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 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.”
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,” 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 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 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
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
To contact the entire City Council at once, email the following address:
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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 email@example.com
Here’s the agenda: http://www.cityofportsmouth.com/agendas/2014/planningboard/pb052914ag.pdf