2014-09-11 / Front Page

Planning Board Sides with the PS

Welcome Center Proposal Heads to Zoning
By Barry Bridges

By a vote of five to three, the Newport Planning Board has recommended to the Zoning Board of Review that issuing a special use permit for the proposed welcome center at The Breakers would be consistent with the goals and purposes of the city’s comprehensive plan.

The Zoning Board requested the advisory opinion as it prepares for two hearings at the end of the month where the permit will be considered. Whether the project is harmonious with the city’s comprehensive plan is among the factors that zoning members will scrutinize in deciding whether to modify an existing special use permit held by the Preservation Society of Newport County (PSNC) to allow for the proposed 3,650-square-foot structure.

At the outset of the Planning Board’s monthly meeting on Thursday, Sept. 4, Chair James Dring emphasized the limited nature of the evening’s agenda. “We aren’t here to discuss the merits of the core case, standing, or previous decisions,” he said. “We are simply making recommendations to the Zoning Board as to whether the society’s proposal is consistent with the comprehensive plan.”

Attorney William Landry presented the PSNC’s case that the welcome center would complement the city’s plan. He described the organization’s vision of a single facility that consolidates the existing tent, portable toilets, and ticketing center to provide a “more dignified experience” for the property’s 400,000 annual visitors. “Most, if not all, significant house museums have or are planning welcome centers,” Landry asserted.

He also said that PSNC has tried to balance the interests outlined in the city’s comprehensive plan and maintained that several of its goals would be furthered by the center, such as promoting cultural and heritage tourism, facilitating yearround visitors, and encouraging historic preservation.

Landry stressed that the welcome center is designed to be an amenity to better serve existing guests; it is not a strategy to bring in more visitors, he said, although he conceded that the building could spur larger crowds in the winter.

Daniel Varin, a former Associate Director of Administration for Rhode Island, and project architect Alan Joslin of Epstein Joslin Architects spoke on behalf of PSNC. Joslin gave the board a presentation on the building’s features and location on the grounds. Through detailed drawings, he noted that the facility would be camouflaged by plantings when viewed from the street or from the mansion itself. “This is very much about a building in the background,” he said. “It recedes into the surrounding greenery of the site as opposed to competing visually with the main architectural structures. It will create an intimate and concealed environment.”

Leading the charge against the project’s compatibility was attorney Daniel Prentiss, representing the Bellevue Ochre Point Neighborhood Association (BOPNA).

Prentiss also introduced a theme of balance. “This is predominantly a residential area, although it has a balance of non-residential uses with Salve Regina and nearby museums,” he said, arguing that the welcome center is not appropriate for the neighborhood and would adversely impact the balance that current residents enjoy. “As a general matter of integrity of the neighborhood, this is a change. It’s a consolidation of uses that are currently dispersed throughout the city.”

Prentiss then turned his attention to the National Park Service’s (NPS) designation of The Breakers as a National Historic Landmark (NHL). He contended that the proposed building could adversely impact the property’s gate house, boiler room, and landscaping, which could endanger the property’s NHL status. A de-listing would impact the neighborhood and therefore make the project inconsistent with Newport’s comprehensive plan, he insisted.

Landry offered a rebuttal to those points. Describing a longterm NPS study that prompted BOPNA to raise the landmark question, he said the exercise was simply meant to more closely document the features of the property. He presented an email from Paul Loether, Chief of the National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmarks, which informed PSNC that the study had nothing to do with the welcome center and that the project does not require NPS approval. In any event, said Landry, the gate house would not be impacted by the construction of a new facility.

Also testifying against the project was Robert Beaver of 225 Ruggles Ave., who highlighted a part of the comprehensive plan that seeks to minimize the “encroachment of commercial uses” in neighborhoods. “I will state categorically that the welcome center constitutes commercial use,” he said, and worried about the future implications of such a facility. “I challenge any one of you to think of anything comparable to this that is already happening in Newport – this is a precedent.” He also described the parking lot across the street as a more appropriate location for guest services.

Newporter Ronald Lee Fleming put forward his objections as well. “The iconic nature [of the mansion] is what we are trying to protect, not to create the cognitive dissonance of having a buzz of commercial activity at the corner of the site.”

After receiving additional comments from nearby residents opposed to PSNC’s proposal, Planning Board members shared their thoughts on what they had heard.

Dring said, “This is obviously very difficult. I know that passions run high on both sides.” He felt that the NHL designation was a minor issue. In signaling his support for PSNC, he emphasized that the project is completely contained within The Breakers property and that the oft-mentioned across-the-street option was a poor choice. The fact that the center would be open year round was a plus for Dring, as it could assist with the tourism challenges presented by Newport winters.

Board member Kim Salerno countered, “We can interpret the same facts very differently.” In describing her anticipated “no” vote, she said, “The overwhelming argument against the proposal is land use, and the potential effect is contrary to the comprehensive plan in every respect.” Similarly, Mary Moniz and Liam Barry declined to endorse a favorable report to the Zoning Board, with both expressing concerns with PSNC’s intention to serve pre-packaged sandwiches and other refreshments.

However, Corey Bobba, Timothy Burns, Melissa Pattavina and Wick Rudd joined with Dring in sending the matter to zoning with a positive recommendation.

Prior to the vote, Pattavina rejected the idea that the facility would negatively impact existing restaurants. “Overall, I do feel more positives than negatives,” she said. “People come to Newport not only for the gorgeous mansions but also for restaurants. Hands down, they will go for a culinary experience rather than for a sandwich.”

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