Last night’s City Plan Commission meeting over the fate of the Granoff estate pitted the Blackstone Neighborhood Association’s lawyer, Bill Landry, against the Granoff’s lawyer, Tom Moses, a former director of the city’s planning office. Does the law require more detail in the Granoff subdivision plan before the CPC can approve it? For now, the plan merely cuts the land into smaller parcels to be built on later. There is no developer yet, and no plan except “lines on paper,” as Landry pointed out again and again.
Without resolving the question, and after only three members of the community had been allowed to speak, the commission halted the proceedings and continued the meeting – that is, postponed it until Tuesday, Dec. 16. During the meeting, however, it emerged that the Providence Preservation Society opposes the plan, while the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission has strong reservations.
Both organizations noted the property’s importance to the historical character of the East Side and of Blackstone Boulevard. Subdivision and development could degrade its character, even if it is done legally. It remains within the Granoffs’ power and its sense of stewardship to ensure that this does not happen.
The problem is that the Granoffs’ style of stewardship has often proved inhospitable to the historical character of the city. Their role in the boxy glass addition to the Rochambeau library and the addition to the RISD Art Museum on North Main Street, and in the design of Brown’s Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, connects them to the corrosive impact on historic districts that afflicts modern architecture. Modernist design intentionally degrades historic districts. Its relationship to urban form is parasitical. Its contrast with historical context provides the desired edgy frisson that is absent when its neighbors are other modernist buildings.
Against this may be placed the Granoffs’ generally, if not exclusively, more positive role downtown, through their developer sons Evan and Lloyd. Refurbishing the glorious Union Trust and Turk’s Head buildings, and reviving the Providence Arcade (the nation’s oldest indoor shopping mall), display the best of the family’s stewardship. This good work downtown is contradicted, however, by their role in the demolition of the small but splendid Providence National Bank to make way for a tower that was never built – though the bank’s Weybosset Street façade, originally saved for incorporation into the proposed monstrosity, survives for now, largely through the energy of the preservation society.)
The Granoffs could give their reputation for stewardship a considerable boost by donating their Blackstone estate to the public, or to an institution that would maintain its historic character and prevent its development in a manner likely to degrade the neighborhood.
Last night’s meeting introduced to the development process legal questions that could be damaging to the Granoffs’ ability to market their property, and the continuation (that is, postponement) of last night’s meeting draws the matter out, leaving the impression that things may be spinning out of control. Time is not on the Granoffs’ side. Yesterday was Leonard Granoff’s 88th birthday. But their ace in the hole is the very character of the neighborhood whose protection is the goal of those opposed to the subdivision.
For indeed, the Granoff estate will not be the first large plot of land to be subdivided. Much of the neighborhood’s new housing in the past half century has not reflected its historic character. Lawyer Moses chilled me at last night’s meeting when he remarked that “you could see the Bodell estate as the model” for subdividing the Granoff land. The Bodell land was subdivided in the 1950s. The Linden Drive cul de sac was developed with midcentury modern homes from suburban Anywhere USA. In addition, former Brown University land, part of Aldrich Field southwest of the Granoff estate, was subdivided into lots along Ray, Gorton, Rutheven and Wriston, with several cul-de-sacs. It is even worse.
Moreover, the Blackstone neighborhood is pock-marked with modernist houses built on single lots by individuals or families who cannot have been unaware that most of their neighbors would be horrified at the erosion of their view and property values occasioned by such faddish architecture, so obviously and obnoxiously thrown in the face of historic character. These houses, sprinkled amid stretches of the fine traditional houses that account for the neighborhood’s reputation, erode the character of Blackstone no less than the subdivision of large estates. Each is a precedent for houses on the Granoff land that would degrade the neighborhood and yet cannot be accused of deviating from its historic character. That character has already been extensively eroded.
If the strategy of the Blackstone Neighborhood Organization and its lawyer is to persuade the City Plan Commission to force the Granoffs to provide more preliminary information on its subdivision plan that might box the family into a higher level of development, it is doomed to fail because its premise is faulty. Precedent for a lower level of development is to be found all over the neighborhood, cheek by jowl with the excellent architecture that first gave Blackstone its exclusive reputation. That will not change if more preliminary information is requested by the commission prior to approval.
If, on the other hand, the strategy is to buy time until the Granoffs throw in the towel, the end result still relies on the cooperation of the commission and, ultimately, the grace of the Granoffs. The neighbors cannot express minimal concern for the quality of development in their midst and then expect to be taken seriously when they finally decide to care.
Perhaps by the Dec. 16 meeting the commission, the Granoffs and the neighbors will reach some sort of agreement. Saving the stone wall and the best trees rather than increasing the minimum lot size may be the most practical goal. Without a deal, legalisms will determine whether a zoning brawl ensues, to be won by those with the most patience, the best lawyers and the deepest pockets.
In such a fight, with much resting on how commission members, and possibly others in authority, interpret legal phrases, political connections may play a role. But improper influence often becomes evident only when a resulting decision is obviously wrong. Because the neighborhood’s character has been allowed to decline in recent decades, and because the language of municipal law protecting historic character has been so widely ignored, the task of protecting that character is more difficult. Under these circumstances it will be harder to perceive the potentially malign influence of connections. Still, it can go either way on Blackstone Boulevard.