Wednesday, November 14, 2012

That Pesky HPC

Last night's informal Common Council meeting ended, as several others have in the past, with Alderman Cappy Pierro (Fifth Ward) waving a newspaper about, as is his wont, and demanding to know why, when it comes to the Historic Preservation Commission "the Council gets circumvented all over the place." The article that incited Pierro's latest complaint was Tom Casey's report on last Friday's HPC meeting: "Hudson goes for round two with historical survey." 

The HPC's outstanding grant from the Preservation League of New York State and the study it was meant to fund are now the topic of public discussion and reporting, often by people who don't seem fully to understand what happened or what's at stake. As a longtime observer of the Historic Preservation Commission, who was present at the HPC meetings during which the project was proposed, discussed, and initiated, and the work product received, and as the person who discovered the problem the grant was causing and brought it to the attention of the HPC, I think it's time to take up the subject on Gossips. 

The idea of doing an inventory of structures on the north side of the city was suggested and encouraged by someone from the State Historic Preservation Office who came to Hudson back in 2005 to help train the new commission for its task. All the buildings on Warren Street and south of Warren Street had been inventoried in 1985. Everything north of Warren Street, with only a few exceptions, had been omitted from that inventory for what seem to have been political reasons. This omission served to perpetuate the notion that there was nothing of interest or value architecturally in that part of the city. SHPO and the HPC thought otherwise, and doing an inventory of the structures was a way not only to document what was there but to elevate the perception of the surviving vernacular architecture in an area of the city that had experienced wholesale demolition in the early 1970s.

Aerial view of the Second Ward before Urban Renewal
In 2006, the HPC, then chaired by Jamison Teale, applied for and received a Preserve New York grant for $9,000 from the Preservation League to do a survey and documentation of buildings not included in the 1985 survey.  Ruth Piwonka, respected historian and coauthor of A Visible Heritage: Columbia County, New York; A History in Art and Architecture, was commissioned to do the project. From the beginning, however, the project seemed beset with problems, some of which have only been discovered recently. 

Teale, as chair of the HPC, seemed, to the observer at least, to be less than precise about the specific requirements and scope of the inventory. I recall his telling Piwonka in an early meeting about the project that she should begin with a particular area of interest in the Second Ward and include as many other structures as it was reasonable to include for the amount of money available for the project. Leaving the scope of work open ended in this way caused a problem. Instead of doing what's known as a "reconnaissance level" survey on a smaller number of structures, Piwonka did a relatively superficial inventory of all of the 1,300 structures that had not been included in the 1985 survey.

During the course of the project, Piwonka returned several times to HPC meetings to report on her progress and show her developing work product. These visits should have been an opportunity for the HPC to realize that what they were getting was not what they were expecting, but two things prevented this. Teale, who was closest to the project, resigned as chair of the HPC, and Tom Swope took over, and the transition of leadership seemed not include sharing information about this ongoing project. Adding to the problem, Piwonka's developing work product was being created using a software program that no one else could access, so it existed only on her laptop computer. To review what she was doing, the seven members of the HPC had to huddle together and peer at a 15-inch screen. 

What has been discovered only recently, as the HPC struggles to understand what went wrong,  is that there were two different contracts for the project: one between the City of Hudson and the Preservation League of New York State, which was signed by then mayor Richard Tracy; the other between the Historic Preservation Commission and the consultant, which was signed by Jamison Teale. Inexplicably, the description and scope of the project is different in the two contracts. 

At some time in 2007, Piwonka completed her work and submitted it to the HPC. Swope, who considered the study of little value but never seemed to explore why the HPC commissioned it, accepted the work and apparently authorized payment to the consultant. The work was submitted, as required by the terms of the grant, to the Preservation League, and nothing more was heard about it until 2008, when the City of Hudson applied for a Preserve New York grant to do a historic landscape report on its most historic park: Promenade Hill.

The City's 2008 grant application was a strong one, and the people involved in preparing it felt confident that it would be funded and the City would have, as a result, the basis for making informed and historically respectful decisions about the restoration and future enhancements of this very important public space. Unfortunately, the City's 2008 Preserve New York grant application had to be withdrawn because its 2006 Preserve New York grant was still outstanding. 

Since 2008, when the situation came to light, the HPC has attempted to unravel what went wrong and rectify the situation. Jack Alvarez, the architect member of the HPC, has, for the past several months, been working diligently to come up with a solution that would be acceptable to the Preservation League and could be achieved without expense to the City. HPC chair Rick Rector is committed to resolving the problem by the end of the year. Central to the solution the HPC plans to propose to the Preservation League is the data researched and assembled by Historic Hudson on the 47 properties that made up the Robinson Street Historic District, which the not-for-profit proposed to the HPC for designation, with disastrous results,  in 2011. Although this body of work alone may not satisfy the Preservation League, the data, fed into the format of a reconnaissance level survey, could be the model and nexus for a survey of an additional hundred or so more structures carried out by a team of qualified volunteers. If the Preservation League accepts the proposed solution, the HPC could close out its grant, and the City of Hudson would once more be eligible to apply for grants from the Preserve New York grant program.

It sounds like an achievable solution, except for a couple of things. Cheryl Roberts, who as city attorney also serves as counsel to the HPC, thinks there needs to be a new contract between the City of Hudson and the Preservation League outlining the terms of any new agreement that is reached--a contract which the Common Council must authorize the mayor to sign. The problem with this is that the very mention of Robinson Street in any connection whatever with historic preservation is now a lightning rod for elected officials. At the HPC meeting on Friday, Mayor Hallenbeck suggested that the new contract needed to state that the information in the study would never be used for the creation of new historic districts. This is neither a condition that the Preservation League is likely to agree nor one that the City should commit to. Still, after last night's performance by Fifth Ward aldermen Cappy Pierro and Doc Donahue, it seems the current Council, or at least those two members who wield some very heavy weighted votes, far from wanting to partner with the HPC to solve a problem for the good of the city, would like a do-over on accepting the grant to do the study in the first place. 

2 comments:

  1. The forms that were to be filled out by the consultant were SHPO’s Historic Resource Inventory Form (http://nysparks.com/shpo/survey-evaluation/documents/HistoricResourceInventoryForm.pdf) $9,000 for 1300 of these surveys was completely in line five or six years ago. It is typical for similar grants today to pay about $70 to $80 each for same. This is the going rate in NY and neighboring Massachusetts with its nearly identical MHC Survey Form B. (These are “reconnaissance-level” surveys.)

    Whether the scope of work was adequately specified or not to Ms. Piwonka, certainly the format of the deliverables was not. I wondered what software program in 2007 couldn’t easily be shared—the form is available in Word format. So I took a look at her work product on the City’s website: (http://cityofhudson.org/content/Boards/View/10:field=documents;/content/Documents/File/920.pdf)

    A photograph and off-the-cuff sentence about each structure is what you’ll find. On page 111 you’ll find the Armory which is erroneously labeled as being on the National Register and described as “Gothic/romaneqse.” Wrong, wrong and wrong. Skipping around the survey we find inadequate and inaccurate architectural descriptions. Spend ten minutes looking at this survey. A Queen Anne called “eclectic gothic,” a federal-style called “vernacular Greek revival,” many with no description. The PLNYS rejected this work product for obvious reasons.

    The Secretary of the Interior sets forth Professional Qualifications Standards for Architectural Historians to perform identification, evaluation, registration, survey, and treatment activities (see U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, 36 CFR Part 61.) Ms. Piwonka is a respected historian, no doubt, but did she qualify as an architectural historian? If not, the surveys, had she done them, would not have been acceptable for the purpose of expanding the Hudson Historic District multiple resource area.

    There was obviously a good deal of confusion back then, a $9,000 grant was squandered, and now the current HPC is left holding the bag. Rick Rector and Jack Alvarez are working diligently to mend the relationship. Rather than bashing the HPC it would be most beneficial for leaders in the community to circle the wagons and support their efforts to make good with the PLNYS. No matter how you feel about historic preservation, the economic benefits to Hudson are undeniable. That alone should be enough to rally elected officials and the public to see this through.

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  2. (second try)

    Why would the contracting body (the client) allow the consultant to use any software that was not completely standard (e.g., Word, Excel) and generally useful and readable?

    Really stupid.

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