Builders: Sell or renovate, just do it fast

| 29 Jan 2015 | 12:17

By Edie Johnson
— Builders in the Hudson Valley are no longer objecting to a proposal that would turn the Orange County Government Center into an arts hub.

In a Jan. 26 letter to county legislators, Todd Diorio, President of the Hudson Valley Building Trades Council, rescinded the builders' objections to the proposal by New York City architect Gene Kaufman to buy the center for $5 million and set up artists' studios and galleries there.

"Unfortunately we were not aware of the total Kaufman Plan," Diorio wrote. "After meeting with Gene Kaufman we are convinced his plan may be a viable option to the County."

But he made clear builders wanted whatever option could be started soonest.

"We could support this as another option if this option would cause no future delays to construction of the Government Center," he wrote about the Kaufman plan. And then, in capital letters, he added: "We could not support any plan or option that would slow down the start of construction of the government center."

A group led by Arts in Orange set up a Facebook group titled "Sell the Government Center, Gain a Center for the Arts." The page now has almost 600 members. Supporters placed placards in storefronts in downtown Goshen, which has suffered a fall-off of business since the government center closed after Hurricane Irene in 2011.

Supporters gained extra time when a special legislative building committee canceled its meeting this week because of the impending storm. It has not yet been rescheduled.

County Executive Steve Neuhaus last week vetoed any sale of the government center. Village of Goshen officials said they wanted to see the county forge ahead with renovation, as the option that's made the most progress.

Preservationists locally and around the world are calling for the preservation of the center because it is the work of a famous architect, Paul Rudolph. The state historical society supports the building's preservation.

Leaders call for transparency
Orange County politicians, Republicans especially, get campaign contributions from construction contractors. Once in office, they tend to support new construction as a way to create jobs and bring prosperity to the county.

Workers in the building trades depend heavily on so-called "PLA's," or project labor agreements, in which officials promise to use local labor.

Some say campaign contributions ultimately drive up costs, with taxpayers stuck with the bill. To combat this problem, the county passed a "pay to play" law in 2013, revised in 2014, that limits the campaign contributions of contractors to $4,000 over four years if they do business with the county.

But while the law sets some limits, loopholes lurk. The 2014 revision raised the limit from $2,000 to $4,000 over four years, which makes the law worthless, according to Legislator Michael Anagnostakis (R-Newburgh), who worked on the earlier version of the law.

The law also applies only to businesses. A political action committee, or PAC, has no limits.

And the state list of campaign contributions shows that they sometimes come from the relatives of contractors, and not the contractors themselves.

Legislator Chris Eachus (D-New Windsor) urged transparency in deciding the government center's fate. He said he has tried unsuccessfully to get information about several builders who submitted proposals that legislators have never seen. He said he is still awaiting a response from the county executive’s office.

Some legislators disagree that the renovation plan is already approved because the architect, Clark Patterson Lee, made major changes to the approved design. And he is troubled that Legislator Leigh Benton (R-Newburgh) worked briefly for Clark Patterson Lee as a consultant after he chaired the committee that chose the firm. Benton was fined $1,000, but Eachus said Clark Patterson Lee was just as culpable, if not more, than Benton in the episode. Benton said he had sought guidance from the county's ethics board without success before taking the job.

Whether the builders' last-minute boosts to the Kaufman plan stop the partial demolition of the government center remains to be seen.

Some arts center advocates say they will lie down in street in front of the building when the wrecking ball comes.

On Tuesday, The New York Times published a pro-preservation article, "A Chance to Salvage A Master's Creation." The Times wrote: "A county proposal would tear down huge chunks of it, flatten the roof, destroy windows, swap out parts of the textured concrete facade and build what looks like an especially soul-crushing glass box. Goshen would end up with a Frankenstein’s monster, eviscerating a work that the World Monuments Fund, alarmed by precisely this turn of events, included on its global watch list alongside landmarks like Machu Picchu and the Great Wall of China."

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