Last month, Mayor Steve Noble announced a plan entitled “Access for All” that will replace all of the city’s sidewalks to make them ADA compliant. While we support improving the city’s accessibility, this should not be at the cost of removing the city’s historic bluestone. Let’s not repeat the errors of urban renewal, in which hundreds of historic buildings were torn down in a misguided notion of progress. Additionally, we hope the mayor is aware of the significant carbon dioxide footprint of new concrete sidewalks.
Bluestone sidewalks are protected in Kingston’s historic districts, but much bluestone survives outside those areas, lending character and beauty to neighborhoods throughout the city. We urge city officials to consider ways to balance improving accessibility with preservation of this irreplaceable historic asset, and to hold a public forum addressing sidewalk design, maintenance and preservation.
Recognizing bluestone’s value, the city commissioned a Bluestone Survey in 2013. “The City must embrace the recognition of its historic infrastructure and a philosophy of preservation of these important but disappearing assets,” wrote Jack Braunlein, the author of the report. He further noted that Kingston’s “picturesque streetscapes can be given new life by sidewalk restorations that improve walkability and showcase the city’s charm and attractiveness.” The survey pointed out that bluestone sidewalks, along with bluestone curbs, carriage stones, hitching posts, and gutter drains, belong to what was once one of the city’s most significant industries. Starting in the 1830s, locally quarried bluestone was shipped out of Wilbur to cities as distant as San Francisco and Havana, and by 1880 the stone accounted for 60 miles of local sidewalk and curb. Friends of Historic Kingston offers a summary of this history, with timeline, bluestone tour, and tips on maintenance (fohk.org).
Grant-funded sidewalk replacement projects in Midtown will replace bluestone sidewalks and curbs with concrete. This has already occurred on Cornell Street and is planned for Henry and Franklin streets (because they are in the Fair Street Historic District, two blocks of historic bluestone sidewalks on Franklin will be preserved, but the remaining block of historic bluestone sidewalk will be replaced with concrete). This spring, the city plans to begin the removal of all bluestone sidewalks on Broadway from St. James to Cornell/Grand streets as part of the Broadway Streetscape project. Though most of it is newer stone, the sidewalk includes massive slabs that have been in place for over a century, plus bluestone pathways and steps connecting the sidewalk to adjoining businesses.
We fear such projects are eroding Kingston’s identity as a city of bluestone and wonder why the city has established concrete as the new standard for consistency. This policy signifies the death knell for bluestone in Kingston, despite the findings of the Bluestone Survey and provisions in the city code specifying standards for bluestone sidewalks and their repair. The code also requires property owners to maintain the sidewalks abutting their properties “in a reasonably safe condition.” Many property owners value their bluestone sidewalks and some have spent substantial sums repairing them.
Besides aesthetics, another reason to preserve the existing bluestone is the benefit to the environment. Concrete, called “the most destructive material on earth” by The Guardian, has an enormous carbon footprint. The production of cement, a key ingredient of concrete, accounts for about 5 to 8 percent of the world’s overall CO2 emissions, according to the International Energy Agency and other governmental agencies around the world. Given this significant carbon footprint, plans to replace bluestone sidewalks with new concrete fly in the face of Kingston’s climate-smart initiatives. As noted in the Bluestone Survey, much of Kingston’s bluestone is in good condition, meaning that only deteriorated stones would need replacement.
Bluestone in poor condition is a hazard, and repairing the historic stone is expensive. Newer bluestone does not hold up as well, making proper installation essential. To this end, Kingston should create a master plan with accompanying legislation for sidewalks that would identify existing bluestone outside the historic districts as well as those areas that should be preserved.
Historic preservation is a green initiative that is key to the quality of life and economic development of Kingston, which is New York State’s third-oldest settlement and one of the nation’s most historic cities. Bluestone sidewalks are a unique attribute that makes that history visible and accessible to all.
Lynn Woods is co-producer and co-director of the film “Lost Rondout: A Story of Urban Removal.” David Weseley is a lawyer, editor and writer.