Irish center hearing draws 34 speakers
Slightly more than half of the 34 people speaking at a Planning Board public hearing about the proposed Irish Cultural Center asked the city Planning Board to declare the Abeel Street project would have environmental impacts that would require mitigation or disqualify the project altogether.
Even some speakers who supported the project wondered whether having it on a residential street would change the character of the neighborhood.
“I am not opposed to a cultural center,” Susie Linn said during the Wednesday night hearing. “As a member of the city of Kingston Arts Commission, I believe that culture and arts are integral to our mission; Kingston is becoming
an amazing destination for people who are seeking arts and culture. But I believe the scale is too big. It needs to be dialed down a notch.”
The developers of the Irish Cultural Center said Wednesday that the proposed building at 32 Abeel St. would be narrowed by 3 feet, 2 inches and reduced by 1.5 feet in height. They said the building is anticipated to be reduced from 16,889 square feet to about 16,129 square feet — a 4.5 percent drop — but that they were waiting for final drawings before submitting the revision.
Within the center, the developers are planning to reduce:
• The seating capacity in the planned theater from 185 to 174.
• Banquet hall seating from 150 to 120.
• Pub seating from 80 to 70.
But the adjustments seemed to make no difference to at least 18 speakers at Wednesday’s hearing.
“I’d love to see it built, but I do fear the scale of it, and ... the number of functions they’re hoping to have in there seem like a grand scale beyond what we have space for,” Barbara Scott said.
Several speakers said they were concerned the facility would have a larger demand for use than developers are saying publicly.
“Is it a convention center or is it a cultural center?” Lynn Herring said.
“As ... someone who loves culture, I have no problem with the center,” she said. “It’s the way this center is designed, the size of it . ... It’s too big, it doesn’t look like it fits into the neighborhood. It’s going to completely change the fabric of our neighborhood.”
Some of the project’s supporters said the center would be an acknowledgment of an era in which the local economy centered on use of the nearby Rondout Creek.
“For those that know their history, the D&H Canal was the economic development engine for the Rondout in the 19th century and it employed thousands of people,” said former Kingston Alderman Tom Hoffay, an aide to state Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, D-Kingston, who has obtained state funding for the project.
“The headquarters for the western end of the canal ... stood on Company Hill Path, almost across from the proposed center,” Hoffay said. “It was on this path that literally hundreds of these immigrants would trod on payday, up the hill to the company paymaster’s house to receive their wages. Many of those employees were young Irish men fresh off the boat, poor and famished, fleeing the great hunger that ravaged their homeland.”
Arts Society of Kingston Executive Director Vindora Wixon said the center already has proven it can attract visitors with strong cultural programs that have been staged at the ASK facility on lower Broadway.
“The quality of the music and dancing is so extraordinary,” she said. “They bring them from Ireland ... and they were gold-medal-winning singers. Unbelievable. The respect and the reverence that they have for their culture, it’s so heartwarming.”
The group Irish Cultural Center Hudson Valley purchased the Abeel Street property from Alan and Ruth Bendelius, who say concerns about parking in the neighborhood should be resolved by city officials.
“In the mid-1980s, the city paid, I believe, $27,000 for a feasibility study to determine the future parking needs of the Rondout,” Ruth Bendelius said. “The Maritime Center (Hudson River Maritime Museum) was growing, the tour boat business was started . ... Growing pains started way back then for parking, and the city I guess ignored the feasibility study.”
Written comments about the Irish center project will be accepted through Oct. 12, and the Planning Board is scheduled to discuss the site plan at its Oct. 17 meeting.