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My View: A zoning solution within our grasp

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    Walter Chatham
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    Jonathan Lerger
September 12, 2018 05:15 am

By Walter Chatham and Jonathan Lerner

For Columbia-Greene Media

What makes Hudson such a precious place?

There’s the magnificent natural setting, of course. But in town, it’s the rich variety of historic buildings. Built in many styles, they’re almost a dictionary of 18th and 19th century architecture. Simple vernacular houses sit next to lavish, exuberant ones. That they’re all mixed up together makes strolling Hudson’s streets an experience of continuous surprises and delights.

The historic architecture is so engaging that it can obscure another, critical, factor: the city’s physical form. Most of Hudson is densely built, on a grid, with narrow lots, sidewalks and alleys. It’s compact and walkable. Buildings vary wildly in style, but the streetscapes have a consistent scale — a human scale. This intact, traditional urban form makes Hudson whole — both a rare historic artifact, and a livable city.

There are equally wonderful old buildings in nearby places like Kinderhook, Chatham and Stockport. But no other place in Columbia County has a true urban form like Hudson’s. The benefits of this extend even to the newer parts of town. The Boulevards and the neighborhood east of Fairview Avenue, our early 20th Century “suburbs,” are less dense. Still, they have many two-family houses. They have sidewalks. And even residents of our bit of mid-century suburbia, off Harry Howard Avenue, can easily get to school, the library, the post office or the hospital on foot or bike, if they choose to.

But now we face the enormous challenge of accommodating both people who already live here and people who want to come. We need to build. We need more housing, at a range of prices. We need space for enterprises that can provide jobs and grow the tax base. But under Hudson’s current zoning law, we can’t add capacity without undermining the very urbanistic qualities that make the city desirable. In fact, our current zoning would make it literally illegal to build the Hudson we know, if we tried to do it all over from scratch.

Our current zoning was adopted at a time when cities were unloved. It had a contrary agenda: to reduce density, and to separate uses. So over here goes only housing — with larger lots, required minimum dwelling-unit sizes, and mandatory parking allotments. And over there go only businesses. Goodbye to the corner store on the residential block, the shop with apartments upstairs, the sidewalks and the alleys. And goodbye to the charm.

Hudson’s aesthetic appeal and human scale originated with the street grid and standardized lots. These established a coherent urban form. There were no style rules. Property owners built pretty much as they pleased. Fortunately, most of that has survived, quirks and all. But current zoning saps the creativity of anyone who appreciates the city’s urban qualities and wants to add the capacity we urgently need. The current zoning code is bewildering to understand, requires a variance for almost every project, and engenders a patchwork of exceptions which can be downright unfair.

There are two ways we can fix this broken, outdated zoning. We could hire legal and planning consultants, and spend perhaps $100,000, plus a year or two, to completely rewrite the existing code. But there’s a simpler, quicker, cheaper alternative. We can adopt an existing tool called Smart Code. Smart Code is a form-based planning template. It regulates the shape, scale, and arrangement of buildings, not whether they house people, shops, offices, art studios or laundromats. In that sense, it functions the way our street grid and lot pattern did in the first place. Smart Code works as an overlay to existing zoning, customized to reflect local desires and complement existing conditions. Adopting it is not quite as simple as downloading an app for your phone. But it would cost more like a few thousand dollars, and a few weeks.

Smart Code would encourage new development in scale with Hudson’s existing urban form. It would encourage building on the many available spaces in our already built neighborhoods, even the small ones. It would relieve pressure to erect large-scale, potentially soulless developments and to build in delicate natural areas and risky flood zones. And it would streamline the approvals process, since a proposed building would only need to meet specifications for things appropriate to its location like height, massing, setback and facade. Read a fuller explanation of form-based codes at https://hudsoncac.weebly.com/form-based-codes.html

The need to revise Hudson’s zoning code is already widely accepted. It’s referred to multiple times, for example, in the recently presented Strategic Housing Action Plan. It’s the elephant in the room every time a major development is proposed, or a project requires some special zoning exception. A wholesale rewrite of our zoning would be daunting, especially given the city’s financial straits. An easier solution exists with Smart Code.

Walter Chatham chairs Hudson’s Planning Board. Jonathan Lerner chairs Hudson’s Conservation Advisory Council.