Friday, May 31, 2019

Kunstler in Hudson

James Howard Kunstler was in Hudson last night, speaking at the Hudson Area Library on the theme "The American Small Town Is Where It's At--Let's Get It Right." This is not the first time Kunstler has spoken in Hudson. He was here more than fifteen years ago, at the invitation of Friends of Hudson. His talk then mourned the destruction to landscape and culture of suburbs, derided the homogeneous and soulless quality of suburban commercial development, and warned of the economic upheaval to come when the world reaches peak oil.

Last night, because of the title and the context (Kunstler had been asked to speak by Planning Board chair Walter Chatham, as part of the Future Hudson discussion series), one expected something more focused on urban design and Hudson, but anything Hudson specific was reserved for the beginning and the end, bookending a discourse about the "Clown Architecture," the unraveling of the global economy, the end of the Industrial Age, the renewed importance of inland waterways for moving goods, and the need to live more locally and at a smaller scale.

Kunstler opened his talk by displaying two pictures that had appeared on Gossips earlier this week: pictures of Charles S. Rogers' home on Green Street and of the building on Columbia Street where Rogers' wholesale grocery business was located.

Kunstler used the pictures to talk about how the economy had changed in the past century, making the point that a hundred years ago a wholesale grocery business provided sufficient wealth to enable its proprietor to own and maintain two substantial buildings in town.

Kunstler returned to Hudson at the end of his presentation, using pictures of a row of buildings in the 300 block of Warren Street--356 to 362--and the east side of South Front Street--8 and 10--to talk about "orders of unity"--orders of unity being pretty much the same as the elements of compatibility: height, scale, fenestration, material, color. He stressed the need for the "orderliness of geometric design" for urban parks and opined that the square in front of the courthouse "needs to be more ordered and formal." Of course, Kunstler couldn't have known that it once was--two courthouse buildings and more than a hundred years ago.

Kunstler then focused his recommendations on the waterfront. Speaking of the oft-discussed area south of Allen Street and west of Third Street, he pronounced it "an opportunity to create a new urban district," with "connective streets that are an extension of the grid of Hudson," echoing what Chatham has been advocating. Speaking of Colarusso and the gravel hauling operation, Kunstler suggested that "truck traffic may be exaggerated as a problem," presumably alluding back to his earlier prediction that moving goods by truck is destined soon to be an impossibility, owing to the decreasing availability of fossil fuels.

Kunstler also critiqued Henry Hudson Riverfront Park, wondering why there was no "continuity of pavement"--the sidewalk along the street is cement, the paths through the park are asphalt made to look like paving stones. He made a comment about there being a picture of the park on the sign for the park, which drew a laugh, but in fact the picture on the park signage is of Henry Hudson's ship, the Half Moon. He also complained that the floating docks in the embayments had been done "with no artistry."

In his comments about the Dunn warehouse, he acknowledged that he had gotten certain of his information from "Hudson Gossip" and urged, "Please do something with that"--that being the building. On the topic of the North Bay shacks, Kunstler commented, "Americans are so hysterical about losing anything old that was once beloved," and urged demolishing the shacks, reiterating his opinion that there was a need for a working waterfront.

Photo: Don Moore
On the topic of public housing, Kunstler cautioned, "You need all classes to live in the city," going on to warn, "If a city is only inhabited by the poor, it will never be able to fix itself up." He stated the obvious when he said that "the scale of Bliss Towers is all wrong" and then expressed the opinion that "to reinvest in it for another generation may not be the way to go." 

Seeming to indicate that the Hudson Correctional Facility may be one of the prisons slated for imminent closure (something that seems unlikely), Kunstler suggested that the ideal reuse of the facility would be as an institution for homeless people, likening its potential for reuse to the poor farms of the 19th century.

Among the more memorable things Kunstler said were these: "It is important to live in a place that informs you of where you are," and when making planning decisions, it is necessary to consider "whether this choice will result in a place that is more worth caring about or less worth caring about." 

Of interest, too, were statements made by Council president Tom DePietro during the question-and-answer period. DePietro spoke of plans to "concentrate our board process." Ignoring the fact that the Conservation Advisory Council has made it clear that it does not wish to become a regulatory board but to remain an advisory board, DePietro spoke of streamlining the review process from four regulatory boards--Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals, Historic Preservation Commission, and Conservation Advisory Council--to one board. It's an idea inspired by what was done in Newburgh, but it seems both unnecessary and a little reckless. 

Most of the projects that come before the ZBA do so for variances having to do with parking requirements and setbacks. If the parking requirements are eliminated and the setback requirements altered to reflect what already exists in neighborhoods of the city, the ZBA's raison d'etre will be significantly diminished. As already noted, the Conservation Advisory Council has no interest in becoming a regulatory board. That leaves the HPC. 

DePietro won't be the first Common Council president to think the concerns of historic preservation can be rolled into a Planning Board review. Back in 2003, Mike Vertetis wanted to do the same thing. Fortunately, those who recognized the importance of preserving authentic architectural fabric to maintaining a sense of place and who realized that achieving this requires careful case-by-case consideration by people with expertise in architectural history and preservation prevailed in 2003. Let's hope there are still champions of historic preservation in Hudson, and they will prevail again.


  1. Ignorance: "the decreasing availability of fossil fuels."

    As for a "working waterfront" at North Bay, how does this fellow propose getting anything of commercial value under the trestle?

    The State Historic Preservation Office agrees that what we need at North Bay is a waterfront park with shacks.

    But I'd take it a step further and say that what the 2nd Ward needs its own waterfront park.

    I'm so glad I missed this talk.

  2. I look forward to the changes coming to the buildings being restored around the Public Park (Seventh Street Park). Maybe then we can see a restored park!

  3. Tom DePietro submitted this clarification of his statements as reported in this post:

    I very much feel that a blog is not the place to explain myself, but here goes. At last night" post-lecture discussion with James Howard Kunstler, I never said there is a "plan" to streamline the regulatory Boards. It's an idea that I would never pursue without community support and discussion. You downplay the two important zoning changes I discussed--regarding parking requirements and setbacks--as if they are done deals. They are not, and require the same democratic procedure as any other change. But most egregious of all is the suggestion that this idea of stream-lining the process of board approvals would somehow ignore historic preservation. Nonsense. I will always "champion historic preservation," regardless of which Boards (or Board) prevail(s) in our wonderful city.

    1. 1.

      For the record, the CAC (Conservation Advisory Council) has acknowledged that its Natural Resource Inventory is substandard, falling short of the standard the state has in mind for the otherwise Board-qualifying document.

      And THAT is a far cry from claiming the CAC "does not wish to become a regulatory board"!

      For now, the CAC may have surrendered its long-held dream to become an authorized Conservation Board, but the group is already hard at work fashioning a work-around.

      At the May 13th Informal Meeting, the CAC's ex-Chairman Lerner told the Council that "Sometime in the next month or two … we'll be proposing a definition of City policy on when the inventory should be referenced and considered by what City agencies."

      That means that if the CAC can't expect to become a Conservation Board due to the insufficiency of the Natural Resource Inventory then, willy-nilly, the ambition is for the NRI itself to become regulatory in the CAC's stead.

      The very document which denies the members board status will now be hailed for its regulatory value!

    2. 2.

      Given that only a single member of the CAC has maintained her integrity throughout the development of the NRI, having continuously challenged the other members' serial dishonesties (and then seeing these challenges routinely scrubbed from the Minutes), it cannot be understated that her colleagues who simply ignored each and every admonition acutely aspire to become regulatory through any means possible.

      In fact, because a "Conservation Board" is only in a position to recommend this or that content of its own Natural Resource Inventory, any proposed Resolution to the Common Council "defining" the NRI's policy applications must come to the same thing, and possibly with greater efficiency.

      Indeed, why take on the extra workload when, to quote ex-Chairman Lerner, "a definition of City policy [for] when the inventory should be referenced and considered by what City agencies" will achieve the self-same regulatory ends?

      However twisted the thinking, the spirit of the proposed Resolution is regulation by other means, pure and simple. The ambition to use the NRI to achieve the same outcomes the CAC has always hoped to champion in its eventual role as a board - a status precluded by the acknowledged inferiority of the NRI! - is an underhanded power grab. You might even call it "content streamlining," which is nothing like the process streamlining that President DePietro has in mind.

      Therefore, to suppose that the CAC "has no interest in becoming a regulatory board" (twice claimed in the post) is itself a reckless suggestion when what is actually playing out is a sneaky and manipulative stratagem.

      Because it so often seems that integrity is in such short supply these days, everyone should recognize the lone CAC member who never compromised her scientific principles. Thank you Holly Gardner for your rejection of blatant propaganda, and for your unwavering commitment to scientific values.

      If her colleagues had only heeded Holly's empirical and disinterested approach to the subject matter, today they might've had an NRI which didn’t require so many excuses. As it is, the CAC will soon attempt to win surreptitiously the kind of influence it cannot hope to achieve in broad daylight.

  4. no need for locals to launch, keep, maintain their boats and boathouses, with nothing asked of the city, as they have for generations. get one wrong you get it all wrong.

  5. Must have been a shock to city "developers" when they had to explain to Robert Kalin; at North Dock, Robert Torchia is entitled to the same access as a millionaire.

    Not only was he there first but he also maintained the grounds "single handed."

    1. It was certainly a shock to Mr. Kalin when I explained to him what 1Riparian first explained to me: the unavoidable implication of the court judgement against the North Dock Tin Boat Association is that the previously underwater lands lying SOUTH of Dock Street (in 1785) were always state-owned and remain so to this day.

      That includes the corner parcel which Mr. Meeker gifted to the city (if memnory serves), and which the HDC then flipped in an illigitimate sale to Mr. Kalin.

      None of that counts if the flood-plain parcels south of Dock Street are still state-owned underwater lands, but I suppose that's a problem we'll have to leave to our successors.

    2. It's better to ask why we tolerate double standards. Without them there'd be no need to decide the fairness of relative benefits.

  6. For a guy who does not live in Hudson (correct?) Mr. Kuntsler sure has a lot of thoughts about our little town. We need less talk and more action. BILL HUSTON

  7. I know Kunstler and like him. He gives an entertaining lecture about suburban sprawl.

    He knows little about energy, however. Several years ago, he was on CNBC saying that we would soon have not a drop of the stuff. He was followed by the CEO of the Norwegian state oil company, who when asked about Kunstler’s predictions, said simply, “We see no problems with supply into the indefinite future.” Who do you think is a more expert commentator?

    Jock Spivy

    1. What I should have said above: Ignorance is bliss.

    2. Mr. Kunstler knows more about energy than most people. He has written several books on the topic which I would recommend.