A shakeup at a city commission charged with maintaining Kingston’s historic character has led to two resignations from other volunteer boards, and accusations that the changes are part of a politically motivated purge to help clear the way for a major building project in Uptown Kingston.
The replacement of two members of the Historic Landmarks Preservation Commission comes one month after the volunteer body sought to weigh in with concerns about the impact of the proposed Kingstonian retail, residential and parking project in the heart of the city’s historic Stockade District.
“I can’t read [Mayor Steve Noble’s] mind,” said former HLPC member Marissa Marvelli this week. “But it was clear that his staff, specifically [City Planner] Suzanne Cahill did not want to work with members of the commission to carry out the city’s historic preservation program.”
Marvelli, a professional historic preservation consultant, was appointed to the HLPC in September 2016. Her term expired in September 2018 but Marvelli continued to serve on the commission until earlier this month when she was called into a City Hall meeting with Noble. According to Marvelli, Noble informed her that her services would no longer be required because, she said, “he did not feel our visions for historic preservation were aligned.” Marvelli said Noble also told her that her inability to get along with staff at the city Planning Department — which had recently assumed an oversight role of the commission — contributed to his decision. A second commissioner, architect Alan Baer, was replaced the same week.
The Baer and Marvelli dismissals came two months after oversight of the HLPC was shifted from the city’s Building and Safety Division to the Planning Department. At a March 7 HLPC meeting — the first under the auspices of the Planning Department — Marvelli engaged in a long and sometimes testy exchange with Cahill and Assistant Corporation Counsel Dan Gartenstein over procedural issues as the commission sought to place on the record their concerns over the potential impact of the Kingstonian project on archaeological resources and the historic character of the Stockade District.
Cahill advised Marvelli that the discussion was premature, because the planning board had not yet officially assumed “lead agency” status on the environmental review, while Gartenstein argued that the commission had not followed proper procedures to place the matter on the agenda in accordance with state Open Meetings Law.
Marvelli said the exchange at the March meeting was part of a pattern of Gartenstein and former Building and Safety Division chief Tom Tiano expressing impatience with her efforts to get answers about procedural issues and uphold the city’s historic preservation regulations.
“If ‘getting along’ means not asking questions, not pressing staff for clarification, not making recommendations for improving the process, not sharing relevant professional expertise and leaving applicants to figure things out on their own, then we must ask who we, the staff and commissioners, are there to serve?” Marvelli wrote in an email to the Kingston Times.
The mayor’s side of it
Noble, meanwhile, downplayed the significance of Marvelli and Baer’s departure from the board. In an interview this week, Noble noted that he had taken steps to strengthen the commission by dedicating a part-time clerk to work on historic preservation issues.
“My goal is to be able to have commissioners who are skilled and excited to do the work,” said Noble. “Sometimes you just have to make a change.”
Following Marvelli and Baer’s replacement on the commission, two other volunteer board members resigned their posts in protest. Giovanna Righini stepped down from a position on the Heritage Area Commission that she had held for a decade. Rebecca Martin, who runs the activist group KingstonCitizens.org, resigned from a task force studying new zoning regulations in accordance with the city’s comprehensive plan. Righini said that she was bothered by the timing of the reshuffling on the HLPC, one week before a public hearing on the Kingstonian project.
“The removal of Marissa Marvelli and Alan Baer struck me as a political maneuver that I was really not comfortable with,” said Righini. “I could not continue in my position knowing that had happened.”
Martin, meanwhile, said she believes the shake-up at the HLPC was a backdoor effort by Noble to fold the HLPC into the Historic Area Commission. The proposal to merge the two commissions was part of an early draft of the city’s new comprehensive plan; it was stricken from the document after protests by preservationists including staff at the State Historic Preservation Officers. The new HLPC members, realtor Hayes Clement and architect Robin Andrade, both also serve on the Heritage Area Commission.
Martin said the move appears to be a de facto integration of the two commissions by appointing the same volunteers to both.
“It just erodes my confidence that we can work with Common Council and work with the decision makers,” said Martin. “What’s the point if those decisions can just be thrown out until the mayor gets the results he’s looking for?”