Moderating Change: Kingston’s Landmarks Preservation Commission

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Marissa Marvelli, Vice Chair of the City of Kingston HLPC

May 12, 2018

I first stepped foot in Kingston in summer 2014. Andrei and I were driving down 87 on our way back to the city from a weekend in Woodstock. We had seen the “Historic Kingston First Capital of New York” sign, so we pulled off and walked around Uptown. We were immediately taken by the city. It’s impressive to see 300 hundred-plus years of living urban history in the U.S. For me, the stewardship of that built heritage spoke volumes about the community and I knew then I wanted to be a part of it.

As Rebecca mentioned, I serve as the vice chair of the Historic Landmarks Preservation Commission. We are a seven-member quasi-judicial body, appointed by the mayor to serve for three-year terms. In addition to having a passion for historic preservation, members are appointed for their relevant experience and disciplines. Among us we have a lawyer, an architect, an archivist, a historic home restorer, a photographer, and me, a preservation consultant. If my colleagues could please stand now and be seen: Mark Grunblatt, chair; Alan Baer, Leslie Melvin, Julie Edelson-Safford, Jane Birmingham, and our newest member Kevin McEvoy, who’s a longtime member of the Heritage Area Commission.

Together, we bring a lot of knowledge and sensitivity to the responsibility of safeguarding city’s architecturally, historically, and culturally significant neighborhoods and buildings. We meet the first Thursday of the month in that room outside the Council Chambers.

“…for the promotion of the educational, cultural, economic, and general welfare of the public through the protection, enhancement, perpetuation, and preservation of the Landmarks and Landmark Districts.” Chap. 405-63, City of Kingston Charter and Code

Our responsibilities include:

  • Conferring landmark status on significant properties and districts, which must be ratified by the Common Council;
  • Reviewing changes to them after designation;
  • We also issue opinions on SEQRA (State Environmental Quality Review Act) actions;
  • We direct the undertaking of surveys and studies of historic resources, which is a requirement of being a Certified Local Government. I’ll let Linda Mackey from the State Preservation Office talk more about that, but in short the program makes Kingston eligible for grant opportunities, technical support, and training for commissioners—six of us took advantage of that two weeks ago.

“It has been said that, at its best, preservation engages the past in a conversation with the present over a mutual concern for the future.” William Murtagh, Keeping Time: The History and Theory of Preservation in America (1988)

The majority of our meetings are spent reviewing applications for a “Preservation Notice of Action.” Most municipalities call it a “Certificate of Appropriateness.” The word—Appropriate—is fundamental to our decisions regarding changes to historic fabric. What is appropriate? That is the question we ask at every meeting. Is it appropriate to enlarge a secondary entrance? Is it appropriate to add a second story to what was historically a single story porch? What is the appropriate scale of new building so that it doesn’t upset the balance of a historic streetscape? While possible answers to those questions might seem overly subjective, our decisions are guided by principles set forth in the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties.

As I mentioned, we’re quasi-judicial, which means our decisions are legally binding and applicants who disagree with our findings can appeal. In order for our decisions to hold up in court, we must follow procedures set forth in our enabling legislation and the reasons for decisions must be clear and grounded in our rules.

The past is not the property of historians; it is a public possession. It belongs to anyone who is aware of it, and it grows by being shared. It sustains the whole society, which always needs the identity that only the past can give.  Dr. Walter Havighurst

It’s not always easy. Our meetings often last several hours or more. Applicants do not always leave happy. Sometimes we commissioners don’t leave happy either. We always strive to engage applicants in a productive dialogue — we listen carefully, ask questions, suggest other considerations, give clear explanations for our thinking, and we provide guidance and information where we can. On the whole, our meetings are substantive discussions about moderating change–about what is of value and what do we let go. It’s a never-ending negotiation. Our decisions must take the long view if we are to preserve the city’s special character for the next generation.

So what does it matter if one historic window? Beyond being the physical evidence of history, all these details contribute to the greater ensemble of a historic neighborhood—its spatial structure, continuity, texture and depth—the general feeling that orientates us in time and place. That sense of place is what drew many of us here; it’s what inspires artists and entrepreneurs; and what drives important economic engines for the city—the specialized building trades and tourism. Historic buildings are often at the heart of our most exciting development projects and the backdrop of our annual community events—the chronogram block party, the Artists’ Soapbox Derby, the O+ Festival, the Burning of Kingston. Our historic fabric should be treated as a precious resource like water and air. It’s not renewable, and buildings don’t preserve themselves. Historic buildings necessitate more measured approaches.

Fifty years ago city leaders recognized the public good of preservation when it drafted its first preservation ordinance. In 1965, Friends of Historic Kingston was formed to rally for the creation of a citywide preservation program in the face of destructive urban renewal efforts. They galvanized support for the creation of the Landmarks Commission, which was established in 1966. The Commission designated its first five buildings the following year—all of them in uptown. From 1970 to 1974, the Commission worked closely with the Common Council’s Laws & Rules Committee to create the city’s first historic direct—the Stockade and the laws pertaining to its preservation. Also in 1974, nine buildings on the West Strand became a National Register Historic District. The local Rondout District was designated in 1979. Chestnut Street in 1985 and Fair Street in 1989. Since then the Commission has undertaken multiple historic resource surveys, most recently Midtown and Uptown, but they have not resulted in any new designations.

Of the four historic districts, only Fair Street is not a National Register District. Properties in Register district or individually listed and that are in a qualifying census tract—most of Kingston is— can take advantage of the historic tax credit program, which is a great financial incentive for homeowners and developers seeking to do substantial rehabilitation. In a nutshell, the state government will match dollar for dollar 20% of the total qualifying rehabilitation expenditures. The owners of 75 Main St recently took advantage of the state’s homeowners’ credit.

For development projects, owners get an additional 20% credit from the federal government—no extra paperwork required. The biggest one to date in Kingston, is the Lace Mills, which received a national preservation reward in 2016.

It’s not just the owners who are rewarded. Quality rehabilitations benefit the whole community—we all get to enjoy the results.

More neighborhoods in Kingston should have this incentive. One of the near term goals of the Commission is to make Fair Street eligible for tax credits by making it a National Register Historic District. This summer we will be completing the Midtown Resource Survey which will hopefully pave the way for new historic districts.

I don’t think anyone here believes that this [historic districts] map represents the totality of landmark-worthy buildings and neighborhoods in Kingston. So we have more work to do.

This brings me to the main point of why we are here tonight. Our review process. In April, new legislation was introduced by the City of Kingston’s Corporation Counsel Office to streamline the reviews of the Landmarks Commission and the Heritage Area Commission by merging them. I am going to let my colleague, Kevin McEvoy, get into the specifics of the Heritage Area, but simply put they advise on historic and natural resource areas, including the waterfront. Because some of its review overlaps with that of Landmarks, some applicants have to appear before both commissions for the same matter, which can no doubt be a burden. However the intent of the commissions do vary as do their review criteria. The goals of each need to be studied more carefully before simply merging the commissions.

In addition to that, they are other amendments in proposed legislation that are concerning:

  1. Removal of Emergency Designation Procedures – This rarely used tool is invaluable when a potential landmark is facing imminent demolition. It allows permits to be temporarily withheld while the commission assesses its significance. As with non-emergency designations, Landmarks would submit its recommendations to the Common Council, the owner notified, and a public hearing held. Temporary protection expires after 90 days if the Council fails to act. Without this tool, a valuable building could be lost without a moment’s pause.
  1. Removes interim protection for proposed landmarks and districts — Currently, when the Landmarks proposes to designate a historic building or neighborhood, it schedules a public hearing and notifies the owners. Once such notice is issued, all affected properties are granted temporary protection until the designation is ratified or denied by the Common Council. Eliminating this protection will allow disgruntled owners the opportunity to demolish or drastically alter a historic resource before it can be designated.
  1. It’s also proposed that the Planning Board have chief say in determining the scale and massing of new construction in a historic district. Like Landmarks, the Planning Board is a citizen-directed review body whose members are appointed by the Mayor. In the current ordinance, the Landmarks review procedures for applications for new construction stipulate that we consider its harmony with its neighbors and specifically, its overall height, roof massing, the relationship between the width to height of the front elevation and its overall height, and the rhythm of spacing of buildings, among other criteria. Our decisions seek to ensure that there is a balance between differentiation and compatibility of the new construction in order to maintain the historic character and identity of the district—regardless of the parcel’s maximum allowable floor-area-ratio as defined by zoning. The proposed legislation would force Landmarks’ decisions regarding appropriateness to be subservient to the Planning Board’s determinations. Furthermore, Kingston’s current zoning, which is the basis for Planning Board decisions, does not provide an adequate foundation for preservation-minded decision-making.
  1. Finally, the proposed legislation calls for coordinated review between the Planning Board and Landmarks. This is not necessarily a bad change. Currently, Landmarks review comes at end of the process as an applicant is filing for building permits. It can be onerous to make changes at this late stage. However, as I mentioned, the criteria considered by the HLPC differs from that of the Planning Board. So will be the procedures for such coordinated review?

I should mention, at present, our commission encourages applicants to come to us for a pre-application meeting to discuss their projects informally. Perhaps this could be made a standard procedure prior to site plan review for new construction in historic districts. This does beg the question: How do other municipalities do coordinated review? We should study this.

We have been told these amendments are a a starting point. However, removing tools from our toolbox is not a promising start. If we as a community truly believe preservation enhances the prosperity and welfare of the city, we should be seeking opportunities to advance and accelerate preservation and related economic development that builds on the city’s historic resources. This includes improving the programmatic infrastructure of our existing program.

Prior to the introduction of this draft legislation, the members of the commission had been studying Preservation Model Law as the basis for updating our existing ordinance. It was developed by the Preservation League and the NYS Historic Preservation Office. Erin Tobin from the Preservation League is with us tonight to talk about this in greater detail. This law would not grant any additional powers to the commission, but it does offer vastly more clarity than that of our current ordinance. It uses terminology and phrases that are in keeping with national standards and the designation and review procedures are more clearly spelled out. Such improvements would foster greater consistency and efficiency with the management of our historic resources.

To be clear having a strong ordinance is only part of the equation that makes for an effective preservation program—granted it’s an important part. A strong program is also dependent on a qualified and trained commission that follows its rules of procedures; it’s dependent on the Code Enforcement Officer to ensure that the law is being abided by; it’s dependent on the city’s corporation counsel to litigate when the law isn’t followed; it’s dependent on zoning that reflects current realities and values; it’s dependent on the community to consistently support preservation-friendly policies; and as with any municipal program, preservation needs representation within the administration and it needs funding.

Far from being an impediment, preservation is the low-hanging fruit in addressing our biggest challenges, from climate change to affordable housing, job creation, and building an equitable economy. On top of all that, it gives us pride, joy, and a rich sense of place. Thank you.

Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.  Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.