Officials from four city agencies will work together to clean up one street in Midtown Kingston as part of a new “block by block” initiative intended to address quality of life issues ranging from dirty streets to drug dealing.
The stretch of Elmendorf Street between Tremper Avenue and Broadway has been chosen to kick off the initiative. The program, which Mayor James Sottile promised in his annual State of the City address last month, calls for aggressive enforcement of building and sanitation codes, increased police activity and assertive legal action against property owners who flout the law. The effort relies on close coordination between city police, fire officials, the Department of Public Works and the Corporation Counsel’s office.
“We want to select an area that history has shown needs attention,” said Sottile, explaining the strategy this week. “Then we survey that block and see where the problems are. We stay focused on that block until we see the level of compliance that we want to see and then we move on to the next area.”
Sottile said that the block-by-block strategy was suggested by Kingston Fire Chief Rick Salzmann, who researched Albany’s two and a half-years-old initiative to create targeted zones for intense law and code enforcement and legal action to deal with derelict buildings and other symptoms of blight.
“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We can learn from other communities’ successes, and I think [Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings] has been very proactive with this initiative and it’s worked,” said Sottile.
The Albany initiative, paid for with $5 million in state funds, identified four zones in the city where quality of life issues were most pressing. Officials from every city department tour the targeted zone assessing problems, the findings are used to develop a set of standards and goals for each department and senior officials meet twice a month to report regularly on their progress. The Albany program incorporates everything from towing abandoned cars to pruning back overgrown tress to securing and weatherizing vacant buildings to focusing police attention on suspected drug houses. So far, work has been completed on two of the four targeted zones.
“We can’t fix everything but we do put a concerted effort into that zone,” said Jerry Spicer, coordinator of Albany’s initiative. “It’s been very effective and very positive.”
The stretch of Elmendorf Street chosen to initiate Kingston’s program is a largely residential area which has been plagued by complaints of prostitutes who use the poorly lit side street and the old rail line which runs through it as a convenient location to service their clientele. Sottile said that the block was chosen at the urging of Tom Hoffay (D-Ward 2) who described the area as a “transitional neighborhood” which was in danger of deteriorating if quality of life conditions were not addressed. Alderwoman Shirley Whitlock (D-Ward 4), who represents a portion of the target area, said that the biggest challenge would be addressing the block’s physical condition.
“There’s not as many issues there as is other places, but there’s definitely enough to be noticed,” said Whitlock. “It really needs to be physically cleaned up.”
Check your mail
According to Sottile, the process would begin with a letter from the city to all residents on the street explaining the purpose of the initiative and how it would work. The next step involves a detailed survey of city records to ensure that all landlords in the target area are properly registered with the city and a check of outstanding code violations, nuisance complaints and police calls to the block. Sottile said that he expected enforcement action to begin in about two weeks.
Salzmann said that part of the job would include educating residents and property owners about city ordinances and getting the message out to absentee landlords that they would need to fix problems or face increasing headaches.
“If landlords find out that the city is going to be there and that they’re going to have to spend money to fix violations or hire lawyers, then maybe they’ll be more willing to make improvements on their own initiative without us having to go house by house through the whole city,” said Salzmann.
Salzmann added that while the initial sweep for code violations and other problems could be done quickly, the necessary follow-through, including possible court action and re-inspections, would take more time and money. Sottile said that he’d decided to carry out the initiative in small target areas to avoid overextending the resources and budget of city agencies involved in the effort.
“We don’t want to take on more than we can handle,” said Sottile. “We’re just going to go one block at a time and when the department heads say that the issues have all been addressed, we’ll go to the next block.”
Sottile said that federal Community Development Block Grant money could serve as a funding source to address problems identified in the course of the block by block program, by, for example, paying for the installation of security cameras at crime-prone locations or trimming trees which block street lights.
But can we afford it?
Despite the promise of a comprehensive, coordinated attack on quality of life issues around the city (Sottile stressed that while in program was starting in Midtown it would encompass the entire city) some officials, including Whitlock and Alderwoman Jen Fuentes (D-Ward 5), said it was hard to see how the program could accomplish its ambitious goals in the midst of a budget-crushing fiscal crisis.
“I think it’s great, it’s exactly what people are asking for but it’s going to take a lot of money, a lot of resources and a lot of cooperation between the departments and our departments are stretched so thin right now,” said Fuentes. “It really needs to be an actual plan, not just saying we’re doing block by block.”