A neighborhood meeting I had thought might blow up in anger last night instead displayed a steely determination to resist a sneaky subdivision of the Granoff estate behind a stone wall at Blackstone Boulevard and Rochambeau Avenue.
Last week’s meeting at the Rochambeau Library about the proposed Granoff estate’s subdivision was unruly. Last night’s meeting was focused and orderly. At least a hundred neighbors showed a commendable discipline in the face of considerable disappointment. After last week’s meeting, an emissary of the Blackstone Neighborhood Organization met Leonard and Paula Granoff to explain local concern but left without the coveted signal that the couple was willing to work with the neighbors to promote a redevelopment plan acceptable to all – especially in regard to the fate of the 1849 stone wall bordering the estate along Blackstone and Rochambeau.
The mood darkened during the intervening week when it was learned that last winter the Granoffs had proposed an apartment complex with 110 units. The trial balloon popped, but the Granoffs’ willingness to push a high-density plan in an R-1 zone of low residential density, not to mention trying to keep it secret, caused yet more air to seep out of the family’s claim that it would try to make sure that their land is developed with “sensitivity.”
“We’ll take our tone from what’s coming at us,” real-estate mogul Sharon Steele warned at last night’s meeting. Nobody wants this to descend into a zoning brawl, but the Granoffs obviously are not the only family with clout along the boulevard. Zoning regulations have the force of law, but the law is interpreted by bureaucrats hired by elected officials with their fingers in the air. This is not a flaw in the system but a factor that sharpens and refines the subtleties of its democratic character. Zoning is the battleground of politics at its most local.
The city planning department has approved the Granoff’s plan dividing the 3.6 acres into 12 plots, including one retaining their Mediterranean-style house, built by Professor Brigham in 1915. There will be give and take over what kind of houses will rise on the parcels – whether they are designed by the developer or sold by a developer to individuals who hire their own designers, and whether the developer will agree to run a road through the middle of the land so that each house’s driveway lets out on that road rather than onto Blackstone or Rochambeau, which would require breaching the stone wall or eliminating it altogether.
Wendy Drumm, of the BNO steering committee, revealed that the organization has hired a lawyer to help navigate the shoals of the process. “We really do have a shark,” she said, asking the crowd to write checks. Fearing that the Granoffs’ legal team might have extra time to formulate a rebuttal, the steering committee refused to disclose its legal strategy at the meeting, or even the identity of its shark. That the audience took this in stride testifies to their discipline. They will need it a week from today when the Granoff plan goes before the City Plan Commission at a meeting scheduled for 4:45 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 18, in the large meeting room on the first floor of the planning department at 444 Westminster St. (across Empire Street from its old offices).
It has been assumed since this imbroglio emerged several weeks ago that it was impossible to stop the planned subdivision, only to influence its character. Maybe. Now the steering committee seems to believe that “slow-walking this process,” as Drumm put it, could turn the subdivision plan into a nonstarter. A taut opposition can slow things down with legal objections and popular disgust with a process if a sufficiently large or influential slice of the public comes to believe, rightly or wrongly, that the process is rigged. With the sale of the property hanging on prospects for its development, time itself, which started out as an ally of the Granoffs, could become an ally of their opponents. This would not be the first time that a proposal fully legal under zoning law died the death of a thousand cuts.
Of course the Granoffs will have little to fear if the neighborhood fails to show up at next Tuesday’s meeting. Last night’s showing suggests otherwise. Indeed, I’ve attended zoning meetings where the solidarity is palpable, meetings that turn into a party (albeit a party with discipline) as confidence swells to gird the public loin. Yes, Virginia, activism can be fun. I don’t think the baby boomers at the meeting last night need to be told that!
My sense of the meeting is that the neighbors still hope the Granoffs will demonstrate their longstanding stewardship, perhaps by agreeing to write covenants into the deed of their land that ensure that its redevelopment abides by historic, aesthetic and other appropriate civic niceties. This would be the easy road for the Granoffs, it seems to me, and the surest way for them to make the most money from their land. Selling it to a developer who sees the correlation of forces shifting against its profitable development will not be easy. Who wants to buy a house whose occupants are defined from the start as the enemy?
The door is swiftly closing on the time the Granoffs have to decide whether to listen to the better angels of their civic nature, or the worse.