Before the pandemic, development was the issue in Beacon.
Who could forget the printout of a Facebook post and the hundreds of comments it generated attached to the temporary fencing around 344 Main St. when a support wall extended several feet into the sidewalk, out of alignment with the neighboring Beacon Natural Market? (Within weeks, the wall was removed and realigned.)
The subsequent formation of the People’s Committee on Development, led in part by Dan Aymar-Blair, now a City Council member. Two building moratoriums passed by the council, both driven by concerns about water.
More than a dozen public hearings for the Edgewater apartment complex proposal, the largest ever in Beacon, residents packed so closely that some began to shout from the lobby of City Hall. At several hearings, dueling attorneys argued over formulas for estimating the project’s impacts on the school district.
Since 2012, nearly 800 apartments and other housing units have been built in Beacon. At Edgewater and 248 Tioronda Ave., among a handful of others, there are more than 300 units still under construction because of pandemic delays.
Maps of projected land use in the 2017 update to Beacon’s comprehensive plan — a blueprint revised by the city about every 10 years to guide growth — indicate that the most-dense development should occur in four locations: (1) on the east side of the Metro-North station; (2) in the waterfront-to-Main “linkage” district; (3) on Main Street, in the central business zone; and (4) in spots along the Fishkill Creek corridor.
Most of the remaining land — which makes up 80 percent to 90 percent of the city — is zoned for low- to medium-density housing, such as single-family homes.
An overlay of major construction projects in the last decade shows that each occurred within one of the zones designated for high density. In addition, the city’s zoning code was amended several times after the 2017 moratorium to temper the impacts of incoming development.
In late 2017, the City Council adopted changes in the Fishkill Creek zone limiting new buildings to three stories totaling no more than 40 feet. New projects there must also include at least 25 percent commercial uses, and a parcel’s density is based on buildable (rather than gross) acreage to account for topographic features such as steep slopes.
Five months later, the council extended the “steep-slopes” measure to the largest residential districts, reducing the Edgewater project from 307 units to 246. In the creekside zone, the change downsized the 248 Tioronda development from 100 to 64 apartments.
In 2020, the city tightened its Main Street zoning by requiring four-story proposals to include one or more “public benefits,” such as increased parking, affordable housing units, green building features or public spaces.
City officials say that, dating to the 1990s, Beacon’s zoning has been corrected to funnel foot traffic toward businesses on Main Street.
“For Main Street to recover and thrive requires more nearby residents to support its businesses,” said Mayor Lee Kyriacou. “The appropriate places for additional residences are on and around Main, near the train station as a public-transit hub and on abandoned or former industrial sites along Fishkill Creek.”
Not everyone agrees. One resident, Theresa Kraft, has attended and spoken at virtually every public meeting in Beacon during its building boom. Earlier this month, she argued before the City Council that housing and development in Beacon are “in crisis mode.”
“Sadly, it’s the upheaval of what this city has allowed to be destroyed directly on our historic Main Street and the side streets abutting it,” she said. “So many of these projects are either poorly designed, out of character with the neighborhood or have seriously infringed on our protected viewsheds. This rampant building spree is spreading like wildfire, and it’s got to be stopped.”
Beacon’s approach is similar to the one adopted in Somerville, Massachusetts, a city of 80,000 that undertook an urban revitalization initiative over the last decade. There, planners directed growth toward the city’s downtown core, around two public transit stations, which are “naturally places where you want to focus your development,” according to Michael Rodriguez, an urban planner with the Smart Growth America organization.
Rodriguez noted the benefits of other recommendations in Beacon’s comp plan, such as creating what is known as “transit-oriented development” (TOD) near public transportation.
“You’re sitting on this gift, a multi-billion-dollar infrastructure asset, that gives you a nice commute if you want it, or a recreational trip to the city,” he said. “Yet very few people can use that infrastructure without getting into a car.”
In 2007, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) announced plans to create a TOD at the Beacon Metro-North station. A citizen group, Beacon Deserves Better, opposed the plan over a number of issues, including potential environmental impacts and the effect it would have had on the city’s Main Street, which had yet to fully rebound from the neglect and crime of the 1990s.
In addition, the MTA plan, which the agency put on hold in 2010, called for a major expansion of the Metro-North parking lot and, in a second phase, construction of a 1,000-car parking garage.
If approached differently, and with community input, Rodriguez suggested a TOD could create “hubs” of activity. “Now you become more of a job center,” he said. (Beacon’s comprehensive plan recommends development intended to guide people from the train to Main Street, but also reflects community feedback and proposes that land west of the train station remain open space that would be fed by improved connections between Riverfront Park, Long Dock Park and the proposed Hudson Highlands Fjord Trail.)
In economic terms, it’s hard to argue that Beacon as a whole hasn’t benefited from development. “When we add new assessed value through new construction, nobody else’s taxes go up, but we receive added revenue,” said Chris White, the city administrator.
Beacon in 2021 hired Ambulnz, a private company, for $150,000 to provide 24/7 advanced life support emergency services, while also sending $50,000 to the nonprofit Beacon Volunteer Ambulance Corps, which has served the city for 65 years and provides basic life support service.
“All that was added as a new service with no impact on current taxpayers,” White said, adding that Beacon now has the ability to fund (and borrow for) projects such as its $14.7 million centralized fire station, and to make “generational” investments in its water and wastewater systems.
He pointed, also, to the addition of a mental health worker in the Police Department, a full-time human resources director and the city’s Climate Smart coordinator.
“We have the latitude to do that without creating an undue tax burden because we’ve had a trend of growth over the last 10 years,” White said.
Has Beacon Followed Its Own Blueprint?
Was Enough Done to Keep It Affordable?
Is There Room for Lower Incomes?
Recent History (A Timeline)
This series was made possible by contributions to our Special Projects Fund.
The “nobody else’s taxes go up” is a pure, out-and-out myth. Every year on grievance day, a boatload of owners complain about high yearly hikes. We all get the same pushback from the committee. They all point to the new sales in the high-bracket numbers. When we say taxes are not to be based on new sales, as per stated methodology, we still get the same response: the new sales, the new sales, the new sales.