By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong
Members of Cold Spring’s Historic District Review Board (HDRB) repeatedly clashed with the mayor and village attorney Tuesday night (Sept. 18) over issues related to the Butterfield redevelopment project, including the definition of a “historic” building, criteria for HDRB decision-making, and whether village officials want to dictate how the HDRB handles a specific application or instead ensure that it correctly applies the village code of law.
The entire five-person HDRB met with three Village Board members — Mayor Seth Gallagher and Trustees Bruce Campbell and Matt Francisco — at a Village Board workshop marked by frequently acerbic exchanges. Ultimately, both boards concurred on the benefits of obtaining advice from an outside expert — Julian Adams, a local government liaison in the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
Village Attorney Stephen Gaba led the discussions, presented as an overview of procedures for the HDRB to follow in all pertinent cases but with the proposed Butterfield redevelopment looming over everything. Butterfield’s owner seeks to demolish the old hospital at the center of the site and construct a complex of single-family houses, market-rate condominiums for retirement-age buyers, an intergovernmental municipal building (with a senior-citizen-cum-community center), post office, and retail-commercial space.
The HDRB rules on demolitions within the village’s local and national historic districts by granting or denying a certificate of appropriateness. So far HDRB members have expressed opposition to demolition and launched a search for alternatives.
Cold Spring’s local historic district encompasses much of the village, including the Butterfield property, and goes beyond the national district. Named for its federally recognized status, the national district covers the Main Street corridor and some adjacent areas; stricter regulations apply to changes there than in the local district.
In ascribing historic importance to the hospital, HDRB members mention the link to Julia Butterfield, the 19th-century Cold Spring philanthropist who posthumously funded the institution in her will, and to other residents instrumental in subsequent expansions. The original structure, constructed circa 1922-1925, no longer exists as a distinct entity, having been merged into the 1941 and 1963 additions. “What we’re dealing with is a building that’s historic because of its association with personages,” HDRB Chairman Al Zgolinski explained.
“Isn’t that awfully open-ended?” objected Gaba, who suggested the approach could spawn determinations based on “some far-flung historic personages [rationale].”
“The issue, it seems to me, is ‘historic character,’” Gaba said. “We’re looking for the definition of historic character.” He said that in assessing historic character, the HDRB should refer to the stated purpose of the historic district, given in the village code in Part 1 of Chapter 64, which deals with historic preservation. Part 1 refers several times to safeguarding 19th-century architecture and thus “the essential 19th-century character” of the village. However, Chapter 64 does not specifically define “historic character,” a lapse that encourages conflicting interpretations.
Historic districts “are established to maintain a sense of place,” Gaba said. When assessing historic character, under the Village Code, “the actual history does not apply” in the sense of a prominent individual’s connection to a building, he said. “You have to be able to point to something about the building that contributes” to significance through architectural elements. “If there’s nothing left to reflect the historic character, a certificate of appropriateness has to be granted” for alterations, including demolition, if the property owner applies for one, he said.
Zgolinski disagreed. “I think it’s more than the aesthetic aspects of it” that must be considered, he said. “Why do we dismiss history? Our charge is to preserve historic buildings … buildings that are historic for other than aesthetic reasons.”
Gaba further asserted that “it’s important to have an objective criteria as to whether something has historic character or not.” In deciding whether a building cannot be torn down or altered, he and he mayor said that the HDRB should not employ the standards it uses for recommending that a building get landmark status. Under the Village Code, a building may be “landmarked” if it “possesses special character or historic or aesthetic interest or value as part of the cultural, political, economic, or social history of the community.” The Village Board, not the HDRB, makes the final decision on whether to declare a building a landmark.
Another flashpoint involved a building’s status as one “contributing” to a historic district or instead merely standing as a “non-contributing” structure within a historic district’s bounds. A 2010 study commissioned by the HDRB but since criticized by it termed the old hospital “non-contributing.” Zgolinski said the HDRB had told the study author upfront to avoid designating any Cold Spring buildings as contributing or non-contributing.
The study “was accepted and used by us as a draft,” said HDRB Member Kathleen Foley. “We disagreed with her [the study’s author].”
Although the completed study was sent to New York state, “we never accepted it” as a document to be adopted, Zgolinski added.
A state grant funded the study and the mayor said Albany wants such studies to list contributing and non-contributing structures. “This is what the state says you should do and then you use this to determine if buildings are historic, are contributing” or not, he said. “You don’t have to protect non-contributing buildings.”
In the case of the old hospital, the 2010 survey “is very strong proof the building does not have historic character,” Gaba told the HDRB.
A memo from Zgolinski sent to the Village Board earlier in the day and distributed with other materials at the meeting observed that the Village Code does not mention the “contributing” versus “non-contributing” factor, and “so, it does not apply.” The code allows the HDRB to review “any improvement” — building — in the district, the memo further declared. The code likewise states that “insofar as possible, the proposed alteration shall retain exterior architectural features of the designated property which contribute to its historic character as seen from the street,” as Zgolinski also noted. “We feel it’s pretty obvious that demolition doesn’t retain anything,” he wrote. “Based on that criterion, we feel justified in denying the application.”
Foley objected to Gaba’s and Gallagher’s intervention. “What this smacks of is the mayor and village attorney telling us how to vote on an application” — the request to demolish the old hospital, she said.
“We’ve never interceded for any other applicant,” Trustee Francisco put in.
Gallagher and Gaba replied that the issue is not Butterfield per se but how the HDRB acts in any such case and whether it comports with village law.
Under the HDRB thus far, Gaba claimed, “it seems obvious that we’re not following the process as written in the code.”
“In deciding an application you have to follow the village code,” Gallagher said. “You’re not considering the code as it was written. Our job is to make sure our boards adhere to the code. We’re not looking to have any special treatment of an applicant but to apply the code equally and properly. ”