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Challenge to Downcity District could doom 3 bldgs.

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3 Downcity buildings could be razed

A city ordinance preventing demolition is voided by a Superior Court judge.

BY GREGORY SMITH

Journal Staff Writer | September 27, 2004

PROVIDENCE -- Three Downcity buildings, two of which are considered historically significant, could be demolished because a special zoning district created to protect them has been invalidated in court.

The owners of the buildings have submitted applications for city demolition permits, apparently intending to use the cleared land for parking.

The buildings under threat are in the Downcity district, which the city created a decade ago to preserve the distinctive 19th- and early 20th-century architecture of the older part of downtown.

They are:

The vacant three-story Providence National Bank Building, which was the longtime home of Fleet Bank's trust department but is sometimes referred to by the name of a more recent tenant, the former Downing Corp. It is adjacent to one of Providence's more unusual structures, the Turks Head Building.

Carrying two addresses, 90 Westminster St. and 30 Weybosset St., the building stretches from one street to another, angled like a slightly closed elbow. The Colonial Revival brick frontage on Westminster dates to 1929 and the Weybosset frontage, also inspired by classical design, to 1950.

The vacant First Federal Savings and Loan Building at 110 Westminster St., adjacent to The Arcade, a national historic landmark. The two-story building to be knocked down -- its age could not be confirmed -- carries the signs of a former tenant, the Buck A Book store.

The three-story George C. Arnold Building, 100 Washington St., at the corner of Mathewson Street. Its current occupants are Kevin's Corner Smoke Shop, Honorbilt apparel, Downtown Liquors and a telemarketing office.

Built in 1923, it is the most shallow Downcity building, with a depth of only 12 1/2 feet.

Superior Court Judge Daniel A. Procaccini ruled in June that the ordinance underpinning the Downcity district was technically flawed, improperly implemented and is void.

City officials are moving to reinstate the district by reenacting the ordinance in a way that would withstand court scrutiny, as well as taking other steps.

They have not said whether they will try to mount an appeal to the state Supreme Court and ask that the Superior Court decision be held in abeyance while an appeal is pending.

If the Supreme Court would grant a stay, the city could stave off demolitions until the court conclusively resolved the case.

But, for the time being, some property owners believe the city's legal shield has dropped and they are free to knock down what they see as functionally obsolete buildings that stand in the way of economic development.

"Not every building is beautiful" and worthy of preservation, declared developer and property owner Joseph R. Paolino Jr., who filed the successful lawsuit to have the Downcity District nullified.

Jim Litsey, a lawyer and president of the Providence Preservation Society, sees the court decision as ominous.

"It would be a real shame if we were to have a building demolition in this interim period just because the Downcity District had what I would call a technical defect," Litsey said.

He said the society urges owners looking to exploit the district's nullification in order to raze their buildings to reconsider before doing something that might not be in the best interests of Providence.

Granoff Associates III Ltd. Partnership, owner of the buildings on Westminster and Weybosset streets, is pressing for demolition permits. Edgar Paxson, city building official, said the applications are "substantially complete."

"Once we get all of the parts of the package together, they're entitled to a permit" unless city lawyers tell him that there is a legal obstacle, Paxson said.

The Granoff partnership, in an unsuccessful overture two years ago to a city board called the Downcity District Design Review Committee, asked for permission to raze one of its buildings and part of the second so it could expand a parking lot.

John J. Garrahy, the Granoffs' lawyer, did not return a telephone call Friday seeking confirmation of that continued intention.

Building Official Paxson has refused to accept the demolition application from PCRL Realty, owner of the George C. Arnold Building, which he called "wholly inadequate." Pat Cortellessa, owner of PCRL Realty, said he will improve his application and resubmit it.

"You might have a window of opportunity" for demolition while the Downcity district is in disarray, Cortellessa said. "So take advantage of the opportunity."

Cortellessa disclosed that he has discussed with Paolino the possibility of cooperating in the construction of a parking garage by utilizing the land cleared of his building and an adjacent Paolino-owned parking lot on Mathewson Street.

Cortellessa and the Granoffs are the only Downcity property owners who have sought demolition permits.

Downcity and the Financial District together comprise a district that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A register listing confers no protection from demolition unless government money is involved in the redevelopment of the site.

The Providence National Bank Building and the George C. Arnold Building are considered to be "contributing structures" to the importance and the integrity of the national district.

The third building, apparently because it has been drastically modified with a bland 1950s-style facade, is considered non-contributing.

From The Providence Journal

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High court puts Downcity demolitions on hold

At issue is the legality of the 10-year-old Downcity District that has been Providence's regulatory wall in preserving historical architecture.

BY GREGORY SMITH

Journal Staff Writer Tuesday, November 9, 2004

PROVIDENCE -- The Downcity District is alive again, at least for the time being.

And that means, for now, that a partnership that owns two buildings between the Arcade and the Turk's Head Building won't be able to demolish them.

Supreme Court Justice Paul A. Suttell has put a hold on a legal process that seemed to be gradually leading to the demolition of the buildings, one of which is deemed significant by historical preservationists.

At issue is the legality of the Downcity District, which for 10 years has been Providence's regulatory bulwark in preserving the historical architecture and character of the city's old downtown.

Regulation within the Downcity District, which overlaps the Financial District, restricts demolitions.

A Superior Court judge invalidated the district over the summer, leaving the way clear for demolitions, but Suttell recently stayed that decision.

A legal fight broke out over the Downcity District last year when the city tried to penalize developer and former Mayor Joseph R. Paolino Jr. for demolishing -- without city approval -- an unusual circle-shaped former Gulf gasoline service station across the street from the Holiday Inn.

Superior Court Judge Daniel A. Procaccini ruled that the Gulf station never was properly made a part of the district, and Paolino was home free.

Procaccini went a big step further, however, and invalidated the district itself on the grounds that it was not properly adopted. That opened a window of opportunity for other property owners to demolish buildings that district regulations might not have allowed.

Granoff Realty III LP tried to climb through that window and applied for demolition permits for two buildings that it owns:

A 75-year-old building at 90 Westminster St., adjacent to the venerable Turk's Head. The three-story building, which housed the Fleet Bank trust department for many years and also is known by the name of a more recent tenant, the former Downing Corporation, is considered to be an important part of Downcity by historical preservationists.

A second building, at 110 Westminster St., which formerly housed the Buck A Book store. That building, which abuts the Arcade, is not considered to be historically significant.

When Procaccini's decision became known, historical preservationists decried the loss of demolition protection, urged building owners not to proceed with demolitions and called on the city to do whatever was necessary to have the district reinstated.

As the legal fencing continues, Mayor David N. Cicilline and the City Council are taking steps to permanently reinstate the Downcity District in an amended form.

When the city did not issue the permits, Granoff Realty III LP filed a lawsuit asking that the city be ordered to issue them. It wants to expand a parking lot between 90 Westminster St. and 110 Westminster St.

Meanwhile, the city sought to appeal Procaccini's invalidation of the Downcity District, to Supreme Court. Suttell ordered on Oct. 25 that Procaccini's decision be held in abeyance pending a Supreme Court conference later this month.

"It [suttell's stay] essentially keeps the old Downcity District in place" for the moment, said John J. Garrahy, lawyer for Granoff Realty III LP. And for all intents and purposes it freezes Granoff Realty III LP's lawsuit.

The city is asking the high court to hear its appeal of the Procaccini decision although another Superior Court judge declared that the city missed the appeal deadline.

City officials are pressing what is called a petition for a writ of certiorari, asking the high court to hear its case whether or not the deadline was missed. They do not concede that it was missed.

The petition says the city should be allowed an appeal on the grounds of "excusable neglect," as provided by court rules.

In the accompanying request for a stay, the city argues, in part, that Procaccini exceeded the scope of what he was free to decide and went too far in declaring the Downcity District null and void.

The stakes are significant, the city says.

"Once a building has been demolished, there is no way that the harm can be undone," the city says in its request for a stay, which was submitted in the names of Joseph M. Fernandez, city solicitor; Samuel J. Shamoon, director of inspection and standards; and Edgar Paxson, building official.

In their pleadings, city officials attribute "the continuing resurrection" of the central part of Providence, in part, to the existence of the Downcity District and district regulations.

Granoff Realty III LP is a family partnership whose most visible members are Evan and Lloyd Granoff. Lloyd Granoff is a Cicilline appointee to the Providence Public Building Authority.

Granoff family members also constitute Granoff Realty II LP, which owns the Turk's Head Building.

In its Superior Court lawsuit, Granoff Realty III LP asserts that the city is dragging its feet illegally in issuing demolition permits for the two Westminster Street buildings.

Deputy City Solicitor Adrienne G. Southgate had no comment yesterday on why the permits have been withheld.

Downcity and the Financial District together comprise a district that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places to connote its importance. A register listing carries no protection from demolition unless government money is involved in the redevelopment of the site.

The Providence National Bank Building, which is the historical name of 90 Westminster St., is identified as a "contributing structure" to the integrity of the national district.

The building has a Colonial Revival brick frontage on Westminster Street and stretches through the block to Weybosset Street, where it also has street frontage.

Regulations that Procaccini wiped out when he invalidated the district say buildings cannot be taken down without the permission of a city review board. The Downcity District Design Review Committee, as it is called, has not given permission for either building to be razed.

From The Providence Journal

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What incentives can the city give to encourage the property owner to develop the empty part of his property instead of trying to tear down the built part?

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Rhode Island has quite liberal historic renovation tax credits. That is part of what is fueling the boom in mill building renovations.

The city is entirely revamping it's zoning codes. The new codes should be in place early next year, and they will be further refined after that. The new codes will replace ones that are 50 years old and were written to encourage sprawl. The new codes will reward developers by allowing height and density for projects that creatively fit into the urban fabric (hidden parking and what-not). The current codes are quite cumbersome with a maze of overlay districts, the new codes will have 25 districts, roughly lining up with the city's 25 neighbourhoods. This will cut out a lot of the red tape and streamline the process for developers, hopefully making Providence more attractive to them. Currently, most projects that get built make a run around the zoning codes by applying for variances. The variances basically get issued at the whim of whoever is sitting on the variance committee at the time. Creating a hodge podge of development and not allowing for a structured plan to form over city development.

City press release on Zoning Commission

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