As a first-time visitor to Woodstock, one is greeted with a hodgepodge of buildings — some historic, some not. Do we need to preserve the history? Do we need to make things more uniform?
Those were two of the questions addressed at a “The Public Realm in Woodstock: Architecture,” a symposium that was the first in a series hosted by the library covering a variety of topics.
Moderated by Neil Larson of the historic preservation firm Larson Fisher Associates, the symposium featured contractor Shawn Delisio of Greenland Building, Commission for Civic Design member David Ekroth and Jennifer Schwartz Berky, Ulster County Legislator and Urban planner at Hone Strategic LLC, a historic preservation firm.
Berky said the town doesn’t have to preserve something just because its historic and should tap into its creative spirit. She added that the town’s open space is the “most significant landmark of all.” Berky suggested buildings offer a great canvas to let artists express themselves and also beautifies the area. She pointed out a mural on Crown Street in Uptown Kingston as an example. Initially, some groups including Friends of Historic Kingston were resistant. But it has become a focal point in the neighborhood.
Larson said many towns are looking toward rehabilitating their commercial districts by repurposing underused buildings. He asked the panel if Woodstock needs to do the same.
Ekroth said the creative spirit can be encouraged but in a way that is not “schlocky,” such as the sign panel at the intersection of Routes 375 and 212, which he called a “continual mess.” If the sign regulations were enforced exactly as written, “a lot of what you see wouldn’t exist,” Ekroth said.
But Delisio fears the existing rules are stifling creativity and building activity and that the town doesn’t need more regulation. “There were no regulations when they created Byrdcliffe,” he said. He added that Woodstock is limited to the confines of its geography. “There’s not that much room to grow,” he said.
The Commission for Civic Design is “often accused of being design police,” but there are no regulations that dictate design,” Ekroth said. “There are guidelines…Every one is kind of a case by case thing.”
Delisio said the town tends to “overanalyze everything” and it turns out fine in the end. For example, the monastery expansion on Meads Mountain Road was supposed to create enough traffic to need a light at Rock City Road, but it didn’t create as much of an impact and the Woodstock Commons affordable housing project was supposed to bring “Playhouse Lane to a standstill,” he said.
But Ekroth noted the town has worked with businesses and organizations when a strict interpretation of rules would have stifled a project. When the Kleinert/James Center for the Arts proposed a large ribbon to visually bring three adjacent buildings together, the CCD had to decide whether it was acceptable or if it would be considered a 200-square-foot sign, something which is illegal in town.
Another plug for the library annex
Berky brought up an example in Toronto of infill building, the encouraging of building in small spaces or alleys where burned or demolished buildings once stood. Delisio seized the opportunity to make the argument that the failed library annex proposal was a good example of infill design.
The 1,800-square foot freestanding building on the land occupied by the former Library Laundromat would have been a great opportunity, he said, but people argued it was too close to the stream and the aesthetics of the mostly glass exterior didn’t fit with the rest of the architecture. “Making regulations eventually kills creativity,” Delisio said.
But Ekroth countered the plan ran afoul with the Wetlands and Watercourse law and noted it lies in a floodplain. “Even Bradley Meadows is in a floodplain,” Ekroth said.
Some suggested the annex was reminiscent of a showcase project for a famous architect, such as the Fisher Center at Bard College. “You could bring all the famous architects and build all the chrome buildings and they wouldn’t fit here,” said Jerry Washington, who served on the library’s facilities task force, a panel that recommended building in the rear of the existing library.
Artist Gay Leonhardt suggested creating a competition for guerrilla artists to do something with the town’s empty spaces. Decent garbage cans and keeping up on tree work would also go a long way, she suggested.