The Highlands Current is a nonprofit weekly newspaper and daily website that covers Beacon, Cold Spring, Garrison, Nelsonville and Philipstown, New York, in the Hudson Highlands. This podcast includes select stories read aloud.
Highlands Current Audio Stories Highlands Current
The Highlands Current is a nonprofit weekly newspaper and daily website that covers Beacon, Cold Spring, Garrison, Nelsonville and Philipstown, New York, in the Hudson Highlands. This podcast includes select stories read aloud.
Beacon: Then, Now and How (Part 2)
The arts fueled Beacon’s transformation. What happens when high rents push artists and galleries elsewhere?
It was a picture-perfect Saturday in early May when Dia:Beacon celebrated its 20th anniversary.
Common Ground Farm set up a booth and prepared an educational demonstration. Other scheduled events included a zine-making workshop and a tour led by an artist who snuck into this former Nabisco factory over 20 years ago, before Dia moved in, to shoot an indie movie. There were also tours for Spanish-language speakers and parents with strollers.
“Kids get it immediately,” says Jessica Morgan, executive director of the Dia Art Foundation, about the museum’s sculptures. “They intuitively respond; you don’t have to read a book to understand it.”
Beacon residents have been admitted at no charge to Dia:Beacon for years. To mark its 20th, the museum extended the offer to residents of Newburgh, in part because many Dia:Beacon staff and many local artists now live there.
Dia didn’t bring the arts to Beacon when it opened in 2003. The Polich Tallix fine art foundry was here, casting works by Louise Bourgeois, Alexander Calder, Richard Serra and others. Hudson Beach Glass had been blowing glass on Maple Street since the 1980s before buying the old firehouse on the western end of Main Street in 2001 and opening to the public a few months after Dia.
The boarded-up storefronts and empty factories left in the wake of the city’s industrial decline were like catnip to artists priced out of New York City and looking for affordable housing and ample studio space. “What some people see as terrifying, artists see as opportunity,” said John Gilvey of Hudson Beach Glass.
But Dia:Beacon did seem to accelerate the transformation the city has undergone. A wave of galleries followed, public art projects bloomed and scores of artists found community.
Twenty years later, Dia:Beacon and Hudson Beach Glass are still here. But few of the galleries and other cultural projects that opened in their wake remain. In their place is the fear that the same economic forces that drove so many artists and galleries out of New York City have followed them north, pushing them from their homes and studios once again.
“Artists can’t afford to live in Beacon now,” said Gilvey.
Taking a risk
The Dia Art Foundation came to Beacon for the same reasons that many artists did: It needed room.
Specializing in site-specific works, the Manhattan-based foundation didn’t have the space to display its rapidly growing collection. Morgan wasn’t part of Dia then, but she’s well-versed in the story: The director of Dia at the time, who was also a recreational pilot, loaded the president of the Dia board into a two-seater and flew up the Hudson River to check out a vacant industrial site in the Berkshires. But before they hung a right, they noticed an empty warehouse on the Beacon waterfront. (The Berkshire site became the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.)
Not every Beacon resident was thrilled about the prospect of a museum. Many hoped the site would continue to be used as a factory and provide jobs. Proposals were in the works for a fish-processing facility or a tire warehouse.
“The city, thankfully, got behind it and saw what the future could be, which was taking a risk,” says Morgan. “No one knew how it would turn out.”
Maybe one person did: Gilvey was a student at art school in the 1970s when the Dia Art Foundation set up shop in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. Many of his teachers were involved with Dia, and he saw how quickly New York’s art scene subsequently ditched SoHo for Chelsea.
Now, Dia was moving the bulk of its collection to Beacon. “It was obvious that something was going to happen,” he recalled. “It didn’t dawn on us how it would happen, but we all watched it and it was pretty amazing.”
Gilvey was part of a group of artists who created the Beacon Arts Community Association (now BeaconArts) in 2002 in
After Beacon, A New Home
Former council member finds Kingston has similar challenges
Sara Pasti was intimately involved in Beacon’s revitalization for most of the 18 years she lived in the city.
After moving to Beacon in 2002, Pasti was elected to the City Council in 2007 as a Democrat and served three, 2-year terms representing Ward 4. She also was co-chair of the committee that drafted the comprehensive plan in 2007, updated it in 2017 and was named co-chair of the Main Street Access Committee in 2020.
But after retiring in 2019 as director of the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY New Paltz, Pasti found herself ready to downsize.
A year later, she began looking for apartments in Beacon as well as Newburgh and Kingston. “It was hard to find a place because so many Airbnbs were springing up during the pandemic and taking over the rental units in each of those cities,” Pasti said. In addition, because she was now on a fixed income, she found that two-bedroom apartments in Beacon (she wanted a home office) were too expensive.
Fortunately, Pasti stumbled onto a small house in Kingston that she could afford to buy. “Kingston still has some of the grittiness that Beacon had when I first moved there,” she said. “I was looking at the next phase of my life, and I was open to having it anywhere in the Hudson Valley.”
In Kingston, like Beacon, Pasti said she’s found a thriving arts community. She joined the board of the Midtown Arts District, which trains students in the arts and other life skills and is in the process of creating a community print shop.
She found diverse neighborhoods and housing, she said, but also a fear among residents that the city could lose its pockets of diversity, “the same way they disappeared in Beacon.”
Kingston has launched a rezoning effort that includes affordable housing initiatives, plus related projects, such as community grant programs, tenant protections and parks improvements, among many other projects. The rezoning is expected to be completed this year, and Pasti is running for a seat on the Common Council to oversee its implementation.
“Beacon is certainly not the only place experiencing an affordability crisis,” she said, noting that Kingston also saw an influx of new residents who fled New York City during the pandemic.
Once the rezoning project is finished, Pasti hopes, if elected, to join a task force that will guide housing policy. She also hopes to see Kingston address pedestrian and bike safety, one of the issues the Main Street committee wrestled with in Beacon.
Then there’s “the unseen work, which is what I came to love in Beacon,” of connecting residents with the services they need.
Pasti returns to Beacon often to visit. “As much as I loved Beacon, I realized it was the Hudson Valley region I had really fallen in love with,” she said. Once she arrived in Kingston, it was time to get invested in a new community, “and I was off on a new adventure.”
Why This Series
In the past quarter-century, Beacon has transformed itself from a city of boarded-up windows and crime to a vanguard of culture and environmental sustainability. But many residents feel the resurgence has come at a steep price, criticizing the pace and scale of development and arguing that housing prices are robbing Beacon of its diversity and working-class character.
Who has benefited most from this transformation? Who has been left behind? For this series, we’re talking to people who live and work in the city as we attempt to address these questions, as well as document changes in housing and demographics, the arts, politics and activism.
Has Beacon Followed Its Own Blueprint? Was Enough Done to Keep It Affordable? Is There Room for Lower Incomes? Recent History (A Timeline)
What Happens with the Arts? After Beacon, A New Home
This series was made possible by contributions to our Special Projects Fund.
Bear Mountain Bridge at 100
Crossing was briefly longest suspension bridge
In November 2024, the Bear Mountain Bridge will mark 100 years of operations, but the party began on April 20 of this year with the dedication of a time capsule in honor of the start of construction a century ago.
The iconic structure, now operated by the New York State Bridge Authority with its maintenance paid entirely by tolls, took only 20 months to complete, without a single fatality.
At the time, it was a construction and engineering feat of global significance. Not only was it the first bridge to have a concrete deck and the first crossing over the Hudson River south of Albany, it was the world’s longest suspension bridge, with a main span of 1,632 feet and an overall length of 2,255 feet.
The main cables, supported by two 361-foot-high towers, vividly illustrate the enormity of the project. They typically barely earn a second look from drivers because, at a distance, their size is deceptive. A closer look reveals cables that total 2,600 feet in length, nearly half a mile. Each is 18 inches thick and made up of 7,452 wires.
Type: Parallel wire cable suspension Length: 2,255 feet Tower height: 361 feet Construction began: March 1923 Opened: Nov. 27, 1924 Designer: Howard C. Baird Builder: Terry and Tench Construction Cable designer: John A. Roebling and Sons Height above river: 155 feet Original cost (including goat trail): $4.75 million ($84 million) Estimated replacement cost: $166 million
Today, the Bear Mountain Bridge is often described as beautiful. That was not always the case. Before construction began, there was concern it would tarnish the natural beauty of the Highlands. A July 1923 New York Times editorial, headlined “An Infliction of Ugliness on the Hudson,” asserted that plans for the bridge were “wholly out of accord with the scenery around it and indicative only of a desire on the part of the builders to make it as cheaply as they can.”
The Times was apparently referring to an outdated plan, because the designers were already revising the appearance to include arches for aesthetic appeal. Among Hudson River bridges, its design offers the most unobstructed views.
Discussion of a bridge began in earnest in 1869 when the Hudson Highland Suspension Bridge Co., created a year earlier by an act of the state Legislature, proposed a suspension bridge from Fort Clinton to Anthony’s Nose to help coal and iron reach New England. The initial design called for an upper-deck railway and a lower-deck roadway.
Construction was expected to take six years but the complex terrain and financial difficulties caused delays. The company reorganized in 1896 but its charter lapsed in 1916 with only basic foundation work completed.
In March 1922, the Bear Mountain Hudson River Bridge Co. was authorized by the state to build an automobile bridge with a 3-mile approach from the Albany Post Road north of Peekskill. Today that road is informally known as “the goat trail.”
The company board included E. Roland Harriman, son of railroad magnate Edward H. Harriman. The family was instrumental in the funding, said Kathryn Burke, director of Historic Bridges of the Hudson Valley and the author of Hudson River Bridges.
The increasing popularity of Bear Mountain State Park helped fuel the need for the bridge, she said. Before construction was complete, “the only way to visit the park from the east side of the Hudson was by boat.” Automobiles were becoming more affordable, and people wanted to drive.
The bridge was dedicated on Nov. 26, 1924, and opened for traffic the next day.
A toll house on the goat trail served as a home for the assistant bridge manager; it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 and is now a visitor center. The bridge manager lived in the stone building at the west entrance; that building is now an office.
When the New York State Bridge Authority acquired the Bear Mountain Bridge in 1940, it lowered tolls from 80 cents t
GE to Sample PCB Levels in Lower Hudson
Environmental groups say testing is overdue, inadequate
Nearly 40 years after the federal Environmental Protection Agency designated a 200-mile stretch of the Hudson River as one of the most heavily polluted sites in the country because of chemical dumping by General Electric, the company will begin testing the water in the Lower Hudson, including in the Highlands, to determine the extent of the damage.
From 1947 to 1977, GE discharged polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from two of its manufacturing plants on the Upper Hudson. In addition to essentially ending commercial fishing in the Hudson, the discharges kicked off decades of legal battles. The EPA repeatedly dragged GE into court to force the company to clean up the river.
GE dredged the Upper Hudson for six years, from 2009 to 2015, to remove contaminated sediment, although environmental groups asserted that the cleanups would be ineffective because they didn’t target the most polluted parts of the river and because of faulty data.
Scenic Hudson and others argue that the targets given to GE are based on measurements of the pollution in 2002 that were later found to be inaccurate because of what Manna Jo Greene of Clearwater described in 2017 as a “false bottom” of debris from lumber and paper mills at the river basin near Fort Edwards. Once that material was removed by dredging, she said, readings in 2010 found the levels of PCBs to be two to three times higher. Greene suggested the EPA was reluctant to adjust the targets because it feared GE would launch a protracted legal battle. “They took the path of least resistance,” she said.
A 2018 report confirmed concerns about the cleanup, showing that PCB levels in the Upper Hudson had not decreased nearly as much as anticipated and that levels in the Lower Hudson — from Troy to Manhattan — had not decreased.
The report led to calls for more extensive sampling of the Lower Hudson.
There is also concern that a project to bury a power line in the river — including a stretch through the Highlands — as part of a transmission system from Canada to New York City will stir up more PCBs, although the company doing the work said it will be non-intrusive.
The EPA is expected to release an update of its review of the cleanup within the next two months. At a public meeting on May 24, Gary Klawinski, an EPA representative, explained the sampling program. Although it was designed and will be carried out by GE, it will be monitored by the EPA and the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Sharing a photo of a boat, Klawinski said, “If you see a boat on the river that looks like that, that’s us [collecting sediment]. If you see a boat next to that boat [with people watching], that’s the EPA or the DEC.”
Klawinski said GE will sample at five sites in the Lower Hudson, including Newburgh.
In the meantime, the groups that criticized the GE cleanup for not being targeted or extensive enough are saying the same things about the testing. Scenic Hudson and Riverkeeper say it won’t provide enough useful information about the distribution of PCBs and other contaminants.
The agency “should be moving forward with a real investigation and feasibility study” because its current strategy will not get it “any closer to what you need to know,” said Audrey Friedrichsen of Scenic Hudson. “It’s just more delay.”
Drew Gamils of Riverkeeper noted that the groups believe five sampling sites spaced 50 miles apart aren’t enough because the Lower Hudson is a far larger and more complex ecosystem than the Upper Hudson. There’s the freshwater section above Poughkeepsie, the saltwater section near New York City and Westchester, and the brackish Highlands in which the salt and freshwater meet. There are also various bays and floodplains.
“The Lower Hudson is more tidal and it’s much wider, which leads to much more variation in habitat in that 160-mile stretch,” she said.
The groups also would like to see what
Hotels Sue Counties Over Migrant Orders
Say that official actions ‘reek of discrimination’
After being targeted by county executives in the Hudson Valley for renting rooms to asylum-seekers from New York City, owners have responded with a federal lawsuit.
Hotel owners in Dutchess, Orange and Rockland counties filed a federal lawsuit on May 22 in White Plains, arguing that executive orders banning migrants from hotels in more than two dozen counties and towns violate their constitutional rights to enter into contracts and are preempted by federal law.
The hotels also say the orders disregard their property and due-process rights under the U.S. Constitution’s 5th and 14th amendments.
The plaintiffs include the owner of a Red Roof Inn and Holiday Inn on Route 9 in the Town of Poughkeepsie and the Crossroads Hotel and Ramada by Wyndham in the Town of Newburgh. New York City last month transported 86 asylum-seekers to the Red Roof Inn and 186 to Crossroads and Ramada.
A third plaintiff is the owner of Armoni Inn & Suites in Rockland County. The county refused to renew its residence permit, which had expired, as the hotel prepared to receive asylum-seekers. Police monitor the hotel around the clock, according to the lawsuit.
The hotels say that the executive orders “unlawfully, impermissibly and unconstitutionally” prohibit them from “fulfilling their agreements to transport and offer temporary lodging in public accommodations.”
They also accuse county and town officials of “catering to xenophobic and political interests” and taking actions that “reek of discrimination.” Ed Day, the Republican executive of Rockland County, claimed without evidence that the newly arrived immigrants include child rapists, gang members and other criminals.
Dutchess and the other municipalities, according to the hotels, are sending a simple and illegal message: “If you provide hotel rooms to asylum refugees, [the] defendants will prevent performance of your agreements and destroy your businesses, all in flagrant violation of your constitutional rights.”
After Dutchess sued the owner of the Red Roof and Holiday Inn, a state judge on May 23 issued a temporary restraining order against New York City to prevent it from busing any more asylum-seekers into the county. It also ordered the hotel to provide the county with the names of the men sheltering at the Red Roof Inn.
The judge’s ruling allows Dutchess to inspect the Red Roof and Holiday Inn. The order is effective until June 20 while the judge weighs Dutchess’ request for a permanent injunction.
When Dutchess filed its lawsuit on May 19, William F.X. O’Neil, its Republican executive, declared a state of emergency, citing an “imminent peril to the public health and safety.” He threatened to sue hotels, motels and short-term lodging businesses whose property is used for “an emergency shelter, homeless shelter or long-term overnight dormitory.”
At a news conference on May 23 outside Fishkill Town Hall, O’Neil castigated the city, New York State and the federal government; he earlier issued a statement calling the Democratic administration of President Joe Biden “incompetent and ineffective.”
“The worst will be if these asylum-seeking migrants end up staying in Dutchess County, and the government that is now financing them pulls financing, and they have to find they have to fend for themselves,” said O’Neil. He was joined at the news conference by Putnam County Executive Kevin Byrne, a Republican, and Fishkill Supervisor Ozzy Albra, a Democrat.
“We are not prepared for the housing needs that they have,” O’Neil said.
Orange and Rockland counties have also filed lawsuits; Orange won a temporary restraining order against the Crossroads and Ramada. But, as with the Red Roof Inn, the judge allowed the migrants at the hotels to stay.
Has Beacon Followed Its Own Blueprint?
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 simi