Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Beyond Buildings

Fifteen years ago, when Hudson's preservation law was first enacted, the primary concern was for the preservation of the authentic design and architectural features of buildings. In the law, the notion of preserving the character of a historic district seems to have all to do with preserving the historic character of individual buildings and ensuring that any new construction in a historic district be compatible with the historic character of the neighborhood as a whole. These are the principal tenets of the law:
  • Properties that contribute to the character of the historic district shall be retained, with their historic features altered as little as possible;
  • Any alteration of existing properties shall be compatible with their historic character, as well as with the surrounding district; and
  • New construction shall be compatible with the district in which it is located.
The preservation law has been interpreted to apply to fences, but on a couple of issues, which are turning out to have significant impact on historic neighborhoods, the law seems to be silent. Those issues are curb cuts and retaining walls.

In a comment on this blog, former First Ward alderman David Marston sharply criticized a neighbor for his "suburban curb-cut driveway on one of Hudson's oldest blocks." On Friday, the Historic Preservation Commission accepted as a communication a complaint from another neighbor about the same curb cut and driveway and its inappropriateness in a historic district.

Although this particular curb cut has raised objections from the neighbors, it's hardly the first curb cut to be introduced into a historic district to provide off-street parking for a resident. According to Chapter A331-1 of the city code, all that is required to create a curb cut for a driveway or parking pad is permission from the Department of Public Works.

Because the assistant city attorney, who is counsel to the HPC, was not present on Friday, discussion of the complaint and how the HPC might respond was postponed until its next meeting, on August 10. If the HPC is going to consider the impact of curb cuts and driveways or parking pads in historic districts, it should also include retaining walls in that consideration.

When work on this retaining wall on Prospect Avenue at the end of Rossman Avenue commenced a month or so ago, I asked code enforcement Craig Haigh why it hadn't come before the Historic Preservation Commission. It was being constructed in a historic district and was affecting the character of the neighborhood. Haigh explained that retaining walls were considered landscaping, and landscaping was not within the purview of the HPC. He advised me that the preservation law would have to be amended if retaining walls were to require a certificate of appropriateness.

Curious, I searched Chapter 169 of the city code and located the words landscaping and wall. Each appears only once, in a seldom referred to section of definitions (Chapter 169-2) which was added in 2005, when the preservation law was "amended in its entirety." The word landscaping appears in the definition of the term exterior. (The underscoring is mine.)
EXTERIOR  The architectural style, design, general arrangement and components of the outer surface of an improvement, as distinguished from the interior surfaces enclosed by said outer surfaces, including but not limited to the kind of texture of building materials and the type and style of windows, doors, lights, signs, sidewalks, landscaping and other exterior fixtures.
The word wall appears in the definition of improvement. (Again, the underscoring is mine.) 
IMPROVEMENT A building, structure, pavement, parking facility, fence, gate, wall, sign or awning, work of art of other object constructed by humans.
The defining statement in the preservation law about certificates of appropriateness begins (again the underscoring is mine): "A certificate of appropriateness is required to carry out any exterior alteration, additions, restoration, reconstruction, demolition, new construction. . . ." Could the two definitions cited, particularly the definition of exterior, be used to argue that retaining walls as well as curb cuts and parking pads should be the purview of the HPC?


  1. I'm in complete agreement with you in this regard. Our streetscapes are completely disappearing. Can you imagine this happening in Nantucket, our mother town? It would never be allowed. Our HPC doesn't have enough teeth. We should use the one in New Orleans as a model.


    1. I can see you know, legs crossed, wistfully pulling from your pipe, speaking to the plight of the elderly in Hudson.

      But there are already two parking spaces in the rear of that building. And the curb cut itself creates one less space to park for the rest of us, who live, on this block.

      Nevertheless, this isn't about parking; it’s about the historic fabric of the city. And if that’s too difficult to appreciate, well, might I suggest nearly any other residential block in America besides this one.

  3. One thing missing in the cement spec for sidewalks is the ... COLOR. It was my understanding in the past there was a grey scale color that was supposed to be adhered to. The new concrete work is so bright it will blind you on a sunny day. Notice how new sidewalk patches on Warren do not match the original installed some years ago. Color was added to the concrete to grey it out. Great cities have color specs. Why is concrete the only material approved for sidewalks, workmanship quality also varies. Slate looks a lot better and is maintainable. A consultant should be available to answer some of these questions for home owners making changes. Even that raw concrete retaining wall would look better grey out.

  4. New Orleans is one of my most favorite places.

    Up until maybe four years ago, Margaritaville, a chain restaurant (gasp!) co-existed quite successfully upstairs and kind of kitty corner to Coop's, a very local restaurant.

    Oh, and in the French Quarter, there are the people who allow their three, well now a pair, of goats to live on the front porch.

    And the tourists who sit curbside shucking crawdaddys, while drinking alcohol in paper cups in the street.



  5. What is it about Hudson that there is no enforcement of preservation laws if a project is approved and then deviates from what has been approved by the HPC? What are the ramifications if this happens? Too many are concerned with minutia when there are huge violations occurring and permitted to stand and not be challenged.

  6. I am the guy who did the curb cut. I was unaware until I read this article that a complaint had been filed against me. I still have no idea who filed it. Perhaps it is best that I not know, given that it might give rise to bad feelings, which I try to avoid as much as possible in this town, where we all keep running into each other.

    I followed the procedures required to do it, as they were explained to me, and obtained written permission from the DPW for its installation. I agree that the color is too bright, and wanted a darker grey color. I was told by the person who installed the sidewalk (who does the bulk of the sidewalk work in the city, and was recommended to me by my contractor), that the color will darken to a more grey tone matching what is already on the block, over time. I certainly hope that is the case.

    As a matter of geometry, the curb cut creates more on street parking, rather than less. The curb cut is 10 feet wide, and a car with required room at both ends, consumes 20 feet when parked against the street curb. The driveway can accommodate two cars rather than one, so the gain is potentially double that (40 feet saved in curb parking versus a loss of 10 feet for the curb cut). The parking on Partition is not convenient, and requires navigating a stairway about 14 feet high, and as a practical matter, absent the curb cut, cars would be parked on Union Street to the extent spaces are available there.

    I disagree that the curb cut represents a desecration of the historic ambiance of the area, but admittedly, that is a subjective matter, and others can I suppose reasonably disagree.

    I am amazed frankly about the firestorm that has arisen over this issue. Hudson can be characterized as many things, but being dull certainly is not one of them! :)

  7. This sort of thing is bound to happen when "walking distance to the train" loses it's lustre.

  8. The level of privilege bandied about in this thread is amazing.

    I am thankful that these property owners have the resources to improve the sidewalks.

    It is outrageous for anyone to suggest that they should adhere to the whims of amateur historians.

    If the HPC was really serious then it would advocate total removal of all buildings and returning this land to the native people that actually deserve it.

    It's disgusting to see neighbors reporting other neighbors for making improvements. It probably comes from a place of deep jealousy and insecurity about their place in the world.