Nearly six years after planning began for the restoration of the Pike Plan canopies and other streetscape improvements in Uptown Kingston, the project is nearing the finish line. But cost overruns, construction delays, a potential lawsuit against a consultant on the project, and lingering resentment by some business owners who feel the 1970s-era conceit should have been torn down instead of restored have left an edge of bitterness.
“It has been an extraordinarily long and difficult project,” said Second Ward alderman Tom Hoffay, who has been dealing with the project since he was first appointed to office in July 2008, “and at times it was made unnecessarily difficult by a variety of factors.”
The project began in January 2006 with an initial outlay from a $100,000 bond to study potential streetscape improvements. The money came from a bond passed by the Pike Plan Commission, which oversees the maintenance of the canopy and levies an annual assessment on 43 properties abutting the overhang to pay for it. The canopies, designed by Woodstock artist John Pike, were built in 1974 to help Kingston’s uptown business district compete with newly built suburban malls. But age and drainage problems had left the portico in tatters.
By 2008, project organizers had assembled a funding package of $1.8 million. The bulk of the money, $936,000 came from federal highway funds secured by congressman Maurice Hinchey. State transportation funds and a $200,000 Main Street grant secured by the Rural Ulster Preservation Company rounded out the funding stream. Following a series of public meetings, the consultant firm RBA along with local subcontractors Ashokan Architects and Robert Young Associates hammered out a final plan for the renovation.
The plans called for replacing the flat canopy roofs with pitched ones to create more open space and improve drainage. The canopy work also included replacement of rotting support posts, installation of skylights, and a new electrical system. The proposal also called for new bluestone curbs and the replacement of overgrown shade trees and broken planters. Work was initially scheduled to begin in the fall of 2009.
Then came a seemingly interminable series of delays brought on, project organizers said, by the odd pairing of the State Department of Transportation as the lead agency in dealing with the specs and bid documents of an essentially architectural project. An initial set of documents submitted by city planner Suzanne Cahill and RBA were rejected because they did not conform to DOT’s formatting guidelines. Further delays were caused when the state agency found itself swamped vetting hundreds of shovel-ready public-works projects funded under president Barack Obama’s 2009 stimulus plan.
As the project wended its way towards an eventual April 2011 start date, a small group of Pike Plan opponents organized a petition drive which eventually won the support of most of the 39 property owners with parcels in the Pike Plan. The group, which called itself KingstonUSA, called for carrying out the streetscape work while calling off the canopy refurbishment. Opponents said city officials should instead seek new funding to remove the portico.
The dissenters claimed that the city had forced the plan through without a thorough public hearing and more importantly without enough input from the 39 stakeholders. As evidence, they pointed to a portion of the application to DOT for project approval which required evidence of “stakeholder engagement.” In the application, the city cited approval for the project by the Kingston Uptown Business Association despite the fact that the KUBA board included just two Pike-Plan property owners, both of whom voted against the sign-off.
“The procedure by which the entire thing happened, when you had the majority of the stakeholders opposed, is one area that has received a lot of criticism,” said Jon Hoyt, an attorney and real estate agent on Wall Street. “Why did they need to force this project on 39 property owners who didn’t want it?”
After an agonizing pre-construction delay, work began in April when Fourmen Construction and Richers Electric (who won the contract with a combined $1.47 million bid). The contract called for the project to be complete by September. But this schedule was not to be. Before construction could begin in earnest, a routine inspection turned up the previously unreported presence of asbestos in the canopy roofs. Work immediately came to a halt as the city sought a new contractor to remove the deadly toxin.
The asbestos abatement effort added an unexpected $339,583 to the project cost and nine weeks to the timeline. The discovery also exploded a construction schedule which called for the orderly refurbishment of the canopies in blocs of four or five storefronts at a time to minimize disruption Instead, contractors were forced to fan across the canopies to catch up with the asbestos removal crews and to replace roofs damaged in the abatement process. The discovery of asbestos was all the more galling in light of the design report submitted by RBA back in 2009 which dismissed the possibility with the single line “There is no asbestos in this project.” Mayor James Sottile vowed legal action to recoup the added costs but, to date, no lawsuits have been filed.
“I’m certain that the city just isn’t going to sit idly by and not pursue it,” said Sottile, who will leave office in January. “We hired an individual to do a review and if that individual was incompetent — and that certainly seems to be the case — we will take every available avenue to be made whole.”
Three months after the projected completion date, Fourmen workers are still on the job (Kingston economic development director Steve Finkle said they were scheduled to be done on Friday November 18) and Richer Electric is still waiting for delivery of a new LED lighting system.
Change orders, meanwhile, have, as of September, taken the project $564,000 over the initial bids and $227,000 over the total funding package. Finkle said that he expected the final tab for cost overruns to come in around $300,000 over the total available funds.
In addition to asbestos removal, change orders included $145,000 to replace all the bluestone curbing in the Pike Plan area rather than just the most damaged sections, $15,000 for new gutters and $8400 for electrical conduits which will allow for the installation of nine security cameras beneath the porticoes. The excess costs will be paid out of a $1.6-million bond approved by the common council earlier this year. The bond had been meant as a formality, a mechanism to pay project costs immediately in anticipation of reimbursement from the funding package. But, with the project running over the total $1.8 million in available funds, the excess costs will come out of the bond. The remaining money from the bond will be paid off upon completion of the project at no additional costs to taxpayers.
With the restoration and streetscape work nearly finished, opinions remain mixed. Some business owners still complain that the canopies are ugly and hide their storefronts. Others say the spruced-up covered walkways are a major benefit for those who live and work in the neighborhood; the new benches and new plantings seem to have met with approval. Nearly everybody agrees the refurbished canopies – should there be canopies at all — are an improvement over the old ones, where rats nested in rotted columns and rainstorms poured cascades of water off of poorly drained roofs.
“We tried to do the best we could, and I think we got a lot for our money,” said Finkle,who described the project as the most challenging in his 30-year career overseeing public works. “Is it going to be perfect, no? But we managed to fix up a 40-year-old structure that was in pretty bad shape.”