By Melanie Lekocevic
Capital Region Independent Media
COXSACKIE — Five months after construction on a major downtown Coxsackie project was halted, the community has changed its tune.
Work on the Newbury Hotel and the adjacent The Wire event center on South River Street was ordered stopped by the village March 27 due to an expired building permit and components of the project that were not in compliance with village code and the approved site plan.
Among the issues of concern was the construction of a fifth floor on the hotel, which was not approved. The original site plan was for a four-story building. The partially built hotel also occupied a larger footprint than what was originally approved.
A new site plan was submitted and the mandated State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) process is currently under review. The revised project and variances are now being reconsidered by both the village’s planning board and zoning board of appeals.
The two boards held a joint public hearing Aug. 29 at Coxsackie-Athens High School as the review process continues.
“It was important to both boards to hold a public hearing before the SEQRA process was completed so they could take all the comments into consideration prior to making a SEQRA determination,” attorney Robert Stout, who represents both boards, said to open the hearing. “Before the zoning board of appeals or the planning board can rule on the substance of the underlying applications, they have to complete SEQRA, which is the environmental review process.”
Mary Beth Bianconi from Delaware Engineering outlined the site plan amendments and variances the developer, Aaron Flach, has applied for. They include an area variance extending the height of the hotel to a total of 65.23 feet; village code currently permits buildings a maximum of 50 feet in height. Flach also applied for a site plan amendment for the addition of a 2,000 square foot kitchen on the south side of the event center, addition of a 1,200 square foot exterior deck on The Wire, and an enlargement of both the parking area and the footprint of the hotel from 6,280 square feet to 8,460 square feet, along with other changes to the original site plan.
Justin Smith, president of Prestige Hospitality Group in Albany, which is consultant to the project, said the COVID-19 pandemic brought major changes to the hospitality industry and made the project’s alterations necessary.
“What became very clear once the pandemic hit our industry was that we needed to change certain aspects of the experience guests would have when visiting the James Newbury and The Wire,” Smith said. “We also needed to change our business plan to expand revenue generation and profit centers of the hotel.”
The hotel would have to offer additional amenities in order to be profitable, Smith added, which led to the development of the rooftop hotel on the fifth floor.
The public hearing was opened to members of the public to speak and many spoke out in favor of approving the area variance and amended site plan.
Rene Van Schaack, former executive director of the Greene County Industrial Development Agency and whose family has lived in the area for hundreds of years, said he has been “discouraged” by online comments he has read about both the project and the developer, Aaron Flach.
“As long as my eyeballs have been open, I have looked at blight on that street,” Van Schaack said. “Nobody has done anything with those buildings. This guy comes along and has a vision to do it… Listen to us — we are your community, not people from outside the community. That plan speaks volumes for itself. Not finding in favor of this project would be beyond me.”
Resident Hugh Quigley, who owns the former firehouse across the street from the project, said he welcomes new development in the downtown area.
“For many of the 50-plus years (we have lived in this community), we did not see much positive development,” Quigley said. “There has been a lot of talk about progress, but not much materialized… In recent years, Aaron Flach has accomplished quite a few redevelopment projects.”
Quigley spoke of five projects along Ely Street where Flach has renovated and transformed deteriorating buildings, construction of the Greene County YMCA on Route 81 that was formerly a video rental store, construction of affordable apartment buildings, renovation of the New Eagle Hotel and more.
“This is an amazing body of work and worthy of consideration going forward,” Quigley said. “Aaron [Flach] has a deep appreciation for history and his projects are positive for all of us.”
Resident CarolAnn Luccio, who owns several properties in Coxsackie, also threw her support behind the project.
“The foundry that was there was really an eyesore for our beautiful riverfront and now the new park that we have,” Luccio said. “Getting rid of that and putting up what Aaron is working on can only be better. It can only be better for that area and for what it will bring to this town.”
Mark Maraglio, a local resident and senior vice president at National Bank of Coxsackie, said he is behind the project.
“National Bank of Coxsackie is in full support of Aaron’s project,” Maraglio said. “Aaron has done so much for this town and we support him 100%.”
Fred Hinrichsen noted the Dolan Block, as that portion of South River Street is known, has been deteriorated for years.
“I have seen that area in disrepair, I have seen various folks attempting to start to revitalize that space along the river,” Hinrichsen said. “It hadn’t been properly developed or maintained, it has always been a blight on the village. The record Mr. Flach has, I think, warrants consideration. This is in line and in the scope of his previous projects. There have been oversights and missteps along the way, but every construction project I have been a part of or have witnessed is not without those types of fits and starts and hiccups along the way.”
Resident Veronica Foley, who had questioned the process that was followed in previous meetings, said she supported development along the waterfront and was pleased to see the review process play out over the past few months.
“I think it is very exciting where we are headed as a community and I happened to see that the structures and the procedures that we have in place to make sure that the community is protected are now fully in action, that we are awake to that and we are doing our due diligence and having these important conversations,” Foley said.
Several speakers expressed concern over accountability and why the project did not comply with the original approved site plan in the first place.
“I think a lot of the complaints that have come up are really about accountability, about fairness and about following the rules,” Charles Hilliard said. “Ideally, if the rules had been followed then we wouldn’t be in this situation right now, we would have had these conversations before the building had gone up, before that extra floor was built. I think we need to keep in mind that there is going to be a bar and restaurant outside people’s bedroom windows and that is going to be damaging to people’s quality of life. It is worth considering that as you continue this process moving forward.”
Katie Higgins expressed a similar concern and called for the village to review and update its comprehensive plan “to ensure sustainable development.”
“When you make a mistake or you don’t follow the process, there needs to be accountability,” Higgins said. “No one wants things to stop, no one wants half-finished projects — what we really want to think about is how we move forward.”
Local resident Gail Marowitz called The Wire event center one of the most beautiful buildings in the village, but voiced concern about traffic, which she pointed to as an ongoing problem.
“I would like to express concern about traffic and noise,” she said. “Nobody wants to see that project stopped… The village needs to make a stronger effort regarding traffic, in particular, and noise.”
New Baltimore resident Rich Guthrie said the rule of law must be followed and that the developer should have been aware that what was being built was not in compliance with what was approved.
“I’m not going to suggest that we demolish any building and start all over, or that we chop off, after the fact, appendages, or sidestep the fire and occupancy codes,” Guthrie said. “I believe that we have gone past the point of no return on this project, so let’s just carry on, but let’s not forget that the legal process and adherence to the rules of good government were laid by the wayside.”
Alex Betke, Flach’s attorney, said as the community has learned more about the project, the initial objections have largely been alleviated.
“I think it was just a matter of time in terms of getting to see what Aaron can do down there and understanding — with the help of Sterling Environmental, and going through a very robust process with the planning board — that the public got to understand what the project really is and what it means, and not just a bunch of rumors,” Betke said. “The process has developed a really good project.”
The review process will continue for both the planning board and the zoning board of appeals, so no decision was made at the Aug. 29 public hearing. Flach said he looks forward to resuming work on the hotel.
“I have been talking to a lot of members of the community and they have been providing letters of support to the village clerk. We have submitted well over 200 from local residents and business owners,” Flach said. “The community supports this project and we are looking forward to finishing it up.”