Showdown on Blackstone

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Beresford-Nicholson estate at 288 Blackstone Blvd. (Residential Properties)

Next Tuesday’s 4:45 p.m. meeting of the City Plan Commission may tell whether Providence and its citizens can preserve its historical character. A developer wants to demolish the mansion, outbuildings and grounds of the Beresford-Nicholson estate on Blackstone Boulevard, and build what would probably be very mediocre houses instead. The old mansion is quite fine, but one of the outbuildings, a carriage house erected in 1925, is perhaps even finer, a true landmark. People can easily miss the mansion behind its stone wall, but the carriage house on Slater Avenue is visible to all.

Maybe the developer could slice the carriage house out of the project. But the best plan would be for the CPC to block the subdivision and, in doing so, give an important lesson to the city, one it needs to learn if Providence is to preserve its assets. I wrote two posts just before the last CPC meeting on this, “Meanwhile, on Blackstone” and “Save the carriage house, too.” They discuss the proposal and provide useful photographs of what’s there and some idea of what the Bilotti Group plans to do with it.

The CPC meeting on this matter shortly before Christmas featured a public hearing at which almost all of a couple of dozen witnesses testified against this plan to demolish the entire estate and build ten houses. The developer and his associates testified that they would not require any variances from zoning. A lawyer among the opponents testified that a project that ticked all the zoning boxes still might not conform to the city’s comprehensive plan.

This is an interesting conundrum. It is clear that while it abides by the zoning code, the proposed development does not abide by the comprehensive plan because it does not protect the neighborhood’s historical character. The conflict would need to be resolved legally, but logically a resolution sure seems to be apparent. The comprehensive plan must take precedence over the zoning code, because the latter is designed to carry out the former.

The city and most civic leaders have not paid close enough attention to a key aspect of the comprehensive plan, but that must change soon.

The city’s unusually well preserved historical character offsets, to some degree, the effects of its dysfunctional business climate in the mixture of factors that foster economic development in Providence. Unfortunately, the decline of its historical character is accelerating, and without its historical character, the city (and state) will have little beyond its location between Boston and New York to compete with other cities for growth. The City Plan Commission therefore has an opportunity next Tuesday evening to clarify the importance of Providence’s beauty by affirming the proper relationship between zoning and the comprehensive plan.

***

What follows is a collection of passages from the comprehensive plan that speak to one of its main purposes – to protect the historic character of this city, its institutional zones, its commercial districts and its neighborhoods. (The boldfaced intros are not direct quotes but the passages are.)

  • Land Use Goal 9: Manage change and growth to sustain Providence’s high quality of life and preserve its unique attributes. … This section identifies objectives and strategies that focus on the preservation of the existing neighborhood character and protecting what is most special about our neighborhoods. … This plan aims to direct growth in a controlled way that complements the assets of our city and builds on them.
  • Areas of Stability: The goal for these areas [including the Blackstone neighborhood] is to identify and maintain the existing character of the area while accommodating limited new development and redevelopment.
  • Growth Districts, Growth Corridors and Transitional Areas: Design standards will ensure that quality of design is an asset to the surrounding neighborhood and contributes to the city’s character. New development must take into consideration natural and man-made environmental constraints and focus on preserving those aspects of our environment that we hold dear, including views, vistas and corridors and Providence’s historic character.
  • Residential Areas: Since 2000, there has been an increase in residential infill projects in virtually every neighborhood in the city. While some projects fit seamlessly into the surrounding neighborhood, many of the new homes do not respect the character of the surrounding area. While the City supports the expansion of housing opportunities, it is essential that new construction respect the valued attributes and character of the surrounding neighborhood.
  • Commercial Areas: [Require] limits on the size and design to ensure compatibility with adjacent residential properties.
  • Building Form in Mixed-Use Areas: When many uses co-exist, it is the built environment of those areas that establish the character. Establishing a cohesive form allows for uses to change over time without significantly changing the character of the area.
  • Strategies for Continued Investment in Downtown/Mixed-Use Areas: Refin[e] existing regulations to better implement the goals of protecting the historic character and environmental assets of the area while promoting new investment.
  • Strategies to Foster Institutional Growth While Preserving Neighborhoods: Ensure that institutional development is consistent with neighborhood character.
  • Strategies for Carrying Out Vision for Built Environment: Identify possible “character” districts that could be used in the future as categories for land use regulations that are based more on building form than use.
  • BE2 New Development to Complement Traditional Character
  • Planning for Design in Public Realm: Establish design and maintenance standards for major corridors that incorporate preservation, high-quality design and neighborhood character.
  • Planning for Neighborhood Character and Design: Create design and development standards to ensure the compatibility of new infill and rehabilitated uses, particularly in residential areas of neighborhoods.
  • Planning for Housing Design: Develop a pattern book of residential designs based on Providence’s vernacular architecture.
  • Land Use: Update regulations to ensure that new development complements existing neighborhood character in scale, massing and design.
  • People and Public Spaces: Develop recreation facilities that are attractive to residents and visitors of all ages and income groups.

***

It’s very clear that protecting the city’s historic character is among the most important purposes of the comprehensive plan. The zoning code contains fewer passages expressly protecting the historical character of residential neighborhoods than of the downtown neighborhood (now expanded to include the Jewelry District). However, its list of zoning goals includes two specifically pertinent to the priority that the comprehensive plan must rightfully take over the zoning code. They are:

  • Goal E. Provide for the protection of the natural, historic, cultural, and scenic character of the city or areas in the municipality.
  • Goal I. Promote implementation of the Comprehensive Plan.

It seems pretty obvious what the City Plan Commission must do.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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