Packed house discusses historic preservation
A preservation workshop that was held on Jan. 15 to study one question – Does Jamestown’s past matter to its future – drew a crowd close to standing room only.
In a fast-moving three-hour agenda, Donald Powers, Robert Leaver and Arnold Robinson guided the audience through a battery of questions, starting with a list of Jamestown’s most important places and then into debates about how to protect those assets and at what cost.
The Planning Commission sponsored the event to help gauge the public’s interest in historic preservation.
The question itself “betrays a little bias,” said Powers, the founder of Union Studios, an architecture design firm in Providence. The bias was that the past was worth preserving, he said. Powers, who is also a summer resident, gave the first presentation and said he hoped the audience would have a “candid discussion” about the subject but with “no conclusions necessarily encouraged or presupposed.”
The audience overwhelmingly supported the “easiest” steps, such as providing the community with education and technical assistance, as the means to protect the island’s heritage. The discussion turned cautious, however, on questions about regulations and financial assistance.
The experts were forced to remove another category – community ownership – from the list of options meant to measure the commitment to preservation. Community ownership is supposed to indicate the deepest commitment to preservation, Powers said, but since islanders have already used community ownership to protect the farms and other Jamestown features, it did not seem as problematic as regulation, the residents countered.
Slightly more than half did favor the historic district as a tool to protect the island’s heritage. The final poll showed 27 people for the historic district, while 15 were against and 11 were unsure.
Reasons given for opposing the historic districts ranged from misgivings about the individuals who would be making the decisions, to concerns about overregulation and loss of property rights.
Town Planner Lisa Bryer said 82 people attended the workshop.
Powers and Leaver, of New Commons consultancy firm, both participated in the 2007 charrette about the future of Jamestown. One of the main concerns of that study was how not to “lose Jamestown’s character.”
However, Jamestown’s character, Powers said, came before the buildings, he argued, and “transcends buildings.” Looking at aerial photographs, Jamestown’s appearance is consistent with communities built prior to World War II and drew attention to the combination of the size of the streets and the landscaping.
Going on to compare Jamestown and Warwick, he noted the latter was once farmlands, but Warwick has lost most of its agriculture, while Jamestown has maintained its farms.
But what do residents say is essential to Jamestown’s character?
“Could Jamestown afford to lose the hardware store?” he asked. “There is nothing in the ordinance to prevent it from being torn down.”
In reality, Jamestown’s character has already changed many times by demolitions and reconstruction, Powers said, pointing to the waterfront by East Ferry as one example.
Next, he showed the audience nearly identical slides from 100 years ago and from today of Shoreby Hill. “You already as a community have demonstrated you wanted to preserve,” he said.
As another example, he pointed to concerns over alterations to the Three Sisters.
Powers said five years ago, Jamestowners participated in an exercise, selecting their least favorite places on the island and the most prized spots.
“The gas station and Bank of America were hit with buckshot,” he said. According to Powers, residents named those Narragansett Avenue outlets as eyesores, while the waterfront and the eastern end of Narragansett Avenue were the most beloved locations.
But Jamestown has kept a steady pace of demolition, he said, showing slides of lost buildings.
Powers said he wanted to address misconceptions about historic districts, starting with erroneous ideas that property values would decline if a historic district were created. Typically, he said, the values rise between 5 and 35 percent, and adjoining neighborhoods also see an increase.
“Preservation, growth and change can go hand-in-hand if managed,” he concluded.
Robinson, a professor at Roger Williams who specializes in architecture and historical preservation, then took over the workshop to discuss methods of protections. He said there is no one right answer.
As an introduction, he compared Jamestown’s history to “a series of high tides” and said each one left its mark. In the 18th century, for example, agriculture and farming were the high tides. In the 19th century, the high tide came from the architecture of summer homes.
He divided the high tides into the Native American occupancy, the Jamestown settlement, agricultural prosperity in the 18th century, 19th-century changes, and the continuation into the 20th century and present day.
But the “visible physical landscape,” as opposed to books and photographs, is the way most people experience the past history, Robinson said.
“The theme of change is quite intriguing,” he added.
Leaver went over the results of the survey the audience filled out as they arrived at the workshop. Most people – 40 to be exact – said historic character adds value to the community. The most popular assets were the windmill, followed by Shoreby Hill and its green, then the farms, old structures, the island location, the village and downtown, and then Clingstone, the house on the rocks.
One respondent answered that property rights was Jamestown’s top asset. Then Leaver asked participants to work in groups and answer a question: What does historic preservation mean to Jamestown?
“All progress and preservation to live together in harmony,” resident Kate Smith said.
“Maintaining the character of the community,” added Bryer.
Other answers were:
• “Maintain Jamestown as a place we like to live”;
• “Strong preservation but fear of becoming Nantucket.”
Next, Robinson led an exercise to assess support for four outcomes, starting with the most restrictive, which would require property owners to restore a historic property to its original condition, to the least onerous, which would manage changes by assuming modifications are inevitable but should be accomplished “in a way that fits.”
The first option did not receive any support, but that could be because islanders have already restored sites like the windmill and Carr house, Leaver allowed.
“One of the outcomes has to be flexibility,” Smith said.
Once again, the participants worked in small groups and brainstormed ideas.
“Not overregulate, preserve history, preserve property rights, assume change but make it manageable,” Gary Girard said, summing up his group’s priorities.