Friday, November 30, 2007

National Trust for Historic Preservation Highlights Philip Johnson's Endangered Ball House

[Read 'Modern,' our new Modern House blog, here.]

I never got around to linking to two
stories in local New Canaan papers about the public hearing on the application to tear down the Alice Ball House, which Philip Johnson designed. No big deal though because the National Trust for Historic Preservation web journal, Preservation Online, has an article up today that's better than what I would have done on this blog.

alice ball demolition notice 11/8/07

There's more than one issue here but this is one of the key ones:

Although the Connecticut Trust's Web site promotes selling the Ball House, no takers have emerged. Christopher Wigren, Higgins' deputy director and an architectural historian, characterizes this as a case where the home's inherent simplicity may actually work against it.

"People in a position to pay $3 million for a house want more than a galley kitchen," Wigren says. But, he adds, the home is a treasure for the right buyer.

"These houses were not designed to be flashy. It was a conscious simplification of life," he says.

And here's some background:

Earlier this year, the National Trust, in partnership with the New Canaan Historical Society and supported by the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation and the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism, launched a town-wide survey of new Canaan's modern residences, outbuildings and landscapes. Why New Canaan?

"The decision to focus our efforts and resource sin New Canaan was based on the belief that New Canaan has one of the most important collections of modern residences in the United States," wrote National Trust President Richard Moe in a Nov. 14 letter to the chair of the town's historical review commission. "Our work will ensure the placement of those resources based in New Canaan in their proper national and international context and elevate the public's awareness of the importance of them to prevent senseless demolitions."

Another of Johnson's champions, architect Richard Bergman, says the trend toward knocking down older, architecturally significant homes not protected by historic designations is increasing.

"A building lot in New Canaan is worth $2 million from the get-go," Bergman says. He believes the Ball House should be preserved, but that the current owner has priced it so high it will be difficult to find a buyer. "I like the house; I could live in it myself," Bergman says.

Bergman, by the way, lives in a beautiful Greek Revival House near the train station that was the home of Maxwell Perkins, the Scribner's editor who edited Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe and others.

Here's the Preservation Online story.

Philip Johnson's Alice Ball House

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Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Sound Tunnel in the Times

Peter Appelbome of the Times writes about the Long Island Sound tunnel today and, as you’d expect from the Times as compared to the local papers, raises good points and says it better:

The promoters say it would save time, and with up to 80,000 cars not stuck idling in gridlocked traffic, it would reduce fuel consumption by more than 24 million gallons a year and carbon dioxide emissions by up to 235 tons per day. It’s safe to assume that those numbers will not go unscrubbed. And there’s always the rejoinder that if the ride is that simple, maybe it will simply produce more cars and more pollution. …

The review process should ask that and more — nuts and bolts ones on the impact of the project on existing roads and highways and big picture ones about whether it’s needed (why not more ferries?), whether the price is right ($25 tolls?) and whether an all-auto project of this magnitude makes any sense. Don’t expect it to happen without a rail component as well….

Here are two other issues. The first is whether the civic technology for killing projects is so much more refined than the technology for building them that you can’t attempt a project like this anywhere near high-dollar neighborhoods in the Northeast.
The second is whether the cooperation between city and suburb is so flaccid that there just isn’t the political will to get this done, whatever its merits.

If it’s a lousy idea, it’s hopeless. If it actually makes sense, economically and environmentally, the question is whether the handful of people who really matter in Manhattan, Albany, Nassau and White Plains think this is worth investing political capital on.

The early reaction will be worth watching. Either this dies a quick death or we’re at the beginning of a process that will make the seemingly endless rebuilding of the Tappan Zee Bridge look like an impulse purchase at the mall.


Spawning Help in North Branford and Success in Greenwich

Who knows why the number of spawning alewives and blueback herring in local rivers and streams has fallen so low? One theory is that striped bass restoration efforts have been so successful that the big fish (the stripers) are eating the little fish (the herring). Throughout Connecticut, the two most popular solutions are to remove dams or build fish ladders, to ease the upstream passage. And apparently it's working, at least in some locations:

This spring, in Greenwich, the Mianus River passageway saw a 12-fold increase in river herring — about 90,000 fish. News of the record migration spread rapidly along the shoreline.

Kim Martineau of the Hartford Courant dropped that nugget into the bottom of an interesting story (
here) about a family in North Branford that, with state and Trust for Public Land help, is building a fish ladder on the part of the Farm River that passes through their property.

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Survival Tactics tor High School Lobstermen

The high school kids who are being trained to help lobstermen with the v-notch program (which, let's face it, amounts to a public subsidy of the lobster industry) are also being trained to survive if the lobster boat they're on happens to be sinking, here.

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New York City's Island of the Dead

It’s one of the quirks of topography that all the islands in Long Island Sound – and there are a lot of them, six or seven dozen, I think I read once – are off the north shore, that is, the Bronx, Westchester or Connecticut. None are off Long Island (Plum and Great Gull and Little Gull are essentially extensions of the moraine that formed the north shore of Long Island).

One of the more curious of these many islands is Hart Island. You can get to it only by taking a tiny ferry from City Island and, because Hart Island is New York City’s potters field, generally the only reason you go there is that you’re dead. One of the Times blogs has an interesting account of a filmmaker who has been studying Hart Island for years and has finally succeeded in persuading the city government to make a list of people buried there public. Here is more.


Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Still Lots of Bad Stuff In and Under the Water

As if to illustrate the point that you can find anything and everything in New York City, there’s a non-profit called the Urban Divers Estuary Conservancy, which consists of scuba divers who examine and study underwater areas of greater New York Bay. The Times had a story about them in yesterday’s paper (which you might have seen – it is the most emailed story in the Times Metro section).

The group’s website, which is old and apparently in a very slow reconstruction phase, lists a bunch of places where they’re working, including Flushing Bay and the Bronx River, but the Times story was about the Gowanus Canal, in Brooklyn. It's a good reminder that as much as local waters have improved, they haven't improved that much:

Over the summer, the Department of Parks and Recreation contacted the group, which has only three paid staff members, to monitor an oyster restoration project in the East River. Restoring the population of oysters, which once flourished beneath the East River’s murky waves, could have a significant impact on cleaning up the river…

When Avra Cohen, 55, went into the Gowanus this past summer to collect samples from an unidentified microbial colony growing on the bottom, he wore a suit of vulcanized rubber, two pairs of gloves and a full face mask.

Mr. Cohen was inoculated against hepatitis A and tetanus. A friend suggested that he get vaccinated for typhoid, too. “And the doctor asked me where I was traveling,” Mr. Cohen said. “And I told him, ‘Brooklyn.’” …

The Gowanus is cleaner today than in previous decades, but still bedeviled by sewage overflow and runoff from local industrial plants. Biology students from the New York City College of Technology recently detected gonorrhea in a drop of water from the canal, according to Scienceline, a New York University publication. And scientists have yet to identify the microbes that Mr. Cohen collected, though they do know that they kill red blood cells….

He spent nearly an hour underwater taking photographs and video of the substrates — layers of clam shells — that the Parks Department had placed in the river to encourage oyster growth. He found old oyster shells that crumbled to dust in his fingers.

As for new spats, or young oysters, the prognosis was not good. “Maybe a few,” Mr. Cohen said, “but it wasn’t like a big plate of oysters waiting for me.”

Reviving oyster beds is a great idea. As Mark Kurlansky wrote in his book, The Big Oyster, there were once so many oysters in New York Bay, Raritan Bay, and the western third of Long Island Sound that they filtered all the water every three days. But that was long ago. As I wrote in my book, oil terminals in the city had already contaminated oyster beds in the far western end of the Sound by the 1880s. I know shellfish are doing well in some parts of the bay, and obviously in the Sound too. But the Gowanus Canal apparently isn't one of them, yet.

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Land Preservation in the Sound's Watershed

I never write on this blog about my work, but in this case I'll make an exception. Here's a land preservation project I'm proud to have worked on as a volunteer for the Town of Pound Ridge and as an employee of Westchester Land Trust. It has the added advantage of being in the Long Island Sound watershed.

A Special Award for TruGreen ChemLawn

As someone who has long detested the amount of time and energy (in the form of greenhouse-gas emitting leaf blowers and mowers) spent on lawns, I was pleased to see that a New England watchdog group called the Toxics Action Center gave out a bunch of "awards" yesterday in Hartford to polluters and included one of the big so-called lawn care companies:

The group also cited the TruGreen ChemLawn Corp. for "blazing a new toxic path for chemical use" and urged the company to adopt environmentally friendly lawn care practices.

Bravo. Among other reasons chemical lawn products are an abomination, nitrogen fertilizers are among the culprits in Long Island Sound's hypoxia crisis.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Dredging Up Trouble

People along Long Island Sound were arguing about dredging 25 years ago, when I was just starting as a reporter in Mamaroneck, and they're arguing about it still. If we don't dredge, our harbors and ports will go out of business; but the stuff we dredge can be badly contaminated, and so digging it up and dumping it elsewhere in the Sound can spread out and worsen an environmental problem that is relatively contained.

The Army Corps of Engineer and the U.S. EPA are holding hearings things week on the issue. Here's how Judy Benson, of the New London Day, summarizes the environmental side of things:

Dredge spoils can contain hazardous materials such as heavy metals that become mixed into the waters of Long Island Sound when excavated from one site and dumped in another. The dumped material can also end up on beaches and affect marine wildlife.

Leah Schmaltz, director of legislative and legal affairs for the Connecticut Fund for the Environment and its sister organization, Save the Sound, said her group recognizes that while there will probably always be some need for open-water dumping of dredge spoils, it would like to see the amount reduced.

“We'd like to look to a future where dumping is minimal,” she said.

The water quality of Long Island Sound, an ecologically important estuary, is compromised when sediments in dredge material are dumped, she said. Alternatives that should be considered include depositing the material in specially dug pits, on-land dumpsites and reuse for beaches and other areas that need fill. In many cases, contaminants in the dredge spoils would not be as environmentally harmful in an upland setting as they would in open water, she said.

Another environmental group that has been active in the dredging issue is the Citizens Campaign for the Environment. Adrienne Esposito, the group's executive director, said dredge spoils need not always be treated as a waste product. Some dredge spoils, she said, can be used to fill abandoned coal mines, for example. The material can also be used as an ingredient in cement, locking up any contaminants.

“It can be a raw material. It just needs to be shipped,” she said. “But in Long Island Sound, it's a pollutant. It's released into the food chain.”

The challenge, she said, would be to create a market for dredge materials to offset the costs of the shipping.

I stared out by saying I remember this debate being at least 25 years old. Those involved now may or may not take comfort in knowingthat in fact it's far older:

Between 1765 and 1821, New Haven was forced to extend its main wharf more than 3900 feet into its bay to stay ahead of the mud which would otherwise have prevented ships from landing. And yet ... there was "less water a few rods from its foot" in 1821 than there had been at the end of the much shorter wharf in 1765.

That's from William Cronon's Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England, which came out in 1983.


Monday, November 26, 2007

Holiday Gift Guide

Give someone This Fine Piece of Water as a gift this year. You can find it here, at the Yale University Press website, and here, at Amazon, here.

And Tom Baptist, executive director of Audubon Connecticut, reminds me that it's on sale at the Greenwich Audubon Center (613 Riversville Road, Greenwich)
as well.

Citizens Campaign for the Environment recommends it in its holiday gift guide (here), and it got terrific reviews, for example:

“A compelling narrative” (Newsday)

“ elegant … volume that belongs on the shelf of anyone who cares about the health of the Sound” (The Journal News).

“... a superb example of environmental journalism. Thoroughly researched and elegantly written, it recounts a contemporary saga with nuance and high drama.” (New York History, the journal of the New York State Historical Society)

“Andersen tells an intense story of how years of neglect and abuse ended in an ecological crisis, and how advocates finally managed, in 1998, to get the government to do something about it.” (Onearth, the journal of the Natural Resources Defense Council)

I understand, by the way, that the publisher doesn't have all that many more copies and there are no plans to reprint it, so get it while you can.


A Tunnel Under the Sound

I already have a headache over this proposal from last week to build a tunnel under Long Island Sound, connecting Syosset and Rye. Not that I think it's a terrbile idea. But it's easy to foresee an endless review process and an eternal stream of news stories featuring on the one hand many people hate it but on the other hand many people love it.

The Journal News story is here, Newsday here. Newsday's editorial states the obvious in saying that the proposal should be studied carefully (here), while the Journal News editorial (here) asks whether we should be undertaking big projects to make driving easier, which I think is the right question:

There are global questions to be answered as well. Is building a tunnel that will make driving more convenient really the way to reduce greenhouse gases? If the goal is to reduce smog and make travel connections between the mainland and Long Island easier, why not invest in mass transit and expand the railroads instead?


Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Hundreds of Millions of Dollars Have Been Spent But Conditions in Long Island Sound Have Not Improved

Is Long Island Sound getting cleaner? Is hypoxia becoming less severe? Those are questions worth knowing the answers to. The Long Island Sound cleanup has been going on for more than a decade. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on sewage treatment plant upgrades, and hundreds of millions more are still to be spent, all with an eye to restoring the Sound in just seven more years.

So how are we doing? The Connecticut DEP put together a handful of interesting graphs illustrating water quality trends over the last 17 years and made them available recently.
I think they show that if you judge by the worst conditions – that is, dissolved oxygen concentrations below 2 milligrams per liter – the Sound is getting better, or at least it’s not getting worse.

But if you judge by the goal of having as little as possible of the Sound fall below 3.5 milligrams per liter, conditions are getting worse.

Here’s the first graph (you can click on them to make them bigger):

It shows the number of square miles of the Sound in which dissolved oxygen fell below 3.5 milligrams per liter each summer since 1991. There have been some really bad years – 1994, 1995 and 2003, for example – but the trend is clearly up. Two of the five worst years were 2007 and 2006, and both were well over the median (286, in 1998).

What, on the other hand, happened in 1997, when only 51 square miles were affected? Possibly an August hurricane to mix things up?

This graph shows how long hypoxia lasted, when it started and when it ended. Conditions were clearly better in the mid 1990s through 2000 than they have been in recent years.

The first two graphs use 3.5 milligrams of oxygen per liter of water as a standard. Dave Simpson and his fellow researchers at the Connecticut DEP have figured out than when dissolved oxygen concentrations are between 3 and 3.9 milligrams per liter, the biomass of fish living in the deepest part of the Sound is reduced by 4 percent (compared to when conditions are optimal). What is biomass? I think it basically means the total weight of all the fish they catch during their standardized research trawls.

When dissolved oxygen is between 2 and 2.9 milligrams per liter, biomass is reduced by 41 percent. When it’s between 1 and 1.9, biomass is reduced by 82 percent – in other words, the amount of fish is only 18 percent of what it should be. And when DO falls below 1, the reduction is 100 percent.
So the reason for wanting dissolved oxygen to be 3 or higher is obvious, as is the reason for not wanting it to drop too low.

Here are two graphs that show the number of square miles with DO below 1 and below 2. I’m not sure what to make of them, except to say that conditions were bad in 2003 but have gotten better since.

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South Brother Island

New York City is buying South Brother Island, which lies just south of the Bronx and just east of Hell Gate, for $2 million. Egrets, cormorants, gulls and oystercatchers nest there. South Brothers is one of a number of islands in Long Island Sound and the greater New York Bay area where wading birds nest. Others include Shooters Island in the Kill Van Kull, Huckleberry Island, the Captains, some of the Norwalk Islands in the Sound, maybe even Hoffman and Swinburne off Staten Island's South Beach (I have a vague memory of my grandfather telling me that Hoffman or Swinburne was used to quarantine immigrants from Europe, and I also think I remember reading that one or both was created from rubble or dredged material; but I could be wrong).

In any event, under city ownership South Brother will remain a bird sanctuary. Here's the Times' report. Note, by the way, that the story cites “The Other Islands of New York,” a book by Sharon Seitz and Stuart Miller, and says that the Dutch originally called South Brother and North Brother De Gesellen, or The Companions. DeLaet's New World (1625), which was the first published description of the Sound, refers to De Gesellen as being out near Montauk:

In this great bay [i.e., Long Island Sound] are many islands both large and small, that have no particular names, so far as is known to us, except that on a chart of this quarter made some years since, several small islands near the entrance to this great bay, near Fisher's Hook [a footnote identifies Fisher's Hook as Montauk Point], of which we shall speak presently, are named Gesellen (the Companions)....

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Monday, November 19, 2007

"The future of Long Island Sound is no budget annoyance"

Insiders who follow Long Island Sound issues have known for some time that Westchester's sewage treatment upgrade costs would be scarily high -- why else would the County, which has been working on the sewage issue for almost a decade and which generally moves aggressively on environmental issues, have been so quiet about it for so long? -- but it wasn't until last week that we knew the actual numbers: an estimated $355 million to $573 million (background here and here).

The Times reported the numbers last week, in a story about a dispute between the county and New York State over whether a pollution-credit trading program would work in New York.

An editorial in yesterday's Times professes not to care how Westchester goes about doing its part of the Sound cleanup, as long as it does it. Here is an excerpt:

Westchester may flinch at the threat of localized taxpayer pain, but it should not use that to shrink from addressing an urgent regional problem. The money and means for upgrades must be found, whether indirectly through nitrogen trading or straight from taxpayers’ wallets.

The price will be high but not necessarily ruinous — the early cost estimates for New York City’s sewage-plant upgrades ran to more than $1 billion, until an aggressive search for economizing and efficiency brought the number sharply down. And there should be federal money available for protecting the Sound.

The future of Long Island Sound is no budget annoyance to be haggled down or bargained to death. It took considerable pressure from the federal government to get New York City on the right path, and backsliding is a continual peril. The Sound is as threatened as it is precious — the water is warming and lobsters and salt marshes have been dying, for reasons no one has precisely figured out.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Public Hearing on the Application to Demolish the Alice Ball House

[Read 'Modern,' our new Modern House blog, here.]

New Canaan will hold a public hearing tomorrow evening -- that is, Thursday, November 15 -- on Cristina Ross's application to demolish Philip Johnson's Alice Ball House. It's at 7:30 p.m. in the Douglas Room at the Lapham Community Center at Waveny. The National Trust for Historic Preservation folks at the
Glass House have been trying to rally the anti-demolition troops, and I guess in this case they're entitled to throw stones, figuratively at least.

There's background, here and here.

alice ball demolition notice 11/8/07

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Sharing Long Island Sound's Upgrade Costs: More on Westchester's Dilemma

I wrote yesterday about Westchester County's sewage upgrade dilemma, which boils down to this: the county is facing a huge nitrogen removal cost at its Long Island Sound plants but the way its sewer districts are set up, that cost must be paid by only a relatively small portion of the county's population.

I wrote that I, a county resident who does not live in a sewer district, would consider an increase in my county taxes to pay for the Sound cleanup but first I'd like to have an idea of how much that increase might be.

Edward J. Bateson, chairman of the Town of Fairfield's Water Pollution Control Authority the commission that oversees how Fairfield's sewage system is run -- sent me his thoughts on the issue, and they're similar to mine: Long Island Sound is worth the extra cost. Here's what he wrote:

Apportionment of treatment plant upgrade costs over indirect users of the sewer system is a tough sell.

In Fairfield, CT about a decade ago we dealt with the subject. As a municipality we spread the $38 million upgrade cost over the entire towns' tax base, not just sewer users. I believe we are only one of two towns in CT to take this approach.

I was originally opposed to this. After months of debate I changed my mind. I changed my mind for several reasons. The main reason being that it aint all about nitrogen removal goals, engineering studies and low contract bidders; it is about Long Island Sound. It is our legacy and the example we set for generations to come.

All of us benefit from clean water - even those that do not have their sewage treated at the plants in question.
Why should I pay for a highway upstate that I have never used, and probably never will use? Its' what we do. Collaborative resources to advance the publics' best interest. In this case the best interest of the public being a cleaner Long Island Sound.

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Global Warming and Ecological Changes in Narragansett Bay

A year and a half ago scientists who spoke at the Long Island Sound Citizen's Summit conference, in Bridgeport, outlined some of the ecological changes taking place in the Sound and linked them to global warming. The most dramatic change, perhaps, was the shift in species composition caused by rising water temperatures -- cold water animals, like lobster and winter flounder, were being replaced by warmer water species, like summer flounder.

Not surprisingly, similar changes are being observed in Narragansett Bay. One of the most interesting is that the end of winter phytoplankton bloom that provides some of the Bay's bottom-of-the-food web food no longer occurs (I described it in the Soundon page 120 of my book). Here's what the Boston Globe reports:

A late-winter phytoplankton bloom long formed the foundation of the bay's food web. As days got longer and sunlight increased, the bloom would grow to cover almost the entire 25-mile-long bay. By early spring, the bloom would die naturally, and organic debris would settle to the bay's bottom, where creatures such as worms would feed on it and in turn become meals for fish such as winter flounder.

In the 1980s, the winter bloom stopped growing as large, and by the late 1990s it was all but gone. In temperature-controlled tanks at URI, marine biologists figured out why: It is being eaten.

Tiny marine animals called zooplankton are normally sluggish eaters in the winter. But researchers found that even a 1.4-degree increase in water temperature caused them to be more active in the tanks and to eat more, curbing the size of the bloom. Today, a longstanding summer phytoplankton bloom has become a more important food source, but it mostly feeds migratory, warm-water fish species, such as scup and bay anchovies. Without a significant winter bloom, the cold-water fish may be missing their meal.

The Providence Journal, meanwhile, reports on the changes in the Bay, the rapidly changing scientific opinion about why, and the political and budget issues that are hampering cleanup attempts:

Rhode Island-based scientists are publishing a book summarizing the last 25 years of science concerning the Bay. A key finding is that parts of the Bay function so differently from other areas, an eco-functional zoning plan should be created to better manage the bays within the Bay.

“We have found that the only constant about Narragansett Bay is change — and we’re in a period of accelerating change,” says Barry A. Costa-Pierce, director of Rhode Island’s Sea Grant program and co-author with Alan Desbonnet of the new book, Science for Ecosystem-Based Management — Narragansett Bay in the 21st Century.

“This is one of the best-studied bays in the world, and some of the surprises we’re finding are globally important,” says Costa-Pierce. The book finds that the Bay suffers from such health issues as regions of low dissolved oxygen and “a preponderance of opportunistic and nuisance species — weeds if you will — in the upper regions of the Bay.”

Some of that science points to new and disturbing ecological changes on the bottom of the Bay that may be triggered by global warming. The discovery has caught the attention of scientists around the world.

The Globe story is here, the Journal story is here. Both are must-reads.

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Monday, November 12, 2007

Westchester County Argues That The Sound Cleanup is Too Expensive

Westchester County has finally said publicly what its officials have known for a long time – that it will take a hell of a lot of money to meet the Long Island Sound cleanup’s nitrogen reduction goals at its two biggest sewage treatment plants, in Mamaroneck in New Rochelle. In fact, they seem to be saying that the benefit is not worth the cost:

“We are all for protecting Long Island Sound, but you’ve got to balance that over what people can afford to pay,” he said.

The cost estimate, according to yesterday’s New York Times, runs from $355 million to $573 million, which is almost as much as one of the original estimates for doing nitrogen removal at every sewage treatment plant on the Sound in New York.

The estimate has county officials making a number of different arguments, all of which are worth considering and all of which provoke strong disagreements.

1. Westchester County argues that New York State should allow a nitrogen trading program similar to the one Connecticut uses. If it did, county taxpayers would be spared the huge sewage plant improvement bill.

2. It points out that the cost has to be paid by the people who live in the sewer districts that empty into the Sound, rather than by all county residents, and so therefore the per household cost is going to be high.

3. It argues that in any case, Westchester’s contribution to the Sound’s problem is so miniscule that it makes no sense to require the county to meet the overall goal of reducing nitrogen by 58.5 percent by 2014.

On point 1, Bryan Brown, one of Sphere’s regular readers, noted here a few weeks ago that nitrogen trading only works if there’s someone to trade with. In Westchester’s case, the county would need a trading partner that has reduced nitrogen beyond its 58.5 percent goal and who would then be able to sell the credits to Westchester. The Times found some experts who agree:

In the five years trading has been conducted in Connecticut, baseline discharges of nitrogen have been reduced to 34,000 pounds a day, from 50,000 pounds a day, with the goal being 18,000,500 pounds by 2014. State officials estimate that the trading program – the largest of its kind in the nation, according to Mr. Grumbles of the E.P.A. – will save $200 million to $400 million, and that the total cost of reducing the state’s nitrogen discharge may ultimately be more than $800 million.

Environmental officials in New York say that carrying out a trading program among the 23 waste-water treatment plants throughout the state involved in the agreement with the E.P.A. would be much more difficult than in Connecticut, particularly for Westchester, which is the second-largest contributor to the problem, after New York City. It would be hard for the county to find other municipalities to trade with.

“There is not a supplier of nitrogen credits in this basin that could satisfy the requirements that Westchester has to satisfy,” said James DeZolt, assistant director in the State Division of Water.

On point 2 – the question of whether the costs should be borne only by those in the sewer districts or by all county residents – officials are wary because it’s politically risky. The sewer districts cover heavily-populated areas – New Rochelle, Mamaroneck, parts of White Plains and Scarsdale, Harrison, Port Chester and other towns – and presumably people who live there would be happy to share the costs. The other presumption, however, is that people who don’t live there would balk. And of course, if you’re going to ask Yonkers residents to pay for fixing the sewage plant in New Rochelle, at some point you’ll also be asking New Rochelle residents to fix the sewage plant in Yonkers. And there are also large, less-populated areas of the county where people do not live in a sewer district at all and so pay no sewer taxes.

I’m one of those people, and my opinion is that I’d like to know more about what the costs might be. Obviously I’m a proponent of cleaning up Long Island Sound. I also think that all of Westchester benefits if the Sound is clean, which might be an argument worth making if you’re trying to persuade people outside the Sound’s sewer districts to share the cost. But it’s hard to do that without some idea of what that cost will be. I could deal with a $50 or $100 a year property tax increase to pay for the Sound cleanup. But if it’s $3,000 a year, I’d have to think harder about it.

As for point 3 – that the county’s contribution to the Sound is negligible – I reject it completely. An argument could have been made 10 years ago that it was unfair to require every sewage treatment plant on the Sound to reduce nitrogen by the same amount. Hypoxia – the environmental condition that nitrogen reduction is trying to correct – is limited to the western half or third of the Sound and is worse off Westchester, Fairfield and Nassau counties.

Obviously the New London sewage plant, 90 miles away, was not playing as important a role in causing hypoxia as the big plants in Queens, the Bronx, Westchester and Nassau, etc. But for political reasons, those overseeing the Sound cleanup thought it would be more acceptable is all the communities were required to do the same amount of nitrogen reduction.

Westchester agreed. As a result, New London and Groton and other cities in eastern Connecticut are all doing their part in solving a problem that’s particularly bad off Westchester. But now that Westchester knows what the costs are, it wants a do-over.

Mr. Schwartz argued that the county’s four treatment plants contributed less than 1 percent of all nitrogen discharged from the Long Island Sound Watershed and that it made no sense for them to have to reduce their nitrogen emissions by at least 58.5 percent.

Here’s what state and county officials say in response:

State officials counter that although Westchester’s contribution may be only 1 or 2 percent, its plants are closest to areas of high concentrations of hypoxia, and some areas most affected are along the shoreline.

Mr. DeZolt said that while plants in other parts of the state, including in New York City, had taken steps to reduce their nitrogen output, Westchester was still in the planning stages.

Mr. Grumbles said trading might not always be the best way to reduce pollution.

“It depends on the conditions and different types of entities that are there,” he said. “We’re not trying to force trading on to any particular area.”

Paul E. Stacey, director of planning and standards for the Connecticut Bureau of Water Protection, said it might be difficult to duplicate the state’s trading program elsewhere.

“In a lot of ways, we had an ideal situation,” he said. “Four facilities might make it more difficult to trade. You really need the market, and we have plants of different sizes. We were lucky.”

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Edward Durell Stone's Celanese House is on the Market

[Read 'Modern,' our new modern house blog, here.]

A week after
we saw it on the Modern House Day tour, Edward Durell Stone's Celanese House, on Oeneoke Ridge Road in New Canaan, is on the market. I had predicted it would list for $5 million; the actual listing is for $4.9 million. Details here.

Stone designed another very similar house -- complete with pyramids on the roof -- in North Salem, where Route 121 and June Road diverge. I was in it once years ago, as a reporter, when it was the location of an auction that partly benefited a local arts center, and then I stopped by again within the last 18 months, I think, when it was on the market and there was an open house for real estate brokers. He built it for Carlo Paterno, the grandfather of a friend of ours, and if you go to this Google search and click on the first result, you can see it on page 10 of a pdf of a 1962 issue of Architectural Record. It contains an interesting quote from Stone about development patterns, the kind of sentiment that would make smart growth proponents and New Urbanists happy. And remember, it's from 1962:

We must give up the idea that we are English country squires and plan our houses compactly. Our countryside is being used up by these millions of little boxes. We should be inspired by the Mediterranean countries which have, as you know, compact villages, towns with houses built wall to wall and privacy obtained by cloistered walled gardens, courtyards and atriums. And in planning compactly this way we will save the open countryside.

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Friday, November 09, 2007

The "Demolition" Sign in Front of Philip Johnson's Alice Ball House in New Canaan

alice ball demolition notice 11/8/07

[Read 'Modern,' our new modern house blog, here.]

As I said yesterday, presumably this is a public notice announcing that the owner has applied for a demolition permit. Generally the local government requires such notices to be posted and also requires the owner/applicant to do so. In this case it was erected just days after a couple of hundred modern house enthusiasts drove past it numerous times during the New Canaan Historical Society's Modern House Day tour.

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Thursday, November 08, 2007

Philip Johnson's Alice Ball House May Soon Be Demolished in Fight Between Its Owner and Town of New Canaan

[Read more about the Alice Ball House and other modern houses on 'Modern,' our new blog, here.]

For those who care about such things, New Canaan is as renowned for its large number of mid-century modern houses as it is for allowing a large number of mid-century modern houses to be destroyed and replaced by mcmansions. At least three of the Harvard Five architects -- Marcel Breuer, Eliot Noyes and John Johansen -- have had houses they designed razed. And I'm not sure anyone knows for sure how many modern houses in all have been demolished in New Canaan. Estimates of the number of modern houses that remain range from roughly 70 to 90.

If work by Breuer, Noyes and Johansen have all been destroyed, that leaves only two of the Harvard Five left -- Landis Gores and Philip Johnson.

And Johnson may soon join them. Cristina Ross, the owner of the Alice Ball House, which Johnson designed, has applied to the Town of New Canaan for a demolition permit. This comes after an extensive renovation, completed earlier this year (see here). (11 a.m. update: I drove past the Alice Ball house this morning and saw a big sign in front with the word "Demolition" printed on it, presumably a public notice that the owner has applied for a demolition permit. Generally the local government requires such notices to be posted and requires the owner/applicant to do so. Interesting that whoever erected it waited until after the Modern House Day tour.)

In other words, if Cristina Ross, an architect and developer, gets her demolition permit and if she proceeds, she would become the first person to demolish a house designed by Philip Johnson. Likewise, the Town of New Canaan would for the first time authorize such a destruction.

New Canaan would then be doubly famous -- for being the home of Johnson's landmark Glass House and for being the home of the oversized monstrosity that will no doubt replace the Alice Ball House.

Philip Johnson's Alice Ball House

The Connecticut Post had a good story about the issue last month, here. You'll see that there's lots of baloney from Ross and the Town about the other being unreasonable. This includes the Town's wetlands commission, by the way, which refuses to give Ross a permit to extend a driveway on the property across a wetland. I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest the perhaps the wetlands commission is being a tad too intransigent. I've spent the last seven years of my life working on land preservation issues that usually involve wetlands protection. I know a lot about which wetlands are valuable and why, about how some wetlands are so valuable that nothing should be allowed to be built anywhere near them, and about how some wetlands don't have much value at all and can be encroached upon. I also know the Alice Ball House a bit (I've been in it once) and its property (I've been on it a couple of times and I drive past it regularly). If there's a wetland on that property worth saving to the extent that the Alice Ball House gets torn down, then I'm a modern architect.

The Alice Ball House has been on the market since early spring for about $3 million. Nine months does not seem like a lot of time for an expensive house to remain unsold. And you can easily see it -- its right on Oenoeke Ridge Road, near the intersection of Hemlock Hill Road (the Celanese House is two doors away).

If you're interested in buying it, give the William Raveis agency in New Canaan a buzz. In the meantime, Cristina Ross ought to back off and wait for a buyer. And the New Canaan wetlands comission out to think a bit more carefully about its mission.

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The Search for Leaking Power Cables Near Norwalk's Oyster Beds

If you're going to have seven large power cables running across the bottom of Long Island Sound, from Norwalk to Northport, they at least shouldn't leak insulating fluid. And if you're going to replace them, you ought to be careful of not damaging oyster beds. All that is happening in Norwalk Harbor now, assuming Northeast Utilities can actually find the cables. Story here.

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Sustainability and Modern Houses

[Read 'Modern,' our new modern house blog, here.]

Being interested in the stuff I’m interested in, one of the ideas that kept popping into my mind on Saturday, at the New Canaan Historical Society’s Modern House Day, was how energy-efficient a classic modern house can be – how
sustainable, to use to current buzzword.

I think it was Fred Noyes, Eliot Noyes’s son and a speaker at the morning’s symposium, who reminded people that when the modern houses were built, heating oil was about 16 cents a gallon, so I’m sure the houses from that era could use double- or triple-pane windows now. But even so, the houses seem as if they were easy to keep warm in winter and cool in summer.

The houses are small to begin with, although not so small that a normal family shouldn’t be able to live there (the woman who lives now in the Rogers House, which John Black Lee designed, said she happily raised four children there). They were built to take in the winter sun, so they get heat passively to supplement their oil heat. Many were built with large eaves or overhangs, to provide shade from the summer sun (however central air conditioning is an issue with a lot of these houses – everyone wants it now and none of the modern houses were built with it). Some of the houses have radiant heat in the floors, which tends to stay warm longer.

The radiant heat was on in the Noyes House, and there was a small fire in the fireplace. The early afternoon was cold and blustery on Saturday, and when we got into the main room, no one wanted to leave. The Noyes House is almost never open – I remember reading that the Noyeses considered it too much trouble to tidy up for modern house aficionados. Gina said she had been there to visit the family when she was a child but had no clear memory of it, and I’ve been driving past it for years, peering through the woods to try to get a good look at it, stupidly not realizing that, as Fred Noyes said during the symposium, his father designed it so it would blend into the woods.

It turned out to be as beautiful and comfortable as any we had been in, not a perfect jewel, like other houses, but a simple, modern house for living in. The house is famously divided into two boxes, both 25 by 50, or so I overheard, although, thinking back, those dimensions seem too small. The front and back wall of each box is made of native stone. They connect each box and form a courtyard that has sliding barn doors on each side. In one box is the living and eating area, in the other, the bedrooms – like a traditional downstairs and upstairs, except horizontal. The only bathrooms are in the bedroom box, which meant every trip to the toilet from the living room or kitchen necessitated a walk through the courtyard. Fred Noyes said that having grown up there, it was no big deal at all.

We went into the living area side first. Four black leather chairs and a leather couch formed a three-sides of a square, the fourth side being the fireplace. Behind the fireplace was a small study, with bookshelves built into the back of the fireplace. The kitchen was opposite the fireplace, small, with a window to look out into the living room. The side walls, of course, were glass, with a view into the woods and the courtyard. The courtyard itself was smaller than it looks in photos, and the black Calder sculpture, tucked into one of the corners, was bigger than I’d imagined. The bedroom building was simple and functional, the master bedroom large and warm, with a wood-burning stove. Out back there was a watercolor studio – the docent told us that Noyes was an accomplished watercolorist. Gina and I and our friend Alan Peterman, who is building his own modern house in Pound Ridge, agreed – we’d move in tomorrow if we could.

The other two houses that seemed to meet the 21st century need for sustainability were the Rogers House, which I wrote a bit about yesterday, and the Breuer House. The plan for the tour was to visit the Breuer House and walk around the outside. But when each tour bus arrived in turn, the owner – a very pleasant and gracious woman – invited everyone in. Breuer built this house for himself, in the late 1940s, and it’s another one that we’ve been driving by and peering at for years, in this case because Gina’s parents and her aunt and uncle (the folks who owned our house before us) rented it from Breuer for two summers, 1949 and ’50, I believe. Like the Noyes House and the Rogers House, it was built to an appropriate, human scale, not too big, not grandiose (although it has been expanded and its cantilevers buttressed since Breuer built it).

The other house that knocked us out, for different reasons, was the Celanese House. It is in the final stage of being renovated – landscapers rolled out the new sod just days before the tour – and was the only house on the tour that was unfurnished, so the experience of being in it was pure. Fred Bernstein wrote about it not long ago in the Times, and you can get the details about its renovation here. Suffice it to say that it was a warm, beautifully-lit, cozy gem, and being in it was like being inside a pearl. It’s about to go on the market. The nice William Raveis agent who we chatted with claimed not to know what the price would be. My guess is $5 million, but who knows. Call the Raveis agency if you’re interested. If I had $5 million and wanted to live in New Canaan, I would be.


Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Three Modernists at Modern House Day

[Read 'Modern,' our new modern house blog, here.]

One of the great things about the Modern House Day tour and symposium, which was held Saturday in New Canaan, is that you get to hear and meet some of the real giants of modern architecture and design. This year John Johansen, one of the Harvard Five architects, and Jens Risom, the furniture designer, spoke at the symposium, and John Black Lee, served as the host at one of the houses on the tour, the Rogers House, which he designed.

Johansen is 91, slightly built but apparently still agile (he climbed over a folding chair in the auditorium to get from one row to the next) and has a thinning mane of white hair, swept back, and a well-trimmed white beard. Risom is also 91. Like Johansen he’s not tall but he is sturdily built, looks great in a suit, has a full head of white hair, and appears to be still vigorous. Lee is younger, though no spring chicken, and is less natty than Risom, preferring boat shoes (sometimes without socks), khakis and a fleece vest to a suit. All three basked happily in the attention and the lionization.

Logo for the Modern House Day Tour and Symposium in New Canaan, CT

I saw them at a cocktail party that was part of the festivities and talked for a minute with Risom, who is an old friend of my wife’s family, and Lee, who oversaw the construction of my wife’s parents house, back in 1949 and ’50 (although he did not design it). I didn’t talk to Johansen, mainly because I had no connection and couldn’t think of what to ask him but also because he was continually surrounded. But he and Risom had interesting things to say at the symposium, and Lee was equally interesting in impromptu remarks he made at the Rogers house.

Here’s a summary – it’s almost all direct quotes but my note-taking was harried so to be safe I’ll leave off the quotation marks except where I’m sure.

John Johansen: He said that Gropius was the Apollonian figure in modern architecture and he learned a great deal from him at Harvard (he also married Gropius’s daughter, Ati). But from Marcel Breuer (who was also at Harvard and was one the Harvard Five) he learned more not in school but at drinking parties in New Canaan, so if Gropius was the Apollonian figure, Breuer was the Bacchalonian figure.

When Johansen came of age, the influence of the Ecole des Beaux Arts was fading away; it was no longer able to deal with the problems of the modern world and no longer had the spirit to stir men’s blood. By contrast, at Harvard there was a fierce and joyous spirit, where they taught principles but not styles – a new way of thinking, a new way of feeling, a new way of design, and a new way of living.

In New Canaan they imparted this to a few of their first clients. Eliot Noyes was first. He represented the box, Johansen said – in other words, his house designs were based on a box-like structure. Breuer learned from Breuer, Philip Johnson learned from Mies van der Rohe, Landis Gores learned from Frank Lloyd Wright – (“His beautiful, beautiful house of his own still stands” in New Canaan, he said of Gores, who with Johnson and Noyes made up the remainder of the Harvard Five). Johansen said he found his way out of the box through symbolism, biomorphism, historicism and high technology.

He said that during the early modern house days, many of the houses weren’t finished and some leaked. He showed a slide of his own house, furnished with classic modern furniture, including a Corbusier chair, and then said that the architects would open up their houses for tours and exchange furniture with each other, to “give interior respectability.” He showed a slide of one of his structures and said that when two people passing by stopped to look at it, one asked, “What is it?” The other said, “I don’t know but let’s buy it and turn it into a house.”

Johansen said he built 27 houses, 8 of which have been lost, as he put it. How does he deal with having his creations torn down (by Phil Donahue and Marlo Thomas, in one egregious example)?

“The reward is in the doing, the product doesn’t matter, I won already for having created it. And finally, a more forceful reference – forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Jens Risom: There was no avoiding the obvious fact that the mid-century modernists are now old. Referring to Johansen by his nickname, Risom said, “I’m one month older than Jo. We meet each other and say, ‘My God! Are you still alive?’ “

He said he tries to create furniture that is pleasant to look at, not overwhelming, makes sense, and is comfortable or stores the things it was made to store. He likes to use wood because he considers it a bridge between the house and the human beings who live in the house.

He said, “In this town it’s amazing to me how so few people consider working with an architect. Respect for architecture is not good enough, respect for good design is not good enough. What we’ve seen around here as speculative, commercial housing is pretty bad.”

People tell him that modern furniture won’t go with their old, beautiful things. “I tell them, ‘First of all, your furniture is not old; second of all, it’s not beautiful.’ “

John Black Lee: Standing outside the Rogers house (which Lee designed for Ted Rogers, the producer of the Today Show), he talked about the symmetrical design and the glass walls in front and back, and then recalled a New Year’s Eve party there during a snowstorm, where everybody got plastered, as he put it, and went out and made snow angels.

We went inside and Lee asked us to come into the living room, “Sit down, get a sense of the scale and the relationship to outside.” He talked about the spirit of the house, how it serves the people who live in it. We looked out the south window across a lawn that rolled away to a split rail fence connecting two groves of trees, which were bending in the wind. He said, “Architects tell people how to live. I’m much more gratified when people come into a house, live in it, and show me how to live.”
He talked about Mies Ven der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, in Illinois. Edith Farnsworth was an interior decorator who went to college with Lee’s mother and who, as he put it, had the hots for Mies. That led him into a discussion of great houses. In his opinion, he said, there are five great houses in the United States: Fallingwater, the Glass House, a house Lee himself designed and Toshiko Mori updated, on Chichester Road in New Canaan (he called it Lee House number 2), Johnson’s Boissonnas house, and the Kaufman house, which Neutra designed, in Palm Springs.

I have other impressions and observations from Modern House Day that maybe I'll get to later. The event was a fund-raiser for the New Canaan Historical Society, which organized it with a lot of help from a group of volunteers. The William Raveis real estate agency was a prime sponsor, and their brokers served as docents at some of the houses (and made sure everyone knew that Johnson's Alice Ball House is again threatened with destruction -- it would be the first Johnson house to be torn down -- and is on the market, and that Edward Durell Stone's Celanese House, which was on the tour and has been spectacularly restored, will soon be on the market).

The Modern House Day logo was designed by Gina Federico Graphic Design.


Monday, November 05, 2007

Buying Coastal Land, Dredging Bridgeport Harbor

One of the best things that could happen to Long Island Sound would be for Connecticut and New York to spend more money buying land on the coast and on the tributaries. Some details about Connecticut's plan for doing so are here.

Yet another legacy of the industrial era: virtually unsolvable dredging problems, this time in Bridgeport, where the sediments are still fairly heavily contaminated. Details here.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Feds Ready to Give Away Lighthouses at Execution Rocks and Stepping Stones

A group based in Philadelphia that not only has never restored a lighthouse but has never restored anything has been given title by the feds to the Execution Rocks Lighthouse, which stands between New Rochelle and Sands Point (that's it above, in a photo taken by Jim Crowley). Here's Newsday:

Historically Significant Structures, a nonprofit corporation formed in 2003 to restore lighthouses, was the only local government or organization to request the deed for the beacon off Sands Point from the federal government by the deadline.

The government is giving away lighthouses the Coast Guard no longer wants to own, but the agency will continue to maintain the lighting equipment.

Restoring Execution Rocks would be the first project for Historically Significant Structures, said the group's treasurer and attorney Linell Lukesh, who previously ran a social service organization. Other board members include a real estate agent, restaurateur, engineer and other professionals with an interest in preservation and maritime issues.

"We saw there was a possibility to acquire one and preserve a landmark in our history," she said. The group would set up a Long Island office if the government gives it the lighthouse.

I guess everybody has to start somewhere.

The Town of North Hempstead, by the way, has applied to take ownership of Stepping Stones Light, which is a bit to the west of Execution Rocks.

At least these lighthouses have great names -- Execution Rocks because it's a dangerous area for boats (too many rocks), not because the British or the Americans executed soldiers there during the Revolutionary War; and Stepping Stones because there are so many rocks close together they're like stepping stones.

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