Thursday, August 16, 2018

A Relic Discovered Beneath the Street

At the Common Council Public Works and Parks Committee meeting last night, DPW superintendent Rob Perry shared the picture of a piece of wooden water pipe discovered while excavating for the sewer separation project on lower Columbia Street. This morning, he provided Gossips with three pictures of the relic.

The pipe, which is essentially a hollowed out log, is a remnant of Hudson's earliest municipal water system. It is currently residing in the entrance to the water treatment plant at the top of Rossman Avenue.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Eger Communications and Blue Hill

More than two weeks ago, Gossips linked to an article in the Register-Star that reported Congressman John Faso was calling for the FCC to move forward with the plans for Eger Communications to build a new tower on Blue Hill, in the Olana viewshed: "Another Faso Misstep." That article quoted Faso as saying, "This is a simple replacement and upgrade that is vital for our local emergency communication capability."

Frederic Edwin Church, Our Banner in the Sky, 1861
Courtesy the Olana State Historic Site
Needless to say, there is more to the story than what was presented by Faso in his call for the FCC to get off the dime. The rest of the story is explained in a letter by Sean Sawyer, president of The Olana Partnership, and Jeff Anzevino, director of land use advocacy for Scenic Hudson, which appeared in the Register-Star on Monday: "My View: Providing the public with the full story." The letter reveals that Eger Communications has refused to participate in a Section 106 Historic Review, as defined by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, and recently "appealed directly to the White House, members of Congress, and other elected officials to push the FCC to quickly approve the project." The letter, which can be accessed here, is recommended reading.

Recent Appointments to the Regulatory Boards

The Planning Board started the year with three vacancies--two because Tom DePietro and Rob Bujan had become elected officials and hence ineligible to serve on the Planning Board. In January, Mayor Rick Rector appointed Betsy Gramkow to the Planning Board, and in April, he appointed John Cody. The final vacancy was filled last week, when Rector appointed Mark Morgan-Perez to the Planning Board. Morgan-Perez, who has an extensive background in real estate development and project management, served on Mayor Tiffany Martin's Housing Task Force, the body that created the Strategic Housing Action Plan. He also was recently appointed to the board of Hudson Development Corporation (HDC).

In recent weeks, Rector also appointed Paul Barrett to replace David Voorhees, who stepped down after serving for twelve years as the historian member of the Historic Preservation Commission. A local historian, Barrett has lectured in Hudson on the mansions that surrounded Lyndhurst during the Golden Age of Tarrytown and on the social history of the Hudson Armory. He has done extensive research on "The Pines" and the Farrand family and frequently shares his discoveries about Hudson history with Gossips.

Monday Night at City Hall

Dan Udell's video of Monday night's informal Common Council meeting can now be viewed here

Of particular interest is Council president Tom DePietro's announcement that the Common Council is going to form a Planning Task Force "to encompass the discussions" of Local Law No. 9 of 2017 and Local Law No. 5 of 2018, both amendments to the zoning code having to do with nonconforming uses in residential districts. He indicated that "all relevant agencies--HDC, HCDPA, Zoning, and Planning" would be involved, and the task force would assist with the LWRP, DRI, and "any other group that needs help with planning for housing or other related projects." He also promised that "full details" about the task force would be provided at the formal Council meeting on Tuesday, August 21. DePietro's comments about the task force begin at 18:30 in the video.

Fifth Ward alderman Eileen Halloran's concerns about historic preservation and her ideas for changing the law begin at 19:40 in the video.


Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Starting This Friday

At the last Police Committee meeting, Chief Ed Moore mentioned a program that would happen in August to educate pedestrians and drivers about rules of the crosswalk. Today, this photograph of Officer Tracey Roberts, holding a poster for the Pedestrian Safety Detail, appeared on the Hudson Police Department Facebook page, together with the information that the Pedestrian Safety Detail will begin its work this Friday, August 17.
HPD officers will be monitoring our crosswalks and handing out informational pamphlets to pedestrians and motorists. We ordered the materials after a June meeting with resident Peter Spear, who has been a huge advocate for traffic safety within our city. More information to follow. . . .
Drivers and pedestrians, get ready to see and be seen!

Deja Vu All Over Again

When it was discovered, back at the dawn of the 21st century, that the Historic Preservation Commission created by the newly enacted preservation ordinance--Chapter 169 of the city code--was empowered to designate historic districts and local landmarks, the law was suspended and rewritten to give the power to designate historic districts and landmarks to the Common Council. The HPC could only make recommendations. As a consequence, aside from a few designations made before the law was changed--Willard Place, the Robert Taylor House, and the five historic firehouses--all the historic districts and landmarks were designated in a two-year period--2006-2007--when there was support for historic preservation on the Common Council. Since then, no new historic districts have been designated. An initiative by Historic Hudson in 2011 to get Robinson Street designated a historic district went down in flames, and the recent attempt by the Historic Preservation Commission to expand the Union-Allen-South Front Street Historic District seems to have opened a new can of worms.

Robinson Street in 2011                   Photo: Peter Frank
A couple of months ago when the Common Council was discussing the proposal to expand the existing historic district south and west to include the Kaz site and the waterfront, Alderman Eileen Halloran, who represents the Fifth Ward, told the Council her constituents were concerned that "historic preservation was coming to them." At last night's informal Common Council meeting, Halloran revealed that the HPC's desire to expand a historic district to have some oversight over new development in an adjacent area where in the next two years the Downtown Revitalization Initiative will invest tens of millions of dollars and could potentially change the character of the city is making her constituents, far away in the Fifth Ward, nervous. (To my knowledge, the HPC has never contemplated designating anything in the Fifth Ward, although Gossips has on a few occasions bemoaned what can happen to buildings that are not in historic districts.) Halloran told the Council last night that her constituents "are not comfortable with this" and quoted one constituent as saying, "I'm not going to go ask someone if I can put a screen door on my house." She then suggested that the preservation law be amended so that "people have to agree to having their house included in a historic district."

The Historic Preservation Commission has never opined on the installation of screen doors, but this kind of extreme statement is typical of the fears surrounding historic preservation. I recall that back when the law newly drafted was ready to be introduced to the Council, the city attorney at the time called all of the aldermen and warned them that if they passed the legislation as it was written people would have to get approval to put up a new mailbox. That was not true then, and it is not true now.

To require that building owners must agree to inclusion in a historic district defeats the purpose of the historic preservation law. The law recognizes "as a matter of public policy, that the protection, enhancement, and perpetuation of landmarks and historic districts are necessary to promote the economic, cultural, educational, and general welfare of the public." The law exists to protect the architectural fabric and the character of neighborhoods, indeed of the entire city, and to prevent architectural transformations like the one shown below from happening.

Photo: Old House Journal
To make inclusion in a historic district voluntary achieves nothing. The people who opt in will be the people who care about historic preservation and want to do the right thing with their houses. They are not the ones who need the guidance and oversight of the HPC. The people who opt out may be similarly committed to preserving the architectural integrity of their homes, but if they are, why do they feel so threatened by the remote possibility that their neighborhood might become a historic district? Besides, even if the HPC were to propose making some part of the Fifth Ward a historic district, the residents can always protest and squelch the initiative the way the folks on Robinson Street did back in 2011. It is not necessary to amend and dilute the preservation ordinance to make it powerless to preserve the historic architecture and character of the city.

Monday, August 13, 2018

The Original "Gossips of Rivertown"

This blog takes its name, The Gossips of Rivertown, from an 1848 novel written by Alice B. Neal, who grew up in Hudson. The novel can be read in its entirety online at Google Books, but when the blog called The Gossips of Rivertown got started in 2010, I serialized excerpts from the novel over the course of more than a year. After telling someone recently how the 19th-century Gossips could be read on the 21st-century Gossips, I realized how daunting a task it would be to try to find all the excerpts and read them in order. For that reason, I am providing the links, in order, to all of the excerpts. The titles of the excerpts were introduced by me.  

Excerpt 1:  "Was There Ever Such Imprudence?" 
Excerpt 2:  "An Artful Creature as Ever Lived"
Excerpt 3:  "Mr. Jorden Was Going to Be Married"
Excerpt 4:  "The Love of Gossip Prevailed" 
Excerpt 5:  Miss Harden and Miss Mitchell Pay a Visit  
Excerpt 6:  Whose Miniature Was It?
Excerpt 7:  "One of that Amiable Sisterhood"
Excerpt 8:  Doing Their Duty as Friends
Excerpt 9:  A Perfect Day in Rivertown
Excerpt 10:  Summer in Hudson
Excerpt 11:  "The Hypocrisy of Some People!"
Excerpt 12:  Catching up with the Original Gossips
Excerpt 13:  A Visit from Mrs. Townsend
Excerpt 14:  A Visit from Mrs. Townsend (continued)
Excerpt 15:  "A Woman So Imprudent"
Excerpt 16:  "How Have I Transgressed the Laws of Propriety?"
Excerpt 17:  "A Tall, Sad-looking Man"
Excerpt 18:  "I've Made Up My Mind About His Case"
Excerpt 19:  "Someone Must Have Corrupted the Truth"
Excerpt 20:  "'Tis but a Trial Sent for Our Good"
Excerpt 21:  "Many a Sorrowful Struggle"
Excerpt 22:  Mr. Townsend Hears His Accusation
Excerpt 23:  "This Sadly Eloquent Appeal"
Excerpt 24:  "Into the Silent Land"
Excerpt 25:  "Benevolence Became a Mania in Rivertown"
Excerpt 26:  The Orphan Asylum Fair
Excerpt 27:  "Unexpected Good Fortune"
Excerpt 28:  Another Gossips Milestone
Excerpt 29:  Spring in Rivertown
Excerpt 30:  "Partings Seem the Order of the Day"


Meetings of Interest in the Week Ahead

This week there are a couple of reasons to show up at City Hall in the evening and one to show up at 1 North Front Street in the afternoon.
  • Tonight, Monday, August 13, the Common Council holds its informal meeting at 7 p.m. at City Hall. So far, the only items on the agenda are the mayor's veto of proposed Local Law No. 4, the law pertaining to vacant buildings, and a resolution to adopt a fund balance policy. Gossips has heard that Local Law No. 4 has been revised to eliminate the problems that necessitated the mayor's veto, but it is not known if the revised law will be introduced tonight or if it will have to go through committee.
  • Tomorrow, Tuesday, August 14, the Nominating Committee of the Hudson Development Corporation (HDC) board will meet again to contemplate who will be appointed to the board to replace the four members who resigned as a consequence of Common Council president Tom DePietro's expressed lack of confidence in HDC over the redevelopment of the Kaz site. So far, the appointment of only one new board member, Mark Morgan-Perez, has been made public. The committee meeting will take place in executive session, with no members of the public permitted to observe.
  • On Wednesday, August 15, the Common Council Public Works and Parks Committee meets at 5:15 in City Hall. DPW superintendent Rob Perry, whose report to the committee is the major business of the monthly meeting, will be reporting on the impacts of the severe thunderstorm Hudson experienced last Tuesday.
  • Also on Wednesday, August 15, at 6 p.m., the Zoning Board of Appeals meets at City Hall. At its July meeting, the ZBA scheduled six public hearings for Wednesday regarding the following requests: (1) an area variance for parking at 437 Warren Street; (2) an area variance for parking at 514 State Street; (3) an area variance to create two lots of equal size at 248 and 250 Columbia Street [The Planning Board approved the lot line adjustment at its last meeting; an area variance is required from the ZBA because neither lot will meet the minimum lot size required by the code.]; (4) several area variances for the project proposed for Partition Street behind 17-19 Union Street, including setbacks and lot coverage; (5) a variance for an 8-foot fence to be constructed at 939 Columbia Street; (6) area variances for a solar carport to be constructed at 65-67 North Third Street.
248 and 250 Columbia Street
Elevations for Partition Street proposal (behind 17-19 Union Street)
  • On Thursday, August 16, Hudson Community Development and Planning Agency (HCDPA) meets at 2 p.m. at 1 North Front Street. At its last meeting on July 26, there was talk of selling off all the property and dissolving the agency. The property owned by HDCPA consists of vacant lots at 202, 204, and 206 Columbia Street (what remains of the community garden), 238 Columbia Street, 2 through 12 State Street, and 2-4 Warren Street. At the July meeting, Walter Chatham, who chairs the Planning Board and also chairs the HCDPA board, offered this assessment of HCDPA: "The agency is broke, we don't have much of a track record, and the political climate does not favor this type of agency." At Thursday's meeting it is expected that city attorney Andy Howard will be present to discuss the agency's options going forward. It is not known if the meeting will be open to the public or if the board will invoke attorney-client privilege and go into executive session.


Greatness Among Us

Yesterday's magazine section of the New York Times had an article about Lynn Davis and her career as a portrait photographer before she started photographing sacred sites, icebergs, and, most notably for us in Hudson, every building on Warren Street: "She Chronicled the Great Photographers of the 20th Century. Then, She Stopped Taking Portraits."

Lynn Davis with A. T. Mann at a book signing event at Rural Residence in 2010 for Sacred Landscapes: The Threshold Between Worlds | Photo: Rural Intelligence

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Damage to an Ancient Tree

It is not known if it was the victim of lightning, wind, old age and gravity, or a combination of some or all of the above, but between Saturday night and Sunday morning one of the venerable old trees in Washington Park, a.k.a. Courthouse Square, suffered severe but hopefully not irreparable damage.

Photo: Llew Young
Photographic evidence suggests that the tree is older than the current courthouse and indeed was already a fairly substantial tree when the first courthouse to occupy the site, built around 1837, was there. (The current Warren and Wetmore courthouse, completed in 1907, is the third to be built at that location.) If you look to the right in the photograph below, which shows the courthouse that existed before 1900, I believe you will see the tree now critically damaged as it was when it was young.

Photo courtesy Historic Hudson

Walk | Don't Walk

I have often observed that pedestrians in Hudson don't seem to distinguish between mid-block crosswalks and crosswalks at intersections controlled by traffic lights and will boldly step into crosswalks in front of cars that have the green light. There seems to be the expectation that a zebra stripped crosswalk is a charmed and protected place where the pedestrian has the right of way no matter what the circumstance.

Pedestrians don't seem to be able to interpret how traffic lights affect them either. Last week, for example, heading up Warren Street, I was stopped at the red light at Seventh Street. A family--man, woman, and two children--were standing at the corner, in front of Lick, waiting to cross Warren Street. They were watching the same traffic light I was, and instead of crossing when the light was red for Warren Street, they waited until the light turned green and then stepped out into the street in front of cars that had just gotten the green light.

Earlier this month, Peter Spear monitored the corner of Third and Warren streets over the course of three days and edited the resultant three hours of video recording down to twenty-five minutes. That video, called "Pedestrian Observation," has now been published on YouTube and can be viewed here.

Spear's video documents all the things I've experienced driving around Hudson lately and makes an implicit recommendation: we need pedestrian crossing lights at the Warren Street intersections that have traffic lights--especially Warren and Third, since Third Street is a truck route. Whether they say WALK|DON'T WALK or just use icons, we need them. I would suggest that since many of the people captured in Spear's video appear to be visitors to our city, the newly created Tourism Board, empowered to determine how a portion of the revenue from the city's lodging tax is spent, consider investing in pedestrian crossing lights to improve the safety and walkability of our city.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

What's Happening Here?

Gossips recently discovered that 356 Union Street was the home of prominent Hudson physician Dr. H. Lyle Smith. Although my research hasn't confirmed it yet, it is very likely that Smith was the original owner of the house. What is known is that he was living in the house in 1873 and continued living there until 1900, when he sold the house to Delbert Dinehart. 

Today, the house is one of the many buildings in Hudson owned by the Galvan Foundation and one of several now being prepared for occupancy. Gossips reported about the house in March, when the slate on the mansard roof was covered up with blue plastic tarps. Then, although it was feared the original slate had been removed, we were assured that the slate was simply being covered up to protect it while work was done on the roof. It's interesting to note that back in 2012 when this project came before the Historic Preservation Commission, Ward Hamilton, then employed by Galvan, said the slate would have to be removed in order to repair the roof flashing.  

Recently, the plastic tarps have been removed to reveal gray slate on the mansard roof that bears little resemblance to the gray slate that was there originally, although admittedly it's hard to see because of the scaffolding.

But even though the roof is obscured by the scaffolding, it appears that the rosette detail of the roof has not been reproduced.  

This project does not have a certificate of appropriateness from the Historic Preservation Commission. If memory serves (I can find no confirmation in the minutes of the HPC), the project was presented informally to the HPC by Jason O'Toole a few months ago. What was proposed then was to replace the original clapboard on the house, revealed in 2012 when the asbestos siding was removed, with Hardiplank. Kate Johns, architect member of the HPC, asked the applicant to consider using cedar on the front of the house and Hardiplank only on the less visible sides and back. The HPC also stressed, as it had in 2012, the importance of retaining the pattern of the slate on the mansard roof, with the decorative rosettes. A formal application for a certificate of appropriateness was never made, and a certificate of appropriateness never granted, yet work on the roof appears to have moved forward.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Local Law No. 5 and the Planning Board

At its July meeting, the Common Council referred Proposed Local Law No. 5 to the Planning Board for a recommendation. This law would amend the zoning code for R2 and R2H districts to allow a nonconforming use "that has been established and has operated for a period of more than twenty years" (specifically Stewart's and Scali's) to double the size of their building and expand onto adjacent property. Last night, the Planning Board began its discussion of the proposed law.

The discussion began with Planning Board member Laura Margolis saying she didn't want to make a recommendation without understanding the issue better. Mitch Khosrova, counsel to the Planning Board, pointed out that the Planning Board had already opined on this issue when they were asked to make a recommendation on the Green Street Overlay District proposed by Stewart's. Khosrova reminded the members of the board that their opinion had been that "tackling zoning issues piecemeal is not the way to go," and they wanted the City to revise the City's comprehensive plan and undertake comprehensive zoning revision.

During the course of the discussion, board member Betsy Gramkow commented, "I don't like nonconforming uses, and this is making it even larger." Walter Chatham, chair of the Planning Board, expressed the opinion that what was proposed "is not spot zoning, but it approaches spot zoning." Chatham also mused, "If the city had some design leverage," and Gramkow spoke of "standards [presumably design standards] the community can use."

Repeated reference was made to a letter the Planning Board had received the previous day from Ken Dow, who served as city attorney in Mayor Tiffany Martin's administration. Gossips was able to get a copy of the six-page letter last night. Earlier today, it was made available on the city website. Dow introduces his critique with this statement: "To begin, I think the proposed law has several serious problems. Some are mainly technical, and some are substantive that go to the very essence of the purpose of zoning."

Dow first discourses on "the ambiguities and uncertain effects of the law." He then explains what he considers the substantive problems: (1) re-designating the currently existing non-conforming uses as conditional uses; (2) allowing the expansion of non-conforming uses and continuing to designate them as non-conforming; (3) discrimination and inequitable granting of rights to use certain parcels. In his discussion of discrimination and inquity, Dow cites an objection that Michael LeSawyer made (and Gossips reported) at the Common Council meeting on Tuesday, July 17. The following is quoted from Dow's letter:
A post on Gossips of Rivertown on July 17, 2018, contained the following passage: “Michael LeSawyer, whose house is situated midway between Stewart's and Scali's, the ‘two historic nonconforming uses’ that would benefit from the zoning amendment, complained about the inequity of the amendment: ‘Stewart's can do anything they want, Scali's can do anything they want, but I can't.’” I think Mr. LeSawyer is spot on. If a parcel next to Scali’s can be used for restaurant purposes, it should be permissible for anyone to use it for such purpose, not just Scali’s. If a parcel next to Stewart’s can be used for convenience store purposes, it should be permissible for anyone to use it for such purpose, not just [Stewart's]. Otherwise, the law is not zoning the land; it is giving personal grants of rights to use land.
Dow's  conclusion is stated in these three paragraphs. (The boldface italic in the third paragraph is his). 
While the apparent discriminatory effect of this proposed law and its selective granting of rights based upon one’s use and ownership of a different parcel is problematic, the concerns in that regard pale in comparison to those arising from the central purpose and thrust of this proposed law. To return to the most important point, at its core and in light of the fundamental principles of zoning, the proposal to allow and even “encourage” the continuation and expansion of non-conforming uses—especially onto additional parcels—is extraordinarily ill-conceived. 
It is my view that this proposed law needs important revisions if it is to be enacted. In addition to making decisions on, and clarifying, the ambiguities discussed above, the “Legislative Findings” should be re-written to remove any statement of purpose to encourage, continue, or expand existing non-conforming uses. That such a statement is currently in the law is mind-boggling. If, in fact, the effect of the law would be to convert current non-conforming uses to conditional uses, then it is not even correct to say that the law is promoting the continuation or expansion of non-conforming uses; it is instead finding that circumstances have made the subject uses appropriate for their locations and re-designating them as conditional uses. 
The problems of this proposed law can perhaps be mitigated to some degree if the Comprehensive Plan and other factual grounds support re-classifying the specific nonconforming uses at issue as conditional uses and the text of the law is revised to clearly do so. But to continue to identify the uses at issue here as “non-conforming uses” and to then promote their expansion—especially onto a new and separate parcel—is, in my opinion, an extremely misguided course of action that is both in direct conflict with the fundamental purposes of zoning and may also open the door to unintended adverse consequences for the City. To enact a law that would do so, as the current text appears to do, would be—to put it mildly—a seriously unwise step by the City.
In the end, the members of the Planning Board decided they needed more time to digest the content of Dow's letter, and because, as Khosrova observed, "the document they got [i.e., Proposed Local Law No. 5] doesn't explain the thinking behind it," they decided to invite John Rosenthal, who chairs the Common Council Legal Committee, to come to the next Planning Board meeting to explain the thinking.

At one point, toward the end of the meeting, when the floor was opened to the public, Chatham asked LeSawyer what his position on Stewart's expansion was. LeSawyer replied: "I don't think it's necessary. It's what Stewart's is doing, and we just happen to be Store #88. . . . It's not really a Hudson thing. What's proposed is a template being imposed on the Hudson store." LeSawyer's assessment is borne out by this statement, which is the lede in an article that appeared on June 6 in the Albany Business Journal reporting that Stewart's had just acquired a former restaurant property in the Town of Malta: "Acquisition comes as convenience store chain invests up to $50 million to expand, renovate and add new stores in New York and Vermont." The following, quoted from an article that appeared in the Albany Business Review in February, provides more information about the business plan that is compelling Stewart's expansion here:
Three years ago, the fourth-generation company started investing close to $50 million a year to renovate or completely rebuild stores to expand the fastest-growing segment of its business--food-to-go. Soups, sandwiches, pasta, pizza and a growing number of drinks are the cornerstone of store remodels for a company whose leadership is determined never to stray too far from its dairy image.
The focus on food-to-go prompted Stewart's to start building larger stores as well. The average shop was about 2,500 square feet a few years ago. Today, new stores are closer to 3,700 square feet, depending on the location.
I was curious to know if the Stewart's at the corner of Green Street and Fairview Avenue really was Store #88, or if LeSawyer had just pulled the number out of thin air, so I checked. It was the latter. The Stewart's in Hudson is actually Store #209.