Saving that Special Sense of Place (Hey, We’re Not Alone!)

Worried about Portsmouth’s fragile sense of place? Well, we’re not alone in the world.

Traditional African dwellings have all kinds of  exotic shapes

Traditional African dwellings convey a distinct and some say magical sense of place

On the other side of the planet, Africa’s traditional architecture is disappearing and at least one American fancier is scrambling to document it before it’s gone.

An American architect worries that the traditional  architecture that gives spots on the other side of the world from Portsmouth their unique sense of place is disappearing

American architect Jon Twingi worries that the traditional architecture that gives spots on the other side of the world from Portsmouth their unique feel is disappearing (see Jon’s website link)

“There’s this term genius loci,” explains Beaufort, South Carolina architect Jon Twingi, gazing with a faraway look beyond his porch past drifts of Spanish moss dangling from the trees,

“It means the spirit of a place. Every place is different, and every place has its own spirit—that’s what makes it IT. Can you imagine this in Santa Fe? [Or Portsmouth?] No. ”

Twingi is raising money via Indiegogo crowdsource funding (akin to Kickstarter) to travel to three African countries—Swaziland, Lesotho and Malawi—to document their disappearing traditional architecture for his website, African Vernacular Architecture, for anyone to use: http://www.africanvernaculararchitecture.com

So many Africans use smartphones that he is also developing a special app so anyone in Africa can take digital photos of traditional buildings to add to the database.
In Africa, traditional buildings made of local materials take all kinds of interesting shapes

In Africa, traditional buildings made of local materials take all kinds of interesting shapes (see Jon’s website link)

 

In Africa, people traditionally use local materials—usually mud, thatch and bamboo—to build houses that look like beehives, mushroom clusters, insects on legs, and walled cities with fantastic, organic shapes.

http://www.pinterest.com/africanarch/pintrest/ 

Just as tourists come to places like Portsmouth to experience what is unique about it (ie. not Anywhere-on-the-Planet-type buildings), tourists go to places in Africa to soak up its special feel—and much of that is conveyed by traditional architecture, according to Twingi. (Obviously, nobody’s likening Portsmouth to Africa or the disappearance of African building practices dating back many hundreds of years to that of brick buildings one or two centuries old–but the issue of the sense of place and the value and human wellbeing it conveys rings a bell, at least to this blogger).

Some successful newer eco-friendly buildings reuse tried-and-true traditional forms

Successful newer eco-friendly buildings reuse tried-and-true traditional forms and materials (see Jon’s website link)

In fact, Africa-bound tourists like the feel of that traditional built world so much that high-priced Safari lodges and some official buildings are modeled on the tried-and-true old shapes with modern amenities. “They reuse the idea in air conditioned Safari lodges with thatched roofs for tourists who want to see the “real” Africa,” Twingi says. “Some of these Safari lodges are five-star places with plumbing and electricity.”

Some newer structure that borrow from the old captivate tourists

Newer structures that borrow from the old charm tourists

Architecture, like food, is a big part of a country’s culture, said Twingi. “Not only is it beautiful in Africa, it’s sustainable, affordable and local. Mud and thatch have incredible thermal properties,” he said, noting that thatch is used in England [and Japan] too. “– they have such a tie to nature and the land as opposed to concrete block buildings.”

Twingi– the name he uses for this project.Borrowing from old forms to captivate visitors (see website link)

Resurrecting old forms in newer buildings (see Jon’s website link)

meaning “many small things”– fell in Iove with African vernacular or traditional architecture 15 years ago as a Peace Corp volunteer in Zambia. That’s when he spent two years living in a mud hut he found quite comfortable. He taught architecture for two years at Copperbelt University in Kitwe and took photos of hundreds of houses, churches and “Insakas,” gazebo-like grass-thatched buildings devoted to cooking or social gatherings for his other website, Zambia Vernacular Architecture,  www.zambiaarchitecture.com

See Zambia Vernacular Architecture (link in story) website for the real photo

See Jon’s Zambia Vernacular Architecture (link in story)

In Malawi, he was captivated by the skill of a local carver, who made him a box for his watercolors and took its measurements using a blade of grass.

He returned to Africa six years ago for a conference on vernacular architecture in Nigeria.

With almost a quarter of his $40,000 goal raised, Twingi is leaving in September no matter what. “I’ve got my plane ticket. I’m going,” he says.

Jon Twingi is an architect on a mission to sketch, document and photograph Africa's vanishing traditional architecture

One of Jon Twingi’s sketches of an eco-friendly traditional African dwelling (see his website)

To meet his goal of documenting the continent’s vanishing traditional built environment, he’s been in contact with people and architects in just about every African country.

How long will he stay? “It depends on the funding.”

To donate a few bucks, go to: http://igg.me/at/mudhut

 

 

 

Savannah Part 2—This Historic City Says It’s On A “No Junk Food” Diet

Sticking to building height limits is like sticking to a diet instead of eating junk food, according to the President and CEO of the Historic Savannah Foundation.sav 13

“Maintaining reasonable height limits is similar to dieting and exercising. If we stick to the regimen and remain disciplined, we ensure our community’s long-term health,” notes Daniel Carey. “If we deviate from the plan, we allow other junk food appetites to take over, which result in short-term satisfaction and long-term regret.” http://www.myhsf.org/

In crude financial terms, staying off junk food and protecting historic Savannah’s streetscapes from bulking out means that Savannah’s most valuable revenue-generating asset will stay profitable in the future, Carey argues.

Daniel Carey, CEO of the Historic Savannah Foundation

Daniel Carey, dynamic President and CEO of the Historic Savannah Foundation, declares building “junk food” off-limits in historic Savannah in order to protect the city’s fragile assets

With Portsmouth in turmoil over the size and quality of new development, Portsmouth Now decided to check into how other historic cities protect their assets. Last winter, we went to Charleston, SC. We found out that the nation’s oldest historic district uses more tools than Portsmouth, and seems more fierce about protecting its character. Then we went to Savannah, the nation’s largest National Historic Landmark District (ie. some call it the “crème de la crème” of historic districts), to find out how they do it.

A wealth of historic houses line Savannah streets and squares

A wealth of historic houses line Savannah streets and squares

NATION’S LARGEST HISTORIC DISTRICT TIGHTENED ZONING DURING DOWNTURN

Unlike Portsmouth, Savannah tightened its historic zoning standards during the down economy, adding tougher standards for large-scale development and hotels, according to Ellen Harris. As Director of Urban Planning and Historic Preservation for the Chatham County-Savannah Metropolitan Planning Commission, Harris is staff advisor to Savannah’s Historic District Board of Review ( the role Nick Cracknell of the Portsmouth Planning Department plays vis a vis Portsmouth’s Historic District Commission).

Unlike Savannah, which says it tightened zoning standards in the down economy, some complain that Portsmouth relaxed standards, resulting in enormous buildings looming in the city's historic district

Unlike Savannah, which says it tightened zoning standards in the down economy, some complain that Portsmouth relaxed standards, resulting in enormous Anywhere, USA-style buildings looming in the city’s historic district

In Savannah, rampant growth has simmered down since the 10 years after “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” came out (1994). That’s when Savannah was “discovered” and real estate went wild– a period Carey likens to the Wild West.sav d

Today, a controversial new ordinance going through a “very slow” approval process covering the whole city will cut the city’s 126 zoning districts down to 41, according to Harris.  Meanwhile, tighter zoning in Savannah’s historic district means that any big hotel projects coming through now   face tougher new standards, Harris explained. These include requirements that they break down the mass of buildings and limit the square footage of building footprints.

Asked whether Savannah’s new standards allow plastic windows in the historic district (as the HDC retroactively allowed for Portwalk), Harris laughed and said no. “We don’t allow any of that.”sav 5

Carey says Savannah’s historic zoning ordinance is a kind of hybrid of traditional and form-based, with a height map in terms of stories, not feet. Although it allows a bit more density downtown, Carey warns that too much density downtown can be a problem. ”Urban cores are designed for greater density—but it can be like packing too much sausage into too little casing.”

SAVANNAH TODAY: THE POLITICAL WILL FOR A STRONG HDC

Under Savannah’s historic preservation ordinance, enacted in 1973 amid controversy over a big waterfront hotel, any changes to buildings in the historic district require the Historic District Board of Review’s approval before getting a building permit.

Most places in historic Savannah, trees frame the streets

Most places in historic Savannah, trees frame the streets

Asked how tough Savannah’s version of the HDC is, Harris said it varies, depending on who gets appointed, but the board today is “pretty strict.” Although the board includes several architects, Harris says “they hold their counterparts to a very high standard. It really depends on who the City Council appoints. There has to be the political will for the board to be effective– and we have that right now.”

Much of historic Savannah  is built on a low, human scale

Much of historic Savannah is built on a low, human scale

SAVANNAH’S HISTORIC REVIEW BOARD FOLLOWS NATIONAL ETHICS CODE

Members of Savannah’s Historic Review Board are required to recuse themselves if they have a financial interest in a project, Harris said. And when they do, they have to fill out a form explaining the conflict. Savannah’s version of the HDC has also adopted the National Association of Preservation Commissions’ code of ethics, which requires, among other things, that commissioners be “advocates” for the community’s heritage and “actively promote” its historic integrity. http://napc.uga.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/Code-of-Ethics-new-logo.pdf

In Savannah, a series of squares with gurgling fountains framed by trees

In Savannah, a series of squares with gurgling fountains framed by trees

Harris says Savannah’s “finely-grained” height map measures building heights in stories instead of feet and is so detailed it almost changes block by block. Most of the downtown is three, four and five stories—“but usually three and four, athough a “very, very” small downtown section goes higher, she said.

A container ship bringing goods up the Savannah River. The city's historic waterfront is the most sensitive to development

A container ship bringing goods up the Savannah River. The city’s historic waterfront is the most sensitive to development

DEVELOPERS’ ARGUMENTS ABOUT WEAK BRICK DON’T WASH IN SAVANNAH

With such a wealth of old brick buildings, I asked Carey, the Historic Savannah Foundation CEO, what he says to developers’ claims that brick buildings have to be demolished or dramatically altered because of weak or powdery bricks. (An argument developers have made in Portsmouth lately).

Carey says that argument has absolutely no traction in Savannah. “Our brick is porous because of its very nature,” he responds. “It’s often stuccoed—as was the fashion. I don’t know of any buildings that are structurally compromised by soft brick, and that’s what we’ve built here from the get-go.

On the Savannah waterfront, cobblestone streets attract visitors in droves

On the Savannah waterfront, cobblestone streets attract visitors in droves (and their dollars)

The Secretary of the Interior Standards for Rehabilitation say you should repair– not replace. It’s pretty elementary stuff!”

In Savannah, tourists admire a series of squares with running fountains curtained by trees

In Savannah, tourists admire a series of squares with running fountains curtained by trees

Does the board respond to developers’ arguments that they need to build bigger and taller to make their numbers work? They certainly hear the argument, said Harris. But she reminds the board: “that’s not something the Historic Review Board can take into consideration.”

Savannah's Olde Pink House

Savannah’s Olde Pink House

And what about large tracts of open land like Portsmouth’s North End? Carey says Savannah has one too. But unlike Portsmouth’s North End, which is growing in fits and starts without an overall vision, Carey’s dream is for Savannah’s swath of open land to be developped on a grid pattern like the original city.

About a century after English settlers landed on the Piscataqua River’s strawberry-covered banks (1630), another wave of colonists founded Savannah on the banks of the Savannah River (in 1733). Aided by a Charleston (SC) civil engineer, their leader Edward Oglethorpe laid out the new city in a grid pattern of streets and squares. What started out as four squares eventually grew to two dozen squares framed with houses, with live oaks dripping Spanish moss over gurgling fountains.

With the original grid just about intact, Carey says there’s no reason the grid pattern can’t be replicated in a somewhat updated form to a big swath of open land. Designed for 150 families, it houses 200,000 residents. Its pleasant squares with their shade-giving live oaks and veils of Spanish moss attract 12 million visitors a year– and lots of tourist dollars.

And the bottom line, Carey says cheerfully, is: ”It works!”

 

 

 

The Future of Ceres Street Is In The HDC’s Hands (again)

The future of Ceres Street will lie in the Historic District Commission’s hands when it holds a public hearing on the development of the historic grain warehouse at 173-5 Market Street this Wed June 18, 7 pm. The Zoning Board of Adjustment overturned HDC approval of the bulging waterfront addition to the 19th century brick structure amid concerns that it would overwhelm the waterfront side of the building where alemaking tycoon Frank Jones stored grain—violating national preservation standards. Critics also worry that the massive addition is so big and out of character that it will forever change the historic feel of Ceres Street, one of the city’s most beloved and photographed streets.

The ZBA overturned HDC approval of a project that would have wrapped much of this  antique waterfront building in new brick and added a huge new addition

The ZBA overturned HDC approval of a project that would have wrapped much of this antique waterfront building in new brick and added a huge new addition

The building’s new owners have argued that they will improve Ceres Street by expanding the sidewalk,  removing a telephone pole, and adding things like a wood surround for a dumpster and more retail space. But others have expressed shock that the authenticity and charm of one of Portsmouth’s most quaint historic waterfront streets, so near the Moffatt_Ladd House, could be traded for mere cosmetic improvements. 

The HDC is the land use board charged with protecting the city’s historic character and sense of place, and HDC Chairman Joseph Almeida has expressed strong enthusiasm for the waterfront project.  http://planportsmouth.com/current-applications/hdc/173_175_Market.pdf

Some worry that the latest take on the huge addition proposed for 173-5 Market Street is so big and out of character that it could seriously erode the charm of  quaint Ceres Street

One of the latest takes on the addition to 173-5 Market Street had many saying it is so big and out of character that it could damage the historic charm of Ceres St

Almeida recently criticized Savannah, which has been written up in this blog, for allowing a big Hyatt hotel to purportedly wreck its waterfront on the Savannah River. Almeida contended that the huge Market Street addition will not degrade Portsmouth’s waterfront as Savannah allowed. (In fact, the oversized Savannah hotel caused such controversy when it was built way back in the 1970s that it sparked the formation of Savannah’s version of the HDC, which folks down there tell Portsmouth Now! is now quite stringent in efforts to protect the city’s historic character. Visual evidence suggests (after a visit by this blogger) that Savannah now has much more of  its historic waterfront left than Portsmouth, which let the second-oldest building on its waterfront get torn down– instead of restored –a few years ago.)2013 05 08_1106

HERE IS SOME CRUCIAL EMAIL CONTACT INFO FOR THE LAND USE BOARDS:

To contact the HDC or Planning Board, you can email them all via

 llgood@cityofportsmouth.com 

Portsmouth’s land use boards have already decided the fate of Bow Street and the Memorial Bridge end of State Street. Just as residents have lost their extraordinary views of the Piscataqua River from Bow Street, they will never again see their beloved views of the Piscataqua from State Street, thanks to the city’s lack of vision and the decisions of its land use boards.

Mayor Lister nominates people to the land use boards, and the City Council confirms them. Residents say these boards have approved dramatic changes to every neighborhood in Portsmouth, from Islington Street to Lafayette Road.

So far, Mayor Lister has appointed Justin Finn to the Planning Board, Shelley Saunders to the Conservation Commission, and Gibson Kennedy to the Portsmouth Housing Authority board (the only appointment not requiring City Council approval). Mayor Lister now has a chance to name someone as an alternate to the HDC who is aesthetically-inclined and strong enough to protect the city’s character in the current climate. What Mayor Lister will do remains to be seen. To contact him, email rjlportsmouth@yahoo.com

Also up this week, on Tuesday, June 17, the Board of Adjustment will consider a request to erect up a cellphone tower that would loom over pristeen woods on Martine Cottage Road. The work session starts at 6:30 pm. To contact the Board of Adjustment, email them all via mekoepenick@cityofportsmouth.com

PORTWALK APPEALS ALSO BEFORE HDC, PLANNING BOARD THIS WEEK

The HDC will also consider two requests for rehearing of the HDC’s approval of changes to Portwalk at 195 Hanover Street. One of the requests was submitted by the city,  the other by Joe Caldarola and other concerned citizens.

Revelations of the Portwalk III violations recently stunned the community and provoked a call to examine causes and consequences

Revelations of the Portwalk III violations recently stunned the community and provoked a call to examine causes and consequences

Many were already upset about Portwalk’s mass and style when news broke that numerous changes were made to it without city land use board approvals. After the revelations, the city brokered a deal– without City Council knowledge or approval — by which the land use boards will decide whether to approve these changes retroactively and the developers would pay for it. Whether meaningful changes result remains to be seen.

http://www.cityofportsmouth.com/agendas/2014/hdc/hdc061814ag.pdf

With part of Portwalk over 70 feet, many residents say the want a stop to development they find too dense and too tall

Revelations of multiple unapproved changes caused shock waves when the plastic came off Portwalk III

Meanwhile, the Portwalk violations go before the Planning Board for retroactive approval on Thursday, June 19. http://www.cityofportsmouth.com/agendas/2014/planningboard/pb061914ag.pdf

 

Why Can’t The HDC Slow Down?

Amid unprecedented pressure on all the land use boards in this growth explosion and the need to attract appropriate volunteers to these unpaid but crucial posts, some residents want Mayor Bob Lister to take charge and ask the land use boards to slam on the brakes.2013 05 08_1106

With the Historic District Commission, especially, set to keep up its frenetic pace this month, critics want to know why the board charged with protecting the city’s historic character and sense of place can’t just slow down.

“We keep hearing that the boards are overworked and that the staff is overworked,” objected one resident upset by the anonymous-looking megaprojects the HDC has approved in recent years. “Why can’t they just slow things down?”

Boston architect James McNeely detailed numerous unauthorized changes made to Portwalk II without HDC permission

Boston architect James McNeely detailed numerous unauthorized changes made to Portwalk III without HDC permission during a recent HDC work session

Some say the pace of meetings is having a chilling effect on applications. Board members sign up expecting to sit in on one meeting a month or at the very most, two per month.

Instead, the HDC held three meetings in May, including several that dragged on well into the night. The HDC is scheduled to hold another three meetings in June (4, 11 and 18) plus a site walk on June 7. http://www.cityofportsmouth.com/agendas/2014/hdc/hdc060414ag.pdf

The city staff has insisted that the frequency of board meetings is dictated by the pace of applications, But in a development boom, critics argue that that amounts to putting the applicants in charge when the city and land use boards should be running the show. If boards have a time limit for considering cases, they should just deny applications more often, the argument goes.

The former Carter's Antiques building at 173-5 Market St occupies a sensitive spot on the waterfront at one end of Ceres Street, near the Moffatt-Ladd House

The former Carter’s Antiques building at 173-5 Market St occupies a sensitive spot on the waterfront at one end of Ceres Street, near the Moffatt-Ladd House

“There’s no reason in the world why these projects should change so much from beginning to end,” one critic objected. “The staff should set standards and instructions for the land use boards about what will and won’t be allowed, and if projects aren’t close, they should just be denied– instead of this paint-by-numbers style of land use planning.”

Open Letter to the Portsmouth Herald

A number of Portsmouth residents along with journalists here and elsewhere are expressing outrage that a newspaper — which purportedly believes in the basic mission of journalism — recently opined that it is against the public interest to ask public officials to publicly disclose any financial conflict of interest or make their finances or assets public (see June 2 Portsmouth Herald editorial). What would Portsmouth Herald management have done about the need for financial disclosure in the case of Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein? If the Pentagon Papers had been dropped over the transom onto the desks of Herald management, would they have been published as the New York Times did? Or is the Portsmouth Herald editors’ and publishers’ need to enjoy a cozy relationship with development-related vested interests in Portsmouth too strong?  

In the interests of transparent city government, many citizens want the city to enforce the provisions of a Charter change requiring financial and conflict of interest disclosure

In the interests of transparent city government, many citizens want the city to enforce the provisions of a Charter change requiring financial and conflict of interest disclosure

The City Charter, which our elected officials are sworn to uphold, explicitly requires financial disclosure by all elected and appointed officials, under a charter change approved by two-thirds of city voters in the late 1980’s. But the city is not requiring that. Even the attorney for the Local Government Center recently opined that the city is not following the City Charter. (The Local Government Center is the arm of the New Hampshire Municipal Association that offers technical and legal expertise to member cities and towns.)

Here is why the Local Government Center lawyer said  financial disclosure is a big deal (see pages 75-79 in Part 3 of the city’s April 7, 2014 City Council packet at http://www.cityofportsmouth.com/agendas/2014/citycouncil/cc040714cp-part3.pdf  :

“The reasons for this [conflict of interest] rule are obvious: a person cannot serve two masters at once,” Local Government Center Staff Attorney C. Christine Fillmore writes in a letter to City Councilors Esther Kennedy and Jack Thorsen, who sought the center’s opinion after residents raised concerns about the issue and its potential ramifications. “The public interest must not be jeopardized by the acts of a public official who has a personal financial interest which is, or may be, in conflict with the public interest. Thus, there is no doubt that conflicts of interest are regulated in City government whether or not the Charter or Administrative Code say anything about them. It is simply not optional.”

“Finally, we all agreed that financial disclosures are an important part of the larger issue of transparency. Everyone who is elected, appointed or hired to perform services for the City is doing the public’s work, spending the public’s money, and affecting the public interest,” the Local Government Center lawyer goes on to say. “Citizens need to know what the government is doing and have confidence that their City officials and employees are acting in the public interest, without conflicts or bias caused by personal or financial interests. That is the purpose from which the rest of our discussion flowed, and that is what I have kept in mind when drafting the language you requested. “

As for the specific requirements of the Portsmouth City Charter change (Charter Amendment C), overwhelmingly adopted on Nov. 3, 1987 by more than two-thirds of Portsmouth voters, the lawyer says it stipulates the following: “The City Council shall establish a Conflict of Interest Ordinance for City Departments, including police and school boards and commissions, no later than sixty (60) days after passage of this provision. The ordinance will contain as a minimum, but is not limited to:

A. Mandatory financial disclosure by all police, school, municipal officials, whether appointed or elected, of current personal sources of income and all capital assets including, but not limited to, stock and real estate holdings and interests, in a sworn statement before the City Clerk at least biannually or before assuming office.

B. Mandatory review boards and procedures to determine violation of the ordinance.

C. Mandatory penalties for violations of the ordinance.

D. Comprehensive definitions of such violations, and procedures to be used in reporting, investigating, and correcting the results of violations.”

The Local Government Center lawyer opines that these disclosure requirements extend to all city departments, boards, commissions, authorities, municipal employees, voting members of boards and organizations with a financial relationship to the city. The requirements include the assets and income of spouses and extend to the City Manager too, she adds.

However, whether due to “confusion”  about the definitions used in the Administrative Code and the Charter or for some other reasons, the Local Government Center lawyer concludes that the two documents are not in line and that the city is not obeying the wishes of city voters.

“It is not clear how that happened but we agreed it was entirely
possible that the definitions and terms used in the Administrative Code and the Charter were in line in the past but that over time one or both have changed so that they no longer agree,” the Local Government Center lawyer writes. The solution, she concludes, is to fix the problem ASAP or ask city voters to approve yet another Charter change by a two-thirds vote.

It would not be unusual for some elected officials to look for excuses not to disclose their assets or financial interests or those of their spouses.

But it is quite another issue for a newspaper to openly advocate against financial disclosure by elected or appointed officials or board-members or to condemn citizens’ disclosure requests as a “witchhunt,” as the Herald did in its June 2 editorial. In earlier days — when the Portsmouth Herald believed public officials should disclose their financial interests and be alert to the consequences of vested interests running things, the Herald ran editorials demanding disclosure from Governors, Executive Councilors and lawmakers.

Newspapers should be in the forefront of any battle looking for more public disclosure. And the argument that the city will not find folks to fill public boards if they have to disclose their financial interests is ridiculous — it simply does not hold water for a city the size of Portsmouth in the midst of a development explosion. What we’ve got is a small “local” newspaper (owned by giant corporate interests) appearing quite comfortable with the notion that less information– which in our opinion increases the risk of hidden conflict of interest– is a responsible journalistic position.  

http://portsmouthnow.org/about-your-local-newspaper/

We would be most interested in what famed journalists the Herald says it looks up to would think about this. We can only gasp in amazement at the editorial’s complaint that a supposedly small minority-view unnamed “civic group” is demanding disclosure and that this complaint is being aired in a once prize-winning newspaper. What would  journalist Hedrick Smith (a newsman the Herald recently praised while hosting as a guest here in the city) — say about the peculiar position that less financial disclosure (and therefore more risk of hidden conflict of interest) is in the public interest? 

Shouldn’t our elected officials uphold the City Charter that they are sworn to uphold? Don’t Portsmouth residents deserve to know that their city government is transparent?

 

Portsmouth HDC Desperately Needs New Blood

When the advocacy chief for Charleston, South Carolina’s feistiest preservation group heard about what’s happening to Portsmouth, his reaction was blunt: ”Sounds like it’s time to clean house.”

The call for reform in Portsmouth from a key defender of the nation’s oldest historic district came after Portsmouth Now gave him an earful about the invasion of huge,  Anywhere USA-style megabuildings the Historic District Commission has allowed here in Portsmouth.

The emergence of Portwalk called attention to building height, scale and mass in downtown Portsmouth, and their effect on the city's fragile character

The emergence of Portwalk called attention to building height, scale and mass in downtown Portsmouth, and their effect on the city’s fragile character

The HDC is charged with protecting the heart and soul of Portsmouth—its fragile historic character (in economic terms, this is often referred to as the Goose that laid the Golden Egg). Mayor Bob Lister has a chance to appoint an HDC-member who can make a difference—or not.

WILL PORTSMOUTH MAYOR CAVE TO SPECIAL INTERESTS?

Lister had announced the nomination of Rick Becksted, Jr. as an alternate to the key board.  Becksted is a building contractor whose father sat for 14 years in what he calls the “Dorothy Vaughan memorial HDC chair” because he succeeded the feisty advocate some call the “mother” of New Hampshire’s preservation movement. Becksted’s son, Rick Becksted, Jr. is widely viewed as a strong, vocal advocate for the city’s character at a time when many say the city needs HDC-members who care enough to fight for Portsmouth.

"Portsmouth isn't St Louis, San Francisco, Boston or Newburyport," Dorothy Vaughan said. "It has its own flavor, as distinct as strawberry is from chocolate and vanilla."

“Portsmouth isn’t St Louis, San Francisco, Boston or Newburyport,” Dorothy Vaughan said. “It has its own flavor, as distinct as strawberry is from chocolate and vanilla.”

But Lister withdrew Becksted’s nomination after speaking to HDC chair Joseph Almeida, according to the Portsmouth Herald. (Proponents of the type of rampant growth seen all over Portsmouth today have accused Lister of succumbing to pressure from Portsmouth Now. But for the record, Portsmouth Now has not spoken personally to the Mayor about any of his appointments. Lister has until sometime Friday to reconsider.)

DEFENDERS OF TWO KEY HISTORIC US CITIES SAY IT TAKES STRONG HDC-TYPE BOARDS TO DO THE JOB

Meanwhile, advocates for the historic integrity of two major American historic cities warn that boards in the role of the HDC need to be strong to do their job.

“The reason we exist is to be vigilant and promote the built environment,” noted Robert Gurley, Director of Advocacy for the Preservation Society of Charleston, who fights to protect the nation’s oldest historic district. “… If you’re not vigilant, things happen.”

HDC veteran Rick Becksted, who inherited the "Dorothy Vaughan memorial HDC chair," consider the development flanking North Church a signal HDC success

HDC veteran Rick Becksted, who inherited the “Dorothy Vaughan memorial HDC chair,” considers the development flanking North Church a signal HDC success

Likewise, a defender of the country’s largest National Landmark Historic District recently told Portsmouth Now that it takes a strict Historic District Board of Review (their version of the HDC) to protect Savannah’s multiple historic districts—an asset said to bring in about $2.1 billion a year to Savannah’s economy.

NEEDED: THE POLITICAL WILL FOR AN EFFECTIVE HISTORIC BOARD

How strict is Savannah’s Historic review board? “Pretty strict,” said Ellen Harris, Director of Urban Planning and Historic Preservation for the Chatham County-Savannah Metropolitan Planning Commission (in the advisory role Nick Cracknell is charged with filling here in Portsmouth).

After hearing Portsmouth Now complain that there are too many architects on the Portsmouth HDC and that they have allowed too many huge, Anywhere, USA-type buildings, Harris argued that it is not a board-member’s profession that matters, so much as the standard to which board-members are willing to hold their peers if they are in the same profession. “It depends on who’s appointed to the board. It varies. We do have a number of architects—but they hold their counterparts to a very high standard. It really depends on who the City Council appoints. There has to be the political will for the board to be effective– and we have that right now.”

Savannah's huge National Landmark Historic District protects a valuable treasure trove of admired historic houses

Savannah’s huge National Landmark Historic District protects a valuable treasure trove of admired historic houses

Savannah’s historic review board-members are also held to high ethical standards, Harris added. They are required to recuse themselves if have a financial interest in a particular project, and fill out a form specifically explaining what their conflict of interest is, Harris said. The board has also adopted the National Association of Preservation Commissions’ code of ethics—which covers a range of ethical requirements historic board-members should abide by. (When HDC alternate Reagan Ruedig suggested the HDC join the organization, former HDC-member Richard Katz publicly ridiculed the idea.)

THE GOOSE THAT LAID THE GOLDEN EGG NEEDS STRONG PROTECTION

“It’s in our own best interests to protect the Goose that laid the Golden Egg. It’s just that simple,” Daniel Carey, CEO of the Historic Savannah Foundation, told Portsmouth Now. “Anybody who says that’s complicated is out of bounds. If it gets out of balance, you choke the Goose– you get no more Golden Egg– and the $2.1 billion industry will go somewhere else that is authentic.”

Carey also referred to his city’s waterfront as “sacred ground” and lamented the fact that it’s under the greatest development pressure.

A container ship bringing goods up the Savannah River. The city's historic waterfront is the most sensitive to development

A container ship bringing goods up the Savannah River past the city’s sensitive historic waterfront

But here in Portsmouth, current HDC chairman Almeida took a potshot at Savannah during the last HDC meeting, announcing that during a recent trip south, he noticed that Savannah had let a large Hyatt hotel ruin its historic waterfront.

(In fact, proportionally, there is far  more left of Savannah’s historic waterfront than there is of Portsmouth’s– and Savannah’s version of the HDC was formed more than 40 years ago after controversy over the building of that hotel erupted in the early 1970’s. Meanwhile, Almeida has been actively advocating for a huge waterfront addition to 173-5 Market Street that many fear will destroy the charm of Ceres Street.)

Some worry that the latest take on the huge addition proposed for 173-5 Market Street is so big and out of character that it could seriously erode the charm of  quaint Ceres Street

Some worry that the latest take on the huge addition proposed for 173-5 Market Street is so big and out of character that it could seriously erode the charm of quaint Ceres Street

PORTSMOUTH’S CURRENT HDC IS VIEWED BY MANY AS TOO WEAK

The Portsmouth HDC—including some of its current members– has approved a number of projects many feel will not add to the city’s character, from the enormous project at Portwalk and 51 Islington to 111 Maplewood Ave, Wright Ave and a slew of others.

With Portsmouth widely seen as being in danger of wrecking its special character, many feel the Portsmouth HDC desperately needs new blood now, and a Mayor and City Council with the stamina– the political will– to promote that.

“We need a Mayor and land use boards who will fight for Portsmouth and stand up to the special interests,” said one longtime Portsmouth Now supporter.

The ZBA overturned HDC approval of a project that would have wrapped much of this  antique waterfront building in new brick and added a huge new addition

The ZBA overturned HDC approval of a project that would have wrapped much of this antique waterfront building in new brick and added a huge new addition

 

To contact the entire City Council at once, email the following address:

ccemail@cityofportsmouth.com

To phone your City Councilors individually, call: Mayor Bob Lister at 431-6577, Assistant Mayor Jim Splaine at 1-727-466-3546, Stefany Shaheen at 817-9740, Esther Kennedy at 431-2944, Brad Lown at 436-1902, Chris Dwyer at 436-5247, Zelita Morgan at 430-9283, Eric Spear at 436-8060, Jack Thorsen at 601-4015.

GAMBLING ON BOA AGENDA THURS

With a proposal for year-round “charitable” gambling in downtown Portsmouth on tomorrow’s Board of Adjustment agenda at 7 pm, opponents of gambling in downtown Portsmouth can contact the Board of Adjustment by emailing them via secretary  Mary Koepenick at mekoepenick@cityofportsmouth.com

Here’s the agenda: http://www.cityofportsmouth.com/agendas/2014/boa/boa052014ag.pdf

PLANNING BOARD’S PORTWALK WALKABOUT THURS TOO

The public is invited as the Planning Board walks through Portwalk tomorrow Thurs., May 29 at 6 pm, starting at the burger place, to see whether it will retroactively approve myriad changes made to the enormous building without approval.

To email the Planning Board, email llgood@cityofportsmouth.com

Here’s the agenda:  http://www.cityofportsmouth.com/agendas/2014/planningboard/pb052914ag.pdf

 

 

HDC Work Session On Portwalk Changes, 275 Islington, 173-5 Market St

The HDC continues its frenetic schedule—holding its third weekly meeting in a row this Wed, May 21 at 7 pm.2013 05 08_1106

The board charged with protecting the city’s historic character will hold another work session on the unauthorized changes to Portwalk III, as well as revised plans for 275 Islington Street and 173-5 Market Street.  

So far, the revised version of 275 Islington has won kudos as a vast improvement over the last effort.

Some worry that the latest take on an addition to 173-5 Market Street is still too big and out of character for quaint Ceres Street

Some worry that the latest take on an addition to 173-5 Market Street is still too big and out of character for quaint Ceres Street

But while the developers are commended for trying, some see the waterfront addition proposed for the former 19th century Frank Jones warehouse at 173-5 Market Street as far too bulky and stylistically brash to meet the Secretary of the Interior ‘s guidelines for additions to antique buildings in such a sensitive waterfront spot.

By blocking the view down one of Portsmouth’s quaintest and most photographed streets, one fear is that the addition could undermine the very charm of Ceres Street.

The former Carter's Antiques building at 173-5 Market St occupies a sensitive spot on the waterfront at one end of Ceres Street, near the Moffatt-Ladd House

The former Carter’s Antiques building at 173-5 Market St occupies a sensitive spot on the waterfront at one end of Ceres Street, near the Moffatt-Ladd House

Amid efforts to cap part of the building with brick veneer because a cement-like substance was put on it, some also want the HDC to hire a truly independent antique brick expert for advice.

(The CEO of the Historic Savannah Foundation recently told Portsmouth Now that his city’s waterfront is “sacred ground.”)

To contact the HDC, email llgood@cityofportsmouth.com

For the Secretary of the Interior’s Guidelines, go to:

http://www.thempc.org/documents/HistoricPreservation/Secretary%20of%20the%20Interior’s%20Standards.pdf

Here is the HDC agenda:

http://www.cityofportsmouth.com/agendas/2014/hdc/hdc051414agr.pdf

Another Window-Gate?

After the Portwalk vinyl window fiasco, some folks are asking whether another development will need retroactive HDC approval  of windows that don’t match approved plans.

The original federal house at 428 Pleasant St had top windows that matched those on the grey house next door and looked smaller than those on approved plans

The original federal house at 428 Pleasant St had top windows that matched those on the grey house next door and looked smaller than those on approved plans

Some neighbors of the development at 428 Pleasant Street, aka “the pink house,” say its top windows look taller and wider than those on approved plans.

(A check of these plans on file in both the Portsmouth Planning Department and Inspection departments show the measurements to be illegible, even with a magnifying glass. But just eyeballing the two shows that the actual installed windows look larger than the originals and those in approved plans).

WINDOWS LOOK BIGGER BUT SPECS ON FILE AT CITY HALL ARE ILLEGIBLE

Neighbors say the new windows look taller and wider than approved

Neighbors say the new windows look taller and wider than those approved

The issue calls into question the city’s vigilance about making everybody follow the same rules, its record-keeping practices,  and its diligence in making sure real projects match approved plans. (Residents appealing the HDC’s retroactive approval of Portwalk’s vinyl windows have already objected that the retroactive OK  discriminates against those who were penalized when projects did not match approved plans).

“They definitely look bigger. A lifelong resident of the city who specializes in historic homes noticed it right away. If they can’t read the dimensions on the plans and you can’t read them, how does the public know it’s right? ,” asked an upset neighbor. “Don’t they have an inspection department?”

A POSTER CHILD FOR WHAT’S WRONG, SAYS UPSET NEIGHBOR

“This project is a poster child for what’s wrong with the development process. It started with an illegal expansion of a nonconforming use. Then they all but demolished the building, without approval, took down the entire third floor and roof and replaced them so that little remains of the original structure. They rebuilt much of the second chimney with recycled interior brick without the caps that were shown on the approved plans. And now, the upper-story windows look bigger than they’re supposed to but you can’t read the plans to check the exact dimensions. All you can do is look. Neighbors have been pointing these things out all along and the city has taken no action. It’s outrageous!”

Portsmouth Principal Planner Nick Cracknell says the new windows are larger than the originals but are the approved size. Even if the specific sizes and numbers were not visible on the plans, he said the scale drawing with the plans are accurate and show that the approved windows are the same size as the installed windows.

Window specifications on file with the Planning and Inspection Departments are illegible, even with a magnifying glass

Window specifications on file with the Planning and Inspection Departments are illegible, even with a magnifying glass

Background:  A year ago, the HDC approved a developer’s plan to restore the main house at 428 Pleasant Street (aka the “pink house”) and demolish and rebuild the rear addition– despite objections that the plan illegally expanded a nonconforming use and would seriously compound neighborhood traffic and parking problems. As the project progressed, residents have complained to city officials at all levels that the main 1802 federal house has not been restored, it has been largely replaced —to no avail.

To contact the HDC, email llgood@cityofportsmouth.com 

New Study Finds That Older + Smaller = Better

Groundbreaking new research on three American cities finds that older, smaller buildings are better for cities’ economy, cultural vibrancy and quality of life than taller, more massive brand-new structures.

Residents concerned about development in Portsmouth worry that a 60-plus foot building in this bank parking lot across the street from the Federal Building could block this view of the North Church steeple

The study finds that old and low buildings are a magnet to young people and retirees and a boost to business. Many residents worry that the scale and mass of new development in Portsmouth will reduce the city’s most appealing attributes

Neighborhoods that protect their older buildings and find new ways of using them outperform newer neighborhoods economically and are more walkable and more attractive to young people and retirees, according to the new study by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The research on Seattle, San Francisco and Washington, DC is the first complete study to measure the relationship between historic buildings in cities and prosperity , according to National Trust President Stephanie Meeks. “The economic growth of communities is enhanced by preserving our historic neighborhoods.”

For more, go to: http://www.preservationnation.org/who-we-are/press-center/press-releases/2014/older-smaller-buildings-are.html#.U3Y0QfldViY

 

New Group Hopes to Enhance Portsmouth’s Livability and Walkability

Portsmouth SmartGrowth 21st Century  will show a film this week as part of its goal of making Portsmouth a more vibrant, sustainable, livable, and walkable community.

Preservation-minded HDC members of the past fought seminal battles and stood up to owners, engineers and Portsmouth's powerful old-boy network to save the charisma of Market Square

Seminal battles were fought in Portsmouth to save the charisma of Market Square after a catastrophic collapse

The new Portsmouth-based nonprofit says it wants to encourage ideas, planning and policy development that reflect Smart Development, the city’s historic nature and the 21st century.  www.PS21.info

This Tuesday, May 13, the group will show “The Human Scale” in the Portsmouth Public Library’s Levenson Room at 6:15 pm. In the short film, Danish architect Jan Gehl (Cities for People) challenges conventional urban planning ideas in the hopes of making the world’s big cities more sustainable and livable.

The HDC will decide whether to retroactively approve numerous illicit changes to Portwalk III made apparently without the city's knowledge in violation of city land use board rules

The character of new development in the downtown Portsmouth Historic District worries many residents, some of whom have appealed the HDC’s retroactive approval of vinyl windows for Portwalk

Architect Steve McHenry, will lead a discussion after the film.  McHenry has designed several projects in Portsmouth (Popovers, the new project at the end of Dennett Street, 3S ArtSpace, among others), and is listed as an advisor to 3S Artspace http://www.3sarts.org/

On Tuesday, June 3, also in the Levenson Room at 6:30 pm, PS21 will host a discussion of “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time.” Jeff Speck’s 2012 bestselling book shows how walkability makes for successful city life and lays out a plan to make it happen.  Book groups and individuals can buy the book at RiverRun Bookstore at a 25% discount.

Portsmouth was recently touted in the New York Times for the unique appeal of being "small" and low

Portsmouth’s reputation is built on its special character

Portsmouth Now! welcomes the effort to expand the conversation about development in Portsmouth.