Friday, August 16, 2019

Redefining "Civic Center"

Wikipedia provides two definitions for civic center. The first is an area within a city that is its focal point or center and usually contains one or more dominant public buildings. The second is a multipurpose arena that is a venue for sporting events, theater, concerts, and similar events. In the city where I grew up, we had both kinds of civic center: a public square in the center of town, known as Centennial Park, which was bordered by City Hall, the library, and the post office; and a multi-purpose arena, where the two local high schools and the local college played their basketball games, plays and concerts were performed, trade shows took place, and all manner of community events were held. Given that understanding of civic center, I was puzzled to hear the term applied last night to what is being envisioned for the former John L. Edwards School building.

Last night, Mark Thaler and Alex Messina from Lacey Thaler Reilly Wilson, the firm that is doing a feasibility study on relocating city offices and various city services to the surplus school building, met with community members to get input about what the 90,000 square foot building might accommodate. What's currently being explored for relocation are all the offices and functions of City Hall, the Code Enforcement Office, the Youth Department, and the Senior Center. 

At present, the lowest floor--A Level--is being considered as a new location for the Youth Department. A Level is where the school gym and the girls' and boys' locker rooms were located. B Level--the next level up--was designed to be a fallout shelter. (John L. Edwards was built in 1964, still the Cold War Era.) B Level also contains the mechanicals. C Level is the main floor, which most of us are familiar with. It was proposed that the Senior Center could be relocated there, to occupy what had been the school's offices and the cafeteria. That leaves D Level, what appears to be the second floor when the building is viewed from the State Street side. According to Thaler, "All City Hall functions could fit on that level." It didn't appear that there would be a dedicated Common Council chamber on D Level, so it would seem Council meetings would be held in one of the large multi-function rooms on the main floor--C Level. (What's to become of the Henry Ary portrait of George Washington?) The building currently has one elevator, which was installed in 2003 or 2004.

According to Thaler, with City Hall, the Youth Department, the Senior Center, and Code Enforcement in the building, there would be 20,000 to 30,000 square feet of building left over, and he invited people to share their ideas. Carol Gans, a former principal of John L. Edwards, said there was a critical need for day care and early education, and the west wing of C Level, which had recently been rehabbed for primary grades, was "made for little kids." Gans, who is involved with the Hudson Day Care Center, told Thaler, "One of our dreams is to have a place for a 24-hour day care facility." She maintained that the west wing of C Level, immediately below the space being proposed for city government offices, is perfect for little kids and minimal renovation would be needed to make it suitable for infants as well. Gans argued that "day care should to be equal to the Youth Center." 

Sher Stevens, the director of the Senior Center, now located in the Galvan Armory, complained that the space being proposed for the Senior Center in JLE was not enough. She was told that it is more than the Senior Center currently has, but she insisted that much more was needed.

A representative from COARC's Starting Place, which sold its building on Prospect Avenue to Columbia Memorial Health in 2016, said the program is looking for 7,000 square feet of space with a small fenced playground. The program offers both a special education preschool and day care. She said the program served four counties, and they wanted somewhere within walking distance. She also said children from fourteen school districts were in their programs, but the children came primarily from the Hudson City School District. In the spring of 2017, the Planning Board reviewed plans to relocate the COARC Starting Place program to the basement of the Galvan Armory, but that plan apparently was never pursued.   

Chad Weckler, representing Hudson-Creative, said his group was looking for 3,000 to 8,000 square feet for a makerspace, which he described as "a community center for learning and mentoring." He reported that a survey the group had done indicated that the "number one request" was for a woodworking shop, followed by a metalworking shop--both "dirty" endeavors that required a space that was vented. Weckler said that space and startup capital was needed, but they had been unable to attract startup capital because they had no space.

Both Weckler and Stevens wanted to know if it would be possible to add on to the building. Thaler reminded them, "We have excess space already, which makes the investigation of expanding the building not critical." Linda Mussmann said there was a "huge need" for a commercial kitchen and wondered if the kitchen in the school could be used for that purpose. Malachi Walker said there should be an outdoor basketball court, and Tiffany Garriga expressed the desire for a swimming pool. Dominic Merante asked if the building could be a shelter if there are power outages in the city, possibly thinking of the recent power outage at Bliss Towers. (Apparently, the building has a huge generator.) Stevens suggested that each program serving children should have its own playground, to which Thaler responded, "It wouldn't be my first choice to have a playground out front." Kamal Johnson noted that a group of Bangladeshi men are now playing cricket in front of the building and said, "We need to provide a place for them."

Nick Zachos said he was excited about the possibility of the Youth Department moving into the building, but instead of a horizontal space, on A Level, he wanted the Youth Department to have a vertical space, from C Level--the main floor--to A Level, where the gymnasium is. It was Zachos who suggested that we "start looking at [the building] as a civic center."

During the course of the meeting, Council president Tom DePietro revealed that the plan to acquire the surplus school building and relocate city offices and services there involved selling several City-owned buildings--to get them back on the tax rolls. Those buildings are 520 Warren Street (City Hall), 429 Warren Street (Code Enforcement Office), 10 Warren Street (Hudson Day Care Center), 18 South Third Street (Youth Center), and 1 North Front Street (Chamber of Commerce).


Regarding the sale of 18 South Third Street, former mayor Rick Scalera noted that there were constraints on the sale of the building. When the City took the building over from the Boys and Girls Club early in this century, it was agreed the building could only be sold to another entity that provided youth services--which limits the potential buyers and likely eliminates the possibility of getting the building back on the tax rolls.

Correction: Rick Scalera, who was mayor when the City took over the Boys and Girls Club, has clarified his statement: The deed constraints require that the profit from the sale of the building must be used to provide a new facility for the Youth Department. See his comment on this post.

When someone asked what the adaptive reuse of the school would cost, Thaler replied, "Move into a school, and it looks like a school," before explaining that the estimated costs, which will be part of the completed feasibility study, will have to be a range--from having a building that still looks like a school to one whose interior design is suited to its new uses. On the topic of cost, Scalera observed that a building of that size represented "a huge amount of utility costs" and asked, "Who is going to pay for that?" DePietro said that part of the feasibility study involved looking at ways to make the building more energy efficient. Later, Zachos said he could not imagine "how all these functions now in drafty old brick buildings would not be saving money in this newer building." 



  2. Rick Scalera corrected Gossips account of the deed restrictions on 18 South Third Street:

    The deed restrictions placed on the transfer of the Boys and Girls club to the City of Hudson were put in place by their board along with their attorney. If I recall correctly the restrictions mandate the proceeds from the sale of the building should that ever happen, go to the city to be used exclusively for another location for our youth. The language was agreeable by the City and the transfer took place. Bottom line is the fact that the City needs a newer more spacious Youth Center whether it’s in JLE school or some other location…..let’s all work together to get it done!....Rick Scalera.

  3. What bothers me about the proposal is this: the building is owned by the School District. It is a public school district financed by taxes, local school tax and money from the state that is collected from income taxes. This means that the people already paid for the building with their taxes. If the city buys the building, with money likewise from taxes, the people will be purchasing it a second time, effectively buying it from themselves. This is double taxation and should be illegal, because this is nothing more than a disguised, additional school tax. The people already paid their school tax, but if they buy this building they will be giving millions of additional dollars to the school system for a building that they already paid for.

    The building should be donated to the City by the School District since the people already paid for it. If this is not “legal”, then there should be a vote, just like the one on the back of the Board of Elections ballot for the 15 million dollar football field. Let the people decide if they want to purchase this building again, or have the School District donate it to the City.

    I think it would be appropriate for this to be written into law. If the City or the School District wants to dispose of any property it no longer wants or needs, before it is offered for sale to anyone it first should be offered free of charge to the District or the City as the case may be. It seems totally inappropriate to me, and a rip off of the taxpayers, for the School District to sell anything to the City, or for the City to sell anything to the School District.

    1. As I see it, it's not that we taxpayers have already paid for the school. It's that the taxpayers of Hudson will be paying off a debt incurred by all the taxpayers in the Hudson City School District (and incurring our own huge debt in the process).

      The school district cannot by law give the building to the City of Hudson. It must sell all property at what is determined to be fair market value. It used to be the case, quite a few decades ago, that the school district could give a building to a municipality. That's how Columbia County ended up with so many of Hudson's surplus school buildings--401 State Street, 610 State Street, the Charles Williams School (which the City of Hudson ended up owning in a land swap for the property where 325 Columbia now stands and eventually sold to the not-for-profit Second Ward Foundation).

      This sale, were it to happen, would require a referendum for the voters in the HCSD to decide if they wanted to sell JLE to the City of Hudson, but there would be no referendum for the voters in Hudson to decide if they wanted to buy it. That decision would be left to the Common Council.