2014-12-24 / Opinion

Zoning Board Should Stand Up for Newport

To the Editor:

I recently testified before the Newport Zoning Board regarding the so-called welcome center of the Preservation Society at The Breakers. I spoke as an expert witness among the many who are against this aggrandizement by a not-for-profit organization.

Indeed, this "unwelcome center," with its lack of responsiveness to the neighborhood and all-ornothing approach, is indicative of a deeper malaise of corporate misgovernance and irresponsibility at the Society. As a professional witness (I am a Fellow of the American Institute of Planning recognized nationally for my expertise in working with historic towns) and also as an R-60 Zone property owner whose property value was depreciated by proximity to a restaurant in the shopping center adjacent to my "Bellevue House," I shared my insights.

The clanging of metal doors, the arrival of delivery trucks at 4 a.m., and the clutter of food wrappings that regularly drift across the street onto the verge of my property all worked in my favor when I purchased Bellevue House in 1999 at a bargain price, getting a bad neighbor discount on the property value. Now, part of the Zoning Board's job is to protect property values, and further to not allow community bullying by a non-taxpaying Society that has abandoned its mandate for preservation in favor of pandering to its own commercial interests by exploiting its cash cow, The Breakers.

Zoning protection is fragile and, as Newport is considered for World Heritage status, its protective covenant of zoning will be examined by the International Committee of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), which evaluates nominations. I have watched a lack of zoning protection overwhelm other nominations. Indeed, I understand that ICOMOS is increasingly sensitive to quality of planning within and around proposed World Heritage sites. As the Secretary of ICOMOS/ US and as a member of Governor Lincoln Chafee’s recently appointed committee trying to obtain a nomination of Newport as a World Heritage site, I respectfully ask the board to uphold the Zoning Code and deny the PSNC this inappropriate permit.

Architects of my generation are often oblivious to subtle characterof neighborhood values. Preservation courses were not offered when we were going to school. Most architects want to build, and perfectly respectable professionals don’t always have a real sensitivity to context, as I can testify from personal experience. Well meaning as they may be, they were not trained to think beyond the opportunity to build.

Unfortunately, the PSNC did not start with a cultural plan which evaluated the contextual values of The Breakers site, nor did they consult the neighborhood when developing an architectural proposal despite signing a compact with the neighborhood stating that they would work collaboratively. As I was the first to fund this planning process, I am particularly sensitive to this failure. Instead they have blundered forward with an "idée fix." They were confident they had the political weight to overcome opposition at the local level under the banal mantra of "helping the economy.” It is an inconvenient truth for them to recognize that Newport zoning was designed to protect the neighborhood, including the "herd of white elephants on a cliff” (to extend a phrase of Henry James) which gives gilded-age Newport its special appeal. But the Newport Zoning Code is indeed intended to protect the habitat of this special residential area.

I am something of an expert on nonprofit boards – having served as a trustee for Historic New England (a regional preservation body), as the governor’s appointee to the Massachusetts Historical Commission, and on some national and international boards over a 35- year period. Their goal should not be to maximize economic gain, but rather to protect the fragile nature of sites, and to conserve – thereby enhancing – the visitor's experience. This is why 'welcome centers' are often tucked into sites in completely unobtrusive ways, such as adaptive re-use of historic buildings. Alternative sites that do not violate The Breakers estate design have been proposed in this instance.

The PSNC would show more respect for its visitors by not holding them hostage to the convenience of toilet facilities or ticketing comfort, which this proposal by the PSNC curiously tries to manipulate. This proposal would transform the site and pre-empt the original serpentine walkway of plantings which the Vanderbilts conceived for the periphery of the The Breakers, as documented by the cultural consultant for the neighborhood, Patricia McDonnell. Restoring that garden path fully would surely bring beauty-loving visitors back to the site, and is much preferable to the intrusive armature that the PSNC would like to build to capture hungry visitors (and use for corporate entertaining?).

The intention of the Vanderbilts to design the highest gates in America, followed by the removal of ancillary service buildings which the Lorillards had left on the site, was to increase the "shock and awe" as people might encounter the "gods of mammon" at this New World Stonehenge. They clearly didn’t want the cognitive dissonance of service (i.e., commercial) buzz, which diminishes the quality of the experience they sought to project. Indeed, this is the principal preservation value which the current zoning protects. I believe it is the board's duty to uphold these restrictions in the local zoning law, rather than resorting to changes in that law or redefining key phrases or words. They should leave that task to a legislative body.

Moreover, the city's investment at the transportation center should be protected and augmented. Working with the Newport Historical Society and the Newport Restoration Foundation, the PSNC should use their welcome center dollars to develop a digital display telling the story of Newport conservation and enhancement at the Newport Visitors Center, where there is ample parking at the cityfinanced lot.

So, I again ask the Zoning Board to stand up for Newport, protect this fragile neighborhood, respect the alternatives which don’t violate the current zoning, and not impose the electronic milkers of this "unwelcome center," as currently designed, onto the already productive cash cow at The Breakers.

Ronald Lee Fleming

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