Residents urged to attend preservation workshop
Four years ago, a survey asked Jamestowners how they felt about preserving the island’s history. More than 500 residents replied.
The results were lopsided. Roughly 89 percent agreed they wanted to preserve the town’s historical resources, while more than nine out of every 10 residents wanted to protect the rural character of the village.
The third question, however, wasn’t as cockeyed. Do you support creating historic districts for the purpose of local building regulations? Thirty-four percent of the 521 responses were against creating historic districts, while another 26 percent said they weren’t sure. Only 41 percent answered in the affirmative.
There within lies the problem. While the large majority of residents want to protect the community’s character, no one is quite sure how.
That’s why Town Planner Lisa Bryer decided to bring in experts to discuss with islanders the slippery slope that comes with preserving a town. All residents are encouraged to attend the meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 15, from 6 to 9 p.m. at Town Hall. The Planning Commission is sponsoring the workshop with one question in mind: Does preserving Jamestown’s past matter to its future?
“When we asked if residents wanted to preserve Jamestown’s history, it was almost unanimous,” said Bryer. “But less than half supported historic districts. Why?”
According to Bryer, the goal of the workshop is to gauge the interest of residents on historic preservation. If the community overwhelmingly agrees that protecting Jamestown’s character is essential, then the more difficult question can be asked: How?
“We want to figure out how to accomplish this,” said Bryer. “At what cost.”
The discussion’s impetus rose from a neighborhood association in Lower Shoreby Hill that approached the planning board about creating a historic district. The association said the majority of Lower Shoreby Hill homeowners wanted to regulate what other residents in the neighborhood could do to their homes. (In the community survey from 2010, all responders who voted in favor of creating historic districts were asked what neighborhoods should be regulated. Of the 212 responses, 84.4 percent said Shoreby Hill, second only to the village, which received 88 percent.)
The problem with the association’s request arose in following meetings. Individual Shoreby Hill residents came to the forefront, admitting to being “duped.” Others voiced their umbrage to a historic district, saying they should be able to improve their homes if they wanted, either for aesthetic reasons or financial ones.
“The whole discussion started to become about specific addresses and property rights,” said Bryer. “That’s why I decided we needed to take a step back. It’s a good time for the workshop because we’re so involved in the conversation right now.”
While the controversy was fueled by the proposal to the Planning Commission, Bryer wants to make it clear the workshop isn’t a Shoreby Hill discussion.
“This is about the entire town,” she said.
Bryer has asked three experts in the field to help educate islanders. She has invited Donald Powers back to Jamestown. Powers is the founding principal of Union Studios, an architectural design firm. He was the lead consultant of the October 2007 weeklong charrette that focused on the future of Jamestown.
The charrette resulted in an exhaustive vision report 71 pages long. One of the topics was historic preservation.
“Jamestown has a wealth of historically significant structures and places,” the chapter began. “These are most dramatically represented at Shoreby Hill with its striking crescent of substantial homes built in a range of harmonious styles in the first half of the century or earlier. Though it may be less immediately apparent, much of the character of the East Ferry end of Narragansett Avenue is similarly defined by its historic structures. The excellent examples of pre-war mercantile structures to be found on both sides, from Jamestown Hardware to Slice of Heaven.”
The report said the level of detail and sense of place would be “very difficult to replicate today.” The consultants recommended exploring possibilities for establishing historic districts, “voluntary or otherwise.”
Also scheduled to speak is Robert Leaver of New Commons consultancy firm. Leaver has facilitated several meetings in town, including the 2007 charrette with Powers and the 2004 parking workshop.
The final presenter will be Arnold Robinson of Roger Williams University. He is the director of the school’s Community Partnerships Center, and his areas of expertise include historic preservation and architecture. Robinson was the private consultant hired by the town to research and submit the Shoreby Hill nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. The neighborhood, including 90 houses on 54.5 acres, was added to the list in October 2011.
Bryer said Robinson will talk about what historic preservation means to a community.
Aside from the presenters, the workshop is planned to be interactive. Bryer wants as much resident participation as possible. There will be an entrance survey so the Planning Commission can get a grasp of where the participants live in town.