CATSKILL — County lawmakers reviewed plans to demolish the former county jail at a workshop Wednesday night, but also talked about an alternative fate for the property, proposed by local residents.
Deputy Greene County Administrator Warren Hart and Building and Grounds Superintendent Bill Smith reviewed the current condition of the buildings located at 80 Bridge St., and what the county plans to do with them. Cassidy Bua, of Camp Now, Meg Nowack of Historic Catskill, Greene County Taxpayers Association President Wayne Sheridan and local artist Robert Tomlinson presented their ideas on how the property could be better used to benefit the community, should the county choose to sell it and not demolish the buildings.
In October, the Legislature approved a resolution initiating the state environmental review, Hart said.
“This did two things,” he said. “It established our intent to demolish the jail and it made the county lead agency.”
The Legislature intended to demolish the sheriff’s office, the D-Block, which is attached to the rear of the sheriff’s office and the main jail complex, Hart said.
The historic carriage house nearby would remain intact.
Correspondence the county received from the state Historic Preservation Office indicated that the jail and sheriff’s office are listed on both state and national historic registers.
The agency recommended the county explore alternative options because of the adverse impact demolition would have on the historic district.
“SHPO has no regulatory authority over the action,” Hart said. “They recommended alternative actions.”
An archaeology study was performed by Birchwood Archaeology according to NYS Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation guidelines, Hart said.
Birchwood found no historic artifacts or features located on the property and no archaeological sites were identified.
Birchwood’s recommendation to the Historic Preservation Office was that the project should proceed, Hart said.
Birchwood is performing a historic architectural assessment, Hart added.
The county has also hired Barton & Loguidice, an Albany engineering firm, to review how costly it would be to make some or all of the building usable again, Hart said last month.
Hart clarified Wednesday that the firm will assess existing conditions to see if the county “has a use for it.”
“We will not be doing a renovation and reuse analysis,” he said.
Smith elaborated on the existing conditions.
A major area of concern was the shower unit on the second floor, or B-Block, of the jail.
Due to water damage, he recalled being able to get four fingers behind the unit.
“Now I get behind the whole unit, in seven years time,” he said. “There is nothing holding the sandstone up. It is free-floating, so at anytime that’s just going to fall.”
The 60-pound sandstone blocks that make up the facade of the building are coming loose, Hart said. Water has caused the steel rods to rust and break off.
“In seven years, we were doing 30 work orders a week,” Smith said. “It wasn’t lack of maintenance. It was an older building decaying faster than we could keep up with.”
The utilities for D-Block and the sheriff’s office come from the basement of the jail, Hart said.
“The heating system uses steam boilers which are non-functional,” he said.
The D-Block would require a new roof, Hart added.
In Barton & Loguidice’s evaluation, the company determined that the sheriff’s office and jail would require abatement for asbestos and lead.
The firm also prepared preliminary designs which included a parking lot with 23 spaces or 41 spaces.
“The Unified Court System has expressed that they are interested in the land for parking, increased security and future expansion,” Hart said. “They also said they are concerned about the unsafe structure.”
The court would rent the property from the county, he said.
Although the property is located in the village, the county is exempt from local zoning regulations, Hart said.
“We have to give a justification and ask for a concurrence,” he said.
Village trustees Joseph Kozloski, Peter Grasse Jr., Greg Smith and Natasha Law attended the meeting.
“If the demolition is done and the court system doesn’t take the property, I would hope you put it up for sale,” Kozloski said. “You would have the profit of the sale and the profit of taxes in the future. We have 170 untaxable parcels in the village. Another property on the tax rolls would help out each entity.”
Grasse said he thought the parking lot would be helpful to the village if it was accessible to the public, he said.
Sheridan rejected the parking lot idea.
“A parking lot seems like a poor choice for those properties,” he said. “We urge the Legislature to put that idea at the bottom of the lists of options, and to seriously investigate and consider a full range of alternatives.”
The buildings are of great value, Nowack said.
“They made of are Ohio sandstone,” she said. “I understand that they are spalling because of water damage. I think we forget what a laborious process it was to be building with stone, especially in 1908. Although parking lots are necessary, they aren’t legendary.”
Demolishing the buildings would be environmentally irresponsible, Nowack said.
“As preservationists say ‘the greenest building is the one already built.”
Legislator William Lawrence, R-Cairo, asked Nowack what she wants to see at the jail.
“Something on the tax roll for the benefit of the community,” Nowack said. “A hotel, a restaurant, something for vocations,” she said.
Nowack suggested a collaboration with Columbia-Greene Community College to offer classes in the old building.
Tomlinson said he thought the buildings could be used to benefit the creative economy.
“The creative economy is the fourth largest employer in the county,” he said. “It is a driving force in the economy of our region.”
Bua said that their ideas aren’t so far-fetched.
“Jails have been turned into hotels and cultural centers that bring people from all over the world and all over the country,” she said.
Legislator Jack Keller, R-Catskill, asked Bua what time frame she imagines for the project.
“From now until December, we would do walk-throughs and engineering reports,” Bua said. “We would create a business plan that inspires the Legislature and the community.”
From January through July 2020, Bua would coordinate with investors and run a fundraising campaign, to prepare to purchase the property. Bua estimated $10 million for the purchase.
Because the county would have to surplus the property and put it up for bid, Bua’s group could, in theory, buy the property for a dollar, Greene County Administrator Shaun Groden said.
“You could put in a bid for $1 because we will only receive one bid,” he said.
Last October, Legislator Charles Martinez, R-Coxsackie, suggested this type of sale.
“Why don’t we give it away for $1 and let someone else worry about it?” Martinez said at a Public Safety Committee meeting about the demolition.
In addition to the hotel and restaurant with vocational training, Bua also envisions a boutique museum and sees an opportunity to rent offices to local non-profits such as Cultivate Catskill, she said.
“We are asking for a one-year moratorium on construction,” Bua said.
Legislator Michael Bulich, R-Catskill, expressed his doubts about the project.
“It’s not going to be able to be repaired,” he said. “When I can touch concrete and crumble it in my hands, I know there’s a problem. It’s going to be such a large investment for a private investor, you’re not going to be able to recoup that.”
The most recent evaluation performed by Kaaterskill Associates in April 2018 estimated that reinforcing the jail’s south wall — its Achilles heel — would cost $300,000 to $400,000.
“Our mapping of the defects shows a loss in the integrity of the connection between the floor diaphragms and the south exterior wall of 80-90%,” according to Kaaterskill’s report. “This means that under a seismic event or wind storm that would be considered possible for our area this wall could collapse.”
Groden estimated that repairs to the water, sewer and heating for D-Block would be about $300,000, he said in October.
In addition, the buildings are not ADA compliant and do not have air conditioning, Groden said.
Bua asked that an engineer of her choosing be allowed to offer a second opinion of the buildings, so her team could better plan their proposal.
Lawrence asked for presentation materials to be sent to the Legislature so lawmakers can make a decision about the engineer.