Op/Ed: Protect Historic Properties Like 32 Exchange Street

by | Jan 10, 2020

By James Patrick Gorham

On Wednesday, Jan. 15, the East Greenwich Planning Board will meet to decide on whether or not to move ahead with approval of a proposed multi-family development at the Cromwell-Salisbury House at 32 Exchange St., a historic home in our federally recognized National Historic District. Speaking as a close neighbor of this house for 19 years, I can say that this building has long been an eyesore due to “demolition by neglect.” For decades, the town, through mechanisms such as the Historic District Commission (HDC), failed to ensure that the house was being properly maintained or preserved. As owners and residents of one of the oldest surviving houses in the harbor, my wife and I have long wished something could be done to restore our neighboring house to its former glory, as many fellow surviving houses are slowly torn down, only to be replaced by condominiums and apartment complexes not in keeping with the aesthetics or architectural heritage of the town center. Sadly, the HDC and Planning Board have consistently supported demolition and new construction on this property. 

The plan for 32 Exchange Street.

As a taxpayer and resident of the harbor, I am very disappointed that the town has not heeded complaints of many neighbors and community members who oppose this project. Not only will this new construction diminish the integrity of our historic district, but it also poses a health hazard, as developers will dig up a backyard that was for decades an unofficial junkyard, where dozens of rotting vehicles were stored (leaking hazardous substances into the soil), and where the previous owner was seen to have dumped barrels of toxic liquids. Bulldozing this house, which is covered in lead paint and asbestos shingles, will also likely release a great deal of dangerous particles into the air. Such substances could pose a particular health hazard to small children (like my own), who live in very close proximity, Moreover, the construction of a 12-unit complex on the site of a property that was for years largely uninhabited will significantly add to our town’s parking and traffic woes, potentially doing more to clog up our already crowded and narrow streets. To top this off, the property was shown by reports of the developers themselves to be a money loser for the town, as potential costs to the town could exceed any tax revenue that might be collected. The development is clearly a lose-lose-lose situation.  

East Greenwich has long prided itself on its history. Part of what makes it a quaint New England tourist destination – and a desirable place for people to live, work, and play – is its stock of beautiful multi-colored historic homes, which have traditionally been listed on brochures for walking tours. Sadly, it seems that the state’s pressure to meet mandates for so-called “affordable housing” has trumped the town’s willingness to preserve or restore some of the homes that make it so special. 

More specifically, it seems that the town has adopted a double standard: it is willing to maintain and preserve homes on the west side of Main Street to a meticulous extent, whereas it is unwilling to curb the encroachment of large condominium and apartment complexes that threaten the historic district east of Main. While the HDC and the Planning Board have largely spared everything west of Main Street from this indignity, it seems content to let historic buildings below Main rot for decades, only to eventually fall victim to demolition and replacement by more unwanted developments. With only a very small percentage of these units dedicated to “affordable housing,” they effectively serve as an excuse to avoid development of large scale affordable housing units in more prosperous, less trafficated sections of town. In the long run, they do very little to improve our stock of affordable housing. We can see our unfortunate future in the dilapidated house at 104 Duke Street (formerly the site of beloved landmark “Tar Tar’s”), or the old abandoned white house on Lion Street just to name two prominent examples. Clearly, more of our older homes in the historic district will undoubtedly follow in the path of 32 Exchange, if we do not change our current course.     

The double standard expressed by the town can find evidence in its recent decision to appeal the state’s override of the Planning Board’s denial of the South Pierce Development (see “Town to Appeal State Ruling on So. Pierce Development” 11/27/19).  Despite the fact that the size of the proposed developments are similar, and similar complaints have been made with regards to impacts on traffic, etc.,  the town seems willing to take the fight to the state to preserve a historic property in one case, but not the other. Why? The obvious answer to this seems to be the neighborhood in which the property resides.  In a relatively more prosperous neighborhood, surrounded by single family homes, the town seems willing to die on that hill. But in our more humble neighborhood, which consists of more multi-family homes, and which incidentally already contains a good portion of our town’s stock of low-income housing, the town is doing nothing other than essentially say “take your complaint to the State Appeals Board.” This speaks volumes about the town’s discrimination against the harbor and its willingness to cater to wealthy developers and special interests over and above ordinary residents. Why won’t they go to the mat for our neighborhood and work to preserve our Historic District, in what is the very heart of our town?  

I would urge all parties interested in preserving the architectural and historic heritage of our town to attend the upcoming Planning Board meeting, to be held on Jan 15. at 7 p.m. at Town Hall, and to sign my online petition (please contact me for more info at [email protected]). As town historian Bruce Macgunnigle wrote in 2016, “We can only hope that a new owner will be allowed to give the old house some TLC, and save it for future generations to appreciate.” 

James Patrick Gorham lives in the harbor area of town.


Editor’s Notes: The Historic District Commission approved demolition of the house at 32 Exchange Street in 2018. While all actions taken by the HDC are open to the public and meeting agendas are posted, a request to the HDC for permission to demolish a building in the historic district requires no notice to abutters. The Planning Board had and continues to have no say in the demolition of 32 Exchange Street. They can do nothing to reverse the HDC’s decision. 

An environmental study of hazards on the property has been conducted as required by the state Dept. of Environmental Management and lead was found in the soil. A DEM-supervised remediation plan (removal of tainted soil and replacement with clean fill) is required. Whoever is hired to take down the house would have to follow safety standards required of all contractors when dealing with older structures. 

A 13-unit proposal for 62 South Pierce Road was denied by the Planning Board in March 2018. The developer appealed the decision to the State Housing Appeals Board, which sided with the developer. The Town Council voted to challenge that appeal in November. Both the South Pierce and Exchange Street projects have utilized the state’s fast-track “comprehensive permit” application, which is open to developers who guarantee more than 25 percent of their units will be affordable*. The comprehensive permit process essentially mutes town zoning ordinances. According to Town Planner Lisa Bourbonnais, “The state has made affordable housing a priority above local character, historic character, allowable density, and the zoning code.”

*By state law, municipalities are supposed to have 10 percent of their housing stock in the affordable category. East Greenwich’s affordable percentage is 4.6 percent. To reach 10 percent, East Greenwich would need to add 290 units, according to HousingWorksRI. (Affordable housing is not the same as low- to moderate-income housing. Rather, for home ownership, it is calculated to serve people who make less than 120 percent of the median income for, in this case, Kent County.) The state created the Comprehensive Permit application to help fast-track developments that include affordable housing units since so many communities fall short of the 10 percent goal.

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Alan Clarke
Alan Clarke
January 11, 2020 5:15 pm

It always stuck me odd that any “affordable housing” projects appear to be the village’s problem and not the town’s at large. Most condo development has taken place within village limits. It would seem that if the town wants to develop their way to the 10% requirement, why not do it in one fell swoop by a set of affordable condo/rental units out in the boonies a bit? Surely developers would like to be able to put up as many expensive houses and condo units as possible. Why not let them build an “affordable housing” development that shoots the 10% requirement right over the top? Get it out of the way and they wold be free to do whatever they want after that without the affordable requirement in their way.
It would also protect whatever is left of the village housing areas. Knocking down Charlie’s house on Exchange Street would seem the thing to do, the condition it is in. But replace it with one or two houses that fit the area, not yet another multi-condo unit. As far as Charlie’s property, much ado about nothing. He had a car junkyard ending in the 1960s. It was not, as implied, a toxic waste dump. A few cars and possible oil or gasoline leaks 50-60 years ago… maybe. Let’s not make it a Brownfield site. The Greene Street property just behind CVS was much worse and used much more recently and that worked out okay.

Elizabeth McNamara
January 11, 2020 8:10 pm
Reply to  Alan Clarke

Alan, as it happens, there is a 96-unit all-affordable development planned for South County Trail that got OK’ed recently, as well as a 38-unit partially affordable development behind the American Legion post on Greenwich Boulevard. Maybe someone read your mind! https://eastgreenwichnews.com/2-developments-138-units-total-get-go-ahead/

Alan Clarke
Alan Clarke
January 12, 2020 3:10 pm

Thanks, Elizabeth. I am getting old and crankiness comes with the territory. I have no fish in this pond but the State created this mess and the State should fix it, not foist it on the communities, trampling over their own rights to determine what their towns look like. If they had to add 290 units to reach 10%, then allow no new mixed-value projects until 10% is reached. Oh, oh yeah. The State mandate.

Okay, I ask this, if they keep building the way they are, will the percentages ever change? We will never reach 10% because the number of total units goes up at the same time. I learned my math at the Academy and it might not work today.

Alan Clarke
Alan Clarke
January 12, 2020 2:48 pm

It would not surprise me to find lead in every yard in town. Years back, almost everyone had a boat of some sort and they took it home to repaint it each winter. Guess what paint was used on boat bottoms. Paint heavy in lead formulations, the only thing that would discourage barnacles from attaching to boats. Generations of people would sand the old paint down—dropping the dust into the soil—and then repaint it with another coat of leaded paint. Does this constitute a health hazard? If so, the saving grace would be that a lot of the old backyards are asphalted over for parking… if that’s a step forward, I suppose.

As the Editor noted in the story: The Historic District Commission approved demolition of the house at 32 Exchange Street in 2018. While all actions taken by the HDC are open to the public and meeting agendas are posted, a request to the HDC for permission to demolish a building in the historic district requires no notice to abutters. The Planning Board had and continues to have no say in the demolition of 32 Exchange Street. They can do nothing to reverse the HDC’s decision.

Well, let’s get rid of the Planning Board. BUT the question looping around over my head is when did the HDC become a demolish and destroy commission instead of a preservation board? It wasn’t too long ago when the old lumberyard office across from the EG Yacht Club was not knocked down, the Club being denied permission to do so. I think it’s time the HDC looks to its roots and redefines its mission – preservation!
Again, replace the Exchange Street house with another house or two similar in design. Stop destroying the little that’s left of the character of the old neighborhoods.


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