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Secret Memo Reveals Wheaton Park Pact Between Poughkeepsie and Developer

The four-page memo details a plan to win over the city’s preservation commission on a proposal to transform the historic site into an arts-focused mixed-use complex.

Pelton Mansion at Wheaton Park
Pelton Mansion at Wheaton Park.
Sean Hemmerle
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Over the last few years that local architect and aspiring developer Steven Tinkelman has plodded through Poughkeepsie’s municipal approval process to build high-end housing overlooking the Hudson River in Wheaton Park, Poughkeepsie Mayor Rob Rolison has held himself above the fray.

“There is a process,” has been the two-term mayor’s refrain in multiple public settings.

That process has indeed played out. The Poughkeepsie Historic District and Landmark Preservation Commission, which has jurisdiction over the historically registered park, twice denied the developers’ plans. Tinkelman appealed to the city legislature, but the Common Council determined that the HDLPC had faithfully followed its delimited criteria. 

Tinkelman and Wayne Nussbickel, the only other publicly identified investor, then sued the city, the Common Council, and the HDLPC in January. A review of the court documents suggests their case is not going well, and with all motions filed by mid-September, a judge could rule before the end of the year.

So why is City Hall conducting sub rosa negotiations on behalf of the developers to get the HDLPC to reverse itself—and on the basis of criteria completely outside the commission’s mandate? 

A confidential memo obtained by The River spells out a “conceptual agreement” between city administration and the developers to try to win over the commission. But the core of the new offer—to rent the park’s historic Pelton mansion to an arts group—is a matter outside the HDLPC’s remit, which does not cover building use but rather deals with exteriors and preservation of the overall historic setting. The commission has already determined those factors would be overwhelmed by the development’s sheer mass and scale.

In effect, City Hall is asking the commission to violate its own mandate. In doing so, it would jettison hundreds of hours over more than two years of working with the developer to find a project plan the city could sign off on.

An Agreement Between the City and the Developers

The stumbling block for the developers has been their insistence on adding five buildings, four larger than the mansion itself, and placing them near and on the bluff, which would obscure the mansion and the historic viewshed. The developers have also continually insisted that all of the approximately 46 units and 67 parking spaces were needed to make the project financially viable.

The four-page memo acknowledges that the HDLPC would have to consent to the new proposal, even while the developers, Pelton Partners, are suing on the grounds that the commission does not properly have jurisdiction. Entertaining the new offer would seemingly discredit the commission, which city officials publicly praise as vital to protecting Poughkeepsie’s much diminished historic inventory, at least rhetorically regarded as vital assets.

Poughkeepsie’s historic commission was established in 1971, in the early days of the national preservation movement, and by statute it is a permitting—not just an advisory—body. In practice, it has been hobbled by having all seven members appointed by the mayor.

Only in recent years has the all-volunteer commission been fully staffed with professionals of relevant backgrounds. Particularly on reviewing the Pelton project, the commission withstood enormous political pressure to approve it. At one HDLPC hearing, a who’s who of the city and county business community warned, in seemingly coordinated comments, that if the project was not approved, “you might as well turn out the lights in Poughkeepsie.”

The confidential memo spells out details for renovating the first two floors of Pelton mansion for a nonprofit arts organization, which would act as an “umbrella organization” for the site. The resident arts entity would be chosen by a five-member selection committee comprised of the chair of the HDLPC, the city administrator, the chair of the Public Arts Commission, a member of the public “knowledgeable in the local arts environment,” and someone appointed by the developer.

The idea of renting the mansion to an arts group is a nod to the swelling dynamism of Poughkeepsie’s art scene but is generally seen as a gesture to use the arts to help brand the housing project. An arts entity would definitely “add additional value to the developer’s property,” says Jeff Aman, chair of the city’s Public Arts Commission.

The location is sandwiched amid an apartment complex, with little dedicated parking, and it’s not clear that any arts group would find it particularly attractive, even with the discounted commercial rental rates that kick in after two years rent-free.

The developer temporarily forgoes rents from 4-6 units planned for the mansion, and swaps some residential space for commercial use. But there are few details for how a packed apartment complex on 2.2 acres will become a “true destination” for out-of-town visitors.

Still, the memo envisions a transformational enhancement: “…plac[ing] a non-profit arts anchor on the property thereby assuring the entire parcel is genuinely welcoming to the public and that the incorporated public space is truly public and viewed as inviting by the public.” It also calls for regular public arts events, in the manner of the pop-up “Upstate Immersive Art Project” held on the weekend of August 28, which the memo claims was “extremely well received by community members.”

The Historic Commission’s Achilles Heel

Kingston woke to the value of historic preservation around the same time as Poughkeepsie. During the urban renewal boom in the middle of the 20th century, parts of Kingston’s downtown waterfront, the Rondout, were demolished to make way for new roads and bridges. But the city managed to save its uptown district, which for better or worse is now the epicenter of a revitalized core.

Poughkeepsie, on the other hand, lost entire neighborhoods Robert Moses-style bulldozing and commuter road development. One of the most infamous of the city’s many urban renewal projects was the construction of the North-South arterials (Route 9). Completed in 1966, the roads tore through several historically ethnic neighborhoods adjacent to the Pelton mansion, destroying 178 buildings and displacing 200 families. That left many returning Vietnam War veterans to “find their former neighborhoods completely vanished, further complicating their sociopsychological reentry process,” write Harvey K. Flad and Clyde Griffen in Main Street to Mainframes: Landscape and Social Change in Poughkeepsie. The East-West arterial cut an even more destructive gash through city neighborhoods and was a key factor for the decline of its downtown commercial area.

Members of Poughkeepsie city administration have made overtures to individual commissioners on the HDLPC and to small groups. Just one in-person meeting is thought to have occurred, which took place in City Administrator Marc Nelson’s office and was restricted to just three commissioners. But to date, the approach does not seem to be gaining much traction.

HDLPC commissioners privately express a range of reactions from muted outrage to annoyance. There is a strong sense of resignation about Poughkeepsie not changing, even as the city lags behind regional peers when it comes to historic preservation. But they are reluctant to speak publicly for fear of angering city officials, whom they have to work with regularly.

“While these commissions have the legal authority, because the executive branch appoints them they are vulnerable to this kind of pressure,” says Erin Tobin, policy vice president for the Preservation League of New York State, a nonprofit. “Hopefully the commission will maintain its independence and follow its legal obligations.”

While Tobin says that the “vast majority” of local historic commissions do the right thing when appropriately staffed, an official in the state Historic Preservation Office notes that mayors sometimes tinker with the composition of historic commissions to suit their interests. “We see a lot of that around the state,” says the official, who asked not to be further identified.

Poughkeepsie’s last mayor, John Tkazyik, juggled commissioners just ahead of one of the city’s most momentous decisions: whether or not to save the Nelson House, a historic hotel that hosted founding fathers and presidents and was a major civic center for community events for close to a century. When President Franklin Roosevelt visited his Hyde Park home, the hotel became the temporary White House, packed with staff, press corps, and diplomats. Roosevelt frequently delivered campaign speeches from the balcony and addressed crowds the night from there before he won an unprecedented third election.

Proposals to tear down Nelson House “hit a raw nerve—the kind you only find in cities like Poughkeepsie which were rocked to their very core by massive waves of urban renewal demolition,” local historian and preservationist Holly Wahlberg said in an elegy before the county Legislature around the time it approved funding for the demolition. “In Poughkeepsie, we know what it means to lose our landmarks, and the scars are with us every day.”

A Long and Drawn-Out Process

Today, the Nelson site is mostly a parking lot for the Dutchess County building next door (which FDR railed against as a 20 year old because it destroyed a 1809 stone courthouse), with a small park dedicated to Jay P. Rolison, Jr., the current mayor’s father, who served 23 years in the state Senate. Across the street is the Bardavon Theater—one of the city’s remaining gems—which was once the subject of a proposal for a parking lot.

As mayor, Rolison’s record on historic preservation has been better than Tkazyik’s, but not by much. He actively opposed historic designations of College Hill and the Eastman Oval. He also submitted a letter to the commission supporting Tinkelman’s project as the “best possible plan,” in part because no other proposal will contain “all that everyone would like to see.” But this ignores the fact that Tinkelman’s option-to-buy contract locks in his position indefinitely, while the city has no clear exit from that document, and in the meantime cannot entertain other proposals.

Now Rolison is doing the bidding of the well-connected Tinkelman, whose political donation to Dutchess County Executive Marcus Molinaro’s gubernatorial run, as well as his hiring of Molinaro’s wife, Corinne Adams, briefly flared as a campaign issue in an ad by then Governor Andrew Cuomo about pay-to-play politics. 

Rolison, a Republican and career policeman in the town of Poughkeepsie, has also always stressed the need to broaden the city’s tax base, but the confidential memo makes clear that the developer expects the city’s help to get a PILOT from the city’s Industrial Development Agency for their arts patronage. 

After two stalwart members of the historic commission recently resigned—former chairperson Alyson Pomerantz, a lawyer who made sure the commission stuck to its criteria, and Holly Wahlberg, the local historian—Rolison’s replacement choices were both developers whose local interests could leave them vulnerable to leverage. One of these has already expressed interest in the new offer.

Paul Ackermann, the corporation counsel for Poughkeepsie, has said at a Common Council hearing that Tinkelman’s contract with the city could be declared “null and void.” And Mayor Rolison has told this reporter he’d like to seek new proposals for the Pelton Mansion once the way is cleared—if it ever is.

“[The developers] have the right to make another offer, again, again, and again, and the historic commission has the right to shoot them down again, again, again,” says a source who has been closely involved with this issue for years, and requested anonymity to speak freely. “They are going to keep suing. These guys have been at it for 10 years, you think they are going to give up now? They are not! This is going to go on for another decade. And all the while, that mansion stands, slowly falling apart.”