(Real) Estate Planning 101

Can one of the East Side’s last mansions survive the wrecking ball?

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Blackstone Boulevard is an integral part of the East Side, but until the early 1900s, this artery was nothing but a dirt road. At the time, Providence was an industrial boomtown, and there was intense pressure to build more houses in a then-rural area. Much of the East Side was farmland, locally known as “Cat Swamp.” A decision was made to create a beautifully landscaped boulevard with a new trolley line running down its center, ensuring easier access to Swan Point Cemetery. With the increasing use of automobiles, the trolley line was discontinued in 1948, and the now-popular walking trail was built on the remnants of the old rail bed. Several estates flanked this major road, and many of these properties were expertly landscaped and covered several acres.

Over time, such farms and estates have been converted into housing lots, and these days only a few remain. High taxes, the pressure for more housing, and smaller family size were probably most responsible for this evolution. Over the past four years, three of the last estates – all with handsome manor houses, smaller side buildings, and intricate landscaping – have been targeted for development.

In his popular blog Architecture Here and There, David Brussat, the former architectural editor for the Providence Journal, describes the increasing pressure to tear down the last of these century-old estates. “Readers will recall that neighborhood opposition in 2014 thwarted a division of the Granoff estate into 10 lots, at least for now, but failed to block the division of the Bodell estate just next door. Its new houses, just constructed, cheek by jowl, serve as a warning. But at least those two efforts did not imagine demolishing the two historic mansions involved.”

That’s exactly what’s being proposed for the Beresford-Nicholson estate. The Bilotti Group, a Cranston-based development firm, is responsible for the five houses currently under construction on Balton Road. Bilotti management views the Nicholson venture as just another straightforward subdivision project. With almost three acres to work with this time, their proposal is to divide the estate, which starts at 288 Blackstone Boulevard and extends back to Slater Avenue, into 10 separate house lots, each well above the minimum required by current R-1 zoning. But to make this plan work, the developer feels there is no need to retain the 7,000-square-foot historic manor house, nor the four attendant side houses, which include a particularly attractive caretakers’ dwelling. This area of the East Side has no historic protection, and the market for new construction is strong, so the deal strikes the Bilotti staff as a no-brainer.

Many East Side neighbors don’t see it the same way. Not long ago, a public meeting drew together concerned residents, local preservationists, and some invited architects. The meeting also included the developer and his real estate representative, Jim DeRentis from Residential Properties. The two parties couldn’t reach an agreement, and soon a petition against the project, signed by more than 400 people, was sent to the City Plan Commission (CPC), which is responsible for approving all subdivisions of this size. Opponents sent additional letters, hoping to convince the CPC to join the neighbors against the Bilotti Group. Opponents hope to save at least some of the antique stone buildings or, barring that, most of the beloved stone wall that encircles the estate. They note that even this wall is a generations-old neighborhood landmark. At the very least, opponents hope the CPC will establish general parameters for the design and quality of materials for any new construction.

In response to the concerns of East Side residents, many of whom showed up for the public meeting, CPC chairperson Christine West cancelled the proposed December vote on the project until all the committee members had the opportunity to go to the site themselves for an inspection.

At the January meeting, West reported on the site visit, along with commissioners who had joined her. West acknowledged that the manor house retained some impressive architectural elements, and there was no necessity to tear it down. At this same meeting, however, an attorney for Bilotti reaffirmed his client’s commitment to the demolition of all the existing buildings, citing concerns over the potential costs of asbestos remediation. He also requested that they be allowed to move forward without further input from the public, since the City’s Planning Board was recommending approval of the project. The Commission rejected this request in a three-to-one vote. Given the intensity of the objections, the Commission cited the need to involve the community as much as possible.

Here is the central question, and the reason that the fate of the Nicholson estate is so important to Providence in general. To date, the Providence Planning Department has agreed that the developer’s plan conformed to all zoning regulations and has recommended the CPC’s approval.

So, what’s the hold up?

At issue, quite frankly, is the precise role of the CPC in terms of its oversight responsibilities.

The planning department explains it this way: Every city in Rhode Island has the responsibility to create its own zoning criteria, which establishes standards for construction. These standards are set on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis, within their communities. This approach especially applies to subdivisions. If a project conforms with existing zoning, the purchasers then have the right to build whatever they want, especially when there is no historic protection in place.
East Side neighbors disagree. One of the opposition leaders is Deming Sherman, one of Providence’s most respected attorneys and a former president of the Blackstone Boulevard Neighborhood Association. As a follow-up to his testimony at the December CPC meeting, Sherman presented his thinking in a concise letter to the Commission.

As a legal matter, “the Commission is not obligated to approve the proposed 10-lot subdivision just because it satisfies the zoning requirements. If that were the case, there would be no role for the Commission. Rather, the subdivision has to be consistent with the Comprehensive Plan, which is the vision for the City, and the Commission is empowered to determine whether it is consistent with the Plan.” In this case, he argues, the submitted subdivision “is not respectful to the neighborhood, does not preserve the historic nature of the property and the historic structures and wall located thereon, and will adversely affect values and aesthetics of the abutting and neighboring properties.”

Sherman goes on to suggest a possible alternative strategy that he feels would conform to zoning regulations, require no additional variances and, by avoiding deconstruction costs, would probably provide financial results similar to what is being proposed. He suggests the developer resubmit an application “that reduces the number of lots; preserves at least the main residence, the carriage house and the playhouse; preserves as much of the tree coverage as possible; and reduces the number of breaches of the historic wall for driveways.” This, he concludes, would then present a proposal that would be consistent with the objectives set forth in the Comprehensive Plan “to preserve historic buildings, districts and areas that contribute positively to Providence’s urban fabric.”

Joining Sherman in his argument was Helen Anthony, the recently elected City Councilwoman for the Ward. In a long letter to the Commission, Anthony confirmed that the State does indeed require all municipalities to develop a comprehensive plan to guide development decisions. In her view, Providence undertook a rigorous citywide stakeholder process to do just that. That Plan clearly articulated the importance of preserving the special character of the neighborhoods. They then took this vision and implemented it through updated zoning ordinances.

Anthony concluded, however, that “this is an imperfect process and cannot anticipate every project proposed throughout the City. The City Planning Commission is therefore required to look at each project making a finding that it complies with the priorities and objectives set forth in the Comprehensive Plan. I think in this instance it is clear that this proposed project is inconsistent with the Comprehensive Plan.”

One of the attendees of that first meeting, RISD architecture professor and architect Friedrich St. Florian, pointed out that the developer has no one staff architect for the new project; Bilotti relies instead on the designs provided individually by the prospective new purchasers. The danger of this, warns Florian, is that an early purchaser has no assurance the subsequent buyers will choose design styles or materials that are consistent with initial construction.

So, what happens next? With their vote to accept the Master Plan for the subdivision “with conditions,” the CPC officially allows the developer to consolidate the three lots – 288 Blackstone Boulevard, and 315 and 325 Slater Avenue – into a single subdivision. However, by refusing to link the master approval with that required for the actual project itself, the developer will next have to respond to some additional CPC concerns, and another meeting will be held. The CPC has raised concerns about the preservation of foliage, the potential damage to the historic wall, the placement of curbs cuts, and the need for building demolitions.

Speaking for the developer, DeRentis feels that the most recent subdivision plans already harmonize with the existing neighborhood. DeRentis sees no need for his client to change the design. “The developer could have easily jammed more houses into the three acres but chose not to,” he has said. “And what’s being planned certainly fits in with the existing neighborhood… single-family, unattached construction on oversized lots. I think the neighborhood needs to understand that the demand now on the East Side is for new construction.”

The Providence Preservation Society (PPS) opposes the subdivision as well. At PPS’s recent annual meeting, the organization pointedly included the estate on this year’s list of “Ten Most Endangered Properties.”

“However, the best outcome,” suggests Executive Director Brent Runyon, “is when developers and residents are able to work together to seek out compromises to find common ground and turn adversarial situations into something more useful to all parties. But even then, it can’t overcome the reality that over time things unavoidably change.”

Or do they?

A poignant letter of opposition was written by Elizabeth Grossman, a professor of Architectural History Emeritus from RISD. She describes the unexpected jog on Slater Avenue, which shifts sharply to the west before it straightens out and continues north toward Rochambeau. This is not due to natural topography, argues Grossman. Before Slater Avenue existed, there was the Beresford-Nicholson mansion, which boasted notable out buildings, extensive landscaping, surrounding walls, and a buffer of berms and trees. She concludes: “If, when Slater Avenue was laid out over a century ago, the city saw fit to adjust the line of the street to protect the integrity of the estate, how much more reason to protect the estate and its boundary wall today now that they have become integral to the character of the neighborhood that has grown up around them.”