Meredith Anker wants to raise her home 6 1⁄2 feet.
Right now, it sits within a 100-year floodplain on a dead-end street just a stone’s throw from the Mohawk River. The first time the river poured through her home was during a January 1996 thaw; the last time during the back-to-back tropical storms of 2011, when the river reached her kitchen countertops. She was displaced for nine months, the time it took to rebuild walls, floors and windows.
So moving her house two feet above the floodplain? Seems practical, even obvious.
But Anker lives in the Stockade Historic District, a 350-year-old, intact historic district on the National Register of Historic Places. Residents of Schenectady’s oldest neighborhood can’t replace their shingles or a window without going through the proper channels. So moving an entire house?
“For a long time I thought I would sell my house because I can’t handle the strain of whenever it rains,” she said. “It’s just too much. It’s too aggravating. It’s too scary. But I don’t know that I could ever sell my house because the flood insurance is astronomical. And every time the water rises, and it rises every year, you never know if it’s going to come through. It used to be we just worried about ice jams, but recently with the hurricanes coming up the coast, I just can’t handle the anxiety.”
On Monday night, Anker will ask the Schenectady Historic District Commission for approval to move and elevate her house at 4 Washington Ave. two feet above the certified 100-year floodplain. It will be the first time someone in the district attempted to elevate their home in the nearly four years since tropical storms Irene and Lee devastated homes in the historic community. And she has a sizeable grant from the state’s NY Rising program to do it.
But her architect — Frank Gilmore of Stracher Roth Gilmore Architects in Schenectady — is thinking big picture. He’s hoping the request gets the city thinking about the much-larger question at hand.
“There are 40 to 50 houses in the Stockade that are within the 100-year floodplain,” he said. “It’s astonishing, and it’s a big deal. But there are other economic development priorities for this city that have taken precedence. The mindset has been, well, the Stockade has always been here, it always will be here, what are we worried about? But these storms are coming more and more, and the Stockade won’t always be here if we don’t do something about it.”
Anker’s request could be the prototype for all homes in the community looking to get out of the floodplain, Gilmore said. What he wants to do is build a new, elevated foundation directly behind her home, move the house there and then bring in fill to create a landscaped, sloped front lawn with steps up to the front door.
There are other options for homeowners looking to protect their property from floods. One involves jacking a house up on stilt-like foundations in its existing spot, in some cases building a carport beneath the first floor. But for residents on the north end of Ingersoll Avenue, this would involve jacking homes up eight to 10 feet, creating a huge disconnect between the roadway and the homes.
“You would need a fire escape to get to the front door,” Gilmore said. “It would be absurd. It would ruin the historic district.”
The other option — the one that would create the least disturbance to the existing streetscape of the district but, according to Gilmore, would do nothing to lower long-term flood insurance rates — is to renovate homes in a way that improves infrastructure resiliency and hardening. This could involve anything from installing waterproof floors to encasing foundations to moving utilities up out of the basement.
Developer John Samatulski, a longtime Stockade resident who’s trying to save several flood-damaged properties in the neighborhood from demolition, said this is the only common-sense option until the district can come up with a comprehensive flood mitigation plan.
“If we set the precedent that it’s OK to arbitrarily raise your house without any thought to your neighbors, then I believe we have the potential to destroy the historical integrity of the Stockade,” he said. “I just really think if we’re going to raise homes in the Stockade, we should do it in a comprehensive and cohesive way.”
That, of course, is what Gilmore is hoping will happen. But it can only happen, he said, if residents and officials are open to the idea that doing nothing is not an option.
“The commission is pretty strict, and I get that,” he said. “You don’t want people to just start moving stuff and damaging these buildings and this neighborhood in the process. I’m not for that at all. But the raison d’etre of preservation is simply no change. So no one’s been talking about this issue. It’s almost as if they wished it would all just go away.”
Before Gilmore’s plan for Anker’s house goes before the commission Monday, residents and interested parties are invited to hear a discussion and presentation on the topic of flood mitigation of historic structures by William Nechamen, chief of floodplain management for the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The meeting kicks off at 7 p.m. in Room 110 of City Hall.
Commission Chairwoman Sara Stein, in an email Friday, said she was on vacation and declined to comment.
“I, myself, don’t know what to expect, as it will be our first discussion,” she added.
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