Building on the past: the Stockade District’s tipping point

Consider for a moment Kingston’s value as a city with a rich historical heritage. Like that of a natural resource, the value of its historic fabric is rooted in its survival over time and its finiteness. Its aesthetic qualities attract people, and compel us as a community to protect and preserve them. Kingston is now at a tipping point and the community must consider how much economic development its historic fabric can sustain before it’s torn beyond mending.

Like ecosystems, historic neighborhoods have many interrelated elements. More than just a collection of old buildings and sites, its thoroughfares, topography and open spaces are the warp to the community tapestry’s weft. This tapestry, woven through the centuries by natural forces and countless hands, provides Kingston with a distinct sense of identity, history and authenticity. This fosters a dynamic, sustainable, diverse and inclusive community, as well as being a major economic engine.

But like its natural counterpart, a district can be exploited for short-term gain. Over time, the fine threads of an old place are worn down and covered over, and someplace becomes anyplace when the links with the past are lost.

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Kingston’s Stockade Historic District is unique. Of New York’s three original Dutch fort settlements — New York and Albany being the other two — its original boundary footprint is still readily apparent. This is largely due to its location on a plateau-like promontory overlooking the fertile Esopus Creek plains. As the legend goes, Peter Stuyvesant, the last director-general of the Dutch-held New Netherlands colony, personally chose the site for its advantageous topography, which is edged by bluffs on three of its four sides. This not only provided good drainage, but when fortified with a log palisade, a bastion and a guardhouse, it brought some measure of security during the turbulent frontier days of the settlement when colonists battled the native Esopus for rights to the land. The fort, which was initially confined to the northeast corner of today’s district between North Front, Clinton, and John streets and west of Wall Street, was expanded three times between 1658 and 1677. The siting of house lots within the fort determined much of the street pattern we have today.

By the early 18th century, the stockade had lost its usefulness and was taken down. Successive generations built new buildings, blocks and streets, adding texture and depth to the town without fundamentally altering its character. Most new developments have maintained a consistent scale and building type pattern. Modestly ornamented two- and three-story brick buildings line the commercial blocks of Wall and North Front streets, forming continuous street walls and storefronts. The adjacent blocks are more varied in character and appearance with houses and buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries. Today’s Kingston Stockade District is a 350-plus-year-old civic testament to continuous — and mostly incremental — change.

The historic harmony has from time to time been challenged. The greatest threat to the Stockade’s integrity, besides the great conflagration set by the British in 1777, came with the mid-20th century’s urban renewal efforts. While Kingston’s Rondout area certainly bore the brunt of the era’s heavy-handed civic “improvements,” the Stockade District too grappled with the era’s manic drive to usher in economic progress. Two separate proposals would have disrupted the colonial street pattern to increase traffic flow through the district. The urban renewal plan also flagged a number of old, underused and varyingly derelict buildings for demolition. Preservation campaigns were waged: the Hoffman House, the John Tremper House at 1 North Front St. and the Dr. Luke Kiersted House at 95 John St. were saved, but the 18th-century stone Jacob Bruyn Building and the mansard-topped County Clerk’s Office Building were lost. Today the old Bruyn lot is the woefully underused Peace Park. Kingston’s lone corporate Modern office building overlooks the site where the County Clerk’s building stood, an architectural rebel in its masonry and clapboard context.

The system of sidewalk canopies along sections of Wall and North Front Street, known as the Pike Plan, was another urban renewal effort. While local attitudes differ about its worth as they have since it was first proposed by the Woodstock artist John Pike in 1969, there is no question that the plan imposes a sameness where individual business’ identities are most critical. It’s ironic that the initiative’s most vocal proponents were preservationists who considered installing the canopies to be a restorative act. (A restoration of what remains unclear; in fairness, it was a Hail Mary effort to slow the loss of commercial activity to suburban shopping centers.)

But after 43 years of existence, the canopies too have become part of the district’s identity, for better or for worse.

The last decade and a half have brought two equilibrium-challenging development proposals. The first was a 12-story condominium building to rise on the site of the dilapidated municipal garage (also an urban renewal project) at the base of the bluff along North Front Street. A fierce debate ensued over its height, with preservationists arguing that the building would dwarf those in the district. The proposal was eventually withdrawn.

Today, a new proposal for the same site is widening a fissure in the Uptown community. Many business leaders are narrowly focused on its potential for economic stimulus. But community residents have concerns about the project, among them its architectural appropriateness, the site’s infrastructure capacity, and its lack of affordable housing. First presented in late 2017, the development, called the Kingstonian, seeks to do horizontally what the previous proposal did vertically as an interconnected complex of equal-height buildings spanning multiple lots with an outdoor plaza as its spine. It will contain a mix of ground-floor retail and market-rate residential units, much of which will sit atop a new parking garage structure. A hotel will be housed in a replica of the old hotel building currently standing at the northeast corner of the site, which will be demolished. The section of Fair Street descending from North Front Street will be closed to through traffic to accommodate an entrance to the garage from Schwenk Drive and the plaza above. This will undoubtedly alter the experience of the centuries-old settlement boundary where the change in the natural elevation is most evident in the district.

The proposal challenges the Stockade’s integrity in other ways. At present, the bulk of its architecture is dominated by balconies, cement board siding, and bright white trim — a design palette characteristic of a coastal condo complex. Further sharpening the comparison is the fact that an outdoor swimming pool will serve as an internal focal point.

Ideally, new buildings in historic neighborhoods build on the place’s pre-existing narrative. They neither imitate nor snub it, but instead engage in a subtle architectural dialogue with the past. To achieve this requires a deep reading of the context and its significance. If a new project can’t contribute to the neighborhood’s narrative, then the next best hope is that it’s neutral to the neighborhood’s context; it neither adds to nor detracts from it. In other words, it doesn’t spoil the magic.

This is a difficult bar to clear for a development that has no historical precedent. Totaling over 176,000 square feet with upwards of 1,400 linear feet of street façades, the Stockade District has never seen a development of the Kingstonian’s scale or street-swallowing scope. For comparison, the two façades of the old Stuyvesant Hotel at the corner of Fair and John streets total 300 linear feet. As it stands, a significant junction of the Stockade will be built anew by a Vermont-based architect whose architectural perceptions of the district appear to be overly simplistic and who to date has not publicly presented his work to the community. Yet his architecture, if realized, will shape the experience and interpretation of the district for decades to come.

This concern should not negate others. The climate crisis is upon us. With a substantial amount of greenhouse gas emissions are produced by buildings, the race is on to reduce their carbon footprint. In this light, channeling precious funds into new parking infrastructure seems positively retrograde. Affordable housing is another pressing need that will not be addressed by this project.

These concerns are not mutually exclusive. Much of the late ecologist Aldo Leopold’s work wrestled with the idea of reconciling private economic interest with public well-being. In writing about resource conservation, he urges society to, “Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Maintaining this symbiosis is also important in historic districts. There too is a fine balance between economic growth and preservation. What we build matters. How and where a building gets built, how it comes to be used, how it supports a community and contributes to the “sense of place” matters. If a building cannot rise to the occasion then perhaps it is best it not rise at all.

Marvelli is a historic preservation consultant and, until recently, a vice chair of the Kingston Historic Landmarks Preservation Commission.

There are 11 comments

  1. JamaicaonHudson

    Agree. Wholeheartedly.

    Good planning requires an understanding of place. Respect for Kingston’s history–its preservation–is as integral to a plan economic development. In fact, the two are interrelated.

    I’ve had people within certain circles tell me that the city’s history shouldn’t be “overly emphasized”…That only its future matters.

    The problem is, look around, we are our history.

    Pareto policy shouldn’t be the guiding force behind development.

  2. Bill Berardi

    What a thoughtful and considerate article. Thanks for Kingston Times for sharing the educated insights of the writer that our Mayor Noble has sought to stifle by his dictator like appointments.

  3. Bill Berardi

    Thanks to the KT to print these experiences, education and thoughtfulness of the author stifled by our City Mayor in favor of his cronies!

  4. gerald berke

    It is surprising and welcome that the Kingston Times takes a well-reasoned position on the affairs of Kingston.
    This is especially well-wrought: “Many business leaders are narrowly focused on its potential for economic stimulus.”
    That scuttled the Kingston Corridor under the creative and active leadership of Ms. Donskoj as the Main Street Manager, a 2-year project. There was a lovely plan for a theatre district, and that drew no attention. The Comprehensive Plan was neither comprehensive or a plan, with the city failing to choose the clearly best consulting firm to do the job: they took the cheapest route and got nothing and it has been routinely ignored.
    When at long last the Kingston Motel was torn down, there was a design charette held by Ms. Strong, very well done, and then ignored.
    Now we have a traffic circle, greatly disruptive designed to speed traffic through the city, having no measurable objectives and which is expensive, delayed, and disruptive to the walkability of the Kinston Corridor and which has contributed to the lack of attention to pedestrian crossing for what, a decade?
    We have a Build a Better Broadway, which is long-delayed and overkill and again is a foil for neglecting midtown walkability, crosswalks, lights… but wait: here comes the Green Line which if given some time for the people of the city to discover and use it, will put down a defining shape that finally makes some progress at uniting Uptown, Midtown and Downtown, and would only be enhanced by the Kingston Corridor.
    And there is the KIngston Library, a fabulous resource, a chain of lovely stops Keegans, The Anchor, The Art Bar, Tubby’s, the YMCA and it’s garden and the access points to the Green Line. But so far it seems the County Bus Service in the city of Kingston. despite much time to plan, is falling well short of expectations…. that, I trust is temporary: active citizenry (Friends of Kingston Public Transit Riders Group) is on the case.
    Add to that KIngstonCitizens.org, The KIngston Land Trust: Kingston is poised to be an absolute jewel.
    Anchored by history, local architects that respect that history, brilliant active citizenry, Friends of Historic KIngston, we should move cautiously with an (understandably) narrow focus on economic stimulus from the (big) business community….
    Uptown, Half Moon Books, Rough Draft, Dietz and Forsythe and etc etc… we are doing so very well.
    Scale down any “KIngstonian”, hold on with that 587 traffic circle and maintain and use what is there now, get the KIngston Corridor Shuttle Service going…. careful of growth that outruns purpose, has unpredictable results and disrupts current residents… make sure this rising tide lifts all boats.

  5. Steve

    This is a very well prepared argument, however one that I disagree with entirely. The reality of the Stockade
    District is that we still have a 20% vacancy rate in our commercial properties. The majority of residential
    apartments above those properties are in dire, desperate need of rehabilitation. The very reason the new
    movement of creatives, new residents, and new business “feels” sudden is because the district, and Kingston
    as a whole, have endured 35 years of a long, steady, very disruptive decline. Often, people find a “comfort”
    in their surroundings even when those surroundings are substandard.

    Yes, you heard that right, substandard.

    Kingston has been resigned to being on the down and out for decades. Now, we are actually seeing real
    gains in population, in business growth, in investment, in property values, in the opportunities that are real
    benefits for everyone in our town, not just “the evil rich” as some would have us believe.

    The proposal at the heart of this discussion is absolutely correct for the site on which it is proposed. With
    very, very few exceptions, 95% of the site is current vacant, abandoned, or under-used. It generates virtually
    NO benefit for Kingston or its residents. The dozen or so new businesses that have opened in The Stockade,
    and the new ones proposed need this project to come to fuition.

    We’ve even seen our bus station rehabilitated – benefits everyone! – because of the potential that we are
    experiencing in real-time today.

    Historic Preservation is alive and well in Kingston, and this will only help. It will be yet another catalyst,
    as we are seeing today, for more investment in our older properties, new lights coming on in our empty
    buildings.

    Attempting “to win an argument” is a foolish intellectual exercise.
    Actually doing something that will bring more residents, more guests, more businesses, more opportunity
    to Kingston is a real-time effort that lifts this town up.

    The architectural style, the public plaza, the rebuilding of The Kingstonian are all right on point with the
    texture, the varied architectural styles, the scale, and the size that fits on this site.

    I for one, would much prefer to see a lively Wall Street with more 24-hour residents, than the 11 incoherent
    drunks I saw yesterday on the street at 8 PM.

    That is truth and fact, not “opinion or theory”.

    Extremely good things are happening here by people who are working hard to fill the rows of empty stores
    and restaurants with life.

    It is beyond rational that anyone would prefer to keep that from happening.
    Sometimes “principle” is “foolish prinicple.” Blocking this plan is that – foolish.

    Everything the author lists as the jewels, gems, and values of Kingston only stands to benefit – by seeing more
    visitors to those locations, more tax revenue to support those locations, and will introduce many people to those jewels who have no idea they exist.

    Approve this plan.
    Build this plan.
    Let’s not stand in our own way…that’s foolish.

    1. Susan

      Many of us don’t agree with your assessment. Unfortunately, Mayor Noble is trying to ramrod this oversized development down our throats. We are not convinced that this is the best project or architect for that matter.

  6. Bill Berardi

    When the City Politicians who have added a dozen new non-mandated jobs in the past three years along with the added payroll, insurances and benefits which will burden taxpayers forever instead of enforcing the Building registration and inspections codes that exist and maintaining and improving our water, sewer and fire hydrants, streets, municipal parking lots, sidewalks and parks instead go chasing new fads of bike paths and City Hall employee exercise consultants – WHY WOULD THE ANSWER BE TO build something new? If your children do not take care of their toys, cars, rooms and pets only a fool would give them a new one.

  7. Stefan

    August 5, 2019.
    Have just read all of the required, and requested SEQR Reports Documents for the Kingstonian Project.
    Habitat Impact, Storm Water Impact, Viewshed Impact, Historic Impact. These highly researched and current reports show no negative impacts on the site or on Uptown.

    As much as people “want” this to be given a negative review, there is data-driven testing; hysical site testing; dozens upon dozens of pages of photographs of every possible view from The Stockade; Mapping; Habitat Impact Data and Physical Observations.

    Nothing. Nothing negative.

    The current site is a series of empty paved impermiable parking lots that contribute to extensive stormwater runoff that is doing damage. The built structures actually will reduce the runoff.

    From the Stormwater Report: “In summary, the project will reduce the rates of discharge from the site, and reduce the total volume of run-off from the site. Specifically, the peak rate of discharge for a 100 year event will be reduced from 20.95 cfs to 19.78 cfs, approx. a 5.4% reduction of total volume run-off…” it continues, you should read it.

    The Habitat Impact Research Report: “Conclusion, the Northern long eard bat requires/occupies practically the same habitat niche as the Indiana Bat. There are no impacts to habitat and therefore no conservation measures required.”

    The Visual Impact Report: The same conclusion is there are no negative impacts to the existing viewshed. There is existing photographic exhibition in the report on multiple pages; followed by the same photographic exhibition with proposed buildings placed in the proper context. There is literally no obstruction of the Catskills or any Uptown historic buildings.

    The Cultural Resources Report: Again, there is no impact on any historic sites in Uptown Kingston. None.

    The fact of the matter is, the objection to this project is purely one of political elitism and a mis-placed objection to a very
    important and key new development that will boost Uptown residency, boost Uptown business, boost Uptown jobs, boost Kingston tax revenue through hotel tax, sales tax, meal, tax and property tax.

    Kingston, and Uptown stand to see long-term positive benefits.
    This should be approved and we should get going on this.
    Go to the city of Kingston webstie and read the reports for yourself. There are 12 in total, all conducted by different
    independent specialists in each category.

    There is no conspiracy here. There is no impending doom as a very vocal few activists would so desperately have you
    believe. Let’s stop wasting time and keep the positive momentum going on Kingston’s resurgence.

    I would urge anyone who’s fighting The Kingstonian to set there sites on the dozens of existing Kingston building owners and landlords who’s properties are in desperate disrepair. Walk along Wall St…look UP…the buildings need painting, new windows, screens, lighting, structural repair.

    The proverbial “enemy” here is not this new proposal, it is a lack of integrity by many of our local owners and landlords.
    That is where you should be focusing your energy.

    Approve this. Build this.

  8. wowjustwow

    Not sure why people think economic expansion and historic preservation are mutually exclusive. This isn’t Colonial Williamsburg; this is a living, working, historic city. With a growing population, development is inevitable and with growing interest in our architecture and place in history, industries to support tourism will expand. My only problem with this project is the design. I think it looks like a cheap, garden variety condominium community.

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