Blackstone Property Debate Galvanizes a Neighborhood

Controversial plans are proposed for an historic plot of land

East Side Monthly Magazine ·

Around the turn of the twentieth century, the area around Blackstone Boulevard was awash with farms and estates, certainly more rural than urban. One of the most beautiful plots of land, some three-and-a-half acres, was bought in 1915 by William E. Bridgham, a respected professor of decorative design at RISD, and his heiress wife and fellow artist Clara. Originally owned by prominent business leader Robert H. Ives, the land was soon to house a Spanish Colonial revival style mansion, a three-car carriage house, a caretaker’s cottage, plus incredibly well landscaped grounds that included a stone fountain, a grape arbor and a maze of hedges all surrounded by a beautiful stone wall that dated back to the 1840s. It was said that some 17 gardeners were once on staff to maintain the estate, and that the house and grounds were among the finest in the state.

Encompassing the area bounded by Blackstone Boulevard, Rochambeau and Cole Avenues and Linden Place, the Bridgham estate has been owned since 1960 by the family that built American Tourister. To their credit, Paula and Leonard Granoff have been careful stewards of the property, in addition to their well-respected philanthropic support of the arts, particularly the RISD Museum and the Rochambeau Public Library. But their decision to seek Providence Plan approval for a proposed subdivision of their property into 12 lots – two large ones totaling two acres for the mansion and the secondary buildings, and ten more on the remaining one-and-a-half acres for separate single family houses – has created a firestorm of neighborhood protest. While acknowledging the right of the owners to subdivide their land, nearby residents are opposing the size, scale and lack of detail of the proposal and have since organized themselves into a neighborhood association and hired a lawyer to protest the plan before the Providence Plan Commission. That’s the board that has regulatory power to ensure any projects of this size are consistent with the overall Comprehensive Plan for the City.

At the November meeting of the Commission, it looked as though D Day (as in decision) was at hand for this controversial proposal. The lawyer for the Granoffs, Thomas Moses, was confident his clients were within their rights to divide the property as they saw fit, given no zoning variances were being sought. The over 100 residents who packed the meeting room and their lawyer Bill Landry saw it quite differently. Armed with a petition of over 600 signatures and a letter of support from the Providence Preservation Society, they felt they were well armed and ready to do battle. But after just three of their witnesses had testified, the Commission was forced to call at least this meeting a tie, since one of the commission members had to depart early, which meant there was no longer a quorum.

The quorum issue is one that may prove to be a problem going forward, warns the head of the commission, architect Christine West. “It’s not like we’re shirking our duty,” she explains. “Our seven person commission has been short two members for a while and we’re still waiting for appointments from the Mayor. Plus one of the remaining members, Meredyth Church, has to recuse herself because she works for Residential Properties who is handling the sale of the property for the Granoffs. That leaves four, the minimum number for a quorum, which means we all need to be present for this to go forward. In addition another member, Jo-Ann Ryan, was just elected to the City Council in Ward 5, so she will have to be replaced.”

The groundswell of neighborhood opposition to the plans as submitted, coupled with a new legal argument by Landry, have raised some interesting issues. One revolves around what Landry calls the “shallowness” of the plan that has been sketched out somewhat informally. “It doesn’t come close to meeting the requirements to allow the commission to make (a fair) determination if the plan is consistent with the City’s comprehensive plan,” he says. “A project must... be more than just determining how much you can stuff in there. The plan has to underscore important considerations that have nothing to do with zoning, such as ensuring that historic properties be maintained and traditional neighborhood characteristics be respected.”

A second and more substantive issue revolves around whether the Granoff proposal is even a subdivision. Landry argues that given the number of lots being proposed, the Granoff proposal really is a “major land development project which means there is no such thing as a ‘by right’ subdivision anymore. But regardless, given the size and number of lot divisions being requested, the same submission requirements apply.” Sam Zurier, the councilman for the Ward, who earlier at the meeting had voiced his own opposition to the proposal, in part because of the way it was being rushed through the review process, agreed that in his view the point of law being raised was an “interesting one.”

Sharon Steele, a real estate broker, community activist and neighbor, maintains that the “rush” Zurier mentions is that result of the owners trying to circumvent a new City zoning ordinance that will raise the minimum lot size in the area of the City from the current 6,000 square feet to 7,200 on January 1, thereby reducing the number of permissible homes that could be built on the property. She also complains that the notification for a first Plan Commission meeting in October, one that was ultimately cancelled for lack of a quorum, was delivered at the last moment to abut- ting neighbors giving them only a weekend to see the proposal and formulate a response. “The owners are saying on the one hand they want to be good neighbors and then do things like this and try to fly under the radar. Had they proposed a more appropriate plan, they definitely would have garnered a far different response from the neighbors,” suggests Steele.

As for the effect of any December decision on the proposal, Robert Azar, the Director of Current Planning for the City, explained that the policy in Providence has always been it is the date of the submission that determines what guidelines will apply to a new project, not when it is approved by the Plan Commission. In other words, in his view, the project would be covered by the existing rules. Interestingly, this may not be the way things are done elsewhere. We spoke to a New York City planner and were told their policy in cases of soon-to-be altered planning requirements is to honor the “intent of the upcoming changes” rather than necessarily conforming to any about-to-be-eliminated regulations.

And what of the historic integrity of the property? While the Bridgham estate is listed on the National Register of Historical Places, that does not provide the Historic District Commission with any oversight review powers. Attorney Landry expresses his view of this anomaly. “I do this kind of work all over the state, most typically for the applicant. And throughout most of the state, a house with this kind of historic importance and in this kind of neighborhood would unquestionably require some sort of historic advisory, if not regulatory, opinion. Providence, for some reason, doesn’t do it that way perhaps because there is so much historic property and never saw it as necessary.”

Several sections of the East Side, particularly College Hill and parts of Fox Point, have opted to make themselves part of a regulated historic zone which then qualifies it for HDC protection. This comes with a price, however, since it also means the HDC gets to exercise controls on a house by house basis as well. Currently, for example, homeowners, preservationists and the City Council are debating if the HDC should continue to regulate whether solar panels belong on historic homes and if so, which ones and with what restrictions.

And then there is the question of what the subdivision plan being submitted will look like or what the economics of the site might mean in terms of the quality of the project. Since the Granoffs have said they have no plans to develop the property themselves, many residents have expressed fears that an outside developer might not share the same commitment to the historic estate that they had.

As for the economics of the proposal, here there are significant differences of opinion. East Side Monthly sought out several developers who have the capacity to do this project. To the ones we spoke to, the problem is pure economics. First a 6,000 sq. ft. lot is small. Second, and more importantly, the finished house would likely have to sell in the $800,000 plus range. Factor in land cost, roads and utilities, the lack of privacy and the quality of landscaping that would be expected, the problem for a developer becomes apparent. And then there is the bigger issue of absorption. Are there really ten $800,000-$1,250,000 buyers who want to be on a small lot with high taxes and little extra privacy? To Sharon Steele, the answer is a resounding no. She feels a better designed project, with fewer but nicer houses, would make more economic sense and certainly would be more consistent to the surrounding homes. She at least hopes the Granoffs would agree to conform to the new 7,200 foot lot size minimums.

Jim DeRentis, a real estate agent for Residential Properties who represents the Granoffs in the sale of their properties, sees things quite differently. “First off, the Granoffs are in their 80s and this is an incredibly expensive property for them to maintain each year. The annual taxes on the property alone are over $160,000 and that doesn’t include the hundreds of thousands of dollars each year for upkeep and maintenance. The property has been on the market for over four years, originally for $12,500,000. The price is now down to just under $5,000,000. Everything they have done has been legal and within their rights as homeowners. That said, they certainly want to be good neighbors and do the right thing.”

DeRentis also disagrees with the assessment that the development doesn’t make economic sense. “There is virtually no new construction or space available for it on the East Side, one of the most desirable places to live in the City. For potential buyers moving into our area from out of town, there is certainly serious demand for new construction and it can demand a premium.”
For the record, the two properties that make up the estate are currently assessed at just under $3,200,000 combined.

There is one other variable to this discussion. Bob Azar says he and his staff have to respond to the laws and regulation as written. That said, they are rigorous in making sure projects conform to environmental issues, frontage, setback and curb cut requirements, tree preservation and are consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan. He sees the Granoff proposal as not about on site development designs but rather about creating new lot lines. A subdivision of this size, that is more than five new houses, is considered major and has to go through a public process and it is. But what if the ten lots are approved and a future developer wants to reduce the number? That can be done, says Azar, but then it becomes an administrative process controlled by the City’s Department of Planning which does not require public input. Does this happen often? According to Azar, frequently.

As we go to press, it should be noted that this article will be out after the December Plan Commission meeting. But in a rare moment of unanimity, all parties agree it is difficult to predict with certainty what will happen there. But regardless, it appears there are likely appeal opportunities available should the neighbors choose to go that route. Better for all parties, of course, would be some sort of compromise that would allow the Granoff’s to sell their property, while providing some sort of reasonable design guidelines for future developers.

Perhaps the best outcome from the community perspective was summed up by one of the neighbors. “It is our hope that the Granoffs will indeed leave a positive legacy here in Providence and be remembered as engaged citizens and philanthropists who both championed the arts and were responsive and sensitive to the community in which they have lived and made a home for over 50 years. We hope that they will engage with and respond to the community to find a resolution to the estate’s development that is both sensitive to the historic nature of the area and considers the concerns of their neighbors.”

Stay tuned in what should be an interesting few months.

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