Sunday, March 20, 2011

More About Union and First

The proposal to build four new houses at the corner of Union and First streets went before the Zoning Board of Appeals last Wednesday. A sizable crowd turned out for the meeting, including Mayor Rick Scalera, First Ward Alderman Geeta Cheddie, Third Ward Alderman Ellen Thurston, and Hudson Democratic Committee Chair Victor Mendolia. Presenting the proposal to the ZBA was Mark Greenberg, legal counsel for Galvan Partners LLC.  

In his presentation, Greenberg explained that Hudson's current zoning established "suburban standards" that are inappropriate for most of Hudson and pointed out that Hudson's comprehensive plan, adopted in 2002, recommends that new construction be consistent with the surrounding area. He also reminded the ZBA that the project, in virtually the same configuration, had been granted the needed area variances in 2007, but those variances have since expired. The project needs area variances for the proposed setback from the street, which will continue the existing street wall, and for the space between houses, which will be less than the space required by current zoning.

Reviewing the proposal, ZBA member Theresa Joyner asked why the garage in the fourth house, sometimes referred to as the "carriage house," opened onto the street instead of the alley. The answer given was the same offered to the Historic Preservation Commission: the alley was too narrow. The explanation, however, seems contrary to the evidence provided by the alley itself.

Cherry Alley is lined with garages. There's a garage directly across from the site of the proposed new house, and there are several more in the block between First and Second streets, on both sides of the alley. 

Historically, alleys were used for residential parking to keep the front of the house clear of cars. Garages were entered by way of alleys. After World War II, however, urban design grew progressively more autocentric. The first step was to make garages, which were still detached, subordinate to the house, and situated behind it, accessible by driveways from the street that intersected the sidewalks. In the late 1950s and '60s, garages started becoming part of the house, with the entrance to the garage on a plane with the main entrance to the house. The ranch house with its attached garage eventually evolved, in the 1980s, into the ultimate in auto-dominated house design: the "snout house," of which the house proposed for First Street and Cherry Alley seems to be some kind of bizarre hybrid.

A snout house has a front entry garage whose entrance dominates the street-facing facade. With a snout house, it's often not immediately clear where people enter the house. This characteristic of a snout house is shared by the house proposed for First Street and Cherry Alley. Members of both the Historic Preservation Commission and the ZBA have asked where the entrance to the house is. (It's somewhere along the right side the house, between this house and the next.) Another characteristic of a snout house, which makes it a configuration now discouraged in many communities trying to promote their walkable character, is that the walkway that leads to the entrance of a snout house does not connect with the sidewalk but with the driveway.   

The design proposed for the house at First Street and Cherry Alley seems inappropriate for its location, even though there's a garage directly opposite it on First Street, but the design problems might be resolved if the building were more like a house with a garage behind it than a garage with some house around it. So let's go back to the notion that the alley is too narrow for the garage to open onto it.  

A search of the city code online uncovered information about the maximum width (10 feet) and the maximum length (30 feet) of a residential driveway but no information about the minimum width of an alley or other roadway onto which a garage gives access. (That's not to say it's not there. I just couldn't find it.) But if there are specific clearance requirements for a garage, this information might be relevant. A few years ago, it was pointed out by a planner from Chazen Companies that the amount of space specified by our code for parking one car, on the street or in a parking lot, was more generous that what is required by current standards. This was true because in 1960s, when Hudson's code was adopted, the average car was longer and wider than the average car is today. This being the case, could it be that Cherry Alley would  be too narrow only if the car being garaged were a vintage 1960s car not a car of typical size for 2011? Is it possible that the problem of the alley being too narrow could be remedied by an area variance from the ZBA, thus allowing the garage to open onto the alley instead of the street?   

NOTE: The photograph I used to illustrate snout houses is not the best example of this architectural phenomenon, but I couldn't resist using it because it also demonstrates so well that a few architectural gewgaws--in this case, imitation Victorian Stick Style ornamental gable trusses--do not make new construction compatible with existing historic architecture. 

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