As promised, Gossips continues the account of Eric Galloway’s impact on 317 Allen Street with the chronicle of the subdivision that separated the main house from the carriage house and created two building lots at the southern end of what was originally the grounds of the Morgan Jones House. The story of the subdivision is the story of encroachment onto Willard Place, a historic neighborhood of unique design.
Established in 1872, Willard Place began as a private neighborhood--Hudson’s equivalent of Gramercy Park and Sutton Place in New York City and Louisburg Square in Boston--and it remained so until 1969. The 1870s were a period of prosperity in Hudson, and Willard Place was an enclave for its wealthiest and most prominent citizens. All the houses on Willard Place were built during a span of just of twenty years, the final house being completed in 1893, and they are examples of the architectural styles that were in vogue during those two decades. Second Empire predominates, but there are also examples of Colonial Revival and Tuscany-style architecture. The first two Willard Place houses, both of Second Empire design, were demolished in the mid-20th century--1 Willard Place in the 1950s and 2 Willard Place in the 1970s--to make way for St. Mary’s Academy, but what remained was a secluded and intact ensemble of six grand Victorian houses. The subdivision of 317 Allen Street would redefine Willard Place and its relationship with the adjoining properties.
The story begins with the Planning Commission. When the proposal to subdivide 317 Allen Street came before the Planning Commission in April 2003, Willard Place residents and preservationists appealed to the commission to preserve the integrity of the historic neighborhood. The commission, then chaired by Mike Vertetis, who was also Common Council President, were sympathetic to their plea, but the commission could find nothing in the city code that gave them jurisdiction over subdivision. Vertetis was convinced that there was a section of the Hudson zoning code that empowered the Planning Commission to review and approve subdivision, but although he searched diligently, he could not find it. The Planning Commission generally agreed that the subdivision should not be allowed--especially the creation of building lots that fronted on Willard Place--but they believed they had no choice but to move the proposal on to the County Planning Board. At the request of those opposing the subdivision, however, Vertetis did not sign the plans lest a signature be construed as tacit approval.
An aside about subdivision: About a year ago, city attorney Jack Connor discovered in his cellar a part of the zoning ordinance that, according to him, should have been adopted in 1968 but wasn't. The subject of this rediscovered document? Subdivision. Now Section 325.35.1 of the Hudson Code, adopted on October 20, 2009, this missing piece requires a site plan review by the Planning Commission for the subdivision of any existing parcel. The question remains in the minds of some why this wasn’t unearthed when Vertetis was searching for it back in 2003. Connor, in whose basement it was discovered, was the city attorney then as now.
Since the Planning Commission believed they had no power to influence or stop the proposed subdivision and development, opponents of the proposal pinned their hopes on the newly created Historic Preservation Commission. Residents of Willard Place applied for historic district designation for their neighborhood, and in November 2003, Willard Place became the first locally designated historic district in Hudson. The opponents were elated for they thought surely the Historic Preservation Commission would not grant a certificate of appropriateness to a project that would have a negative impact on a neighborhood that was a rare and noteworthy example of late 19th-century architecture and urban design. But their joy and relief were short-lived for it was soon discovered that Peter Wurster had issued the building permits just hours before the Historic Preservation Commission made the designation. A witness at the Code Enforcement Office reported that “people from the Planning Commission” pored over the plans with Wurster to figure out a way to configure the lots so they could avoid having to apply for an area variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals. To get an area variance, they would have to prove that the project would have no adverse impact on property values in the neighborhood. It is worth noting that the plans being pored over had been signed by Kevin Walker, who was an employee of Eric Galloway and at the same time was serving on both the Planning Commission and the Historic Preservation Commission.
The plans that were granted building permits were based on a survey commissioned by Galloway shortly after he purchased the Morgan Jones House. This survey, which purported to correct historic surveys and property deed descriptions, altered the lot's dimensions. It showed the southern end of the property--the rear part--to be some thirteen feet wider than the front part, transforming the lot's shape into something other than the rectangular lot pattern that is the shape of nearly every property in Hudson. Don Christensen, owner of 8 Willard Place, filed an Article 78 to have the building permits withdrawn, maintaining that the new survey was in error and the project required an area variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals.
In June 2004 the ZBA heard lengthy testimony from the surveyor and arguments from the attorneys for Galloway and Christensen. After some discussion, the members of the ZBA were asked by city attorney Kevin Colwell to decide if Code Enforcement Officer Peter Wurster was culpable for accepting the survey, which had been certified by a licensed surveyor. The ZBA deliberated and agreed that Wurster was not at fault, since the survey had been certified and he was not qualified to judge its accuracy. Once the ZBA had agreed to that, Colwell immediately produced a twenty-page resolution for them to vote on which not only held Wurster blameless but affirmed the validity of the survey, which contradicted the evidence of 150 years of legal documents, earlier surveys, the deeds of Willard Place homeowners, and the expert, written opinion of a professional surveyor. It’s interesting to note that during the time the new survey was being called into question a concrete marker believed to designate the southwest corner of the lot was removed by bulldozer while Willard Place property owners looked on.
Although the building permits managed to withstand legal challenge, a problem still remained for the project. The new houses would overlook Willard Park and Willard Place, but they wouldn’t have access to Willard Place since there was a strip of land separating the lots on which they would be situated from the paved roadway. This strip of land was part of Willard Park, which had been deeded to the City of Hudson when Willard Place became a public street in 1969. To remedy this problem, Galloway requested the right to buy the land from the City of Hudson. The price was arbitrarily set at $3,000, and in August 2004, the Common Council voted unanimously to sell it to him, but a month before, in July 2004, workers hired by Galloway removed all the vegetation from that strip of land late on a Friday afternoon. Area property owners who observed the clear-cutting claim that fourteen trees of varying sizes were indiscriminently removed.
Christensen sued the City, maintaining that the land sold to Galloway was parkland and could not be sold without an act of the state legislature. The City countered by suing Christensen, alleging that the porch of his 1893 house encroached on the public way and ordering its removal. (Remember that nine months before Willard Place had been designated a local historic district by the Historic Preservation Commission, so the remedy the City’s lawsuit sought--the removal of a significant element of a historic building--was in violation of its own preservation ordinance.)
The lawsuit against Christensen was dismissed in New York Supreme Court in November 2007 by Justice Mary O. Donohue, who in her written decision used such phrases and words as “grasps at straws” and “fanciful” to describe the arguments presented by city attorney Robert Gagen, who had inherited the lawsuit. (The lawsuit was initiated by Jack Connor during a Scalera administration but went to court during the Tracy administration.) The trial in Christensen’s lawsuit against the City was heard last month by Judge Paul Czajka. Czajka has requested written summations from both attorneys--Jack Connor representing the City of Hudson and John Privitera representing Christensen--and it is expected to be another three or four months before a decision is rendered.
Meanwhile, two houses in Greek Revival style have been introduced into this street of late 19th-century houses. The architectural style is anachronistic. Greek Revival architecture had fallen out of favor in the North about forty years before Willard Place was created. Some people think the houses are beautiful. Their detractors, on the other hand, have dubbed them “Me and Mini-Me,” and one critic went so far as to call their architectural style “Greek Revulsion.” It’s probably fair to say that most people are a little confused by the two houses that stand side by side, one a smaller version of the other and set farther back to exaggerate the size difference.
It is an opinion held by many that the two houses are out of character and scale with the rest of the street and have destroyed the integrity of this unique historic neighborhood. Negative impact on the neighborhood character may be a subjective judgment, but the houses have also had a tangible negative impact on the neighborhood--particularly on Christensen’s house at the end of Willard Place. The construction of the houses and the elimination of a stand of trees and vegetation on the land sold to Galloway have altered the hydrology. Storm water runoff now flows into and under the foundation of 8 Willard Place--something that Christensen attests never happened before--and is causing significant structural damage to the house. Last year, Christensen installed an elaborate and costly drainage system to channel water away from the house, but although this has had some positive effect, it has not completely eliminated the problem, and Christensen has been told by structural engineers that with extravagant and expensive measures the damage to the house can be arrested but it cannot be returned to the structural integrity it exhibited from the time it was built in 1893 until the subdivision and development of 317 Allen Street occurred in 2004.