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Zoning Board denies Blackwood variance request

on Thu, 08/21/2014 - 21:40

The Rhinebeck Zoning Board of Appeals has rejected Carolyn Blackwood’s request for an area variance.  The variance would have permitted her to build a house of 4,096 square feet in Rhinecliff, where the zoning limits houses to 2,300 square feet.  While the case is still before the Planning Board, this decision by the ZBA effectively means that the applicant and her designer Steve Mensch will need to go back to the drawing board.

The ZBA’s decision is articulated in a 3-page resolution summarizing the Board’s findings, but it is supplemented by a 23-page document (written with the help of Town attorney John Lyons) that reviews the facts of the case and the rationale for denying the variance.  This document is here.  It contains an appendix listing 44 letters that were submitted by the public and documents that were part of the record reviewed by the ZBA.  Most of them are available on this website here.  We'll have the resolution itself when it becomes available.

The ZBA’s decision to reject the application was not unanimous.  Three board members voted in favor of the resolution denying the variance; two members, including ZBA chairman Michael West, opposed the resolution and said they would have granted the variance.

From the beginning back in February when the Blackwood application was first submitted, it has been the subject of controversy.  Many people in the community have opposed it, while many others have supported it.  Even experts on the comprehensive plan, zoning, and Rhinebeck history have found themselves on opposite sides of the issue.  Sally Mazzarella, for example, came out in support of the plan, while Hudson River Heritage wrote a letter expressing disapproval.

The Planning Board, which is reviewing a special use permit and site plans for the Blackwood project, also appears to be divided.  When the ZBA asked the Planning Board for its opinion on the variance, the Planning Board said that it didn’t have enough information to render an opinion — even though it had been reviewing the case for months.  Nonetheless, two Planning Board members were willing to share their personal views.  Richard Murray wrote a letter to the ZBA saying he favored the project, while Chairman Michael Trimble submitted a letter recommending that the ZBA not grant the variance request. 

According to the Rhinebeck Zoning Code and New York State law, when the ZBA reviews a variance request, it needs to consider what’s called “the balancing test.”  The ZBA must balance the benefit to the applicant against the detriments to the neighbors and community with respect to five factors.  As explained in the long document prepared by the Board, for all but one of the five factors the ZBA determined that the evidence favored denying the variance. 

According to the ZBA’s analysis, the most important factor was the issue of scale.  Simply put, the Board concluded that the size of the proposed residence “would result in an undesirable change in the character of the neighborhood” and “create a detriment both to nearby properties and to the Hamlet in general.”  The Board did not weigh in on the debate about the modern style of the project.

In a related development, there’s news that Mrs. Blackwood has purchased her neighbor’s property at 56 Grinnell Street.  According to papers filed with the Dutchess County Clerk on August 15, Mrs. Blackwood bought two lots from John De Nota.  One has a house across the street from her property, and the other is an empty lot contiguous with her lots on the river.   The deed doesn’t indicate the purchase price, but it says the transfer tax was $3,200.  The New York State tax is $4 on $1000, so it looks as though the property went for $800,000.  

Mrs. Blackwood now owns five parcels with two houses at the top of Grinnell Street, and it's likely she will want to make some significant changes.  The ZBA’s decision yesterday is not the end of this story.  

Fire commissioners to meet with Rhinebeck supervisor

on Fri, 07/25/2014 - 11:25

The Rhinecliff Fire Commissioners will be holding their next meeting on Monday, July 28, 2014 at 7 p.m. at the Rhinecliff Firehouse.  Town Supervisor Elizabeth Spinzia will be there to discuss possible changes to the Rhinecliff Fire District with the fire Commissioners.  The changes could involve expanding the size of the district and raising rates for property owners. 

This is will be an informational meeting but not a public discussion. Rhinecliffers are encouraged to attend the meeting to learn how these changes may affect the hamlet and its surrounding fire district.

A Tale of Two Hamlets

on Mon, 06/30/2014 - 06:09
 
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity.…

The fireworks resume this week over the controversial plan to develop Carolyn Blackwood’s property at the top of Grinnell Street in Rhinecliff.  On Wednesday, the Zoning Board of Appeals will continue the public hearing on the application for an area variance, which is necessary since the house would be expanded to nearly 4,100 square feet, well in excess of the 2,300 square feet limit set by the zoning code for the hamlet.

Proponents of architectural designer Steve Mensch's plan for the property have taken to describing the hamlet with terms like “eclectic,” “diversity,” "quirky" and “maverick individualism.”  The idea is to make it seem that Rhinecliff isn’t really very “historic,” so it can easily accommodate a very large and very modern-looking new house.  It’s an interesting strategy but very ominous for the future of the hamlet.

 

Preserve and protect

There is some truth, of course, to seeing Rhinecliff as a mix of old and new.  Homeowners are always modifying their houses with additions and improvements, and there’s not much chance that the place is going to be frozen in time.  Rhinecliff is never going to be a “living history museum” like Old Sturbridge, Mass., and it’s not an authentic eighteenth-century New England village like Deerfield, Mass. 

But Rhinecliff is definitely a historic place.  In fact, as Cynthia Owen Philip puts it in Rhinecliff: A Hudson River History, the hamlet, "by Hudson River standards, is ancient.  Not only is it the oldest hamlet, but it preceded by many years the Town of Rhinebeck of which it is a part.”  Its origins go all the way back to 1686.  

The architecture and unique topography of Rhinecliff make it one of the great examples of nineteenth-century Hudson River vernacular, and the hamlet’s houses, modest though they may be, are important historic structures.  As Philip notes, Rhinecliff’s dwellings may not be comparable in grandeur to the estate mansions or some of the houses in Rhinebeck Village, but they are just as historic — and in some cases even more historic.  “Moreover,” writes Philip, “each is an authentic expression of the generations who have lived in them.”

Of the 160 or so houses in the Rhinecliff Overlay District — the hamlet and the gateway along Rhinecliff Road — nearly one hundred were built before 1900.  One of the criteria for being listed on the National Register of Historic Places is that a property be at least fifty years old.  All but a dozen houses in Rhinecliff satisfy this criterion.  (A list and map of the houses in the district are here.)

Rhinecliff is also one of the contributing hamlets to the Hudson River Historic District, which is listed on the National Register as a National Historic Landmark District.  Most of the houses in the hamlet are thus contributing structures to the National Register.

In the section on the Rhinecliff Overlay District in the Rhinebeck Zoning Code, the term “historic” appears a couple of dozen times in the space of just a few pages.  Many people worked for nearly a decade writing the Comprehensive Plan and the Zoning Code, and when it comes to Rhinecliff, their message is clear: preserve and protect the hamlet’s historic character and make sure that everything that gets built here, whether it’s a new house or a simple addition, is “in harmony,” “sympathetic,” “consistent,” and respectful of “the architectural character and fabric.”

 

Welcome to Eclectic Rhinecliff

Steve Mensch has proposed a radical redevelopment of the Blackwood property at the top of Grinnell Street.  He calls his scheme “A Modern Pavilion in a Hidden Garden.”  The pavilion is a 1,100 square-foot glass box house with a flat roof, some stucco walls, and lots of floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over the river.  The pavilion is clearly intended to look and feel modern, one of the things Mrs. Blackwood was looking for in her new home.  

Around the pavilion are a lot of landscaping — the hidden garden — and a large terrace.  The addition also includes a lower level of about 2,500 square feet, which serves as a platform for the pavilion, the terrace, and a restoration of the original 1860 house, as well as the passageway connecting the old house and new pavilion.

In order to provide Mrs. Blackwood with some privacy — and people who live in glass houses do need their privacy — Mr. Mensch's plans call for some “stacked landscaping” and a hedgerow that's 75 feet long and 9 or 10 feet high.  The hedge won’t just provide privacy, however.  It will also block a beautiful view of the river for everyone else.  (There's more on the proposal here.)

When Mr. Mensch gave his presentation about the Blackwood proposal to the Rhinebeck Planning Board back on April 7, he had to convince the Board that his modern glass box would not be an unwelcome intrusion in the hamlet.  That wasn’t easy.  When someone asked him if he couldn’t leave out the hedgerow in order to preserve the view, Mr. Mensch said this: “Without the hedge, the scheme would become: a modern pavilion on Grinnell Street….  It would make no sense....  From the street, the pavilion would look isolated, jarringly out of place, and arbitrary.”

In his presentation to the Planning Board, Mr. Mensch skipped over the section of the zoning code on the Rhinecliff Overlay District — the part that’s about the importance of preserving and protecting the historic character of the hamlet.  Instead, he took another approach.  He chose to make a case that Rhinecliff isn’t so historic after all.  (You can watch this part of the meeting on You-Tube here, starting at 1:45:30.)

“Rhinecliff is just one of the greatest places I know,” Mr. Mensch told the Planning Board.  Had he been able to find the right place twenty years ago when he came to the area, he would have moved into the hamlet himself.   Mr. Mensch then went on to say, “I love Rhinecliff, but not because it’s intact.  It’s not intact.  It is a mix of wonderful stuff.  It’s full of energy, it’s full of vitality.  It is not a nineteenth-century village by any stretch of the imagination.” 

What makes Rhinecliff unique, said Mr. Mensch, is its “variety” and “maverick individualism.”  “To try to constrain it and make it into a village from another time would be a big mistake,” he added.  “That’s not what it is or what it wants to be.”

Mr. Mensch’s use of the phrase “not intact” is worth noting.  In the context of landmark designations and historic preservation, the term “intact” appears frequently as a criterion.  When evaluating a structure or area for inclusion on the National Register, for example, one needs to consider the extent to which the character-defining features of the place are still there and not altered beyond recognition.  To say that Rhinecliff is “not intact,” then, is a way of suggesting that so much of the place has changed that there’s no historic fabric left to worry about.

In order to further develop his theme that the hamlet is not really such a historic place, Mr. Mensch went on to tell the Planning Board a story about a failed effort to get Rhinecliff designated as a historic place.

“Rhinecliff was at one time proposed, nominated to be a national historic place,” said Mr. Mensch, “and the nomination was declined and this is what they say:

”The present character of Rhinecliff recalls its heyday during the late nineteenth century, although few properties retain sufficient integrity of design and materials to meet the National Register criteria. Extensive twentieth-century alterations to the older buildings and the large number of modern intrusions throughout the hamlet preclude the creation of an historic district.”

To which Mr. Mensch then added, “And I say, good news to you guys," as if Rhinecliffers should be happy the nomination was declined.

Mr. Mensch thus made it seem as if Rhinecliff had been nominated to the National Register of Historic Places but had been rejected because so many of the older buildings had been altered.  He also made it seem as if the quotation he read was the judgment of the “they” who reviewed and declined the nomination.

But that’s not exactly what happened.

 

Misreading the National Register

The passage Mr. Mensch quoted came from the 1987 National Register Nomination Form for the Rhinebeck Multiple Resource Area. The nomination was written by Neil Larson, a historic preservation expert who lives in Woodstock.  I spoke with Mr. Larson the other day, and he explained what did happen. 

Back in the late 1970s, when organizations like Hudson River Heritage identified and surveyed the Sixteen Mile Historic District that stretches from Hyde Park to Germantown, the focus was on the big riverfront estates, their historic structures, and their formally designed landscapes.  The hamlets were left out because there just wasn’t much appreciation for their vernacular qualities.

In 1979, the Sixteen Mile Historic District was nominated to the National Register.  In her history of Rhinecliff, Cynthia Philip notes that Rhinecliff “was deliberately carved out of the Sixteen Mile Historic District, even though the hamlet might have qualified under all of the [National Register] criteria….  To preservationists' eyes, the hamlet was merely the shabby part of town.”   

Even into the 1980s, as Philip writes in an article in About Town, Rhinecliffers were known as “Dock Rats,” the kids tended to wear hand-me-downs, housing prices were the lowest in the area (except for maybe Tivoli), and the hamlet was eligible for federal grants to poor neighborhoods.  Rhinecliff was seen as kind of low rent.

In 1987, when Mr. Larson wrote the National Register nomination form for the Rhinebeck Multiple Resource Area — the nomination that Mr. Mensch quoted from — the focus was on noteworthy historic structures in Rhinebeck.  A half dozen of them are in Rhinecliff — including the library, the hotel, and the general store building at the corner of Shatzell and Kelly — but the nomination did not include the hamlet as a whole.  The reason, explains Mr. Larson, is that the National Register program did not recognize the significance of vernacular architecture, and there was undo focus on the issue of building alterations.

Three years later, Mr. Larson, working with Hudson River Heritage, wrote the National Register nomination for the Hudson River Historic District.  This time around, one of the goals was to rectify the omissions of both the 1979 and 1987 nominations.  The riverside hamlets of Tivoli, Annandale, Barrytown, Staatsburg, and Rhinecliff were therefore singled out for special attention.  They’re listed right at the top of the form, and they’re discussed in detail throughout the narrative; an inventory of their contributing structures is also included.  

The fact that many of the houses had been modified with new additions was no longer considered reason to exclude the hamlets from the National Register.  Instead, the modifications to historic buildings were seen as part of their history and a significant aspect of their vernacular character.

All of which is to say simply this: Contrary to what Mensch told the Planning Board, Rhinecliff was never nominated and then declined as a historic district.  The passage he quoted wasn’t the verdict of the New York State Board for Historic Preservation or any other agency involved with judging nominations for the National Register.  The passage he quoted was simply the explanation for why Rhinecliff wasn’t being included in the 1987 nomination to begin with.  

The key fact that Mr. Mensch didn’t bother to mention is that in 1990 Rhinecliff was nominated to the National Register as a contributing hamlet within the Hudson River Historic District.  Rhinecliff is now part of a National Historic Landmark District, the highest rating on the National Register of Historic Places.

 

Rewriting Wikipedia

This effort to rewrite history has another interesting twist to it.  On June 4, a couple of days after the Planning Board meeting where the Blackwood proposal was the subject of heated public debate, someone created a Wikipedia account with the username “Jaywoodruff” and proceeded to “correct” a couple of “errors” in the Wikipedia entry on “Rhinecliff.” 

The first change was to delete the link to Rhinecliff.org in the list of External Links at the end of the article.  Jaywoodruff gave this explanation (viewable in the history log of the Wikipedia article): “Despite the name, Rhinecliff.org is a private website whose opinions do not reflect those who live in the Hamlet of Rhinecliff.  It is not the official Hamlet Website.” 

The second revision involved the way Rhinecliff’s landmark status was described in the Wikipedia article.  The original version read like this:

Rhinecliff is one of the oldest intact hamlets along the Hudson River and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places as a contributor to the Hudson River National Historic Landmark District.

Jaywoodruff rewrote the sentence like this:

Rhinecliff is one of the oldest intact hamlets along the Hudson River and is a contributor to the Hudson River National Historic Landmark District.

The revision thus deleted the reference to Rhinecliff being listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Jaywoodruff provided this explanation for making the change:

The designation in the National Register of Historic Places has not been given to the Hamlet of Rhinecliff — It has been given other designations and there are individual designations or houses in Rhinecliff but the Hamlet itself has not been given this.

It’s important to note that the original Wikipedia entry did not say that Rhinecliff had its own unique listing on the National Register.  It said quite clearly that Rhinecliff was on the National Register “as a contributor to the Hudson River National Historic Landmark District.”  

As these two revisions to Wikipedia suggest, someone out there doesn’t want people knowing that Rhinecliff is on the National Register of Historic Places, and he would apparently prefer that people not know about Rhinecliff.org either.  

If this attempt to rewrite the Wikipedia article had happened some time ago — it’s appeared this way on Wikipedia since 2007 — one might not think much of it.  But considering that these changes took place in the heat of the Blackwood controversy, one has to wonder what’s going on here.

By the way, the link to Rhinecliff.org and the original version of the National Register reference have been restored to the Wikipedia entry on “Rhinecliff.” 

 

A modest pretention or exclusive enclave?

For most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the elite of the Hudson Valley resided in their country estates, while the hamlets were populated by the middle and working classes.  In today’s parlance, Rhinecliff was a place for “affordable housing.”

As Mr. Larson writes in his description of Hamlet Architecture for the 1990 National Register nomination, the class orientation of the Hudson River hamlets is largely responsible for their visual character.  “Overall,” he writes, “the hamlets have a quaint Victorian look and a modest pretention.  The buildings are small, mostly frame in construction and plain in ornamentation….  They are situated on very small lots in a compact linear plan organized along a principal street…. The unity and regularity of these houses contribute to a strong sense of one's being in a historic district.”

Rhinecliffers have always made modifications to their homes, but the look and feel of the place have remained much the same (as suggested by a comparison of these photographs of Rhinecliff in 1948 with this gallery of Rhinecliff today).  The unique topography of the hamlet, the density and scale of the buildings, the vintage of the housing stock, all these things have ensured that the character of the place has persisted in spite of the many changes.  

But the fabric of a historic place is a delicate thing, and if it’s going to remain intact, some kinds of change must be resisted.  Mr. Mensch’s plans for the Blackwood property — the modern-style glass pavilion, out-of-scale size, and privacy hedge — do not preserve and protect the historic character of the hamlet.  

Hudson River Heritage, which serves as the federally designated steward for the Hudson River Historic District, recently submitted a letter on the Blackwood proposal to the Rhinebeck Planning and Zoning Boards.  HRH expresses concern about "the aloof relationship of the house to its neighbors and the hamlet," the "stark contrast" of the forms and materials to the hamlet vernacular, and the precedent of combining lots to create a larger house.  "Approval of this application," writes HRH, "could quickly lead to a transformation of the Rhinecliff bluffs into an exclusive enclave of large homes, something that has already occurred south of the hamlet proper." 

If the Blackwood property is developed as Mr. Mensch has proposed, others will follow, and eventually the qualities that make Rhinecliff so special will become, well, history.

(Photo credits: Rhinecliff Rooftops by Frank; model of Blackwood proposal, from video of presentation)

Hamlet Yard & Book Sale

on Sat, 06/21/2014 - 10:57

Rhinecliff Hamlet-Wide Yard Sale and Morton Book Sale & Electronics Sale

June 28 at 9 a.m.  The event is rain or shine.

Morton Memorial Library, 82 Kelly St., Rhinecliff, and other locations throughout the hamlet

Signs will be up and maps will be available. More than 15 will be selling a wide variety of treasures. Park legally where you can.

At Morton, there will be blow-out book sale. Fill a bag for only $3.

Used computers and other electronics will be for sale by Morton’s tech guru. Some are free — while supplies last! Apple laptops, Apple desktops, Apple monitors, PC laptops, PC desktops, PC monitors, printers, computer speakers, wireless keyboard and mouse, IPhones, IPod speakers, wireless routers, cordless phones, Kindle, Nook and more.

Sales at Morton benefit the library.

CONTACT: Visit http://morton.rhinecliff.lib.ny.us/ or call (845) 876-2903

ZBA Meeting on Blackwood proposal pushed back to July 2

on Thu, 06/12/2014 - 15:28

The Rhinebeck Zoning Board of Appeals has changed the date for the continuation of the Public Hearing about the Blackwood proposal yet again.  The ZBA had originally set the hearing for July 2.   Then it changed the date to June 18.  Now it’s back on for July 2, at 7:35 at Rhinebeck Town Hall.  We’ll keep you posted on any new developments.  The Public Hearing Notice for the July 2nd meeting is here.

Zoning Board moves public hearing on Blackwood proposal to June 18

on Wed, 06/11/2014 - 11:38

[PLEASE NOTE: Afther the following article was posted, the ZBA meeting was re-scheduled yet again; it's now back on for July 2, as originally scheduled.  More here.]

The Rhinebeck Zoning Board of Appeals will continue the Public Hearing on Carolyn Blackwood’s application for an area variance at its next regularly scheduled meeting on June 18, starting at 7:35.  The Public Hearing Notice is here.

The continuation of the public hearing phase of the process had previously been scheduled for July 2, as per the Board’s decision at its meeting on June 4.  Now the hearing has been moved up to June 18.  The reason for the change is a little complicated, and key events are happening behind the scenes, but here’s what we know.

Architect Steve Mensch has proposed a significant change to the Blackwood property on Grinnell Street, at the top of the hill, on the cliff over the river. It features a “modern pavilion in a hidden garden,” i.e., an 1,100 square-foot glass house with a large terrace, both screened from the street by a long, tall hedgerow that would block a portion of the view of the Hudson River and Catskills for neighbors and anyone walking or driving by on Grinnell.

The plan also includes a restoration of the original part of the 1860 house and a large lower level, which would provide the connection between the old house and the new pavilion.  The total size of the residence would be 4,096 square feet — well beyond the 2,300 square-feet limit for Rhinecliff, so it requires an area variance from the ZBA.

The proposal has caused controversy because of the size of the house, its modern style, and the blocked view, among other things.  Mrs. Blackwood has offered to put a conservation easement on the north portion of her property, which has a dramatic view of the Hudson, but this concession has not put an end to the conflicts and concerns.

In order to get a better sense of how the views would be impacted and what the whole scheme would look like, the Planning Board, which must approve the whole thing, voted unanimously at its meeting on June 4th to hire a visual simulation consultant.  The consultant would create a 3-D model of the plan and be able to show “before” and “after” images of the house and river views from a variety of angles and locations. 

A few days after the Planning Board meeting, Mr. Mensch wrote the Board to complain about its decision to hire the consultant and about how much money it was going to cost the applicant.  (The letter is here.)  At some point, Mr. Mensch also informed the Board that the applicant might change the plan, which made proceeding with a visual simulation premature.  The Board has therefore put hiring the consultant on hold.

Apparently, upon learning that the visual consultant was not going to be preparing the simulation anytime soon, the Zoning Board decided there was no need to wait, and it decided to move forward on its consideration of the applicant’s request for an area variance.  So the public hearing was moved up from July 2 to June 18. 

It’s not clear at this time if the applicant is going to come forward with an amended application on June 18th or if something else is in the works.

For more on the Blackwood proposal, see these previous posts and resources page.

Waterfront Day June 14th

on Mon, 06/09/2014 - 03:03

The annual Rhinecliff Waterfront Day will be Saturday June 14th. Enjoy  Live music, food, games, face painting, bouncy house, clown, raffle prizes, a pie eating contest and so much more. It's good for the whole family.  11am–5pm rain or shine.
 

ZBA review of Blackwood proposal continues on June 4

on Tue, 06/03/2014 - 10:03

We had previously reported that the meeting of the Zoning Board of Appeals scheduled for June 4 was canceled, but now it's back on.  One of the items on the agenda is the proposal to develop the Blackwood property at the top of Grinnell Street.  The agenda for the ZBA meeting is here.  The discussion of the Blackwood application is set for 7:50. 

The ZBA will be continuing its review of Carolyn Blackwood's application for an area variance permitting her to build an addition to her home and studio that would bring the total square footage to 4,096, considerably more than the 2,300 square feet permitted by the zoning for the Rhinecliff Overlay (Rc-O) district.

The size of the proposed residence was one of the main subjects discussed at yesterday's meeting of the Planning Board, where the public hearing on the Blackwood proposal continued.  The session lasted about an hour.  Steve Mensch, the project architect, went over the highlights of the amended application, which included eliminating the apartment over the garage (to avoid blocking the view for the neighbor) and promising to keep the north lot open in perpetuity through an easement.  

Carolyn Blackwood expressed her unhappiness with those in the community who were opposing her project by distributing a flyer and writing slanted articles on Rhinecliff.org (with what she felt was a misleading photograph).  Several Rhinecliffers spoke up about the proposal, both in favor and opposed.  

The session concluded with the Board voting unanimously to hire planner George Janes to do a 3-D visual simulation of how the property would look with the glass box pavilion and landscaping. The Board will also be referring several new zoning issues to the Zoning Enforcement Officer and the ZBA.  

You can watch a video of the June 2nd Planning Board public hearing on the Blackwood proposal here.  For more background on this story, see this previous post.

Here are the letters submitted this week.   

 

Planning Board continues review of Blackwood proposal

on Wed, 05/28/2014 - 06:57
When: 
Monday, June 2, 6:30
Where: 
Rhinebeck Town Hall

On Monday, June 2, the Planning Board will resume its review of the proposal to develop the Blackwood property at 64 Grinnell Street.   A related meeting of the Zoning Board of Appeals originally scheduled for June 4 has been cancelled.  For more about the Blackwood proposal, see this previous post.

The Planning Board meeting begins at 6:30 in Town Hall.  The agenda says that the appllicant will present an amended application with modifications of the proposal that were discussed at the meeting on May 19.  This will be the fourth discussion of the proposal, following previous discussions on April 7, April 22, May 5 and May 19.  The materials for the amended application are here.

The Planning Board is reviewing the applicant's revised plan to consolidate three parcels into a single parcel totaling 0.88 acre, and to expand the existing dwelling to 4096 square feet.  The property is officially in the Rhinecliff Hamlet (Rc-H) and Rhinecliff Overlay (Rc-O) Districts of the zoning code, as well as the Town's Local Waterfront Revitalization Area (LWRA) and the Hudson River National Historic Landmarks District.

 

Plan for large ultramodern residence on the river stirs controversy

on Wed, 05/28/2014 - 06:34

A proposal to build a large contemporary residence on Grinnell Street overlooking the Hudson is generating a lot of controversy in Rhinecliff. 

Several Rhinecliff residents have spoken out against the proposal, objecting to the massive size of the proposed residence, its ultramodern style, and the way it blocks the neighbors' and community's views of the Hudson River and Catskill Mountains. Other Rhinecliffers have defended the proposal, arguing that it will be a beautiful addition to the hamlet and that it blends the historic and the modern in a creative way.  

The matter is currently before both the Rhinebeck Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals, and it's on the agenda for the next meeting of the Planning Board on June 2.

The property, which consists of three contiguous lots at 64 Grinnell, was purchased by Carolyn Blackwood in 2006.  The middle lot has a house built in 1860, which was modified and expanded in 1997.  There's a garage on the south lot and an open yard on the north lot.  The whole property has a great view of the Hudson, which is shared by everyone who walks or drives by.

According to a letter she wrote the Planning Board in February 2014, Blackwood finds the existing house to be “ruined and ugly."  She loves the site, though, and bought the property with the intention of building something new.  

Blackwood also says the house is too small for her needs.  In her application to the Zoning Board for an area variance, which would allow her to build a house much larger than permitted by Rhinecliff zoning, Blackwood provides the following explanation for why she cannot comply with the area requirements of the law: "I am a photographer and a film producer.  I work at home and, in addition to the usual family living space, require studio and archive space, a viewing room, and room to accommodate guests and professional collaborators, who sometime stay with me for extended periods of time.”

Blackwood has hired Rhinebeck architect Steve Mensch to design what he calls “the new situation.”  Mensch is the architect of his family compound on Mill Road, which is described in this Architectural Digest article.  He also designed the house at 23 Grinnell Street, built in 2011.

Mensch's plans for the Blackwood property consist of two wings, a garage, and a terrace.  A larger version of the sketch, along with other materials in the amended plan submitted this week, can be found here.

The north wing (A) would be a renovation of the original 1860 house, with the 1998 addition removed, and contain a studio and bedrooms.  The south wing (B) would be what Mensch calls a "Modern Pavilion in a Hidden Garden" — a modern glass house surrounded by a large enclosed terrace.  The glass house would contain the kitchen, living room, and dining room.  Below the houses and terrace would be a lower level with a video room, bedroom, basement utility areas, and another terrace.  The garage (C) would be torn down, rebuilt, and enlarged to 750 square feet.  

The entire property would be walled off from the street.  On the north side of the current house, the open lawn would be preserved, but a two-foot-high stone wall would mark the property's eastern edge along Grinnell, from the house to the northern end of the lot, a distance of about 120 feet.  On the south side of the current house, between the house and garage, a distance of about 75 feet, there would be a four-foot-high retaining wall and a hedgerow about ten feet high, to provide privacy to the terrace and pavilion.

All told, with both wings, the proposed residence would be 4,096 square feet, not including the garage.  (The average size of a house in the hamlet is about 1,600 square feet.)  The proposal significantly exceeds the 2,300 square feet limit permitted by the Rhinecliff Overlay District (Rc-O) in the Town's zoning law, so Blackwood is seeking an area variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals. 

The overall footprint of the project is also a matter of concern.  The two wings, plus the enclosed terrace, covered walkways, and garage, occupy well over 4,000 square feet.  That's more than twice the average for Grinnell Street, where some of the hamlet's largest properties are located.  As the sketch of the site plan shows, the residence will encompass most of the middle and southern lots above the cliff ledge.  

Here's another drawing showing how the residence would occupy the bluff over the cliff (this one is from the east):

Aside from the size issue, the proposal has caused controversy for other reasons.  The new pavilion will be in an architectural style that many people do not feel fits properly with the historic character of the hamlet.  It will have a flat roof, stucco walls, and floor-to-ceiling, steel-sash windows — a style associated with mid-century High Modernism and architects like Mies Van Der Rohe and Philip Johnson, famous for their iconic glass houses.  Many people find it difficult to see how such a structure conforms to the objectives of the Rhinecliff Overlay District, which is all about preserving the historic character of the hamlet.

The most contentious aspect of the project is probably not the size, scale, or style, however.   The pavilion and terrace would be shielded from the street by a long retaining wall and tall hedgerow.  The wall is limited by zoning to four feet in height, but the hedge would be eight to ten feet high, and it would go from the garage to the house, a distance of approximately 75 feet.  It will completely block the public's view of the river on the south side of the current house.  

Here's the view that would be lost.  You're looking at the river through a space in between the garage on the left (the south) and the house on the right (the north).  Of course, as you walk by the property, the actual experience of the view is much more expansive.  Rather than simply seeing straight across the river, you can also see more to the north and south as your vantage point shifts. 

Below is a drawing from the architect's plans.  The first sketch shows the current site, with two garages on the left (the one on the far left belongs to the neighbor) and the current house on the right.  The lower sketch shows the hedge that would run from the garage to the house (with the addition removed).  Behind the hedge are the new glass house, the terrace, and the view.  

The second sketch makes the hedgerow seem rather innocuous, and one can't even see the glass house behind it, but the actual experience of being on Grinnell Street will be much different.  Here are a couple of additional sketches from the architect's submission to the Town boards.  The first shows the site with the hedge running from the garage to the house.  That rectangular break in the hedge near the garage is the entranceway into the "Hidden Garden."  The lower sketch shows what it would look like without the hedge.  This sketch gives one a sense of how the glass house would be situated.  The space to the right of the glass house is the terrace area.

The Planning Board has been reviewing the plan for several weeks now, with attention to how it addresses the objectives outlined in the zoning law, specifically Article VI on the Rhinecliff Overlay (Rc-O) District.  These objectives include preserving the hamlet's architecture and pattern of design, continuing the hamlet's existing residential character, improving the visual characteristics of the hamlet with landscaping that enhances views to the Hudson River and Catskill Mountains, using traditional building materials, designing roofs sympathetic with the vernacular architecture, and limiting the size of buildings to prevent oversized homes that don't fit with the historic character of Rhinecliff.

In his responses to these objectives, Mensch contends that the much of the new addition will be below the street level, so the size and massing will not be as visible as they would be in a normal setting.  He also claims that the zoning law does not prohibit building in a contemporary architectural style, and besides, the hedge will screen the glass house from public view.  Mensch also suggests that the zoning requirement that the roof be “sympathetic with the vernacular architecture” is ambiguous.  He notes that the Guggenheim Museum, while “highly contrasting” with the apartment buildings on Fifth Avenue, can still be considered “sympathetic” to its surroundings.

As for blocking the view, Blackwood's application for a zoning variance states that the alternative method for "solving the problem" of her needs as a professional photographer and film producer "would be to maintain 3 separate parcels and build on each."  Mensch similarly points out that the as-of-right zoning would permit three houses of 2,300 square feet, plus three 650-square-foot garages.  Building on all three lots would look something like this, as shown in a sketch provided by Mensch to the zoning board:

Considering that this approach to developing the property would block the entire view on both sides of the current house, Mensch and Blackwood argue that their proposal will preserve the view on the northern side of the property and have a rather modest impact overall.  In support of the plan, Rhinecliff artist Joseph Maresca characterized the view on the south side of the house as merely a "sliver"  and "need not even be there."  

In his initial presentation to the Planning Board in April, Mensch said his aim was to do a modern building "without being compromised by its relationship to the old building."  The aesthetic of his buildings, he explained, is about "enclosing the experience with the very least gesture you can come up with — the least materials, the least of anything, to just whisper it in there, and that's where this comes from.  [It is] very lean, minimal.  All it does is protect you from the elements."  (video at 1:37).

Mensch concluded his presentation by suggesting that compared to the big developments going on across the river in Kingston, what he is proposing is a "little teeny, weeny thing on top of the bluff."  In any case, he said, "It should be a pretty high bar before you deny someone the right to develop their property, and I can't see it here.  This is a pretty low bar in my opinion."  (video at 1:53)

Many Rhinecliff residents believe that the proposed project is anything but a "whisper" or a "teeny, weeny thing."  It will be an extremely large, sprawling residence and block a large part of the view of the river.  They are also not convinced by Mensch's argument that the plan will preserve the "better view" on the north side of the house by sacrificing the "lesser view" on the south side.  It makes little sense to think of the view as having two halves like this.  

If the project goes forward, say its critics, the entire experience of the hilltop on Grinnell Street will be changed forever.  Rather than being a Zen-like exercise in minimalism, the development will be an extremely obtrusive presence in one of the most prominent positions in the hamlet. 

There have already been several meetings before the Zoning Board of Appeals concerning the area variance and the Planning Board concerning the special use permit.  The approval process with both Boards is ongoing.

If you would like to submit comments to the Planning and Zoning Boards, the public hearing stage of the process is still open.  You can email comments to the Town using the contact form here.  Just indicate that your comment is directed to the Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals.  The address for letters is 80 East Market Street, Rhinebeck, NY 12572.  All the contact information is here.  The Planning Board will be continuing its review at the meeting on June 2, starting at 6:30 p.m.


For those interested in learning more, here are links to some of the relevant materials:

Materials submitted by applicant

Letters and reports from town officials

Letters to the Town from the public (more to come)

Videos of planning board meetings

Government documents

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