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Opinion

Poughkeepsie’s Wheaton Park Should Be Returned to the People

A proposed housing development would only serve upscale commuters, and destroy the historic park’s soul. There is a better alternative.

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When should one let go of a long-held dream that just doesn’t seem to be working out—indeed, is very likely a lost cause? That’s a question that should be gnawing at Steven Tinkelman, a local architect and developer, who has spent more than six years trying to build high-end housing in a Poughkeepsie park.

It’s understandable why he’s keen to build here: first, he stands to make a pretty penny.

Wheaton Park, after all, has commanding views of the mighty Hudson River, a verdant strip of land between two bridges,100 meters from the train station. Tinkelman’s plans call for adding five buildings to the park—four larger than the existing Pelton Mansion, whose preservation Tinkelman has insisted has been a key motivation; at other times he’s exaggerated the antebellum gem’s condition, suggesting it is an irredeemable wreck. The plans also calls for 67 parking spots (all wedged into 2.2 acres), even though this is a transit-oriented scheme catering to commuters.

Credit: Sean Hemmerle (2020)
Pelton Mansion at Wheaton Park.

And it’s also understandable why Tinkelman’s ego seems so invested—the Wheaton Park development would be the capstone to other nearby developments he’s already done: renovating a local firehouse, and the Pelton family’s former factory on the Fallkill.

Together, he expects the better-heeled new residents will “lift up” the whole neighborhood even if an upscale commuter enclave—a dismal development choice in itself—comes as a sacrifice of the soulful centerpiece of a much-diminished historic neighborhood and its long-time residents.

Tinkelman’s persistence in trying to snap up as many properties as possible is well-known. I experienced this while trying to console my neighbor (and former landlord) Pasquale Provenzano, a retired pizza parlor operator, as he assessed damage to his still smoldering fire-ravaged property at 2 Mt. Carmel; Tinkelman couldn’t resist sidling up to pitch buying the property once again. (The family told me they were offended by what they saw as crass opportunism.)

Tinkelman also seems the biggest fan of his own work, while many professional preservationists are hardly wowed. This helps explain why, over the course of more than two years as the city’s Historic District and Landmarks Preservation Commission (HDLPC) tried to work with him to find something appropriate for the site, Tinkelman did not appreciably alter his original plans.

He never took on the principal objections of the sheer scale of the project (investors’ financial calculations dictated more than 40 units), and his insistence on placing new structures on the mansion’s bluff, overwhelming its deserved prominence.

Now Tinkelman is taking this amour propre to a new level. After his project was roundly rejected by the HDLPC for a second time, in December, he appealed to the city’s Common Council, which decisively (6-3) endorsed the HDLPC’s judgment.

On January 30, Tinkelman sued the HDLPC, the Council, and City Hall, to get his way. The suit, essentially an Article 78 challenge, argues that the City’s decisions were “arbitrary and capricious.” Since that patently was not the case—the HDLPC, staffed with relevant professionals volunteering their time pro bono, devoted hundreds of hours to working with Tinkelman—the suit goes further to argue that the Commission, a statutory and not just an advisory body, lacks jurisdiction. 

The City’s April 5 rebuttal (also about 30 pages) points out that the bureaucratic registration requirement was not on the books when the property was nominated for historic recognition. More pointedly, city lawyers note the well-established legal precedent that parties do not get to argue, under appeal, against regulatory standing, if this objection was not raised earlier. Basically: “Sorry Steve, you can’t try to change the rules of the approval process after the fact.”

I’m no lawyer, but if the judge (the Honorable Hal B. Greenwald) were to side with the developer, it would seem to undermine Poughkeepsie having a historic commission altogether, and that’s clearly untenable. Indeed, if Tinkelman were to prevail, he might then build whatever he damn well pleases, heedless of the house and land being on national, state, and local historic registries—predictably pending more lawsuits, of course.

That’s a frightful prospect. Despite Tinkelman’s obsequious obeisance to historic concerns, at least while appearing before the HDLPC, the pastor of nearby Holy Comforter Church, James Gordon, recently told me that when approached a decade ago to sell his church and rectory, Tinkelman admitted he planned to tear down the 161-year-old Gothic revival masterpiece for housing.

Barring that obscenity, the question remains: what to do with the contract that Tinkelman has with the city to purchase Wheaton—as scandalously flawed and unfair as it is to the City? The answer is pretty simple: declare it null and void, as Poughkeepsie’s city attorney, Paul Ackermann (who negotiated the contract), has said the City can do.

At an earlier point, Tinkelman might have expected some kind of buyout for his time and effort, although he’s not entitled to a thing. But now that he continues to waste the City’s time and energy on this misbegotten project, that goodwill should now be exhausted.

Tinkelman’s vision germinated when the City’s fiscal situation was so desperate that surrendering a park for an NYC-oriented bedroom community seemed a reasonable idea. Fortunately, there is a new vision in town, befitting a re-energized Poughkeepsie, which has recently added more than 1,000 new apartment units.

Credit: Andrés San Millán/Wheaton Park Bridge
A rendering of a plan by Wheaton Park Bridge, an artists-led nonprofit, to repurpose the park

Wheaton Park Bridge Inc., a local artists-led nonprofit, has stepped forward with ambitious plans to rehab and repurpose the Pelton building for multiple community uses, artist studios, a cafe and welcoming center, and for preserving the park green space for music concerts, farmers markets, sculpture shows, and other public events. Their vision places a special emphasis on children, as was the case when the Poughkeepsie Day Nursery operated there for more than a century, serving generations of underprivileged Poughkeepsians, just as the owners who bequeathed the property to the City intended.

Later on, the group envisions a raised walkway encircling the entire property (something like Manhattan’s Highline), a bold stab to enhance Poughkeepsie’s appeal as a destination—helping to draw more of the Walkway Over the Hudson’s half-million annual visitors into Poughkeepsie itself. This then becomes an economic development vision (one City Hall still fails to grasp). The artists group may still have to withstand competition from other proposals generated if a new request for proposals is made, and the property has to be unencumbered for them to effectively fundraise. But let the best vision win—all to Poughkeepsie’s overdue benefit!


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