Critics make the case for a ‘better’ Belvedere in Bristol

By Kristen Ray
Posted 7/11/19

Pleasantries were scare and patience was wearing thin during the second marathon “Belvedere at Thames Street” Zoning Board of Review hearing on Tuesday night, July 9.

Whereas last …

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Critics make the case for a ‘better’ Belvedere in Bristol

Posted

Pleasantries were scare and patience was wearing thin during the second marathon “Belvedere at Thames Street” Zoning Board of Review hearing on Tuesday night, July 9.

Whereas last month’s meeting saw applicant Jim Roiter and his team of experts defend their need for 14 variances to construct a mixed-use, residential and commercial property, opponents spent the better part of Tuesday’s five-hour-long meeting contesting their claims of economic infeasibility and pre-existing hardships.

Led by legal representative Steve MacGillivray, their team of four experts and professionals — comprised of planner and preservation specialist Fred Stachura; architect John Lusk; general contractor Steve DeLeo; and managing partner of Gladding Shops, LLC Marianne Bergenholtz — laid out their case for how the Belvedere could accomplish financial sustainability while maintaining better zoning compliance, ultimately urging board members to shoot down Mr. Roiter’s most recent proposal.

Not a good plan

There was no denying Tuesday night that the lot sitting at the corner of State and Thames streets offers plenty of potential for Bristol’s downtown, waterfront district. To start off, Mr. Stachura made it known that he had no problem with the application’s general concept itself.

Where he felt Mr. Roiter went wrong, however, was developing a proposal that is out of sync with the town’s Comprehensive Plan, focusing too much on economic ambitions as opposed to the community’s collective ‘vision.’

“You have to balance the demands of what the developer wants with what the community goals are as set forth in the Comprehensive Plan,” Mr. Stachura said.

Despite asking to build a structure that exceeded height and density requirement, however, Mr. Stachura found Mr. Roiter’s proposal to be lacking as a true economic driver for the town. By reserving too much of the ground floor for parking instead of taking advantage of usable commercial space, the current Belvedere plans, Mr. Stachura said, are hardly pedestrian-friendly, offering little to encourage more foot traffic on such a vital streetscape.

“This is what makes a historic downtown successful, by having the walkability factor,” he said.

He encouraged Mr. Roiter and his team to rethink their dense and auto-centric design, steering them toward a “Charleston Block” approach, incorporating smaller-scale, aesthetically-pleasing and community-engaging concepts seen in communities such as Alexandria, Va., just outside Washington, DC. He felt as if it were a model the new Belvedere could easily embody, despite the applicant’s previous claims of pre-existing hardships involving flood zones and the parking deck.

It was a statement opposing counsel Michael Kelly quickly contested, arguing that the Planning Board, as part of the phase one approval process, required the parking deck’s construction. To that, Mr. Stachura simply quipped:

“Did they say an unsightly parking deck?”

Critics offer their own design

Expanding further on the need for a more responsible design was Mr. Lusk, taking it upon himself to craft an alternative draft for how the “Belvedere at Thames Street” could look.

In his version, the parking garage was retained — offering 34 spaces instead of 49 — but it no longer took over the attention of the first floor. That instead was reserved for additional commercial and retail space, not counting the already proposed restaurant use. While features like the amenity deck remained, Mr. Lusk’s plans lowered the total number of units from 20 to 9, some of which would feature loft-style living.

Overall, the set of plans, Mr. Lusk claimed, achieve a smaller-scale design with less lot coverage and density while still maintaining economic feasibility.

“We want to design the right thing for the property that best benefits our community,” Mr. Lusk said.

It was testimony that Mr. Kelly scoffed at, likening Mr. Lusk’s designs to “a sketch on the back of a napkin,” while accusing the opposition of comparing apples to oranges. Mr. MacGillivray, meanwhile, disagreed, feeling it to be relevant that the board know other options could exist for the corner lot property that are fully viable and more in tune with the surrounding historic character.

“What we’re saying is, you don’t have to do an apple, you can also do an orange, and the orange looks better,” he said. “That’s the whole point.”

Some board members, however, appeared skeptical of Mr. Lusk and MacGillivray’s argument. Though Mr. Stachura had earlier pointed out that the need for 14 variances should itself raise an alarm, Mr. Lusk’s alternative design would still require up to 13.

“So fourteen’s out of the question, but 12, 13 is fine?” Chairman Joseph Asciola questioned.

Preserving character

The way that both Mr. DeLeo and Ms. Bergenholtz see it, however, a design like Mr. Lusk’s varied where it really mattered, stripping the structure of its excess density and lot coverage. They worried about how the “hulking” Belvedere structure would impact not only their own neighboring properties, but the overall character of the waterfront district as a whole.

“This development will absolutely ruin the last preserved part of the working man’s waterfront,” said Ms. Bergenholtz.

Mr. DeLeo took it a step further, feeling that Mr. Roiter is so largely motivated by achieving maximum financial gain that he ignores the integrity of the zoning laws.

Once Mr. DeLeo began bringing up past statement’s made about Mr. Roiter’s work ethic and his stance on prior projects, however, Mr. Kelly drew a line, claiming his client was being unnecessarily targeted by ‘smear tactics’ under Mr. MacGillivray’s guidance.

“I’m surprised that this attorney’s witness would stoop this low,” he said.

Chairman Asciola ultimately agreed, eventually removing some of Mr. DeLeo’s exhibit from the record due to its irrelevance to the case.

A split community

For the first time that night, members of the public were also able to speak to the board, advocating both for and against the proposed development.

Those in favor applauded Mr. Roiter’s efforts, feeling as if his addition of a residential and commercial structure would offer an economic boost to Bristol.

“I would look out at the Belvedere property daily and hope that, at one point, a project like this would be proposed,” said Lynn Shaw, owner of the recently shuttered Harbor Bath & Body.

They likened its approval to being the first step toward establishing a vibrant waterfront district, similar to what towns like Warren have already achieved. Those on the opposing side, however, see such a move as a nail in the coffin, fearing the start of an overly developed and commercialized community like Newport.

“It fills me with horror,” said Halsey Herreshoff.

In the end, Keith Maloney just hoped that whichever way the Zoning Board opts to vote, it would still be a decision they could stand behind decades down the road.

“I hope, 10 or 15 years from now, you can say that you did the right thing,” he said.

That decision, however, will have to wait, as board members voted to close the public hearing and continue to a special meeting, slated for Monday, Aug. 5, at 7 p.m. in town council chambers.

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