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Residents to vote on fate of St. Paul’s on October 21st

|August 24, 2023

By Rikki Massand

After a contentious debate at its August 17 meeting the Garden City Board of Trustees voted to hold a community vote on October 21st on the fate of the St. Paul’s main building. The vote will not be legally binding on the board, but will ascertain the residents’ views. Voting will take place from 7 am to 9 pm at the St. Paul’s Fieldhouse and will include all registered voters in the village. (The deadline to register is October 11th.) Absentee ballots will be available.

The decision to choose October 21st as the date for the vote was debated, with several members of the board advocating later dates. In the end, five members (Mayor Mary Carter Flanagan and Trustees Bruce Chester, Charles Kelly, Lawrence Marciano and Michael Sullivan) voted in favor of October 21st. Trustees Ed Finneran, Michele Beach Harrington and Bruce Torino voted against it.

For most of the meeting, the three trustees and several residents who felt a later date for the vote would be better presented their concerns, including the lack of information they say could create confusion and misinformation. In particular, opponents were concerned that the cost estimates for any options on St. Paul’s, are not publicly available yet.

One of Mayor Carter Flanagan’s key points came directly from the report by cost estimator consultant Westerman Construction Co., regarding the historic structure’s condition. Westerman’s report states that a few bad winters with heavy snow or storms could cause a structural failure or collapse of St. Paul’s.

“The state that St. Paul’s is in now, exposed to the elements, will not survive if left as-is. Its demise could be accelerated by bad winters, humid summers, and within a few years it could begin to collapse as sections of the building already have,” the mayor read.

She referenced a residents’ initiative to save St. Paul’s as “advocating on the topic.” The mayor said she and the majority of the Village Board are committed to presenting the information the village has accumulated on St. Paul’s to the public, “with absolutely no bias.”

“I ran for elected office as part of a group that saw the importance of open elections and village leaders listening to residents. I recognize that some are opposed to my efforts to let residents be heard on the topic of St. Paul’s and their opposition has manifested itself in some baseless claims, but I would like to assure you that these actions will not deter me and a majority of the Village Board of Trustees from delivering what we have promised so many times,” the mayor said.

She noted that much thought has been going into the drafting of ballots for the October 21 poll to make sure it is a fair ballot.

Trustee Ed Finneran was adamant about the polling to take place on Saturday November 18 instead of on October 21, asking for the extra four weeks for the community to be given more opportunities to be well-informed on St. Paul’s.

Trustee Michele Harrington felt that with the number of activities the families in Garden City will have coming up with the start of the school year, including weekend extracurricular activities and athletics such as robotics, fall sports, science programs and tutoring, the much better option would be November 21.

Finneran said there shouldn’t be a rush for an October vote because it will be the most important vote in Garden City for 12 to 13 years.

Finneran said he was reviewing every bit of the 30-plus pages of material on St. Paul’s that he pulled from the village’s website. His takeaway was that more information needs to be presented to the community and October does not allow adequate time to do so.

“Today is the 17th of August, and kids go back to school on September 6 so from today we are approximately 9 weeks from the day of the vote. If you go to September, when everyone is back, there are about six weeks until the vote. I contend that we need to have a couple of Town Hall meetings and we do not need to have an artificially set date for October 21 due to weather, or a group’s belief that the October date is the appropriate one. I think it is a bit rushed. The decision may be baked but I am going to go through with this idea anyway as I took the time to speak to everybody on the board – we went toe-to-toe,” Finneran said.

Residents share concerns, ideas

Linden Street resident Mary Timmins said she was happy to see so many younger families that have moved into Garden City lately, many that moved here for the sense of community, and she reports that every one of them have expressed concerns about the historic St. Paul’s main building possibly being demolished in the future.

Timmins told the Board that not too far upstate in Kingston, Ulster County New York, historic preservation efforts have invigorated the town’s center. She says that the historic architecture being successfully reused has worked to attract new businesses and residents.

“Kingston is becoming the reuse town as they are taking buildings from the 1700s and those decrepit buildings are being made functional. It is the place celebrities, artists and musicians are going to – the town has many examples of its use of Restore New York Communities Initiative grants, millions of dollars from the state to get this going.”

Timmins suggested that village officials contact the mayor of Kingston to find out what grants and other financing opportunities to rehabilitate historic structures have been utilized in his city. She said he would be able to share information on architects who evaluated buildings, and how it was decided to keep several buildings up instead of knocking them down.

“St. Paul’s is our Eiffel Tower, and it is a contemporary building of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan (built in 1879), and here our Cathedral of the Incarnation (built in 1871). My feelings are also about the costs involved which will be very important in my decision and my family’s decision – if the costs are similar I would say we can afford to chip in and keep the iconic building up,” she said.

Locust Street resident John Pittoni said the date of this polling on St. Paul’s should be in March of 2024, which would be the same date as the village election and therefore, present significant cost savings instead of administering a second villagewide election this fall.

“After all these years we have not seen the costs of all the different proposals. Maybe the board has seen it privately but the public has not. I have suggested the March date for the same day as the village election, because we will not bear any extra cost and people will have a chance to question any candidate. I have picked up tonight that we need more time, and we should make it a March vote. We have heard too little with regards to demolition, and we should not be talking about October or November with presentations before the property owners’ associations. And I think any cost figures are absurd now because the prices are going up, so I urge you to make the election date the same date as the vote so everybody has a chance to find out what’s going on,” he told the board last Thursday night.

Jessica Tai of Brixton Road told Garden City’s trustees the demolition of St. Paul’s would “irreversibly erase the historic landmark and the character of the village – the destruction of the iconic architectural masterpiece will forever create a hole in our hearts. It’s very sad.”

Tai supports the building’s adaptive reuse of St. Paul’s as a community center and explained how spaces and programs at St. Paul’s with the building being reused would be “a lifesaver for working parents.”

“With families from different backgrounds moving in, the community center would offer a wide variety of activities, including S.T.E.A.M., Finance, Arts, computer and technology instruction and physical activities to accommodate the diverse interests of our local students,” she noted.

Tai also advocated for the village to present the three options of St. Paul’s with their corresponding cost estimates, “laid out side-by-side on the front page of the village website.” She said it has become like pulling teeth to have this information clearly presented in three columns, for all to see. In her recent search of the village’s website she could not find any information on St. Paul’s potential costs.

Trustee Finneran shared his overarching concerns about the timeline of barely two months before the date of the community’s vote, and he drove home his points to try to sway the rest of the trustees to hold it four weeks later. He also detailed some of the conversations he shared with fellow board members in the weeks leading up to the August 17 meeting, and Deputy Mayor Bruce Chester thanked Finneran for reaching out with the proposal and having a conversation with him on why November was a better option.

In the end, Trustees Finneran, Harrington and Torino were in the minority of the Board in opposing setting October 21 for the vote. Mayor Carter Flanagan stated that the village will hold town hall informational meetings on the options on St. Paul’s, but when Trustee Torino questioned her on the dates of those upcoming meetings she did not provide an timetable.

The mayor responded that Garden City “will have everything we need by October” to prepare, and have its residents prepare, for the polling. She said the work the village board and staff will be doing are aimed “to get maximum participation” from residents at the polls.

“I see no reason for any delay as we know there are residents in the village who would like to vote but in winter they will be going down to Florida. Voting with absentee ballots from Florida is not easy, as I think many of us have learned, and with November and December we also have the weather conditions that are not as good as they are in October – participation in this poll is very important. This (poll on October 21) is a big deal – I encourage everyone to pay attention, and everyone should get out and be involved. This will be a big day for Garden City,” Mayor Carter Flanagan explained.

Trustee Torino’s main concern was that the information on the options for St. Paul’s has not been adequately and thoroughly relayed to community members, and rushing into the next six to seven weeks for a community-wide vote would leave many in Garden City wondering what exactly they would be voting on.

He commented that the proposal of the October 21 date, with some vital information still not presented to the public, would be the same as being asked to “enter into a marriage without knowing who the bride is or who the groom is.”

Information on the community polling will follow on the village’s website.

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