Members of the Village of New Paltz Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) have stepped up with a proposal that could transform how downtown looks in the years to come. Their idea is to expand their existing review authority to include the downtown historic district, providing a mechanism to look at building aesthetics before a structure is built.
Mayor Tim Rogers has publicly mulled over the idea of a design standards review board for some time; village residents have been more vocal in their interest in such a scheme since construction at 51 Main Street began back in 2015. The largest stumbling block has been that finding volunteers for existing boards and commissions is already challenging, making Rogers and village trustees reluctant to create a new committee with seats needing to be filled. With HPC members offering their services, that complication would be resolved.
HPC chair Tom Olsen explained that the goal is to take pressure off Planning Board members and building department employees by relying on their experience in this arena. The oversight area would match the borders of the New Paltz Downtown Historic District, over which local officials can exercise no additional control despite that designation. A local law would be needed to expand HPC authority.
What Olsen and his colleagues propose would allow them to provide “consultation,” but not to reject an idea as they can on Huguenot Street. That decision would rest ultimately with Planning Board members, but requiring a session at the HPC table could make the design which is presented at a Planning Board meeting more palatable to community members regardless. The process would not cost more and could be conducted in tandem with site plan review. Developers would be guided in making decisions about design elements and building materials to fit better into the downtown aesthetic.
“We don’t want the power to say no,” the HPC chairman explained.
This does not mean that new buildings could only be stone houses; Olsen stressed that New Paltz has an eclectic feel to its architecture, which includes the modern as well as the historic. Rather, it would be a way to help developers save time and money by selecting elements and making decisions which are more likely to please neighbors, lessening the chance of furor.
Deputy mayor KT Tobin said that trying to judge eclectic designs “makes me nervous,” noting that while a new building might be controversial, it could also be the first of a new trend which someday might be considered historic itself.
“It’s a recommendation,” Olsen pointed out, not the ability to control the look of new buildings. He was reluctant to speak about 51 Main in particular, but did eventually say that HPC members “have a lot of regret” about that building, because they were not asked for a voluntary review until late in the process. Olsen said they would have encouraged a setback uniform with neighboring buildings, and considered the way it appeared from all sides, not just the front.
Rogers found the idea of implementing design review without asking more of overtaxed Planning Board members quite appealing. He observed that in this case, an additional layer of bureaucracy would likely reduce burdens on developers by getting them to avoid controversial choices when possible.
A draft law to empower HPC members as described will be written for consideration at a future meeting.