Architect Scott Dutton first visited Kingston, N.Y.—a Hudson River town 90 miles north of New York City—after graduating from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Fresh with architecture credentials, yet saddled with empty pockets, Dutton left New York looking for a less expensive place to call home. “I came up to the Hudson Valley one weekend and that was it,” he says. “I remember the moment distinctly: This was home. There was something about the architecture of the city of Kingston that drew me in.”
Dutton visited in the summer of 1994. He’s been living and working in Kingston ever since.
“In 1999, buildings in the Midtown area of the city were selling for four, five dollars a square foot, and just about everything was for sale,” he says. Dutton stumbled upon a vacant 28,000-square-foot brick building in the heart of Kingston. He cobbled together financing sources, borrowing $10,000 for a down payment and attracting attention (and an additional loan) from the Kingston Local Development Corp. and eventually other local banks to acquire and begin the rehab of the property. Dutton grew attached to the adaptive reuse project—one of many that his firm has completed—to the point of moving his office into the building. After lobbying for and receiving a residential zoning variance, his family followed.
“People thought I was nuts,” he says. Yet businesses started moving in, and in a few years seven new companies occupied Dutton’s building alone. Other businesses started popping up around the neighborhood, and residents, too. “Slowly, one by one, I started to see more lights on in second- and third-floor windows,” he says.
Zoning restraints weren’t the only reason those lights had been dark. Kingston, like many Hudson Valley towns, had seen its economic underpinnings shift, altering its development patterns and points of growth. The city’s history is, in many respects, the history of its transportation.
“Even before European settlement, Kingston was an important hub of trading routes for the native Esopus people. Following the arrival of the first European explorers, the Hudson River, with its radiating tributaries and canals, emerged as a superhighway for goods and settlers into the interior of the continent,” says Tim Weidemann, senior economic developer for the Ulster County Office of Economic Development. “The [Delaware and Hudson] canal had a relatively short life but defined the Rondout, N.Y., area in its early growth, and later in its decline.”
Rondout grew as an independent port city, taking advantage of its prime position as a natural port where Rondout Creek spits into the Hudson River. Railroads, and then cars, would supplant the predominance of Kingston’s river connections. And as preferred transportation modes changed, the vitality of the Rondout community was challenged by massive urban renewal works.
Lynn Woods, co-director of the film Lost Rondout: A Story of Urban Removal, which acts as a definitive document of this period in Kingston, notes that local historian Edwin Ford said the city received $35 million dedicated to urban renewal. Equal amounts were doled out for projects focused on the Uptown Stockade district, home to the city’s colonial-era stone building stock and a still extant urban plan drafted by Peter Stuyvesant; and to Rondout, located downtown. (The two areas, which were once separate cities, are connected by the 4-mile-long Broadway corridor in the Midtown district; many of the displaced people moved to Midtown, which suffers from high rates of poverty.)
Rondout, whose advantageous harbor would become an economic afterthought that betrayed the surrounding dense, vibrant, and close-knit community, bore the brunt of demolition, losing nearly 500 ante- and post-bellum structures. This included “the nerve center of the old city, the Cornell Building,” Woods says, referencing what was the headquarters of the Cornell Steamboat Co., once Rondout’s most prominent business. A four-lane arterial highway and bridge crossing Rondout Creek was constructed after the demolition, bypassing the fragment of the old city. It looms over the neighborhood like a concrete finger shaming the port below.
Beyond the architectural loss of Rondout, the displacement of residents foisted upon an integrated working-class neighborhood— comprised mainly of African-Americans, Jews, and the descendants of the Italians, Poles, and other ethnicities that had immigrated to the area in the previous century— instituted a forced segregation, especially as replacement housing meant to keep residents in place was foiled by restrictive covenants or proved illusory.
“Urban renewal basically wiped out downtown,” Woods says, speaking of the devastating impact on Rondout. “At that time, all the economic activity was moving to Uptown.” She notes that while businesses had been moving from downtown to Uptown since the late 1950s, “urban renewal was certainly the nail in the coffin.”
In the Stockade, urban renewal was mainly a program of selective demolition to accommodate parking structures. “Kingston is like two cities that always competed with each other,” Woods says. “Clearly Uptown won out, though its shopping district would in turn become obsolete, replaced by strip malls. Only in the last five years, with Brooklynites migrating en masse to Kingston, has it recovered.”
Urban renewal is often considered a fissure between one era and another, with top-down prescriptions delivered onto an unwitting populace and landscape. Yet seen through the prism of Kingston’s history as a transportation corridor, urban renewal becomes a continuation of the city’s node as one concerned with the most efficient movement of goods and people. As Weidemann, the economic developer, says, “It takes recognizing the transportation history and how it has shaped patterns of development and growth in Kingston.”
The ambitious scale of urban renewal in Kingston also catalyzed opposition as demolition projects proceeded apace. The Friends of Historic Kingston emerged in the late 1960s to protect and steward the Stockade district’s intact built colonial heritage. After losing the classically ornamented stone-and-brick post office building to demolition, public opinion towards urban renewal soured, as illustrated in Woods’ film.
In paradoxical fashion—despite the damaging physical, economic, and social effects that urban renewal had in Kingston—one could argue that the era layered a more coherent sense of self onto its dispersed geography. This eventually led to the more positive developments—like Dutton’s adaptive reuse project—that are taking root today.
RUPCO is a Kingston-based nonprofit developer that aims to “build for everyone,” chief executive officer Kevin O’Connor says. “We’re best when we’re working with a community, not in a community.” Being “somewhat expert at bringing resources” to complex financing environments, RUPCO incorporates both equity and lasting design principles into its projects.
The Lace Mill, which opened in 2015, is the rehabilitation of an abandoned circa 1903 brick factory into 55 affordable housing units and workspaces for low-income artists. Energy Square is a forthcoming mixed-use project that will house the Center for Creative Education in the Midtown Arts District. (Dutton designed both projects.)
Another commercial development, Metro, aims to make RUPCO’s “community wealth building” credo tangible, with the conversion of an old warehouse into a 70,000-square-foot marketplace. The structure will also serve as home to Stockade Works, actress Mary Stuart Masterson’s nonprofit focused on media and film production that will have a workforce training component for locals.
RUPCO works to facilitate buildings with programs that attract and retain creative-leaning demographics, but also provide amenities for longtime residents—especially as the city has seen an influx of capital and newcomers that has accelerated the transformation of Rondout and energized the Stockade. “We’re very aware and proactive to include people who have been disenfranchised with everything we do,” O’Connor says. “Anyone who comes into the Metro as a user will [commit to] creating pathways to opportunity.”
This commitment to public engagement and inclusive design is informing other pathways as well. The Kingston Greenline is an active transportation and placemaking project being spearheaded by the Kingston Land Trust, in partnership with the City of Kingston and Ulster County. The Greenline intends to activate underutilized and discarded spaces within the city by weaving them into a connected whole of walking, biking, and commuting trails, marrying some of the active transportation elements of Chicago’s 606 with the more manicured aspects of New York City’s High Line.
For the past several years, Ulster County Executive Mike Hein has championed the establishment of a county-wide and nonmotorized transportation system, recognizing that the evolution of transportation modes continues to influence development in and around Kingston.
“These antiquated transportation corridors are holding our communities back in many ways,” Hein says. “By transforming them into interconnected walking and biking trails, I believe they can serve instead as connective threads, weaving back together disconnected neighborhoods.”
In the process, Hein and the partners and volunteers who are spearheading the development of the Kingston Greenline believe that the evolution of transportation can once again reinvent Kingston. “This time, by asking people what they want, and then listening and trying to incorporate what they say in what we do, we aim to achieve an economic transformation that benefits the whole community,” Hein adds.
“Neighborhoods need a mix,” says Dutton, “a cultural mix, a mix of business, a mix of residential. When urban renewal wiped out entire neighborhoods, that was lost. Why didn’t those places thrive? Because they lacked what George Allen, the former director of the Kingston Library, describes as the ‘yeasty cultural mix’ that’s so important to making a neighborhood. And now we’re starting to see that.”