Demolition of Historic East Side Estate Approved by Providence Commission, 9 Houses to be Built
Wednesday, February 20, 2019
Providence's City Plan Commission (CPC) voted Tuesday night to grant preliminary approval to developers to subdivide the historic Beresford-Nicholson House at 288 Blackstone Boulevard — and despite appeals from neighbors and the historic preservation community, acknowledged it could not stop the current owner and The Bilotti Group from demolishing the main estate as they said they plan to do.
The developer was represented by Providence lawyer Zach Darrow, who represents major downtown developers such as Buff Chace and the owners of the Edge at College Hill -- developers who are now under fire for failing to pay subcontractors on their $60M tower. The Edge has received millions in state subsidies.
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Also in attendance was Residential Properties' James DeRentis. DeRentis is the listing agent on the Blackstone property and is married to Governor Gina Raimondo's chief of staff Brett Smiley.
The Beresford-Nicholson House at 288 Blackstone Boulevard is listed on the U.S. Department of Interior’s National Register of Historic Places. The plan, developed by the firm, was to tear down the historic 7,600 square foot, 14 room main house as well as two additional historic buildings and replace them with ten new homes; the number of lots approved Tuesday was ultimately nine.
“The compromise we were looking for is not going to be found. It is a death warrant. It’s a sad, sad moment for this estate,” said CPC Secretary Harry Bilodeau. “We would like to try and maintain some of the character Providence has developed — this is the last of one of these estates. I respect [the lawyers’] legal knowledge and presentation, but it is humiliating to agree to something like this.”
After the first presentation by the developers in December before the CPC in which neighbors and preservations voiced concerns ranging from the safety of new curb cuts for driveways on Blackstone Boulevard and Cole Avenue to the destruction of historic trees on the property, lawyers from the Bilotti group presented a new plan on Tuesday that would have taken the initial proposal for ten new lots on the property to twelve — but after discussion and debate, agreed to nine.
“You can kill the house if you want [but] honestly, if we had one chance to save the house — it’s a significant house — and a buyer who understands its worth, it’s the least we can do,” said CPC Chair Christine West.
“The owner has every intent whether the application moves forward to demolish the property,” said Bilotti Group lawyer Darrow. “Why we aren’t saving it is we don’t believe it’s financially viable. The [zoning] standards are not how do we save neighborhood homes in a subdivision — we’re so far off the standard for how anyone can use their private property.”
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City Comprehensive Plan vs. Zoning
While all of the public comment was in opposition to the proposal, city officials — and board members — pointed out that the property itself is not protected by city “historic district” status.
“We don’t want something that looks like it does on Bolton Road facing Blackstone Boulevard,” said Brown University Professor of Economics Matt Turner to the members of the CPC. “These neighbors think this development will degrade the neighborhood and they’re putting their money behind it. We’ve seen what [the developer] will do and we don’t want it in front of us. I think you’re well within your mandate to stop this.”
“I know sometimes our processes can seem confusing and opaque. We go through this month in, month out, so we’re used to it. I hope this is not the one and only time you come before the board,” Azar said to the meeting attendees. “I want to say in the most respectful way. The process that the applicant is going through is not a popularity contest. [The board] has a legal obligation to act in accordance with the state law and regulations and if they don’t act in accordance, they can be sued.”
CPC Vice Chair Michael Gazdacko pointed out that East Side elected officials could work to declare particular areas “historic” districts with both more protection — and regulations for all residents — but that there hasn’t been the political will to date.
“You all have a role to play,” said Gazdacko to the members of the public. “You have to give us the tools to be able to protect these things you want protecting but this puts restrictions on your properties as well. We don’t have the tools we need beyond what we were able to do today. We had a slight compromise today. Not all is lost. You still have an ability to have a say, you have tools you can petition, and I implore you again to do so.”
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