(January 28, 2011)

New York Daily News
By Karen Angel

“It’s a pretty awesome site, but you have to have vision,” says Kaufman, project manager for the O’Neill Group in Hackensack, N.J. “It’s right by the train station, right on the river, right by the walkway – it’s as good as you can get under the circumstances of today’s economy.”

The 1.3-mile former railroad bridge connecting Highland to Poughkeepsie, now called the Walkway Over the Hudson, looms over the site. The wildly popular pedestrian bridge − the longest in the world, according to the nonprofit behind it − has drawn more than 750,000 tourists, three times the expected number, since its debut in October 2009.

As a result, “vision” is in great supply in Poughkeepsie lately, with developers rushing to tap the city’s potential.

In five to 10 years, the waterfront will look completely different,” says Steve Densmore, a spokesman for the Walkway Over the Hudson nonprofit. “Only now are developers starting to invest because of the mayor and the Walkway,” says Kaufman, whose company bought the site in 2003. “We got nothing done under the old administration.”

Other developers also credit Poughkeepsie’s mayor of three years, John Tkazyik, 31, with removing bureaucratic stumbling blocks and facilitating a burst of development activity.

“He’s a young, visionary mayor, and he’s receptive to areas we’ve identified for development,” says Joseph Spiezio 3rd, of Harrison, who in 2008 bought a 52,000-square-foot, $2.6 million warehouse across the street from the walkway entrance that he plans to convert to retail and restaurant space. “We knew the Walkway was coming in, so we made an investment ahead of the curve. The Walkway is a blessing in this market.”

While Tkazyik believes “setting a new tone with the new administration cutting out red tape” was crucial to drawing development, he calls the Walkway Poughkeepsie’s single biggest “economic engine.”

“It has significantly enhanced the city of Poughkeepsie and this region with the many tourists that have come to see this magnificent bridge, and of course, they’re coming to our restaurants and our shops and using the services here,” Tkazyik says.

A plan to build an elevator to link the Poughkeepsie side of the walkway to the city’s Metro-North Railroad station below, slated to be finished in about two years, will provide a further jump-start, according to Tkazyik and other local officials. Also, Tkazyik is overseeing a redrafting of the city’s restrictive zoning code, adopted in 1979, to allow mixed-use developments on the waterfront.

Poughkeepsie’s current housing stock differs starkly by neighborhood. Low-income, high-density multifamily homes are the norm on the north side of the city near the Walkway. On the south side are big Victorians and stone houses that go for $300,000. On and around once-rundown Main St., about 200 apartments, mostly rentals targeted to professionals and Vassar and Marist College students, have been renovated over the past decade.

Among the few apartment buildings near the waterfront, GDC Homes’ Hudson Pointe and the Piano Factory Lofts offer encouraging examples. In 2006, on land they owned for more than 20 years, GDC built 60 upscale condo units ranging from 1,600 to 3,000 square feet and priced from the high $300,000s to the high $700,000s. The units sold out within a year and a half.

The Piano Factory’s 11 lofts sold out before the $5 million waterfront project by the train station was completed in 2009. Developer/architect Alex Duda, an upper West Sider with a weekend home in Dutchess County, preserved many of the original details of the five-story, 20,000-square-foot former piano factory, which was built in 1880 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The units range from an 800-square-foot one-bedroom, sold for $200,000, to a three-floor, 6,000-square-foot penthouse with a roof deck that went for more than $1 million.

“What I did was make them into work-live lofts almost like you have in Tribeca,” Duda says. “I took the same concept from New York City and brought it to Poughkeepsie.”

Kaufman is banking on similarly strong demand. “This will put a thousand young professionals and empty-nesters with money in the area, and it’s the first thing you’ll see from the Walkway,” he says of his plan.

The $100 million project calls for about 450 high-end condo units, spread over three five-story buildings and five townhouses, to be built after a costly cleanup of the contaminated site, which is about a quarter of a mile from the train station. Served by Amtrak as well as Metro-North, the station is a ride of about an hour and 20 minutes to Penn Station and an hour and 40 minutes to Grand Central Terminal. Short Line also provides daily bus service to Manhattan.

About a mile south of the Dutton Lumber site, Joe Bonura Jr. presides over a small waterfront empire that is poised to grow five times in size. He opened Grandview, an upscale catering facility that specializes in weddings, in September 2006, following it a few months later with the 18,000-square-foot restaurant Shadows on the Hudson.

In 1994, Bonura, his father and his brother – Newburgh natives who are partners in all the ventures– had bought the Poughkeepsie Grand Hotel, a Main St. business about a mile from Shadows. They gave the hotel a major overhaul in 2009. To cap off the synergy, last April the family opened a 100-slip marina − the city’s first − in front of Shadows. Bonura bought two shuttles to take guests back and forth between the businesses and to the Walkway.

“The summer of 2010 is the best I’ve ever had, so I have to believe the Walkway is a factor,” Bonura says. “We’re doing 70% more volume than we projected.”

For its latest, most ambitious project, the family recently broke ground on the 14-acre former DeLaval milk-separating equipment site, abandoned for 40 years because of petroleum seepage. The $25 million plan calls for 100,000 square feet spread over four buildings of retail, restaurant and office space, along with a park, amphitheater for summer concerts and kayak/canoe launch. The state financed the site’s $15 million cleanup.

On 5– acres that the Bonuras own across the street from the DeLaval site, they plan to build a 60,000-square-foot building with 60 condo units and office space by 2014.

In addition to boosting development, the Walkway has given nearby businesses a major push. The Washington St. strip where Ed Kowalski has side-by-side restaurants, the casual Lola’s Cafe and the upscale Crave, is linked to the Walkway by a staircase that opened in August, funneling customers to his door. “If the bridge weren’t here, I probably wouldn’t have half the business,” says Kowalski, who opened Crave two months after the bridge’s debut. “When I opened Lola’s in that spot five years ago, people called me a dummy. Now they say I’m a genius.”

For Poughkeepsie native Lou Strippoli, owner of Caffe Aurora, opened by his father in 1941, there is joy in watching the transformation of his city.

“I’m really excited about this,” Strippoli says. “For the first time in a long time, development is going in the right direction, and the Walkway has been a godsend. On weekends, you see families walking around, and the restaurants are filled. I haven’t seen that for many years.”

The Walkway Over the Hudson is the modern reincarnation of the Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad Bridge, the longest bridge in the world when it was built in 1888.

A fire in 1974 put the bridge out of commission after nearly a century of use. In 1992, the nonprofit group Walkway Over the Hudson formed with the goal of opening the 212-foot-high bridge to the public and linking it to rail trails on either side of the river. In 1998, the nonprofit bought the bridge for $1 from a Pennsylvania man who had paid $1 for it in 1990. He, in turn, had bought the bridge from a man who had acquired it in 1984 for $1 from then-owner Conrail.

In 2007, after years of lobbying for government and public support, the nonprofit partnered with the Dyson Foundation to transform the bridge into a state park. Together they raised $38.8 million in public and private funds, and construction began in 2008.

The railroad tracks, ties and railings were removed under the oversight of architect-engineer Bergmann Associates and replaced with 960 13-ton concrete deck panels. The walkway reopened as a state park on Oct. 3, 2009, connecting to a network of rail trails that eventually will total 27 miles. Last December, the nonprofit transferred ownership of the walkway to the New York State Bridge Authority, fittingly for $1.

“When you go out there, it’s just amazing,” says Elizabeth Waldstein-Hart, executive director of Walkway Over the Hudson. “You’re so high up, you see the Catskills, you see the beautiful river winding its way through the Hudson Valley, and it changes every single day.”