Late last year, New York State announced the completion of the 750-mile, multi-use Empire State Trail. Beginning in downtown Manhattan, the trail stretches up to Albany, where one branch splits west to Buffalo and another continues north through Plattsburgh to the Canadian border. One segment of the trail that passes through Kingston is known as the Hudson River Brickyard Trail: it begins near Kingston Point Park and ends in a new state park that is temporarily being called Hudson Cliffs.
Passing from Kingston Point to Hudson Cliffs, however, visitors are liable to give pause. The trail appears to culminate in an impasse of brick walls, black metal gates, a guard’s booth, and a sign reading “Hutton Brickyards.” Even the public road, North Street, is blocked off.
That’s because a luxury hotel, where cabins go for up to $645 a night, controls access to the trail, which it gained from Kingston’s city government. Local housing rights activists, who have been lobbying the city for land to construct tiny homes for those at risk of eviction since January, point to this arrangement as a clear manifestation of two Kingstons: an especially accommodating one for the rich, and a hard-nosed one for the poor.
From Public to Private
Hutton Brickyards is a 73-acre, 31-cabin luxury hotel, spa, restaurant, and events space on the site of a former brick factory. The land is owned by North Street Brick Works, a subsidiary of MWest Holdings, a California-based real estate investment and management firm that owns residential and commercial property across the United States. According to county public records, North Street Brick Works purchased the Hutton Brickyards site in 2014 for $725,000 from a private owner. The hospitality facilities are operated by Salt Hotels, a Provincetown, Massachusetts-based hotelier, which also manages luxury accommodations there and in Miami Beach, with further business prospects in London, New York City, Los Angeles, Austin, and the Caribbean.
Discussion about public access to North Street stretches back to at least 2018. Summer Smith, director of communications and community engagement for Kingston, declined to answer questions about how and when access was negotiated between the city and Hutton Brickyards, but documents obtained by The River reveal that the North Street gate went from temporary measure to permanent fixture at MWest’s initiative and without significant pushback from Mayor Steve Noble.
During a meeting of the Kingston Planning Board and Heritage Area Commission in April 2018, Stuart Mesinger of Chazen Companies, development consultants to MWest, mentioned that the city had first installed a gate at North Street to prevent trespassing and vandalism at the former brick factory, but that the gate would eventually be removed, according to a transcript of the proceedings. Yet on March 12, 2019, Karl Slovin, president of MWest, emailed Noble a digital rendering of apparently permanent brick walls, metal gates, and a guard’s booth, all branded with Hutton Brickyards’ name and logo. Two weeks later, Kevin McManus, another consultant to MWest, acknowledged “the legality issues of the gate on North Street,” to which Noble replied that he and the Kingston Common Council were working on a “legislative solution” that would settle the matter. Further emails between Slovin and Noble show that the city and Hutton Brickyards were still negotiating public access as recently as March 10, 2021—months after the Empire State Trail had officially opened.
After leaving the Hutton Brickyards, North Street enters Hudson Cliffs State Park, which is being developed by Scenic Hudson, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and revitalizing natural environments along the Hudson River. At the time of Scenic Hudson’s acquisition of the property, this segment of the then-abandoned street had been deteriorated by erosion, but has since been converted into a multi-use recreational trail. Access to this side of the trail is unencumbered, and Scenic Hudson intends to keep it that way. As for the other gate, Scenic Hudson was not invited to take part in that conversation.
“It is something that should be monitored and, if concerns continue, efforts made to address it to ensure that the public does have access to the waterfront and the Brickyard Trail across Scenic Hudson’s property,” says Ned Sullivan, president of Scenic Hudson. “We would certainly be happy to participate in any efforts among the city, the Hutton Brickyard, and Salt Hotel leaders to ensure that appropriate accommodation is made that addresses everyone’s concerns.”
(Full disclosure: The author has previously written for Scenic Hudson’s digital newsmagazine, the HV Viewfinder.)
Salt Hotels, for its part, considers the matter settled.
“The pedestrian-cycling gate is open to the public from dawn to dusk, seven days a week, like all Kingston public parks,” says Megan Wirtz, a junior account executive with Purple, a public relations agency that represents Salt Hotels. “Access is managed by an in-place agreement with the City of Kingston.”
Accordingly, Hutton Brickyards held a “Community Day” grand opening on May 8, where Noble was scheduled to perform the ribbon-cutting, tours of the property were conducted, and light refreshments were served. On the other side of the North Street gate, however, housing activists had gathered with signs, asking:
“57% of Kingston Residents Live in Poverty, Whose Community Day is This?”
“Housing for Who, Steve?”
“How is This a Public Trail When There are Gates?”
The demonstrators were with Ulster County Coalition for Housing Justice, and they had targeted the event to draw attention to the disparity between the city government’s acquiescence to luxury hotel developers and its negligence in addressing the dire housing needs of residents. In particular, UCCHJ wanted to highlight an unfulfilled project to construct tiny homes for dozens of residents at risk of eviction on a vacant lot owned by the city in the Midtown neighborhood. Kingston had already received $1 million in outside funding for the project in January.
“Tiny home kits can be erected and inhabited within two weeks,” says Onnesha Roychoudhuri, an organizer with UCCHJ. “That tells you a lot about the city’s sense of urgency, or lack thereof, here.”
Despite having received the funding, the city refused to concede the vacant lot and begin construction. As lenient as it had been with Hutton Brickyards’ annexation of North Street, the city now lingered over the bureaucratic formalities of approving tiny homes.
“Since the funding was approved, [UCCHJ] have called on the city to move this project forward so that we can immediately house Kingston community members who have been sleeping in tents and cars, but we have continually received resistance and foot-dragging,” continues Roychoudhuri. “At one point, city officials claimed that the holdup was that Kingston doesn’t have zoning for tiny homes.…Apparently, when it comes to luxury hotel trailers that go for $500 a night and up, the city has no issues with zoning.”
UCCHJ’s party-crashing appears to have had some effect. Eleven days after the ribbon cutting, the mayor’s office announced that the city had awarded a $200,000 contract to construct three two-bedroom homes for single-parent households facing eviction. The contract winners are now “working to identify potential locations,” suggesting that the city may yet be unwilling to give up the site in Midtown that UCCHJ had first identified.
Whether intentional or not, the delays appear to be part of a trend in prioritizing the needs of the wealthy over the poor, despite an especially dire housing crisis. The county’s recent Housing Action Plan puts the matter starkly: rent is up 16 percent, home prices are up 17 percent, and 13 percent of homeowners and 30 percent of renters are spending more than half of their income on housing. Organizers point to these circumstances as the injuries that Hutton Brickyards now add insult to.
“We reject the notion that the focus of development in this community should be skewed so heavily towards wealthy out-of-towners while long-time residents of Kingston are facing homelessness because of the dramatic surge in housing costs and the housing shortage,” says Roychoudhuri. “Right now, the city and county have ample funds. Between the budget surplus and stimulus funding, there are no excuses. It’s well past time Steve Noble and [County Executive] Pat Ryan invest in community members, rather than building a playground for the wealthy.”