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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


cmblackwood's picture

I see leaflets were distributed in front of the post office yesterday with a negative spin on this project, just as this article has a negative spin.  You have chosen to slant your story in ways that seem very unfair to me- I hope everyone comes to the meeting tomorrow night (june 2) so that your worries will be put to rest.  I think I am giving far more than I am taking with this project- but of course none of that has been mentioned in either the leaflet or the article above.

   I have been very respectful to my immediate neighbors who are now all approving of the plans and will leave the NORTH LOT OPEN so that all the people who drive or walk on Grinnell street can enjoy this wonderous view-   It is not necessary that I do this- I will continue to pay taxes on this now buildable lot- and will forfet my ability to build there so this wonderous view can be enjoyed by all who drive or walk by ...

    Have you forgotten that i have fought some big battles - using my time and energy to save Rhinecliff from some big threats.  I love it here- just as you do and consider myself one of you- I am sad you have chosen to seperate me from you- and to use this forum (I was here from the beginning) to actually put your own negative spin on my plans....I welcome everyone to come to the meeting tomorrow so your questions can be answered and fears put to rest.  The anger and venom I have experienced has caused me enormous stress......I am one of you. I love this place- and will defend it and protect it......Carolyn Marks Blackwood

cmblackwood's picture

This has been an arduous process for all of us. It has been very stressful for me, and has taken an inordinate amount of board time.     I would like to summarize the plan one more time and add a new detail that may help the board come to a decision.

1.      Our plan is to take off the ugly addition that was added to the original 19th century house, and put the house back into it’s original architectural context.  This traditional looking salt box type house is what you will see from the street.  

2.      A modern pavilion would be built mostly on the second southern lot, which would be combined with the original house lot.  The profile of this pavilion will be one story lower than the addition, which is being taken off the original house.   The pavilion will only be one story high on the street level and the two parts of the house will be connected at the basement level.  May I remind the board, that the square footage proposed on these two combined lots will be far less than the amount allowed if these two lots were to be built on separately.  Building the house here will cause the least amount of disruption of view for all my neighbors.

3.      While the pavilion will not in anyway interfere with the almost 180 degree panoramic views the Heywood’s enjoy from their house and grounds, they did express three concerns, which I would like to address.

4.      When I visited Harry and his wife Annie, and we talked about my plan, we looked at the height of the pavilion, which has been staked out, together.  We looked together at his winter view north, (which is hidden by trees and leaves during the spring, summer and fall). We looked from his favorite chair in his living-room and from his porch.  Because the Heywood house is situated on a much higher elevation, we all agreed that this limited view north, of the river and mountains as seen through the trees during winter, would not be impeded and could still be seen over the roof of the pavilion. Harry then expressed concern that his view of the back of the pavilion would leave him looking at a concrete wall during the winter months.  I gave Harry my word that there would be mitigation using foliage.  I also promised to keep the foliage from growing taller than the roof.  He and Annie were greatly relieved to hear this.

5.      The only other hindrance to this plan for the Heywood’s is the proposed Garage apartment, which would impede on the side view to the street from their garage apartment.  To expedite this whole process, I am now willing to take building an apartment over the garage, off the table.   In doing so, the view from the Heywood garage apartment will remain the same.

6.      Kept to the south, the more modern pavilion, will not be seen from the street as it is to be hidden behind hedges.   These hedges are necessary for my privacy.   Without the hedges the new house will be hindering the view anyway and I will have no privacy.  Hedges, even on properties with river views is common in Rhinecliff- these hedges are not setting a precedent.  But still, in exchange for allowing these hedges, I am proposing another give back, that being that I combine my third lot, with the other two, and keep that one vacant.  This lot has the most beautiful view of the three that I own.  It is park like and beautiful.   Keeping it open in perpetuity would guarantee my neighbors, Kitty Pilgram and John De Nota  the beautiful views from their houses over my land, and guarantee their views will never be blocked.   May I remind the board that I am paying taxes on, and giving up the potential of a very valuable building lot.  This is the big view from Grinnell street, and it would remain open on the street, for all passers by to see. 

7.      I will be asking  permission for a legal, low stonewall, fence or bushes, to use as a demarcation line to keep trespassers off the land.  I am told that if someone gets hurt on my land I can be held libel.   But the grand view will remain. 

Carolyn Marks Blackwood