended this public meeting sticker survey to be the sole criteria by which the LPC would make recommendations to the state. The LPC considered their experience as community leaders and their knowledge of research and planning documents. The LPC’s job was not to count votes, but to consider them and then act as leaders who were designated representatives.
Opponents prefer that DRI grants be invested in existing downtown buildings. However, The LPC knew, as did the Council, that the Durkee Street Real Estate Market Analysis and Financial Feasibility Study (April, 2016) state that the Durkee lot “is one of few remaining developable properties in the city’s urban core, which gives this site a unique opportunity for new construction, as most others in the downtown area would entail rehabilitation of existing buildings.” However, because the LPC and the NY DOS also recognized that this kind of investment was necessary, it also awarded the City $1 million in renovation grants to downtown property owners. Further, the State awarded additional money in an attempt to study and re-develop the lands surrounding the City Marina.
In a recent FaceBook post, the SavetheDurkeeParkingLot, group asserts that building on the lot is a “senseless development and it is environmentally irresponsible to build there, and that they are “getting neither green spaces nor amenities for local citizens but a bunch of “high end’ apartments we just don’t need." They overlook studies that suggest the need for new housing serving diverse residents, and that existing housing is below par, serving students, primarily.
Among the many benefits of having diverse residents who live downtown, these new residents will enjoy a walk-able community. Bringing new residents to the area will mean new patrons who won’t need parking spaces when they patronize downtown businesses. Park space and a pedestrian/ bicycle path along the river will afford views that have never been available to the public at that location.
The City is planning alternate parking, and plans will be in place before the developers break ground. Why insist on preserving a lot situated on prime real estate—not the highest and best purpose for 3.5 acres of prime, undeveloped potential? Paid parking will generate revenue for fixing sidewalks and maintaining parking lots, revenue that we’ve not had before. More importantly, the primary goal of paid parking is to promote an efficient and high functioning parking system that will ensure that parking is convenient for those who need it, but is not burdensome on development of our downtown core. All of this helps our businesses to thrive. Producing revenue to fix sidewalks and improve our neighborhoods is a happy side effect.
Finally we offer this article: “We Don’t Really ‘Need” This Parking Lot” (Strong Towns, 2017). Charles Marohn states, “[w]e don’t need a parking lot as badly as we need our city to become financially strong and healthy. If we shift our obsession from having adequate space to store cars to having a tax base to cover our expenses, all kinds of new ideas become possible. That’s what building Strong Towns is all about.”