March 24, 2019

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New York City Transplants and a River Town’s Natives Fight for Its Soul

New York City Transplants and a River Town’s Natives Fight for Its Soul
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One day in the spring of 2017, an art exhibit of sorts went up at 344 Main Street in Beacon, N.Y. A local artist had festooned the fence surrounding the building, under construction, with printouts of a Facebook post that had generated 1,000 comments. The post concerned the front wall of the building, which encroached six feet into the sidewalk. The comments were not positive.

“The sidewalk was reduced to two feet,” said Dan Aymar-Blair, a resident of Beacon. “A woman with a baby carriage wouldn’t even be able to get past it.”

“It was a flash point,” he recalled recently. “A bunch of our neighbors started looking into what construction is planned, what’s at the planning board, what kind of projects are being discussed, and we discovered that there were a thousand new units coming online.”

Beacon, recently remade from a faded industrial city on the Hudson River into a bohemian weekend destination around 2003 with the arrival of Dia:Beacon, one of the largest modern art museums in the United States, is now either selling out to gentrification or reclaiming its midcentury stride, depending on whom you ask.

During the last year, the City of Beacon Planning Board reviewed proposals for the construction of more than a dozen properties, from a 29-unit live-work space for artists to a 307-unit apartment development dubbed “Edgewater.”

These in addition to the Lofts at Beacon Falls, the rentals above the restored movie theater on Main Street, the proposed Factories at Madame Brett Park apartments, among other developments. The future of such construction is currently being contested by residents and developers alike, with 344 Main Street having sparked the ongoing debate.

After the artistic statement at 344 Main, its front wall was torn down and the construction was aligned with the storefront of the neighboring organic market. The sidewalk was restored to its full width. But residents’ questions about development only grew, and to many, 344 Main symbolized what couldn’t be allowed to pass again.

Formerly a deli and three adjacent homes, 344 Main Street was sold by Beacon’s city government to Sean O’Donnell, a local developer, in December 2013. According to Mr. O’Donnell, the original properties were in arrears and offered as part of a “Request for Proposal,” in which municipalities solicit bids for redevelopment. Public records reveal that the properties were sold together for $5,000 with the stipulation that they be replaced by a five-story mixed-use building.

Mr. O’Donnell is a native of the area, born in Cold Spring and now a resident of Fishkill. For him, 344 Main was a chance to return Beacon to its original heights. He describes the city during his parents’ and grandparents’ time, when it was an industrial center and Main Street was lined with tall, stately brick buildings. He laments how postindustrial urban decay took hold of Beacon in the 1960s, rendering central Main Street derelict, and urban renewal cleared the way for stout, one-story constructions in the ’70s.

“A lot of people who are here now don’t remember what the town looked like in the ’50s,” Mr. O’Donnell said, who was born in 1965. “We were trying to recreate that.” He believes that native Beaconites want the city to return to its former glory, while recent transplants resent it for changing the rustic escape — they found when they first arrived.

For the past 16 years or so, since Dia:Beacon opened its doors, the small city along the Metro-North Railroad, has been attracting transplants. Dia:Beacon was enticed by a vestige of the city’s industrial past: a 300,000-square-foot former Nabisco box factory near the banks of the Hudson River. Each year, about 65,000 visitors visit the cultural venue. Many of them linger afterward to stroll Beacon’s charming Main Street.

Some visitors are so taken that they decide to relocate. Mr. Aymar-Blair, in fact, moved to Beacon from New York City in February 2013, after he and his wife had been searching up and down the Hudson Valley for somewhere more family-friendly to raise their young child.

“We were here,” he said, “and there was a sudden snowfall. We were at the diner, and it just brought me back to my childhood in Saratoga, and I was like, ‘Yeah, this is the place.’”

Following the sidewalk intrusion of 344 Main Street, Mr. Aymar-Blair and his neighbors formed the People’s Committee on Development to push for, in his words, “right-sized development.” The committee researched 344 Main and other planned constructions, discovering the scale of development coming to Beacon. They learned that in a five-square-mile city of only 14,000 residents, the local planning board was reviewing proposals for the construction of more than 600 new residential units.

The size of individual projects was a particular concern. Aside from 344 Main Street, two other buildings were rising on the city’s main thoroughfare, and all were set to be two to three times the height of their neighbors.

“Everything was out of scale,” Mr. Aymar-Blair said. “It made no sense.”

Concerned about the impact that all of this construction would have on Beacon’s aesthetic, as well as its environment and infrastructure, the People’s Committee on Development lobbied the City Council to adopt a six-month moratorium on development, which it did in September 2017. The moratorium halted construction, allowing residents time to push for a comprehensive rezoning plan, which is still in the works.

Around that time, Mr. O’Donnell ended his involvement in 344 Main Street, saying that he was “a little burned after the whole approval process.” That didn’t mean the end of the development at 344 Main, though; the moratorium did not affect projects already underway, and Mr. O’Donnell sold the property to another developer, Berry Kohn, in December 2017 for $6.1 million, according to public records.

From 2017 to 2018, Mr. Kohn oversaw the completion of 344 Main Street, which now stands at four stories with 24 apartments and ground-level retail space. A former Brooklynite who now lives nearby in Rockland County, Mr. Kohn was drawn to develop in Beacon for many of the same reasons cited by other recent transplants: proximity to New York City, an impressive art scene and a lively, walkable Main Street. While discussing the attraction of Beacon in a local coffee shop, he gestured to the full house of patrons chatting among themselves and said, “People just want to live in a culture where — this!”

Mr. Kohn acknowledged that 344 Main is perhaps out of scale with the rest of Main Street, but he maintains it’s the way of the future. All but seven apartments in the building are occupied, renting from $2,600 to $3,600, close to three times the average price for an apartment in town, according to the latest figures from the Census Bureau.

As transplants from New York continue to arrive, they will look for modern residential buildings with urban amenities, such as loft-style apartments, rooftop lounges, and in-house workout facilities, over the single-family homes that make up most of Beacon today, he said.

Unlike Mr. O’Donnell, Mr. Kohn maintains that Beacon’s newest residents, rather than its oldest, are in favor of buildings like 344 Main Street.

“There’s younger people and older people who want different things,” he said. “You can’t satisfy everybody. It’s a different style, a different era. And for the same reason that we have all of these new apartments in Brooklyn, in Manhattan, in Queens, they want them over here as well.”

The moratorium won by the People’s Committee on Development expired in March of 2018. Since then, the committee has supported an ongoing rezoning initiative taken up by the City Council, which would limit the height of new construction, recategorize commercial, residential, and industrial use areas, and protect historic landmarks.

Amid the dozen new proposals that have since been reviewed by the planning board, projects have appeared that will make 344 Main Street look small, such as Edgewater, a 12-acre, seven-building, 307-unit development on the Hudson River in the northwestern part of the city. The developers behind Edgewater have pitched their project as attracting millennials with amenities like a co-working space, and it is currently making its way through the local planning board.

Whether returning Beacon to its heyday or rebuilding its cityscape in anticipation of newcomers, the developers have a vision to advance. Residents may disagree and continue to fight against what they see as the destruction of their city, but even they recognize that they need to provide a comprehensive alternative for Beacon’s future.

“The culture of development needs to shift in Beacon,” Mr. Aymar-Blair said. “A town with the success that we’ve had has every right to be in the driver’s seat about what gets built in this town and not, and to be influential over what we need and what we want and what is going to serve the public interest. We need a vision. We still lack a vision of what we want Beacon to look like in, say, 15 years.”



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