Peekskill Herald

Peekskill Herald

Peekskill Herald

Peekskill Deserves Better

Take steps to make that a reality

There’s an election coming up; early voting has started for both state and local races. For every election in my adult life, we’re told how high the stakes are. It’s exhausting, but I’ve made peace with this by trying to live by, “Start where you are, use what you got, do what you can.” When my mind is racing and I begin to worry about my family’s future, I try to filter my thoughts through this lens. I start to think about where I am, what I’ve got, and what I can do, here in Peekskill. I start thinking about those local elections.

We all had such high hopes. And by “we” I mean many folks here in Peekskill – old timers, newcomers, empty nesters, new families, young people – there are so many who have felt things start to change these last few years.

From the start of COVID through present day, new businesses have been coming to Peekskill. Several established businesses have celebrated important milestones . New housing has been constructed and swiftly filled. There seems to be more care for cleaning up our streets, addressing municipal issues, and providing relevant public programming for the many different audiences here. Peekskill is making progress, no doubt.

However, some of our leaders would have you believe that not only are they solely responsible for all the good happening, but in fact this is the very best that can be done. We alone can fix it! This is the point where the writer usually asks the reader to “step back” and look at the bigger picture, where you’ll be sure to find something lacking. I am asking the reader to do the opposite, take a closer look.

Let’s start with the number one issue facing Peekskill (and in fact, much of the country) today, the housing shortage.

645 Main Street, an 82-unit, income restricted, beautifully designed building recently finished construction. A win for housing, affordability, and good aesthetics. But look closer. Those 82 units received 3,000 applications. Many of the applications were from people outside of Peekskill, which was permitted because the developer received federal funding to build and couldn’t restrict the applicants to Peekskill residents only.

So while the accolades come flowing in for a new “affordable, workforce” project, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the need. What is clear is that many more of these sorts of developments are warranted to meet the demand from those who want to continue to live here as well as newcomers. The downside of this supply and demand equation is compounded by our leaders either hindering or outright turning away more housing.

Someone familiar with the state of development here might point out that the One Park Place project on Brown and Park Streets is almost complete, and that there are other buildings on the way. Look closer. The building should have been finished years ago, but ran into financing issues after its parking structure was completed.

One Park Place where street paving was happening today.

A new, small development site at the corner of South Street  and Union Avenue recently suffered a similar fate. The original developer ran into financing trouble due in part to local delays and was forced to sell the site before construction began. There is a reputation in Peekskill that it’s simply too difficult, slow, and costly to do things here. It seems like we’re living up to that reputation, and so investment frequently goes elsewhere.

The RAL Plumbing Building on N. Division and Howard Streets is the most recent example of either poor decision making – or something worse. Here was a developer, who lives adjacent to Peekskill, proposing an absolute love song of a project to the community: a gorgeous building, with green technologies, rebuilt city infrastructure, housing and retail, reactivating an essentially dead space in our downtown. City leaders spent six months running the developer through a meat grinder, only to pass height restrictions and outdated parking minimums on the very zone where this project in the downtown is proposed.

As a result, the building plans are likely to be severely altered (less housing) and the developer’s ability to secure financing is now in question. There’s a chance the project might not happen at all – and again, Peekskill loses out.

The development proposed by the train station was not perfect (nothing ever is) but it would have completely revitalized a rundown area, provided housing to primarily commuters (so fewer cars, but yes tax revenue), developed retail stores, upgraded station parking, and added a public park. This is just about everything a community could want, and possibly room for savvy leaders to negotiate more. Why wasn’t the project even allowed to move to the Planning Commission, whose job it is to gauge community impact?

Looking out towards Peekskill’s train station from lot on the corner of Railroad Avenue and Requa Street, site of a proposed transit oriented development.

For every unit constructed under our current leadership, there have been almost twice as many units turned away. These are only a few examples of seemingly good progress here being hampered by our leadership’s choices, either protecting parking over people, or catering to a minority of property owners who mistakenly think that the scarcity of housing and businesses here serves them.

Other communities in the US seeing a population resurgence (like Peekskill) are modernizing zoning codes to eliminate parking minimums, increase density in smart ways and build out biking and walking infrastructure.  Our leaders seem to be holding onto a perception of Peekskill that has never benefited the community: they want things to get better, but don’t want anything to actually change.

Think of your go-to restaurant or coffee spot- the Peekskill Coffee House, Gleason’s, the Bean Runner. The majority of the service staff working in Peekskill can no longer afford to live here. One barista moved his family to Verplanck, another took his family to Yonkers, and still another recently moved down to the Bronx. The Bronx and Yonkers are now more affordable than Peekskill! What have some of our leaders done to address this? Look closer.

And now, with recent word from the City Manager that taxes may need to be raised, the decisions described above look all the worse.

This trend of less than good decision making goes beyond housing.  Our Common Council passed a shopping cart ordinance earlier this year. Instead of having the main offending business come up with a meaningful solution to the loose carts around town, we now have a law on the books telling our already understaffed police to gather and hold carts, and threatening fines and jail time for our neighbors using the carts, who, to be clear, are mostly poor and elderly. When there so many other options to address the issue, this choice seems both foolish and cruel.

CTown shopping cart on Bank Street.

Look closer at the public battle over the Esther Street public space earlier this year…how some of our leaders wanted to pull $30,000 out of the city budget, trying to ram a decision through that would’ve jeopardized this beloved public space’s permanence. Thousands of emails and letters, and hundreds of signatures supporting the public space were collected and sent to the Council (including support from an overwhelming majority of the businesses on Esther.) Their response was to begrudgingly leave Esther alone (for now), and to pass a rule change allowing them to simply enter letters into the record without reading or even summarizing the writer’s views, silencing the people of Peekskill.

Residents enjoying the sunny weather on Esther Street.

Peekskill has recently been awarded several grants for road improvements – and this is indeed a great thing. But look closer. There have been more people killed or injured by cars under our current leadership than at any other point in recent memory, yet common sense measures to address this epidemic, many that would cost the city little to nothing, are continually avoided.

Folks have been asking for a shuttle from the train station to the downtown for years, and it looks like it could finally happen. But look closer. Some of our leaders are downplaying city staff reports advising against buying a rotted wood framed bus, and in fact are pushing the city to spend funds on buying the lemon. Even the idea of it being a “visitor’s center” would require upkeep and frankly, is just not a good idea.

Many of these choices have been unpopular or bad on their own, but in light of the budget shortfall, do decisions like the Esther Street issue or the possibility of purchasing the lemon trolly seem like these folks are really serving Peekskill? Does turning away more housing, displacing longtime residents, and letting new families, new talent, and new tax revenue go somewhere else sound like the right move?

If you see what I see, it’s time to start getting involved. Use what you got and do what you can. Some suggestions:

  • It’s been decades. Peekskill deserves a new comprehensive plan, based on modern, tested standards for creating prosperity in communities and minimizing displacement. Read up on form-based code (a development tool utilizing physical form rather than usage.) Fight for our families’ future here.
  • Tell our leaders you support smart development in Peekskill. Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU)s, Accessory Commercial Unit (ACU)s, multifamily housing, and allowing our downtown to build up will not only help to prevent displacement, it will bring in much needed tax revenue. It will also in the short term soften the real estate market, allowing working people to actually live here. (Long term, more density increases home value, so single family homeowner, you’re not losing out.)
  • More parking brings more cars. This is settled science. Whether you’re focused on safer streets, a more walkable/bikeable Peekskill, or simply want an easier time with your own car here, support zero parking minimums. Kingston, with a bustling downtown and a much more lively arts scene, recently passed this policy. Kingston is prospering. Buffalo eliminated parking minimums in 2017, and the result has been plenty of successful, efficient development and none of the oft-predicted parking crises critics warned of.
  • Consider becoming a district leader with the Peekskill Democratic Committee. The commitment is low, and the absolute quickest way to effect change here would be to floor vote these people out of their seats during the nominating process in an election year. (They’re likely aware of this, and have for years hampered the PDCC’s growth.)

I don’t know all the answers, but I know my kids deserve better. My kids’ friends getting displaced deserve better. The baristas and waiters who can’t afford to live here deserve better. The empty nesters who are trapped in large homes, unable to downsize without leaving the community they raised their families in deserve better. The young families who are now heavily invested in their homes, the schools, and this community, deserve better. The young people who can’t stay here past high school or move back here after college, because there’s no affordable housing, deserve better. The people who are simply walking or biking in their community and getting hit by cars deserve better. The small business owners deserve better.

When you go to vote in the coming weeks, for the local races, consider writing in quite literally anyone but the names of the people holding this community back. Think carefully – it’s not all of them. Send a message. Peekskill deserves better.


Brian Orsi is a small business owner in downtown Peekskill.