By Marissa Marvelli
On September 19th, the Kingston Common Council’s Laws & Rules Committee may discuss whether or not to throw out or to table the Corporation Counsel office’s draft legislation to merge the Heritage Area and Historic Landmarks Preservation Commissions. It will be nearly the fourth consecutive meeting for which this matter has been a topic, and it’s our opinion that the Council should not hesitate to throw out the legislation and instead, continue on the promising path that they are on now.
The council members who serve on the committee deserve praise for their careful study of the Corporation Counsel’s draft legislation and the reasons why it is being proposed. After a lot of information-gathering—particularly at their meeting in July where they heard directly from program administrators—it appears the broad consensus of the committee is that merging the commissions will not meaningfully address issues concerning the regulatory review process, and in fact, may create new problems.
And what are the issues exactly? What problems is “streamlining” meant to solve? Were other solutions considered before the legislation was put forward? No one could say for sure. The reasons repeated by city administration is that merging the commissions is a recommendation of the now disbanded Comp Plan Re-zoning Subcommittee without sharing any notes that show how that conclusion was reached. At face value, the idea to eliminate one step in the public review process by combining two related volunteer commissions would seem like a rational change. Why make an applicant appear before two separate commissions for a new business sign? No one is arguing in favor of such redundancy, but is there another way to solve this?
The Heritage Area Commission (HAC) was created in 1987 to carry out the goals of the Urban Cultural Park Plan, a New York State-sponsored grant program which sought to leverage historic urban cores for education, community and economic development. Of the state’s 17 heritage areas, Kingston has one of the most active commissions. Since 2009, the city has received over $4 million in Environmental Protection Fund grants through its participation in the Heritage Area Program. Recent projects funded by this include the Kingston Point Rail Trail and park improvements, repair work at UPAC/Bardavon, and the Clearwater Sloop restoration. Needless to say this isn’t chump change.
What are the responsibilities of the HAC today?
- To advise on changes to buildings and sites in the Heritage Area;
- To review projects in the Broadway Overlay District to ensure adherence to the design standards;
- To advise on educational programs and Heritage Area-related tourism infrastructure, including the Visitors’ Center in the Rondout;
- To promote historic preservation and recreational uses in the Heritage Area;
- To provide support for economic development opportunities for community revitalization; and
- To carry out coastal consistency review as part of the Local Waterfront Revitalization Program (LWRP), which includes considering impact on estuary resources.
Meanwhile, the Historic Landmarks Preservation Commission (HLPC) has a more micro approach to preserving Kingston’s built heritage. It was established in 1966 to safeguard Kingston’s architecturally, historically, and culturally significant neighborhoods, buildings, and sites. The primary duties of this seven-member body include conferring landmark status on significant properties and districts and regulating changes to them after designation. Commissioners are expected to be familiar with fundamental preservation principles as codified in the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. The bulk of its meetings are spent reviewing applications for alterations. The volume of which has increased exponentially in the last few years as more residents and businesses invest in Kingston. It is not unusual for an HLPC meeting to last more three hours.
Charging one seven-member volunteer commission with all the responsibilities of the HAC and the HLPC would effectively weaken the programs. Does the HAC need to advise on projects in parts of the Heritage Area where there is already HLPC oversight? There is nothing in the Administrative Code or state requirements that says it has to. Freeing the HAC of this perfunctory, advisory project review in historic districts would enable them to re-focus on the broader goals of the Heritage Area, while continuing their oversight of the LWRP and Broadway Overlay District.
If anything, this “streamlining” proposal has precipitated much needed analysis of the current project review process, enforcement, and general administration. The July meeting of the Laws & Rules Committee shined a spotlight on other issues that are in some ways more acute than the redundant reviews of the HAC and HLPC. They include:
1. An inefficient and confusing review process. At present, the review process for new development projects is not clearly outlined for applicants or the public. The standard review process is not mapped in a flow chart. Site plan and landmarks review often occur months apart. The feedback from either can call for significant design changes.
2. HLPC has no administrator. While the Building Safety Division is responsible for code enforcement and processing landmarks applications, no city office is responsible for the Landmarks program or preservation policy. A volunteer commissioner is currently the primary spokesman for the HLPC and has assumed all program responsibilities: applicant inquiries, reporting, commission training, public education, and surveys. There is no city official for the public to turn to with questions about district boundaries, what applicants should expect when appearing before the commission or historic tax credit opportunities. What’s more, the HLPC does not have a Common Council liaison. Such lack of representation isolates the HLPC from the regular business of the city.
3. Enforcement of the Landmarks and Heritage Area ordinances is uneven. As with any law, fairness is imperative. The Building Safety Division is burdened with a record number of building applications and code violations, and at the same time has a severe staffing shortage. This no doubt hampers their ability to respond to matters quickly. Further, projects that don’t call for a construction permit or Planning Board consideration, such as new windows or exterior siding, sometimes avoid HLPC review altogether. Penalties for such violations are not clearly stipulated in the Administrative Code. This lack of clarity contributes to tense relations between Building Safety and commissioners.
4. The HLPC ordinance lacks clarity and consistency. The existing Landmarks ordinance is partially structured on the original 1970’s enabling legislation and a 1980s state model preservation law. Procedures for designation, reviewing applications, enforcement, declaring hardship, and appeal are not in keeping with current standards and the terminology and organization of the ordinance are needlessly confusing. Members of the HLPC have drafted an updated ordinance using the 2014 model preservation law as a guide. In the coming months the commission will seek input on this draft from all the relevant city departments, the Common Council, and the public.
5. Kingston has no Preservation Plan. While most people will agree that Kingston’s rich history is an essential component of the city’s vibrancy and appeal, there is no vision for how historic preservation fits into the larger planning picture. Since adopting its first preservation ordinance in 1966, the extent of preservation goal-setting has been limited to its 1985 application to become a Certified Local Government and more recently in 2015 with the drafting of the Kingston 2025 Comprehensive Plan, which included a brief chapter on preservation. One goal identified therein was the creation of a city-wide Preservation Plan. Among other things, a preservation plan identifies and articulates community preservation goals, helps current and future property owners understand how the community intends to grow, helps eliminate confusion about the purpose of the local preservation ordinance, educates the public about the community’s history and heritage, creates an agenda for future preservation work and creates a way to measure preservation’s progress. Preservation plans also encourage economic development and strengthen political understanding of historic preservation policies.
Despite the considerable lack of funding and administrative support for historic preservation, Kingston has in some ways been impressively proactive in the field: a record number of property owners are taking advantage of the historic tax credit program as they rehabilitate their buildings; the city offers a low interest loan program to help owners makes improvements to their commercial façades; the Landmarks and Heritage Area commissions are serviced by qualified and engaged citizens; and non-profit groups like Friends of Historic Kingston and the Kingston Land Trust provide important program and advocacy support.
There’s always more that can be done, but in the case of historic preservation a little bit more investment can go a very long way. This means continuing the audit initiated in July by the Laws & Rules Committee of the overall regulatory process with the goal of delivering its findings and recommendations to the full Common Council and Mayor’s office. This also means earmarking funds for a preservation position in the administration. It’s an investment that will pay dividends in terms of efficiency, clarity and a community that can more confidently engage with its incredible built heritage.
Marissa Marvelli is a Kingston resident and serves as vice chair of Kingston’s Historic Landmarks Preservation Commission. She works as a freelance historic preservation specialist for preservation-focused development projects and property owners seeking official historic building status. She draws from a decade of experience with an award-winning Manhattan architecture firm and extensive involvement with non-profit preservation advocacy groups. She earned her Masters degree in historic preservation from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.