Coming developments may change the local landscape.
In the summer of 2014, the historical Arthur S. May school, located on the fringes of a pedestrian-friendly stretch along Raymond Avenue that includes several restaurants and small businesses, shut down. But an upcoming project aims to revitalize the lot. The Arthur May Anchor Project, spearheaded by real estate developer PAZ Management, would demolish the Arthur S. May School—a structure which is eligible for both State and National Historic registration—and replace it with a five-story, 110-room hotel and apartment complex that would bring housing and commercial space to the community (Town of Poughkeepsie Planning Department, 11.21.2019).
The development has yet to attain final site plan approval from the Town of Poughkeepsie, although the Town granted conditional approval in November. In total, the venture would include a large parking lot, set to accommodate 351 vehicles; three two-story buildings with retail and residential spaces; and two seven-story residential buildings connected by a fitness center, business center and clubhouse with a lounge. The estimated cost of the development is $50 million (Poughkeepsie Journal, “Arthur May Anchor Project to bring hotel, apartments, retail to Poughkeepsie,” 01.13.2019).
Despite the projected capacity of the parking lot and the size of the development, Town of Poughkeepsie Supervisor Jon J. Baisley indicated to The Poughkeepsie Journal that traffic along Raymond Avenue would not be significantly affected by the project (“Arthur May Anchor Project”).
The $2.1 million pending sale of property to the project would also bring the property into the Town’s tax base for the first time in several decades, as it has heretofore been owned by the tax-exempt Arlington School District. The current tax plan under consideration by Dutchess County includes $15 million paid to local tax authorities within the first 25 years of operation (“Arthur May Anchor Project”).
The property is within the intentionally walkable Arlington Town Center zoning district, which Town codes describe as “a unique blend of residential and business land uses in close proximity to Vassar College” (Town of Poughkeepsie, NY Code, “Arlington Town Center District,” 2019). But some streets may not remain so walkable for long: The Town will soon see not just one, but two major real estate projects, as Vassar has plans to construct a lodging of its own.
The Town of Poughkeepsie Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) has yet to decide whether a plot of land less than half a mile away from the Arthur S. May site can be developed into Vassar’s Inn and Institute for the Liberal Arts (I/I), which includes 50 hotel rooms, a conference space and a parking lot. The proposed site of the development, on the corner of College and Raymond Avenues, lies within the institutional zone that encompasses Vassar’s entire campus, though the I/I would border the numerous residences that populate the quiet College Avenue, as well as the existing Alumnae House, a 20-bedroom lodging place open only to members of the Vassar community.
The current proposal for the I/I includes provisions for use of the facility and its accommodations by non-Vassar affiliates, an issue that complicates the current zoning debate. In order to construct on land that is zoned institutional, the College must prove that the I/I either directly supports the mission of the institution—in this case, education—or can be considered an accessory use by the institution, like residential dorms are. Because the facilities would be open to use by the broader community, this raises the question of whether it is a commercial enterprise disconnected from the educational mission of the College. In particular, the Zoning Administrator expressed concerns about the use of an outside operator to manage the hotel.
This point was contested by Vassar Vice President for Finance Bryan Swarthout at a Jan. 13 ZBA meeting, during which he affirmed under oath that the I/I’s purpose is not to generate revenue. Instead, the College intends to finance the project entirely through gifts, likely operating at a net loss. Vassar Dean of Strategic Planning and Academic Resources Marianne Begemann, alongside Rebecca Valk, a lawyer from Cuddy & Feder LLP representing Vassar, testified to the I/I’s educational use value, given that other schools and universities have comparable hotel and conference structures. As Begemann pointed out, “Of the 20 institutions with which we benchmark ourselves on many metrics…eight, or 40 percent, owned hotels on or close to campus.”
Although the administrators assert that the building is educational in nature despite its rental spaces, they noted that they could still categorize the Inn as institutional were they to close it off from the Poughkeepsie community, similar to the Alumnae House. Valk stated: “If we were forced to be fully Vassar-only use … then we have the benefit of our tax-exempt status.”
Questions remain as to the potential impact of these development projects on each other. In the Jan. 13 meeting, Town of Poughkeepsie Board Member Ann Shirshen noted that she believes the I/I to be primarily educational, but, like existing Vassar spaces including the Mary Ann Fox Martel Recital Hall in Skinner Hall, also a potential benefit to the community through events that are open to the public. Speaking directly to the relation between the two developments, she commented, “I really think the [Inn] would be mainly attractive to students and Vassar alumnae/i…If the Arthur S. May project goes through, there’d be another hotel down the street that is going to be probably more affordable with a free breakfast, which will attract the public to stay there.” In short, Shirshen suggested that the Arthur May redevelopment’s existence strengthens the argument that the I/I is a primarily institutional use—a Vassar-focused project.
Likewise, the College indicated in an emailed statement, “[T]he [Arthur S. May] development is very different from the Institute Vassar is planning to build and from what we know of the other development, it seems as though they could be quite complementary.”
Spokespersons for both developments, as well as some local business owners, see the projects as mutually beneficial, coexisting to fill a need for a hotel in the Arlington area that has gone unmet.
But many residents of the Town don’t see the need as large enough to warrant two projects—and still others anticipate disruption to everyday life. Victoria Balfour ’77 commented in an emailed statement, “The new Arthur May development project, which includes a hotel and retail stores, is more than sufficient for the area’s needs. That hotel will be close to campus and will hold ample room for visiting alum, prospective students and Trustees. To have another ‘inn’ by Alumnae House is not necessary.”
In the ZBA meeting, numerous Poughkeepsie residents spoke on the excessive-ness of two hotels existing only a few blocks apart. Professor Emerita of English Beth Darlington read a statement by Professor Emerita and local resident Shirley Johnson Lance: “I wonder about the wisdom of building an inn on a site that is just a couple of blocks away from the hotel that is going to be built.” Additionally, the recently created Arlington Neighborhood Association has assembled in opposition to the I/I’s location and site plan—both aspects of the project which do not fall under the jurisdiction of the ZBA, but instead under that of the Town’s Planning Board. The Arthur May Project only acquired conditional approval after years of public Planning Board hearings, but local residents have expressed comparatively little opposition to the project as of late.
The ZBA moved to adjourn consideration of the I/I appeal until its next meeting on Feb. 10. The Arthur May redevelopment, meanwhile, is in the process of finalizing the sale of the property, at which point it will proceed, pending final site plan approval from the Town.
Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the graduation year of Victoria Balfour. She is class of ’77, not ’72.