The City We Imagined
In 1998 the city of Poughkeepsie underwent a planning process that culminated in an updated comprehensive plan, and that plan is the current plan used by the city.
A comprehensive plan is meant to be a shared vision of what a city should be, and a tangible roadmap of how to get there. Comprehensive plans are long-term, very broad in scope, and expresses the city’s collective public policy preferences on transportation, housing, land use, recreation, utilities, historic preservation, economic development, environmental protection, sustainability, and resilience, among other areas of focus. The vision is derived after input from the public, policy makers, and stakeholders; from these sources, the plan is drawn. The public is thus both informed on the ongoing creation of the plan, and a source of input that informs its creation. Typically, in New York State the adoption of a comprehensive plan is the precursor to overhauling the zoning code so that it conforms to and facilitates the new plan. (Editor’s Note: The BenCen’s entire series, How the City of Poughkeepsie Fell Short, is now live and can be explored in depth, here.)
I was born in the Mid-Hudson Valley. I grew up here, and I’ve spent the vast majority of my life in Dutchess County. For the past 12 years I have lived in the City of Poughkeepsie, though my experiences with the city go back to my early childhood when my mother would take me and my sister once a year to Friedman’s Shoe Store on the main mall for new shoes. I am too young to remember the city before the Rt. 9 arterial leveled neighborhoods and cut the city off from the waterfront, or when the arterial and Main Mall were constructed, but I do remember a time before the main mall became vacant, before the IBM layoffs, and before the crack epidemic.
In 1998 I was a student at Dutchess County Community College, and had friends who lived in the City of Poughkeepsie. I played in a band that performed at the Chance with some regularity, and Poughkeepsie was a regular fixture in my life.
As noted, the most recent Comprehensive Plan for the City of Poughkeepsie was completed 20 years ago. The previous plan was adopted in 1967. It seems that historically the City of Poughkeepsie urban planning cycle is roughly 25 years — or even longer. From an urban planning perspective, this is too long. State law and the New York Planning Federation recommend that plans be updated every decade. Much has changed since 1998, and a comprehensive plan of more than a generation ago cannot be applied to the city as it is today. Of all of the cities in the Mid-Hudson Valley, Poughkeepsie has the oldest comprehensive plan. The second oldest, Hudson’s, dates to 2002. Newburgh’s was updated last in 2005, Kingston’s in 2016. Both Beacon and Port Jervis updated their comprehensive plans in 2017.
Even knowing that it is hopelessly outdated, I can’t help but imagine what Poughkeepsie would be like today had the city accomplished what the comprehensive plan set out to do. The city would have a vibrant waterfront with a large scale outdoor amphitheater so thousands could enjoy a concert or play. A promenade would stretch the length of the waterfront and commercial development would have enabled people enjoying the recreational facilities, such as the large public piers and acres of bucolic parks, to shop and dine.
The Cottage Street Business Park would be booming with lumber yards, supply houses, a wholesale bakery, and a small-business incubator, among other commercial and light industrial ventures. The combination of employees from the local businesses as well as local residents would have spurred light retail development along Smith Street. Clearly marked truck routes and weight restrictions on other roads would have corralled trucking away from residential neighborhoods to move goods in and out of the city. New multi-family housing on the north side, created to serve the large college market for it from Marist, would have drawn more students into the city, and provided economic opportunities to small businesses that would cater to them. This would have added to the city’s population base, and bolstered the city’s economy. New, locally designated historic districts (including Market Street and the Mansion Park Area) would preserve the character and architectural history of Poughkeepsie.
Of course those things didn’t happen. That is not the city Poughkeepsie’s residents live in, only the one a previous generation once imagined. Many of the things in the current plan wouldn’t make sense to do today. New multi-family housing for Marist students would be a fool’s errand given the expansion of Marist east of Rt. 9 and the creation of additional dormitories since then. The Cottage Street Industrial Park still may hold promise, but the area that it encompasses would have to be reimagined given that the Walkway over the Hudson and the Hudson Valley Rail trail cut through it. New strategies to develop the land around the walkway need to be developed as light industry and tourism rarely go hand in hand.
This is not to say that none of what the 1998 comprehensive plan set to do was accomplished. The Main Mall was opened back up, and the Lower Main Street Corridor flourishes in comparison. Hamilton and Academy streets were opened up to two-way traffic, though Market Street remains one-way. Waryas Park was completely revamped, and the Ice House, though not being used for a Harbor Master Office and Police Substation, is back in use as a restaurant. The Children’s Museum was created, and the planned improvements were made to the Hoffman Street Bridge. Though controversial, and not a consolidation, Dutchess County is now the sole provider of public bus transportation in the City of Poughkeepsie. Already underway when the city created the 1998 plan, Metro North built the train station parking garage and made improvements to the passenger facility on the western side of the tracks.
Recently the main thrust of waterfront development has been luxury condominiums and apartments. This doesn’t mesh well with the comprehensive plan, and its vision of an accessible and vibrant waterfront. These projects seem to be more walled off from the rest of the city than integrated into it. Perhaps that is what the city wants… perhaps not, but we should probably revisit the issue via an updated citywide plan.
In January of 2018 the city hired Natalie Quinn as Senior City Planner. The position had been vacant since 2011. Also, Paul Hesse in his capacity as the Community Development Coordinator for Dutchess County focuses on urban planning in the city. Other Mid-Hudson cities with more recently updated plans, such as Beacon, Kingston, and to a lesser degree Hudson, have seen a resurgence of their cityscapes. Given its particular challenges and opportunities, now is a critical time for Poughkeepsie to update its comprehensive plan. We need to come together and imagine a new vision for the future, complete with a clear roadmap and updated zoning to guide and help Poughkeepsie and its people to get there.
In my next post the 1998 Comprehensive plan will be graded based on the criteria and priorities established in the plan. Stay Tuned!