We gathered Beacon’s four living mayors for a discussion about change
On June 9, The Current invited Beacon’s four living mayors — Clara Lou Gould (1990-2007), Steve Gold (2008-2011), Randy Casale (2012-2019) and Lee Kyriacou (2020 to present) — to gather at City Hall for a discussion of the city’s recent past and future. Their comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Let’s talk about how Beacon has changed over the past quarter-century.
Clara Lou Gould: When I was mayor, I always wanted to get the community involved. As I would say to students who were learning about government, “This is your city.” I would ask: “Have you heard that government is of the people, by the people and for the people?” They would say, “Yes.” And I’d ask, “So, who is the government?” Invariably, they would respond, “You are.” And I’d say, “No, you weren’t listening. We all are.”
If you see something that needs correcting or changing, you don’t just talk to each other, you call somebody in charge. You don’t just say what you think is wrong, you suggest a solution. Same thing with the City Council. I would put time for public comment on the agenda so the ward representatives could take notes or say there was already a solution in the doing. It was just a sense of making it our community and not some people up here [on the council] and other people down there.
We tried to emphasize beautification and community involvement. That’s when we did hanging baskets on Main Street. I remember the first year; they planted them in my front yard. Then we did the barrels on Main Street, and Texaco donated the barrels. We got that idea from Saratoga. People couldn’t reach them to pull out the flowers, and, of course, Randy [who was the highway superintendent] watered them.
Before the beautification, we were made a Tree City by New York State. We got the merchants to do flower boxes. The boxes were made by the carpenters’ union and the schools planted the seeds. The Garden Club also helped. We did the Welcome to Beacon signs. My husband and I used to have dinner at Dutchess Manor every Friday night, and the bartender was a guy from Cold Spring, which is where I grew up. He said that somebody came in and said, “Beacon is the pits,” but I knew it couldn’t be that bad if we plant flowers to welcome people.
Steve Gold: You’re very modest, Clara Lou, because the heavy lifting of Beacon’s renaissance took place during your administration. In these older cities, in the mid-1990s, it was hard to find somebody to refurbish a building, to make it look good again. Our Main Street was looking ragged, but during your term, Ron Sauers and Ronnie Beth Sauers and others took the East End and restored those buildings. You left the door open for them to do that and helped facilitate it with some aid from the county. That should be a big part of your legacy. I inherited that [in 2008]. When I took office, we had just passed the comprehensive plan, which was a major step for the city to update the way it was looking at development. My charge was to facilitate those changes, to bring the plan to life.
If you remember, in 2008 there was a severe economic downturn. What began as an effort to implement zoning became an effort to keep Beacon looking good and safe, even though there was no revenue. We had four years of difficult finances, and we had to make some serious decisions on how to keep the city moving forward and not deteriorate. We wanted to be in a good place when the economy got better, so Beacon would be able to springboard from that.
We had one major development during my time — the MTA [Metropolitan Transportation Authority] wanted to put in a transit-oriented development by the waterfront — and the city decided not to accept it. We analyzed the benefits and the consequences. The public came out and said it was not right for Beacon. There was almost nobody in favor of this huge project that was going to transform the waterfront.
However, the other zoning that we put in seemed to be in line with what the city wanted to do. We became a government promoting Beacon as a place to come to, to enjoy. It’s safe, it’s clean, there are flowers on Main Street, the vibe is good.
Beacon does have a sense of identity, a sense of belonging. When people move here, they quickly take on this loyalty and pride in the city. That has never changed, even though the demographics are different and the people who are here don’t always have the long roots of those who were here before. When people come here, they become involved and concerned quickly. I don’t know whether that’s true about most other communities, but it’s true about Beacon.
The other thing I’ve observed is that you always get people coming to council meetings who are opposed to something that’s going to affect them. One of the differences I’ve seen is that more people come to council meetings to advocate change they want to see that would make Beacon a better place. It’s not so much of a reaction as it is a proaction. When Lee was leading the council on issues like police reform and good-cause eviction, the public came forward with ideas like having social workers go out with police officers to help de-escalate situations. Those are ideas that are centered around people’s sense of identity of being a Beaconite and wanting Beacon to be an even better place.
Randy Casale: What Clara Lou didn’t mention was, when she took office, we were a commission form of government. It took a heavy lift to make this a city manager/mayor form of government. The first time that came up, I opposed it publicly and it got voted down. It came back up and it went through, and it’s probably the best thing that ever happened to the city. My concern was because I looked at Newburgh and Poughkeepsie and they were firing city managers every other year. To me, continuity is the key to success. Since we went to a mayor/manager form of government, we have had only a few city administrators. The first one was Joe Braun, who taught me a lot. Joe was here for 15 or 16 years, and then Meredith Robson came. When she left, Anthony Ruggiero came and now Chris White is here, and all of them were good administrators. They did the job in a business manner, not in a political manner, which helped the city.
Thinking about Main Street, people complain about parking and about it being congested. When I was growing up in Beacon, Main Street had parking meters and it was still congested every day, and on Friday nights the stores were open until 9 p.m. When the industries closed, Main Street basically closed, too. Storefronts became apartments, which was not a good thing. When Clara Lou took over, both ends of Main Street were in rough shape.
Clara Lou would have a meeting every Friday in the old Lewis Tompkins firehouse, which is now Hudson Beach Glass, with all the Main Street business people, the chief of police, the Highway Department, and we’d go over whatever concerns they had and how we could improve Main Street. That’s where the kickoff started. Everybody started working together to try to get Main Street going. Then Ron Sauers did the East End and it started snowballing.
When I took over as mayor, there was a Main Street committee and a river committee. I took the two and made one committee and we opened the comprehensive plan again [for the update in 2017]. Out of that we rezoned Main Street. At the time, you could build up to four stories, and the riverfront never had zoning. As Steve said before, when they were going to do the riverfront, the MTA was almost exempt from any of our zoning. They could plan whatever they wanted. We wound up zoning it so if anything goes up, it will only be on the east side of the tracks. Anything that goes up high would only be on the south end and the north end, where the cliffs are, and in the middle it would be no higher than the MTA police station so it wouldn’t block views.
What people forget is that when urban renewal [in the late 1960s and early 1970s] knocked all the buildings down, the city lost a good chunk of its tax base. They thought they could get industry to come, because the railroad was here, Nabisco was here, our sewage treatment plant was down there. But for 40 years, nothing came. Part of the misconception is that we’re building on open space, but this was never open space. When I was a kid, there were buildings on every 50-foot lot all the way down to the railroad tracks. That’s the tax base, and your government and your city is only as good as the income you can get from a tax base. You’ve got to provide safety, recreation, streetlights and garbage, and that all costs money.
It’s nice to have open space. And believe me, we have a lot of it. Through development, we’ve got a lot more. We have a [greenway] trail from the river all the way around to Fishkill Creek, and now that the MTA finally gave up the tracks [the dormant Beacon Line], we’ll finally get a trail all the way up to the Walkway Over the Hudson. That will take you all the way up to New Paltz. That’s all new open space, and the developers along Fishkill Creek have to pay for part of that trail and maintain it.
After we rezoned the river and Main Street, I put a building moratorium on. I wasn’t sure we’d have enough water, so I wanted a study. It came back that we could build for up to 20,000 people, that we have plenty of water and our sewers have capacity. Then when the first [new four-story] building went up [at 344] Main Street, it was a mistake because they went out too far on the sidewalk. People got upset and started complaining about development. They started saying the schools are overpopulated, which is not true.
I’m a believer that the development that goes on in Beacon is good for Beacon, but it’s got to be smart. We need to find a way to make it affordable for people to stay here, and that’s easier said than done. When you build something that’s good, people want to come. And when there’s more people that want to come, prices go up. It’s hard to control that.
During my administration, the police were also under the Department of Justice watch. We got Doug Solomon as our chief; he was the first chief that was from out of town, I believe. We started putting in rules and regulations based on what the DOJ recommended. I told the cops that I wanted them to wear body cameras. We were one of the first communities. The cops were a little upset about it, but to this day, I think the police believe it was the best thing they ever did. Our department has come a long way. It’s community-oriented and I’m proud to say Beacon’s Police Department is one of the finest around.
I tried to work on the firehouse over here [Tompkins Hose]. The first thing I did was hire a paid chief, which wasn’t a popular thing to do. In fact, supporters of mine were against me when I did it, but I knew it was something that had to be done. I tried to put them all in one firehouse. I was told by the architect that we couldn’t do it, it’s too much money. Then I heard on the street that Tompkins Hose was selling its parking lot, and I told the city administrator to buy it. If we ever decide to put a firehouse there without that parking lot, we’re done. And if we don’t put the firehouse there, we’ve still got a parking lot for the public.
Beacon’s on the right track. I’ve lived here all my life — I’ve seen it when it was great, I’ve seen it when it went down and I see it coming back. I know people are upset about costs because, believe me, I worked for public works. I’m not rich. One thing I’d like to see is affordable housing at Camp Beacon [the former Beacon Correctional Facility]. I don’t know where else you would put it. I was talking to somebody the other day who tried to put a mini-house behind his house for his mom to live in and it cost him a ton of money. I give Lee kudos because the city is trying to streamline that process, to make it more affordable for people to live together without impacting the city.
Lee Kyriacou: This is really fun, right? I’m so pleased to listen to all this. I’d like to talk about an earlier period. As Randy said, post-World War II, the factory town went downhill. All the factories shut down, with Nabisco being the last one in 1986. Urban renewal came in, all sorts of homes and businesses were taken down and the expectation was it’d be rebuilt.
The master plan then said that Main Street was too long; we were going to turn Main Street into a pedestrian mall like Main Street in Poughkeepsie. We were going to build 13-story high-rises at Bank Square and in the curve, where the Howland Center is. That first renovation of Main Street by the Sauers was actually not consistent with the comprehensive plan, because that was exactly where the 13-story buildings were supposed to be. It was a disaster of a plan. But if you notice where there’s single stories in the middle of Main Street, that was the mall concept. The wide Henry Street and one block of Church Street, those were the returns where the cars were going to be. That was the concept they were going toward, but only bits of it got done. The property we sit on at City Hall was urban renewal property that nobody was doing anything on.
I arrived in 1992 and got on the council in 1994. Steve and I were on the council with Clara Lou as mayor for a number of years. Randy was the head of the Highway Department. In ’94, they had started working on code enforcement issues and thinking through Main Street. My first two months on the council, there were two proposals to allow conversions of single-family homes between Verplanck and Wolcott into multi-family for four and five families. That was permitted under zoning.
We started to look at housing and Main Street and a little bit on the industrial side, and we did several zoning changes. On Main Street, we phased out ground-floor apartments. Main Street wasn’t ever going to come back unless we made that choice. We had no idea whether it would work, so we put a seven-year limit on it and said we were going to check in Year 6 to see how bad or how good vacancy rates were.
Then we said that between Verplanck and Wolcott, on either side of Main Street, heading up the mountain, we were going to eliminate the right to convert single-family homes into four and five apartments. But we created the first accessory dwelling unit law, probably in the state, and said, “If you’re owner-occupied, you could have an accessory unit,” because we wanted to help seniors and that was the way we could get the community on board.
That immediately changed who was buying those homes. We started getting young families fixing them up as opposed to someone out-bidding them because they could be converted into apartments. My home, which is a historic Victorian, was zoned for 15 apartments; the one next door for 18. The historic overlay came into place; we got rid of what was called RD-3, which allowed all those single-family areas to start going into multi-unit apartments and we started preserving historic structures.
We removed the 13-story high-rise zoning on Main Street. I wanted to do a comprehensive plan update in the 1990s, but I think Clara Lou knew that if we had done it then, we would still be a factory town. The community wasn’t ready to move away from factories. Randy, you know, you grew up here. Everyone talked about, “Well, I worked here or my uncle worked here, what’s wrong with factories?” It just wasn’t forward-looking. It’s not that it’s a bad thing. It just wasn’t going to come back, not at the scale that they had been built in Beacon.
The last major step we did was to think through the zoning along the waterfront. Actually, it was not a zoning issue, but the sewage treatment plant, that jump-started us. That plant was out of compliance. Initially, the mayor and the city administrator proposed that we build a new incinerator for our plant, for burning sludge. It took us a year to reach consensus that this wasn’t the right thing to do. We realized it was cheaper to de-water the sludge and truck it out than it was to build a plant.
Within a few years, the adjacent properties were bought by Scenic Hudson [the Long Dock Park site]; [Beacon Institute for] Rivers & Estuaries, down by Dennings Point; and then, most importantly, the Dia site. They are all adjacent to the incinerator. Had we not done that, I don’t think a lot of this would have happened. That good fortune and those three buyers jump-started our renewal.
There had been activity on Main Street but not a significant redo of a major industrial site. That site was zoned industrial until the day Dia came. The community hadn’t been ready. I remember the head of Empire State Development, at the dedication for Dia, saying that they had a fish factory ready to go in the Nabisco site but Dia came along. We were fortunate because the site was being marketed as industrial.
We had a little bit of an arts community because of the Tallix Fine Art Foundry, and the Tallix board chair, Lee Balter, took a look at the Nabisco site and started talking it up in the arts community. Somehow that percolated over to Dia. Randy said something that was absolutely right, which is that the amount of change between one mayor and a second and a third or fourth has been quite small, in the general direction of, “We’re probably not going to be an industrial community.” It was little zigs and zags. And Randy mentioned the importance of the charter form of government with a mayor, council and a city administrator. For us to have four city administrators over 34 years is a statement as to the correctness of that form of government, and the importance of a professional administration to run the city.
Randy touched on the Department of Justice coming to look at our Police Department toward the end of Clara Lou’s period. Clara Lou, if you remember, one thing that was wrong was that all of the jobs reported to the city administrator except one: the police chief. That was asking the mayor to do too much, especially if you have someone who needs to be professionalized. One of the first steps the council did was to change the charter to have the chief report to the administrator.
Steve mentioned the comprehensive plans, which were incredibly important. It’s guided where development has gone for years. Randy, you mentioned [344 Main] goes up and it’s, “Yeah, we need to make changes.” So we made those changes. You mentioned that we weren’t ready for the Metro-North proposal. We’ve done that zoning and I think we are ready now. It’s a much more modest set of zonings, and we invited Metro-North to watch what we did.
Casale: When I put the committee together for the waterfront and Main Street, MTA had a person at every meeting, so it would have input from the beginning. If the partner that’s down there doesn’t have any say in the beginning, it might be hard to get him to agree with you. And we had public hearings. When the public says there’s no sense going to meetings because we’re doing this — believe me, this government has listened to the people more times than not. It’s not as easy as people think, that you just snap your fingers. But this government, over the last 30 years, has listened to the people, adapted and made changes. And, for the most part, the changes were the right changes.
When Clara Lou was elected, we had a mayor, a commissioner of public works, a commissioner of safety, a commissioner of finance. The commissioner of safety was in charge of the building inspector and the electrical inspector and the plumbing inspector, and they would give somebody a part-time job to do those jobs. It was, “Who do you know?” When Clara Lou’s administration got in, they decided to clean up the city and adopted the New York State building code. She hired the first full-time building inspector and a deputy. Once they came aboard, we started seeing people do the right thing with their buildings on Main Street. Dan Betterton was the first guy and he was a great building inspector.
When I say the city went down when the industry left, I also believe the city went downhill when the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge was built. Back in the day, the only way you could get from that side of the river to this side was by ferry. Newburgh was booming, Poughkeepsie was booming and so was Beacon. Once the bridge went in and they built Interstate 84, the malls started opening up and the small businesses in the cities no longer got the traffic, and our storefronts started going out of business.
Kyriacou: The other thing I would mention is that fiscal caution across administrations was very much there. We had to be careful because our tax base had gone down so far that our tax rates were quite high. The two of you [Clara Lou Gould and Steve Gold] had to go through a stressful situation fiscally, and you lost the first sales tax deal [to receive funds from Dutchess County] at that time, which made it harder, but you got us through that. Now we’re in a position where we’ve got the advantage of sales tax [Kyriacou recently negotiated a 10-year tax-sharing agreement with the county that will net the city $20 million] this time. Our tax rate is substantially lower because of the increase in property values, while we’ve been careful with the pace at which we raise taxes.
Gold: The comptroller has always given us good ratings on our books. There were times, especially during that 2008 recession, when a lot of the neighboring communities found ways to get through it that were not so popular with the state comptroller, and they received some negative reports. But we did what we had to do to keep the city in good condition. Sometimes it hurt a little, because we had to raise taxes, but in the end, we got out of that recession in a good place for development to take place.
For a while I was working for the state and was involved in some of the Newburgh issues. One of the key things that they learned from Beacon was code enforcement. They realized that that’s what they had to focus on, because a lot of the housing and commercial development there would skirt the zoning and regulations, and the quality of the buildings and the neighborhoods went down. Our full-time code enforcer helped with situations where absentee landlords might have tried to get away on the cheap and let things fall apart. Beacon never got down to that level.
It was important when you connect the dots with the waterfront and the changes that we made there, particularly the smokestack for the sewage treatment plant. You see how that benefited the area for Dia to come in. While Ron Sauers and a few others were restoring buildings on the East End, the west end of Main Street still had a lot of problems. The middle was looking shabby with all the first-floor apartments, there was drug dealing, it was dangerous.
When Dia moved in and people started to walk up to Main Street, all of the sudden there was commercial value in those properties. They were converted before we even had to do any regulations. I hadn’t thought about connecting those dots before but I think you’re right. If the sewage treatment plant would have stayed, emitting toxic fumes through the incinerator, we wouldn’t have had major development.
Kyriacou: It’s hard because it was a factory community, and people would love to have had factories, but they’re just not compatible. Think about the waterfront. It’s no longer compatible with the waterfront uses that we look at today. Clara Lou, you were around when Riverfront Park was the dump and we had to cap it and turn it into a park.
Casale: We passed an ordinance during [Steve Gold’s] administration that we wouldn’t let [property owners] neglect industrial buildings. You had to get an inspection every year. I remember the guy from Craig House, when I became mayor, said, “You’re killing me with this new law. I’m paying so much money.” I said, “Sell the property if you’re not going to develop it.” He said he was trying to and I said, “No, you’re not, not with the price you’ve got on that building. You’re trying to appease us by saying you’re trying to sell it.” That’s why we put the law in effect. We didn’t want people warehousing old buildings so they get demolished.
Gold: After the Tuck Tape building on Tioronda Avenue was demolished because of neglect, we pulled in all of the major owners of industrial properties and sat them down with the code enforcer and identified what needed to be done with their properties to seal them up, so that they would be in good condition to be sold as is. That made all the difference in the world for the Roundhouse. It made all the difference in the world for the Hip Lofts.
What are your hopes for Beacon’s future?
Gould: I want to see people get involved. When they are involved, the students and their parents get involved, you get things done in a positive way. A positive attitude is the best rule that anyone can have. It’s important to keep getting people involved — people who have lived here a long time and people who have just come here.
Gold: The city is moving in the right direction. As it continues its development, we have to be concerned that it might reach a tipping point where it becomes too congested and the quality of life becomes too diminished. But we haven’t gotten there yet. It requires some fine-tuning and cautious steps. I’d like to see more Main Street-type buildings on Beekman Street, so we have more of a continuous Main Street going down to the train station. As Randy was saying, that’s what we had before urban renewal. It makes for a more interesting walk for people taking the train and coming up here.
The people who are moving in have a sense of involvement, similar to what Clara Lou was trying to build. That’s natural for people who come to Beacon and love it; they want to be involved. The council has always been receptive to what the public has to say, and it’s important that the council stays like that. Lee has done a great job in working with the public through some difficult times with COVID, with police reform and housing legislation. The other three mayors before Lee all had that approach of listening to the public and being professional. One of the things I’ve seen in Beacon is that there’s a degree of civility and professionalism that takes place in council meetings that I haven’t seen in too many other communities. There isn’t any place I know where people work so well together, in a collegial effort to do what’s best for the city, not what’s best for themselves. I hope that continues, and I think it will.
Casale: Congestion in Beacon is not because of development. It’s because we are driven through tourism from the arts. If you go down Main Street on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, it’s not congested. When people say they don’t want any more congestion, do you want us to tell the tourists not to come here? It’s not from the development, and I can’t emphasize that enough.
We have to get a recreation center. When I was the mayor, we went before the state twice and put in requests for $10 million. One of our plans was to put a rec center on the lower half of Hammond Field [next to Matteawan Road]. I thought it would be good because you could put afterschool programs for kids; both the middle and high schools are on that road; they could walk. You have the field there for recreation, and you could put a kitchen in for community and senior things. I thought it was the ideal place. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the $10 million, but I think that’s the next improvement.
The next big hurdle for the city is ambulance service. Going from an industrial community where everybody worked here, and everybody was a volunteer fireman and everybody belonged to the Beacon Volunteer Ambulance Corps — once the jobs left Beacon, and people began commuting, they don’t have time for the mandates the state requires to be a volunteer. I’d like to see the county take a bigger role in managing fire and ambulance services. They need a coalition where the expense is spread.
Kyriacou: I don’t think another community in the Hudson Valley has had as rapid and as thorough a success story, in terms of turning a pretty worn-out Northeast industrial city into a vibrant, highly attractive community. I’m not even sure in the country whether it’s been done that quickly and comprehensively. The problems that we face going forward are problems of success, and those are much easier. A crowded Main Street — that’s because we’re attractive to tourists. That’s wonderful, but we have to manage it. Affordability — it’s because housing prices have gone up and because people with a lot of money want to rent and are willing to pay higher rents. On the other hand, 30 percent of our rental housing is in some form affordable or subsidized. That’s a true asset for us as a community, because the towns [in Dutchess County] have almost nothing like that.
Moving forward, the issues are going to be how we connect our Main Street to our waterfront. How do we keep a long Main Street in business? In our comprehensive plan, it says Main Street suffered because we didn’t have density. We need some density so that when the tourists go away, we can still have a Main Street that gets supported by the local community.
I’m with Randy, I’d like us to get to a community center. We’re doing our firehouse. We’re going to manage that carefully. We added $200,000 — every time I say $100,000, that’s about 1 percent of our tax base. We added $200,000 [in costs] for ambulance service. We added four and now a fifth career firefighter in the last four years. They’re about 1 percent each. We’re doing a firehouse, that’s a $14 million project, and it’s not affecting taxes in a significant fashion.
Inflation is running 5 or 6 percent; our tax levy increase is 2 or 3 percent and is covered by new construction, which is incredibly important for us to provide the quality-of-life services that we want. We’ve been keeping the tax increase on existing properties as limited as we could. We’re staying at or under the [mandated state] tax cap, because we’ve had these other sources of revenue. Let’s be clear, if you’re delivering services and you’re not raising people’s taxes, 90 percent of the problem [is solved] and the other parts we worry about. These four people sitting at this table have been doing that for a generation and a half, and I think we’re going to keep doing that.
Casale: When I was the highway superintendent, I worked out of a building that was falling down even before I started. When we finally built a new garage on state property, we freed up a spot along Fishkill Creek that now has housing and one of the few industries that came here: DocuWare. We have to find some niches like DocuWare. You’re not going to find the industry like we had in the old days, but if we can find some workplaces that bring 50 or 60 jobs, that will help Main Street during the week. We had all our marbles in the industrial factories. When that went out, we went belly-up. Now we’ve got most of our marbles in tourism through the arts, and we have to balance it out somehow.
Kyriacou: We’ve adjusted our zoning along the creek, which Randy set up, to require minimum 25 percent commercial. At the old highway garage, it’s 80 percent commercial. That’s new tax revenue without [adding] kids in the schools. If you think out 20 or 40 years, we’re going to have to build out the housing shortage, and we’re going to have to create affordability. So Beacon is probably going to get denser. We’re just back to our density when Randy was a kid. We have to figure out how to do that effectively. It makes a ton of sense to have something down at the waterfront, at the train station, consistent with our comprehensive plan and the zoning that you all put in place.
Casale: I’ve been to a lot of places and Beacon has everything you need. You’ve got a river, a mountain, a creek running through the center of it, open space galore, trails going from the river to the creek. What more can you ask for? And it’s only 5 square miles.
Gold: It’s that special chemistry that makes the sense of identity that people have about Beacon work. It’s because we have this secluded area in the midst of beautiful natural resources, and we’ve protected those resources.