The state wants Schenectady’s oldest historic district to serve as a guidepost for homeowners in other historic districts around the state who have struggled with repeated flooding and will likely struggle again.
To do that, the city’s 350-year-old Stockade Historic District would need to secure funding to pay for a comprehensive study examining the neighborhood’s propensity to flooding, as well as techniques homeowners can undertake to mitigate their homes against flooding or even raise them out of the floodplain — all without damaging the historic integrity of the homes or the district.
“This kind of severe flooding is an entirely new thing,” said Julian Adams, director of the state Historic Preservation Office’s community preservation services bureau. “It’s something we’re all still wrapping our heads around. The whole issue of what would these projects do to a district is something we’re literally just trying to get our heads around. It’s a new question for us. So I would love to get Schenectady to be at the forefront, to stitch all this together and make a plan that could help others with these questions.”
Schenectady is home to a handful of historic districts, but the Stockade is the only one that sits well within the 100-year floodplain. Homeowners in the floodplain have struggled in the nearly four years since Tropical Storms Irene and Lee over what to do about rising flood insurance, an increasingly difficult real estate market and the costs associated with flood mitigation.
Earlier this summer, a homeowner asked the city for permission to raise her historic home out of the floodplain, touching off a high-stakes debate about whether the move would harm the historic integrity of the district.
The Schenectady Historic District Commission, the volunteer board tasked with reviewing and approving the request, admitted last month that it’s ill-equipped to make a decision without outside help. Neighborhood residents have clamored for a comprehensive study examining the issue, even before Meredith Anker asked to elevate her Washington Avenue home 6 1⁄2 feet. And the city last year decided to use state funding it received to address issues like this on other projects.
But at a Wednesday meeting of the Schenectady Heritage Foundation, Adams offered up residents their first real hope that a comprehensive study could happen.
“We get federal money every year to do at the state level what the federal government just can’t do,” he told a room full of Stockade residents. “So we get this hunk of money every year and set aside at least 10 percent of it for certified local governments like Schenectady to use for preservation efforts.”
In line for grants
The grants range from $2,000 to $60,000, and don’t require but encourage a match of 40 percent. A new funding round opens up this December, and Adams said an application from Schenectady would be given a “very high rating” because it could serve as a benchmark study for historic districts elsewhere, like one in the Tioga County village of Owego that’s struggling with the exact same thing.
Schenectady mayor Gary McCarthy said last week that he was aware of the grant program, and that it’s one of several options the city is looking into to fund a comprehensive study.
“We’re looking to line up the funding to do a study,” he said. “I don’t know what the scope of that study would be yet. One would be a narrow focus of just what happens in the Stockade and how do you mitigate that? Then there’s the bigger picture of high-water events because we’re not the only ones affected. Rotterdam Junction, Scotia, Glenville, Rexford, Niskayuna — they also deal with this.”
Residents and members of the Schenectady Historic District Commission have been vocal this summer about what they see as the city’s lack of concern for a neighborhood that many historic preservationists hold up as a national jewel.
The Stockade was the state’s very first historic district and its location on the banks of the Mohawk River made it the very first place the Dutch settled in the city back in the 1600s.
An opportunity to fund a comprehensive study was passed over last year by the city, which decided to use $3 million from the state’s New York Rising fund to build a new pump station in the Stockade. While it’s a project many view as high priority, residents say the study would have been just as critical but was given short shrift.
“It’s not that we’re not prioritizing [the Stockade],” McCarthy said. “We’re very cognizant of those issues and want to make sure we’re dealing with them in the most comprehensive way. We’re trying to line up the money, but like anything working with the state, nothing happens quite as quickly as we would like. Hopefully the study will resolve some of these pending issues.”
The Schenectady Historic District Commission will meet Monday evening to once again review Anker’s request to elevate her historic home at 4 Washington Ave. Anker and her architect, Frank Gilmore, say the project can’t wait until a comprehensive study is completed because it’s being funded with a state grant that has a deadline attached to it.
The project would raise the home a total 61⁄2 feet, but also set it back from where it currently sits. Fill would be brought in to create a sloped front lawn with steps up to the front door. That would put her house 2 feet above the 100-year floodplain and Anker, who gets anxious every time it rains, would no longer have to pay rising flood premiums.
At its last meeting, the commission said it wanted a consultant to help them complete the required State Environmental Quality Review form for the project. It also asked Anker and Gilmore to find out if the city would grant a floodplain development permit for the project. Gilmore said Wednesday that the city agreed it would.
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