EDITORIAL: Omi deserves better

IT SEEMS SO SIMPLE. Art Omi needs some more inside space. You know the place; it’s on County Route 22 on the east side of West Ghent. It’s the non-profit organization that displays those big, colorful, nutty, magical what-ya-call-its.

Our grandchildren make sculpture like Art Omi shows, right? But the works of our offspring don’t require several tons of steel or other materials more permanent than paper and crayons. And come on, who can forget the elephant-sized deer that grazed on the lawn above the Charles B. Benenson Visitors Center. The center has an indoor gallery, cafe, offices and is the entry point for the sculpture and architecture park, which spreads northward across more than 120 acres.

One of the reasons Art Omi needs to expand the Benenson Center is to accommodate more kids in the organization’s art education programs. Art Omi also needs more parking. So in 2019 Art Omi submitted its expansion proposal to the Town of Ghent Planning Board. The board had questions. There were meetings and more meetings. A public hearing on the proposal drew strong support from the public.

The possibility of Art Omi drawing crowds and more traffic from those crowds worried some folks. People have a right to express their fears whether it’s a fear of crowds in general or a fear of crowds admiring sculptures. The same is true of traffic, although Art Omi presented data showing the traffic would not change much.

The impact of traffic and the number of visitors are legitimate matters for a planning board to review, too. But the power to review plans for land use has limits established by law. The goal isn’t to block improvements to legitimate activities like those of Art Omi. The goal is to apply the law in a way that addresses the need for growth of a community asset like Art Omi without threatening the environment or unacceptably burdening the neighbors. In other words, it’s a judgment call.

But despite the millions of dollars Art Omi brings into the community and the county and after three decades as a good neighbor as well as its status as a cultural treasure known around the world, this week Art Omi announced that it was withdrawing its application for the expansion of the Benenson Visitors Center and its related plans. The press release announcing the withdrawal said that Art Omi had failed to come to an agreement with the Planning Board about issues including visitor numbers and traffic levels. “The proposed restrictions would have negatively affected Art Omi’s future sustainability and the organization’s ability to carry out its community-based programs,” the release said.

It is hard to imagine that the Planning Board could not at least find a way to keep the negotiations going. It all adds up to bad judgment. It undervalues an important asset of the town and signals other cultural enterprises that they’re not welcome here. What economy are the planners living in?

It could have been done differently and you don’t have to look far for an example. At the north end of Main Street in the Village of Chatham facing the roundabout is a deserted, gutted, three-story brick building. It was recently purchased by the Shaker Museum and plans have been prepared for a state-of-the-art museum with an attached administrative and archival research structure.

Chatham Village Planning Board members carefully reviewed the museum’s proposal, with special attention paid to parking, which is limited in the village. There were meetings and more meetings and various versions of the plans, And the Chatham Planning Board members said that with each new version more parking spaces were found or created to the point that it’s possible to imagine gridlock will not be the problem originally thought.

The Chatham Village Planning Board voted unanimously to approve the project, virtually, in the midst of the pandemic.

Turning back to Ghent, the one thing the Planning Board cannot do to Art Omi is to redefine it as anything other than a cultural arts center. That’s what it is and how it must be considered by the board, except to add that it’s a successful cultural arts center.

The Ghent Planning needs to collaborate with Art Omi, not punish it, and that process should begin right now.

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