Thursday, September 21, 2006

Will the Government Take Your Property Next? Peekskill’s Extreme Makeovers by Abuse of Eminent Domain

by Maureen Keating Tsuchiya

The city government of Peekskill is once again poised to repeat urban renewal history without bothering to involve its own city historian, John J. Curran, at any point in the process. Curran is the author of the heralded “Old Peekskill’s destruction In the 1960’s and 1970’s by Urban Renewal, Fires, Riots and the Parking
Authority” (2000). The 271 page book graphically documents the governmental financed removal of more than 350 Peekskill commercial and residential buildings in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

The entire neighborhoods of Park Street, Pine Grove and Oakside areas were obliterated. The notorious Peekskill Parking Authority played a key role in the process of “urbanizing” what had been neighborhoods by targeting downtown business and residential buildings, had them torn down and paved over for parking seemingly
without the understanding that their removal eliminated shopping locations. According to Curran, “The equivalent of 10 facing blocks of commercial buildings in the downtown were removed primarily by the agencies of urban renewal.” Curran added “Peekskill had historically experienced such devastation only when the British
military arrived to destroy the settlement in 1777.” The stark reality of those decisions can still be seen decades later in vacant lots dotting downtown Peekskill.

Now Mayor John Testa, a local school district employee, seems ready to tear down Peekskill’s menacing monument to urban renewal—the downtown Municipal Parking Building and the adjacent Crossroads Shopping Center area, a total of four square blocks that is more than 20 acres, without comprehensively evaluating the failed policies that catastrophically changed the Peekskill of his childhood.

Mayor Testa’s own family was directly impacted by those ill-fated policies meant to get rid of the old city when his grandfather’s barbershop was torn down.

According to Palo Alto based community activist Maureen Allen. “Many town governments throughout the nation try mightily to achieve the kind of thriving, independent and interesting commerce I have found in downtown Peekskill.

Elected officials need to examine the enviable popularity of this downtown before they implement the extreme makeovers proposed by eager developers.”

Open and Transparent Government

History is repeating itself from the old playbook of the ‘60s and ‘70s as planning consultants and architects have been directed to draw lovely sketches of “Peekskill on the move” by officials who argue they’re acting on behalf of the entire community. Once again most citizens feel left out of the process, including the Democratic members of the Peekskill Common Council who are treated as if they were unpatriotic or against revitalization merely by questioning the process in the context of the city’s history.

A recent city generated study has found “blight” in the exact same area of Peekskill downtown where urban removal began in the 1960’s—the Crossroad’s Shopping Center which was known back then as the “Academy Street Urban Renewal Project.” According to Curran’s book, “a placid and intact neighbor hood of 121 structures on 23 acres was obliterated and 150 families were displaced.” Peekskill native Renee Smith stated that “…many of those families were African American living and owning homes in a racially integrated area whose relocation choices were extremely limited by the rest of the city’s segregated neighborhoods.”

Preservationists stopped the Demolition & the Feds Stop the Dollars

Peekskill’s termination of federal and state monies financing urban removal coincided with Richard Nixon’s removal from office and the end of the Vietnam War. Shortly thereafter, City Hall declared a budget crisis in 1976 even as its tax rates increased. In fact, a Peekskill sales tax was even considered to resolve the
city’s financial difficulties. Removal proponents had failed to realize the financial implications of taking 350 buildings off of the tax rolls while increasing the number of tax exempt properties.

At the same time, rehabilitation and preservation of Peekskill’s old buildings began to re-emerge--initially with battle lines drawn at what is now the Peekskill Museum’s Herrick house, at 124 Union Street, where some people at City hall wanted another parking lot. According to Curran “A 1974 community study and a 1975 survey indicated that 78% of respondents wanted Peekskill’s Hudson River waterfront used for passive recreational and a scenic park.”

Community activists once again stepped up to the plate when rumors circulated that owners of the Paramount Theatre wanted to tear it down. Now the Paramount Center is the anchor of an arts revitalization of that entire area of downtown Peekskill with artist lofts, galleries, boutiques, antique stores, restaurants, cafes & coffee shops. Zoning adopted in 1990 has encouraged 100’s of artists fleeing New York City’s soaring costs up the Hudson to Peekskill’s mini-SoHo that has rental lofts above many stores.

The impact of a “blight” designation

The only purpose of designating an area as “blighted’ is to establish the groundwork for exercising the power of eminent domain, currently referred to as “the government taking of private land for private developers.”

Downtown business owners are legitimately worried they will loose their lifetime dreams as a result the recent landmark case Kelo v. New London, 125 S. Ct. 2655 (2005), where the U. S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that the general benefits a community enjoyed from economic growth qualified New London’s redevelopment plans as a permissible “public use” under the “takings” clause of the Fifth Amendment. This case has been widely criticized and commonly seen as a misinterpretation of the Fifth Amendment whose consequence would be to benefit large developers and corporations at the expense of individual homeowners and local communities who then have to subsidize the development’s property tax abatements.

Eminent domain was historically meant to be limited to taking private land for public use and that just compensation must be paid, not legal property theft.

Originally, public use meant such projects which would be owned by and open to the public like public buildings such as schools or post offices, or to construct public works like roads and water systems.

Local Activists Contest Blight Designation

Local Democrats contested the substandard housing description of the Academy Street area by stating on October 12, 1960, that “any substandard housing which exists could be brought back through rehabilitation” and that the project was “unsound, expensive, unfair and discriminatory.”

Forty-six years later, Drew Claxton, Democratic member of the Common Council, stated in May of 2006 that Testa’s “definition of blight is so broad that it could be used to designate many of neighborhoods in Peekskill for urban renewal.”

Testa is reportedly planning on running for reelection in 2007 against the revitalized Peekskill Democratic Party that defeated two Republican incumbents in 2005. He can count on opposition from the 1,435 Peekskill residents who signed the petition opposing his proposal for the blight designation and redevelopment scheme. He won’t be able to count continued assistance from Peekskill’s former favorite son--Governor George Pataki-- who will soon be exiting his Albany residence.

As recently as the year 2000, Peekskill real estate values were considered 50% less than the Westchester County average. Those figures made the cost of home and commercial property ownership very attractive, both to first time buyers and, to entrepreneurs and artists needing to avoid prohibitive overhead rental expenses.

The city’s hot real estate market has continued to improve dramatically as reflected in the increased tax revenues from increased assessments while still remaining the lowest in the county. An August survey reflected the presence of only one vacant store front in the so-called blighted area.

Location, Location, Location

If Mayor Testa and his colleagues are truly interested in Peekskill’s long term revitalization, he would conduct blight studies on three institutions whose locations will continue to stunt Peekskill’s property values and growth:

1, Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant and all of its spent fuel; and its nuclear disaster evacuation route bus stop signs;

2. Westchester County Sewage Treatment Plant;

3. Westchester County Resource Recovery Center aka garbage incinerator.

The Urban Renewal Players in Peekskill

Team Goliath

*Mayor John Testa and the Republican 4-3 majority on the city’s Common Council.

*Developer Martin Ginsberg of Riverbend, Chapel Hill and the waterfront developments.

*Architect Gary Warshauer who is also Pound Ridge’s Republican Town Supervisor. Warshauer’s firm received a no-bid $75,000 contract to prepare a downtown Peekskill revitalization plan.

* Patrick Cleary, a planner based in Northport, Long Island. Cleary’s planning firm received a $8,5000 contract to conduct a blight study of the eastern downtown Crossroads area. Cleary has also done consulting for the City of Port Chester, home of Westchester’s landmark eminent domain project and lawsuit: Brody v. Village of Port Chester, 261 F.3rd 288 (2Cir.2001).

*Rose Marie Panio, GOP County Chairwoman and co-owner of Panio Liqours and Wine in the Crossroads Shopping Center.

Team David

*Drew Claxton, Mary Foster & Don Bennett— Democratic members of Peekskill City Council, who advocate a community-driven master plan process.

*Arne Paglia owner of The Division Street Grill, who submitted a petition opposing Testa’s plan in late May to the Peekskill City Council that contained 1,435 signatures. *Jerry & Mary DiCola, co-owners of Peekskill Paint & Hardware.

*Wilson Narvae, owner and founder in 2004 of La Placita Market, the only downtown grocery store which happens to average 2,000 customers a day, many of them senior citizens and registered voters who no longer drive.

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