HDC OKs Portwalk Switch to Plastic Windows

The Historic District Commission Wednesday night approved a change to vinyl windows for part of Portwalk, The switch was one of many lesser unauthorized changes made to the project without the city’s approval, but the HDC vote upset some onlookers and caused others to fret that nothing will really protect the city’s endangered character until the make-up of this key land use board is overhauled.HDC 2 April 16 2014

“Did they just approve vinyl windows?,” a shocked resident asked after the HDC vote. “They should be fired.”

The HDC is the board charged with protecting Portsmouth’s historic character– some folks call it the “firewall” against any degradation of the city’s special fabric.

The board approved the change from metal to vinyl — and several others– by an overwhelming 6-3 vote, with HDC Chair Joseph Almeida pushing the board to OK as many changes as possible while a minority argued against it.HDC  3 April 16 2014

Only HDC-members Esther Kennedy, George Melchior and William Gladhill voted against  the switch from metal to plastic. HDC Vice Chair Tracy Kozak argued that vinyl windows had been approved elsewhere in the building, so this change should be OK too. Kennedy, a City Councilor, wanted to see actual examples of the windows the HDC was being asked to approve first, as the HDC does with other projects.

At a table awash with papers, files and multiple lists of unauthorized permutations and changes, the HDC held its second work session on the Portwalk violations. The mammoth downtown Portsmouth project has caused widespread consternation due to its sheer size, scale, mass and style in the heart of a city with a valuable national reputation for its special character.

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

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

On-hand for the session were Portwalk developers Jeff Johnston and Jim Goldenberg, partners in the Boston firm of Cathartes Private Investments. Sitting in the press box was their PR man, Scott Tranchemontagne of Montagne Communications in Manchester.  Representatives of the building contractor, Pro Con, Inc. were also on hand.

In the audience, a dozen onlookers pored through confusing piles of paper detailing many of the changes, struggling to match images to the specific switches being discussed. Looking on intently behind the press was former Portsmouth mayor/developer Peter Weeks. Next to him much of the time sat Portsmouth’s longtime City Attorney Bob Sullivan.

At issue was a mind-boggling litany of details by which the structure arising in downtown Portsmouth differs from approved plans. Under a deal brokered by the City Attorney, the developer agreed to comply with whatever the HDC and Planning Board decide. The catch, one concerned resident emailed another, is whether the boards in their current configuration will have the “backbone” to require the developer to do anything meaningful.

Battle-scarred HDC veterans consider the development flanking North Church a signal HDC success

Battle-scarred HDC veterans consider the development flanking North Church a signal HDC success

At the meeting, HDC Chair Almeida expressed interest in hearing from the public, but seemed reluctant to explicitly repeat the list of issues the public was being invited to comment about. And the issues were so numerous and so varied that many in the audience found it difficult to say anything worthwhile.

Barbara DeStefano, a  Portwalk resident , told the board that she admires the project’s appearance and architectural style. “I speak on its behalf because I like the way the building looks.” No one is paying her to express that opinion, she added.  “Average people” don’t care about the issues critics have raised about the development, she said.

Others challenged many aspects of the project and maintained that changes made to it have diminished any appeal it had. Developer Joe Caldarola told the board that walking his dog past the project every day has given him a chance to study it in detail. Caldarola said he found many changes that have not yet been noticed or brought to the board’s attention. a claim HDC Chair Joseph Almeida took issue with. One of his biggest objections to the project, Caldarola told the board, is the tall brick wall between two Portwalk buildings along the Maplewood Ave sidewalk.   “To quote Ronald Reagan—Mister Gorbachev, tear down that wall,!” Cardarola told the HDC. “… Lose that wall!”

 

HDC Session #2 on Portwalk III Violations This Wednesday

The Historic District Commission on Wednesday (April 16) will hold a second work session and public hearing about multiple changes to  Portwalk III without HDC permission.  The litany of violations stunned residents when they came to light recently as the project shed its plastic coating.

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 II without HDC permission

Boston architect James McNeely, hired by the city to catalogue the discrepancies at developer Cathartes Private Investments’ expense,  told the HDC last Wednesday that while some of the unauthorized changes were a visual improvement to the massive downtown project, others were more significant. These include building a band above the storefronts out of fiberglass instead of precast concrete because columns were not designed to support their weight, and many other changes to aluminum and glass storefronts and doors, and more.

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 HDC will decide whether to retroactively approve multiple changes to all facades of Portwalk III made in violation of city land use board rules

The HDC spent two hours of a five-hour meeting poring through the changes and pondering how to handle them: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQMy6Uh7MVk&list=UUXUNd8goAjKxc_aXfvXIKdw

275 ISLINGTON STREET ALSO COMING BEFORE HDC

Also on Wednesday, the HDC will hold a work session on Green and Company’s project at 275 Islington Street. Neighborhood residents who have seen ideas for a new concept for the project say it is much improved. However, the developer has said the project cannot happen without the demolition of a New Englander . Although some argue that building’s condition and style justify demolition, others say that the house adds to the neighborhood’s low  feel. Letting it be torn down to make a developer’s numbers “work” would set a bad precedent.

Folks can email the HDC via the Planning Department at llgood@cityofportsmouth.com

40 BRIDGE STREET BEFORE PLANNING BOARD FOR PERMIT EXTENSION AFTER REPEAT HDC REFUSALS

Neighbors say the 40 Bridge St project is too massive for its antique neighbor

Neighbors say the 40 Bridge St project is too massive for its antique neighbor

Also this week, the Planning Board on Thursday (April 17) will consider the application of 7 Islington Street, LLC for the second one-year site plan approval extension for the project at 40 Bridge Street. The extension has recently been refused three times– twice by the HDC.

Bridge Street Rehearing Leads Parade of Big HDC Cases Tonight

The HDC tonight (April 9) will debate its decision not to grant a second permit extension for the controversial 40 Bridge Street development project.

Neighbors say the 40 Bridge St project is too massive for its antique neighbor

Neighbors say the 40 Bridge St project is too massive for its antique neighbor

Critics object that the project, which has been mired in legal battles, is out of scale with the historic Buckminster House next door, a quaint dwelling built in the early 1720′s before George Washington’s birth. The developer is due before the Planning Board with a similar request on April 17.

The HDC will hold a public hearing on a controversial request by Portwalk III for retroactive HDC approval of changes it made to its facades without city permission. The city recently hired Boston architect James McNeely at the developer’s expense to catalogue the violations.

The view of the North Church steeple from Maplewood Ave has largely disappeared behind new construction

The view of the North Church steeple from Maplewood Ave has largely disappeared behind new construction

Illicit façade changes include replacing a precast concrete band above the storefronts with fiberglass because the steel columns carrying the brick veneer will not support concrete; multiple changes to storefronts, added columns and pilasters and more, Neely asserts in his report.

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 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

However, Neely maintains that most of the changes have little visual effect or are an improvement. Recent news of the violations caused public shock because they were made without the public’s knowledge and apparently without seeking the city’s permission. They focused a harsh spotlight on the city’s lack of uniform enforcement of its land use laws.

The HDC will hold a work session on the disputed ice skating rink at Strawbery Banke. Public opinion has been divided about the project. Many residents of Gates Street, a quiet street nearby, have expressed concern about increased noise, hubbub and traffic, but failed to stop the project in court.

One view of the project at 233 Vaughan Street

One view of the project at 233 Vaughan Street

Another HDC work session will zero in on proposed changes for the huge project at 233 Vaughan Street.

And the HDC will also hold a work session on the disputed development of 173-5 Market Street. The project was to involve restoring the façade on Market street but caused consternation among historians and preservationists by seeking to wrap much of the antique brick former Frank Jones grain warehouse with old-looking new brick and adding a huge, bulging waterfront addition critics worried would overwhelm the historic structure.

A widely-accepted restoration principle is that additions to historic buildings should always be subordinate and let the historic structure be the “star,” a leading preservationist in Charleston, SC, told Portsmouth Now. Charleston is the nation’s oldest historic district and a lucrative world-class tourist destination due to its well-preserved and fiercely-protected built environment, the preservationist said. By contrast, some Portsmouth residents worry that Portsmouth is not exercising strong enough stewardship of its historic assets, with predictable risks.

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 ZBA overturned HDC approval of this huge addition to the historic waterfront building

The ZBA overturned HDC approval of this huge addition to the historic waterfront building

By an unusual 6-1 vote, the Zoning Board of Adjustment earlier this year overturned the HDC’s August 7, 2013 approval of the waterfront project, and the cases is headed to court.

 

 

 

Here’s tonight’s HDC agenda:

http://cityofportsmouth.com/agendas/2014/hdc/hdc040914ag.pdf

 

Proposed Conditional Use Permit Repeal Tops Heavy City Council Agenda Monday Night

The City Council tonight (Monday) will vote on Mayor Bob Lister’s motion to eliminate the disputed Conditional Use Permit under which the Historic District Commission can let buildings exceed the downtown 45-foot height limit.

With opponents pushing for a large crowd, backers of the move to protect the city’s character and skyline are urging folks to show up by 6:30 pm or earlier, sign up for public comment (whether they plan to speak or not), and email the entire City Council at ccemail@cityofportsmouth.com

Assistant Mayor Jim Splaine leads neighborhood walk along a street some complain has been "canyonized" by too-tall development

Assistant Mayor Jim Splaine leads neighborhood walk along a street that some folks object has been “canyonized” by too-tall development

Despite the Harborcorp team’s claims that the  repeal effort targets their project, proponents say this is far bigger than one development—it’s about the whole city and its livability and human scale. “Do we want to replicate this?” asked Assistant Mayor Jim Splaine during his recent North End walk, pointing at the controversial Portwalk development looming over the neighborhood where he grew up, before its eradication by urban renewal.

In what could be a very long night, the City Council will also take final votes on form-based (or character-based) zoning downtown—and amendments aimed at protecting the character of several neighborhoods from so-called canyonization.

Some on the walk complained that they were uncomfortable with the scale and quality of the new development

A few on the neighborhood walk expressed support for the new development, but most complained that its scale and style made them feel uncomfortable

The Council packet includes updates on Portwalk and the architectural firm charged with checking the controversial downtown project for deviations from approved plans, a pilot parking shuttle program, more areas proposed for form-based zoning, and Sea-3. Other hot issues up before the Council: penalties for land-use board approval violations, the status of derelict buildings (aka demolition by neglect), transportation policy and creating a transportation center amid parking and traffic problems, civility by city officials in the wake of outbursts against the public by at least one HDC-member, and financial disclosure by city officials after the discovery that the city is not complying with the city charter.

Here is the Council’s agenda: http://www.cityofportsmouth.com/agendas/2014/citycouncil/cc040714ag.pdf

Disputed Bridge Street Development Before HDC Tonight After TAC Gave It New Lease On Life

The embattled 40 Bridge Street development project next to the historic Buckminster House goes before the Historic District Commission tonight (April 2) yet again—this time for permission to demolish a building to make way for the disputed project. Devotees of the historic house are crying foul after the Technical Advisory Committee, chaired by city Planning Director Rick Taintor (http://planportsmouth.com/technicaladvisorycommitte.html), recently opted to advise the Planning Board to OK yet another extension for the controversial development by 7 Islington Street, LLC. The HDC recently refused to grant the project a second extension amid competing claims by dueling lawyers. http://cityofportsmouth.com/agendas/2014/hdc/hdc040214ag.pdf

EFFORT TO PROTECT AT-RISK NEIGHBORHOODS HEADS FOR PLANNING BOARD THURS. NIGHT

A North End map created by architect Heinz Sauk-Schubert shows a huge swath of Portsmouth levelled by the ill-conceived federal program

A North End map created by architect Heinz Sauk-Schubert shows a huge swath of Portsmouth levelled by the ill-conceived federal program. Efforts are underway to try to protect the human scale and feel of the new neighborhood as it arises again

Meanwhile, three key measures head for the Planning Board Thurs night (April 3) at the City Council’s recommendation. These include City Councilor Esther Kennedy’s motion to protect the North End and several outlying at-risk neighborhoods by creating a new Central Business C (CBC) District west of Maplewood Ave and Middle Street, a new Central Business Piscataqua (CBP) District north and east of Market and Bow Streets. The multi-faceted motion would reduce maximum building heights in CBC to 35 feet, and limit maximum building footprints to 4,000 sq feet in CBA and 30,000 in CBB, 3,000 in CBC, and 4,000 in CBP.

PROPOSAL WOULD INCREASE PARKING REQUIREMENTS FOR EVENT CENTERS

With parking a hot issue, the Planning Board will decide whether to recommend  parking requirements for event centers

With parking a hot issue, the Planning Board will decide whether to recommend parking requirements for event centers

with downtown parking a hot issue, also before the Planning Board is City Councilor Zelita Morgan’s motion to require event, conference and convention centers to provide one off-street parking space for every two guests of rated capacity. The city does not currently require such centers to provide any parking.

ALSO COMING UP: DESIGN REVIEW

The Planning Board will also look into the Design Review process, under which projects get “vested” and exempt from subsequent zoning changes. In a letter to the Planning Board, attorney Jerry Zelin says:that although design review gives the oublic a chance to weigh in on projects earlier, it was created at the behest of  developers to “purchase” immunity to later zoning changes—not to seek public comment. Zelin also maintains that some of the Planning Department’s advice to the Planning Board about the issue (asserting, for example, that detailed engineering and utilities plans are not required for design review) are in error.

GSA Stonewalls City Council

Amid what struck some onlookers as prolonged political theater, the regional federal official in charge of managing some of the nation’s federal property stonewalled the City Council Monday night for more than two-and-a-half hours about the future of the federal building,

The Federal Building occupies 2.2 choice acres in downtown Portsmouth, and the GSA claims it cannot return it to the city despite a 2004 law many interpret as instructing it to do so

The Federal Building occupies 2.2 choice acres in downtown Portsmouth, and the GSA claims it cannot return it to the city despite a 2004 law many interpret as instructing it to do so

In a variety of different ways, General Service Administration regional administrator Robert Zarnetske told the Council that the city could not have the building, despite the 2004 law that many feel explicitly gives the building to  the city for one dollar. Not a single member of the state’s congressional delegation was present, only their representatives were there, and they hardly said a thing in favor of city residents’ interests.

Several City Councilors including Esther Kennedy, Jack Thorsen, Zelita Morgan, Assistant Mayor  Jim Splaine, Stefany Shaheen and Brad Lown peppered Zarnetske with questions about why the GSA refuses to move, and why it insists on occupying the most valuable piece of real estate in Portsmouth despite a 10-year-old bill to the contrary. Former Mayor Eric Spear hardly spoke; Chris Dwyer, present via cellphone, said little.

Several City Councilors toured the Federal Building parking lot Monday night.

Several City Councilors toured the Federal Building parking lot Monday night, but no member of the state’s congressional delegation was present to discuss the fate of Portsmouth’s most valuable piece of real estate– only their staff was on-hand.

PLEAS TO HIRE AN EFFECTIVE DC LAWYER-LOBBYIST HAVE GONE UNHEARD

Despite pleas for a decade for the city to hire a skilled, aggressive DC federal lobbyist/lawyer to fight for Portsmouth  taxpayers’ interests in the property in the middle of downtown Portsmouth, many feel  the city administration has been  surprisingly passive about the issue over an extended period of time.  Curiously, only when City Councilor Stefany Shaheen, daughter of US Senator Jeanne Shaheen,  called for a panel to include developers and real estate “experts” to be involved in the building’s future did Zarnetske, a former city manager from Connecticut, appear to become more responsive. City Councilor Shaheen repeatedly questioned Zarnetske about his refusal to move to Pease,he also suggested inviting developers and real estate interests to the discussuon.

City Council Heads for Federal Building Site Walk

The City Council tonight (Monday, March 31) will take a walk through the Federal Building with members of the state’s congressional delegation and federal officials at 5:30 pm. http://www.cityofportsmouth.com/agendas/2014/citycouncil/cc033114ag.pdf

Under the 10-year-old bill, proponents say the 2.2-acre Federal Building site with ample downtown parking and due to be devoted 50% to public uses belongs to the city

Under the 10-year-old bill, proponents say the 2.2-acre Federal Building site with ample downtown parking and due to be devoted 50% to public uses belongs to the city

For a year, Portsmouth Now! has urged the city to hire a skilled DC lobbyist to fight for the building it was given for a dollar under a 2004 law. But barring a surprise, the city will likely go to the meeting without such expertise on GSA laws and rules in its camp. “It’s too bad the city’s not going in there armed with an expert of their own and a lawyer in hand,” notes an observer knowledgeable about the bill’s history.

Meanwhile, Assistant Mayor Jim Splaine predicts that the City Council will be pushing to finally obtain the building from the federal agency occupying it. “I think we’re going to find that all the City Councilors are on the side of getting the building as soon as we can. We feel we own it, and we should get the agreement of years ago to turn it over to us fulfilled,” said Splaine. “The best kind of ‘Good Neighbor’ program is to turn it over to us quick!”

FEDERAL LAW GAVE THE BUILDING BACK TO PORTSMOUTH FOR A DOLLAR

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

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

Back in 2003, former US Senator Judd Gregg successfully sponsored a bill that required the GSA to build new federal offices at Pease. Under the deal, the General Services Administration was supposed to turn over the McIntyre Building to the city for a dollar after its new buildings were built, former deputy Portsmouth City Manager Ted Jankowski told a crowd of 60 people worried about overdevelopment and parking problems at the first public meeting of Portsmouth Now! a year ago.

With parking a major issue for downtown Portsmouth, many hopes were pinned on the federal building, a huge, 2.2 acre site in the heart of downtown Portsmouth, dominating the waterfront, the tugboats and bounded by Daniel, Ceres and Bow Streets. But instead of fulfilling its end of the bargain, the GSA has tried to renege on the 10-year-old deal to turn the site over to the city.

GSA REGIONAL CHIEF INSISTS THAT FEDERAL LAW IS NOT A MANDATE

In spite of residents' requests, the City Council has yet to hire a top DC lobbyist to fight for the city to finally get the McIntyre Building, as the city fought for Pease

In spite of residents’ requests, the city has yet to hire a top DC lobbyist to fight to finally get the McIntyre Building, as the city fought for Pease, and help solve some of the city’s parking and other issues

This in spite of legislation that specifically requires the federal agency that manages government property to cede the building to the city. In a recent letter to Mayor Bob Lister copied to the congressional delegation, GSA Regional Administrator Robert Zarnetske argued that moving to Pease would force him to charge federal tenants much higher rents than in downtown Portsmouth. Others, however, question his math and say his claim is not believable. Zarnetske also claims that with most federal tenants refusing to move to Pease, the new building would be 25% vacant while the federal building is now 95% full. Instead of moving, the GSA plans $15 million in upgrades to the building, he wrote, insisting that the 2004 law was “not a mandate.”

The 10-year-old law specified that the city would take down the federal building and use 50 percent of the property for public purposes, Jankowski told the crowd last year. The building’s underground garage could help relieve the city’s immediate downtown parking crisis.

Issues involving recent development-- including discrepancies between approved plans and the actual project-- have focused even more attention on the degree to which the city is fighting to protect residents' interests

Issues involving recent development– including discrepancies between approved plans and the actual project– have focused even more attention on the degree to which the city is fighting to protect residents’ interests

“So what happened in the last 10 years? How come this hasn’t happened? Where has our Congressional delegation been on this issue that is of such crucial importance to the Seacoast and the City of Portsmouth?,” asked Jankowski last year. “Here we are 10 years later, and the GSA still hasn’t broken ground on the new federal building at Pease so the McIntyre Building can be turned over to the city!”

About 40 people showed up for the first meeting of Portsmouth Now! to discuss the city's development problems

A year ago, former Deputy City Manager Ted Jankowski told about 60 people who showed up for the first meeting of Portsmouth Now! that the city should fight for the federal building as mandated 10 years ago

Portsmouth Now!, which has closely followed the issue, recently had the Congressional delegation check with Congressional Budget Office staffers to make sure the law still stands and ascertained that unlike last year, there has been no attempt– to date– to eliminate it. The section of the 2003 bill applying to the McIntyre Building can be found in S. 1589 from the 108th Congress, under General Services Administration, section 408, p. 101:

2003 Bill Giving McIntyre Building to Portsmouth

DEJA-VU ALL OVER AGAIN

“More than $11 million dollars were appropriated long ago, and will be spent. But now, the GSA plans to use the money to rehabilitate one of Portsmouth’s ugliest buildings…,” Jankowski said a year ago. “For over 10 years, the GSA and its federal tenants have resisted moving to Pease—in spite of a federal law requiring them to do so—and the fact that they have already bought a site at Pease to build a new building with parking and not in the middle of congested downtown Portsmouth will all its security concerns,” Jankowski went on.

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

The Federal Building occupies a key spot in downtown Portsmouth

“The city—with the help of former US Senator Judd Gregg—was handed the unheard-of once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to control over 2.2 acres in the heart of downtown Portsmouth. A site with fabulous views of the river, tugboats, an opportunity for parking and with over 50% of the site dedicated to public use. If a relatively tiny site on Maplewood Ave. next to the old Herald building sold for well over $3 million, what is this site worth to Portsmouth residents– $20 million? $30 million? And it won’t be totally tax-exempt! If that isn’t worth fighting for, what is?”

 

 

 

 

The Nation’s Oldest Historic District Has A Bigger Toolbox Than Portsmouth

Protecting the special character of the nation’s oldest historic district takes enlightened government, strong allies, intelligent zoning and city policy, involved citizens, a vigilant city staff—and a supportive daily newspaper.

Protecting the nation's oldest historic district reaps huge rewards but requires constant vigilance

Protecting the nation’s oldest historic district has turned Charleston into a world class tourist destination, but it takes enlightened policy, a vigilant city staff and a supportive daily newspaper, says a leading preservationist

So says Robert Gurley, Director of Advocacy for the Preservation Society of Charleston, considered the more feisty of two preservation groups defending the popular South Carolina city.

Charleston’s Historic District protects about 4,000 buildings, four times as many as Portsmouth. At age 94, it’s older than Portsmouth’s—and steadily expanding. A valuable asset, the Historic District has turned Charleston into a lucrative world-class tourist destination. And Charleston, a much larger city than Portsmouth, has tools in its toolbox that Portsmouth does not have to protect that asset.

Like Portsmouth, Charleston has three basic land use boards regulating planning, appeals and historic district issues (a Board of Architectural Review instead of a Historic District Commission). But in Charleston, an active sub-board protects the city’s trees, and a Livability Court referees problems between neighbors– including demolition by neglect.

A glimpse of a courtyard in Charleston's downtown historic district

A glimpse of a courtyard in Charleston’s downtown historic district

Demolition is not an issue in the more upscale parts of Charleston, Gurley said. “But in the districts that are trying to come back, it is—and demolition by neglect is a companion issue.”

PROTECTING LIVABILITY MEANS CURBING ROWDINESS, NOISE, DEMOLITION BY NEGLECT

Robert Gurley advocates for Charleston's historic character and it pays off

Robert Gurley , director of advocacy for the Preservation Society of Charleston, pushes for residents’ quality of life

Even in cases where land has become more valuable than a building that sits on it, the city does not allow demolitions, Gurley said. Enforcing the city’s ten-year-old law against demolition by neglect is the Livability Court.

“When an applicant wants to demolish a building because it’s in the way or [the owners argue that it’s] in such bad condition it can’t be restored, we usually don’t believe that,” Gurley said. “In Charleston, they usually don’t try to demolish, but they will try to make a case that it’s in too bad condition.”

Here’s how the process works. “Demolition by neglect is a livability issue,” Gurley explained. “The inspector issues a summons. You explain before the court why you’re not keeping a building to minimum standards.” The Livability Court handles other livability issues, like drunken students and noisy neighbors. Still, Gurley said he wants the ordinance more stringently enforced and penalties made more severe.

HOW ABOUT MAKING THE NUMBERS WORK?

Asked what the Preservation Society of Charleston says to a developer who argues that if he can’t build bigger or taller he can’t make his numbers work (as often heard in Portsmouth these days), Gurley replied: “We don’t care a thing about his numbers. That wouldn’t resonate with us at all. If you can t make the numbers work, another developer will come along.”

But the Society wants the city to manage the flow of visitors so they don't flood the streets

The Society wants the city to better manage the flow of cruise ship visitors so they don’t flood the streets

Infill should be a “simple discussion,” Gurley said. “One way is using the historic form, but detailing it as if it were built in our time.” New construction needs to be compatible with the Historic District, Gurley said. “If you destroy its historic integrity, you destroy the reason people want to visit the city and the tax benefits and economic advantage of it.”

An addition to a historic building should always be subordinate, Gurley said, citing a basic idea recently upheld in Portsmouth over the contested addition to 173-5 Market Street. “The historic structure should be the star. If you want to put contemporary detailing on the [new] form, we think that’s OK, but it depends on how it’s done.”

HDC approval of a project that would envelop much of this iconic antique waterfront building in new brick...

A leading Charleston preservationist says an addition to a historic building should always be surbordinate and let the old building be the “star.” The principle was recently upheld in Portsmouth to protect historic 173-5 Market St

THE DEBATE OVER DEVELOPING OPEN LAND

A bigger issue for Charleston these days is development of open land. The city has an industrial area that is now the center of “ferocious” development activity, Gurley said.

Housed in a late 19th century brick building on King Street, the society is a vigorous advocate for the city

Housed in a late 19th century brick building on King Street, the Society is a strong advocate for the city’s special character and livability

A graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy and Dartmouth College, reporter Robert Behre covers preservation issues for Charleston’s Post & Courier. The city’s family-owned daily newspaper, the Post & Courier is a strong ally in efforts to protect the city’s fragile historic character.

One of the issues reporter Behre finds himself writing most about these days is the debate over how much new building can be made to fit in. Here too, preservationists are divided. “It’s a little easier to find agreement on height, scale and mass,” but even on the eight-story hotel [a battle the Preservation Society fought and lost], some preservationists thought it was appropriate, he said. “There’s a strong feeling that new construction should be compatible, but the devil is in the details—and there’s a healthy debate not just about height, scale and mass, but also about architectural style, how new buildings should be built, and how much they should fit in.”

NATIONAL RECOGNITION OFFERS PROPERTY-OWNERS TAX BREAKS

Wood taken out of historic house at 428 Pleasant stacked on truck in Portsmouth Housing Authority lot and driven away

Wood removed from the federal-period house at 428 Pleasant was stacked on a truck in the Portsmouth Housing Authority lot and recently driven away. The Portsmouth Planning Department says the developer removed wood that had dry rot. Charleston’s easement program allows property-owners who want to protect the interiors of historic houses to do so in exchange for tax breaks

Charleston’s historic district is on the National Register for Historic Places. Under the city’s “façade easement program,” homeowners who choose to participate can get a tax deduction for granting an easement to a nonprofit preservation group, which then has authority over what happens to the property’s exterior. National Register status lets homeowners get tax credits for some rehabilitation work on contributing properties.

Easements in Charleston can come in many forms. If owners want to, they can protect the interiors of their houses from having historic interior woodwork removed, as allowed in Portsmouth;s historic district. Granting easements on interiors essentially requires the easement holder’s (preservation group’s) blessing about any changes, reporter Behre explained via follow-up email. Easements can also be given on land, to protect a lot from further building. Each easement is tailored to what the owner wants to give up and what the preservation group will commit to defending and overseeing in the future, Behre added. In return, the owner gets tax breaks and the peace of mind of knowing that a historic property will be protected after he or she no longer owns the property.

Charleston’s zoning ordinance has a hodgepodge of 15 to 20 height districts, according to Gurley. Its focus is on keeping new building from dominating its neighbors. The city also controls density, but most of the time, Gurley says it allows too much of it. “The city has a tendency to promote density, arguing that it increases the tax base,” said Gurley. “But without rail and mass transit, we’re getting density without the infrastructure to move the people.”

As for form-based zoning, a hot issue in Portsmouth, Gurley says he feels the idea of expressing height in stories instead of feet has merit. Although he believes form-based zoning works best on vacant land or land that is being sprawled, he readily admits he’s no expert. Nor did the name TUPDC (Town Planning & Urban Design Collaborative), the firm Portsmouth hired to create its form-based zoning code, ring a bell with Gurley.

BEYOND PARKING GARAGES TO 21ST CENTURY TRANSPORTATION POLICY ISSUES

In Charleston, regulating cruise ships and the flood of tourists has become a major quality of life issue for the city. Here, the argument over cars seems to have progressed beyond the parking garage debates preoccupying Portsmouth today to overall transportation policy issues. “Parking is a huge issue,” Gurley says. “So much development brings in too many cars.”  

But even if you require developers to provide adequate parking, you don’t want a historic city center studded with parking garages, Gurley said.

“We’re building too much car-dependent construction without the mass transit to deal with the people. That’s got to change. Our historic streets are not getting any wider, and they’re not meant to handle the traffic. In the late 19th century, we had trolley lines. We disassembled them, and now we need them again.”

Overall, protecting Charleston’s character takes a combination of government foresight and alert city staffers, involved citizens and other strong allies—not to mention a supportive newspaper, Gurley said. “You need be very vigilant, have a lot of allies, and you need to be a consistent advocate for best preservation practices.”

After an earful about what’s happening in Portsmouth, he opined: “Sounds like it’s time to clean house!”

 

City Council Public Input Session On Water & Sewer Bills Tonight

Worried about skyrocketing water and sewer bills? (Portsmouth sewer rates went up 10% this past year, and are projected to go up 50% over the next five years). Should rates be tiered differently to help low-volume water users and encourage conservation?

Portsmouth Now! has been calling for a new four-rate tiered structure. This would create a new top rate for big water users (like hotels) while lowering the rates for smaller users, with a new low rate for elders that are small users. Because water and sewer rates are rising, the only way to lower bills for low- volume users without hurting the majority of homeowners is to add a fourth tier for higher-volume users. Otherwise rates would have to rise for the average user– and many homeowners feel their rates are at the breaking point now.

Weigh in tonight when the City Council holds a public input session on water and sewer rate study tonight (Wednesday, March 19 at 6:30 pm). Folks will get a chance to speak after presentations by City Manager John Bohenko,  consultant David Hyder of Municipal Financial Services Group, City Finance Director Judie Belanger and Deputy Public Works Director Brian Goetz.

Can’t make it? Email the whole City Council at <ccemail@cityofportsmouth.com>  or individually at Portsmouth Mayor Bob Lister <rjlportsmouth@yahoo.com>, Assistant Mayor Jim Splaine  jimsplaineportsmouth@gmail.com, Stefany Shaheen <stefanyshaheen@gmail.com>, Esther Kennedy <esthersmarina@gmail.com>, Jack Thorsen <jdt@mind.net>, Zelita Morgan zelita.morgan@gmail.com, Brad Lown <lown@nhtrialattorneys.com>, Chris Dwyer <cdwyer@rmcres.com>, and Eric Spear  <ericspearportsmouth@gmail.com>.

Some See Vote Opening Door for New North End Vision

Some involved in the city’s emerging grassroots smart-growth movement see Monday night’s City Council vote to repeal the Conditional Use Permit opening the door to a new vision for the North End—one HarborCorp can contribute to if it chooses.

A North End map created by architect Heinz Sauk-Schubert shows a huge swath of Portsmouth levelled by the ill-conceived federal program

A North End map created for HarborCorp by architect Heinz Sauk-Schubert shows the huge swath of Portsmouth levelled by the ill-conceived federal program

Once a thriving multi-ethnic neighborhood, Portsmouth’s North End was all-but-razed by the country’s last urban renewal project in the 1960s. Some folks worried about the city’s direction say some huge projects planned there are too “Anywhere, USA” for a proper rebirth of the area once-blighted by the misguided federal program. They say the city can do better.

City Councilor Stefany Shaheen came out swinging Monday night for developers’ property rights and for keeping the controversial permit that allows the Historic District Commission to grant exceptions to the 45-foot height limit. Shaheen likened eliminating the conditional use permit to using a sledgehammer instead of a scalpel.  “Eliminating the Conditional Use Permit means more condos,” Shaheen argued.

Folks on both sides testified for several hours during City Council session that dragged on until close to 1 am

Folks on both sides testified for several hours during City Council session that dragged on until close to 1 am

Others countered that the neighborhood—which the Master Plan said should be walkable, human scale and coordinated with the downtown but little more– needs a fresh “vision” before it gets completely smothered with 60-foot buildings. 

NORTH END NATIVE, EVOKING VIBRANT MULTI-ETHNIC MELTING POT, CALLS FOR VISION

Assistant Mayor Jim Splaine grew up in the North End. Where a dumpster now sits on a Deer Street corner, his family lived amid a bubbling “melting pot” of Greek, Irish, Italian and other immigrants fresh off the train from Boston, as well as African-Americans and many more, Splaine recalled.  Walking through the North End the other day, Splaine said he imagined the vibrant neighborhood of his youth full of 60-foot buildings. It didn’t fit.

Abutters and residents have appeaked HDC approval of this North End project at 111 Maplewood Ave project

One North End project, now under appeal, has some arguing that the once-blighted neighborhood needs a fresh vision

“Is this the kind of legacy we want to leave for the future?” asked Splaine, who voted with the 5-4 majority to support Mayor Bob Lister’s motion to eliminate the contested permit. “I want a Master Plan for the North End—a vision.”  On April 7 when the permit comes up for third reading, Harborcorp will have a chance to paint a picture of a new North End, he added.