Above: 104 Duke Street will not be torn down after all; the owner plans to renovate it into four apartments.
One Owner Decides to Renovate; Another Wants to Demo
Call them two sides of the same old coin: rundown historic buildings in the Harbor neighborhood with owners seeking very different remedies. Both came before the Historic District Commission last Wednesday night (2/10/21) . One came away with permission to proceed with renovation plans; the other will find out March 10 whether or not he can replace an old rooming house with a single family house. (The HDC had a full agenda that night … read about 319 Main and 11 Main HERE.)
At 104 Duke Street, an apartment building at the corner of Queen Street that dates back to around 1890, the property owner actually got permission to demolish the building in 2020 but then opted to renovate it instead, creating four units.
“I think overall this is a very strong submission and it will make a huge difference in this neighborhood,” said member Greg Maxwell. “I like the details that I’ve seen – the attempt to replicate original details wherever possible.”
The only thing Maxwell and others were less happy about were the windows the owner, Joseph Colaluca, had chosen, which had simulated divided lights (i.e. a single pane of glass with a “grill” affixed to the window’s exterior) instead of windows with true divided lights (which have interior spacer bars). Windows with true divided lights are more historically accurate but also more expensive.
“Given the scope of this project … and that it was borderline going to be demolished, I’m not going to let spacer bars stand in the way,” said Maxwell.
Member Erinn Calise agreed.
“Given the diligence and effort and the amount of time that has gone into this, I would be willing to compromise on that.”
The HDC voted 4-0 to approve the plan.
The board then turned to the building at 11 Lion Street, in the Ropewalk Hill neighborhood between the train tracks and Water Street. The Lion Street structure provided housing for mill workers from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s, an era where there were many mills in East Greenwich. It has sat vacant for decades.
The challenge for the HDC is to consider the structure’s historical significance – in other words, what would be lost if it were torn down. This building is plain but unique.
In the words of local historian Bruce MacGunnigle, who has written about many structures in the Hill and Harbor District over the years:
“I consider this building to be one of the most unusual structures in our town, and a rare survivor of the industrial history of our town…. Architectural historians would call the Darius Hart Tenement, also known as ‘Hart’s Block,’ a well-preserved example of vernacular architecture, meaning buildings that were concerned with being domestic and functional, rather than monumental buildings.”
Cove Homes, a company owned by Gerry Zarrella Jr. and his father Gerry Zarrella Sr., bought the building in 2019. Zarrella Jr.’s plan had been to rehab it into affordable housing but that plan got stymied when he learned it was not zoned for four units (it had been at one time but that designation had lapsed). He submitted a four-unit application seeking zoning variances, but the application was withdrawn before it could be heard.
Recently, Zarrella Sr. took over the building and on Wednesday night he argued it was so rundown rehabbing it into four units or even the already-allowed two units would be cost prohibitive.
The HDC was not voting on the demolition request Wednesday night. Rather, the board first had to decide if the application was complete – that it contained all the alternatives to demolition including the developer’s arguments for why those alternatives would not work. As Town Solicitor Andy Teitz told the panel, “You’re only making a determination whether all the alternatives to demolition have been considered. You are not making any determination now as to whether those alternatives are valid or not.”
With that in mind, the members voted 4-0 to accept the application.
That only came after more than an hour of commentary from Zarrella, his lawyer, William Landry, and his engineer, Craig Carrigan, all explaining why renovating 11 Lion Street was not feasible.
Zarrella accepted that buying the property had been a mistake.
“We’re trying to correct the mistake,” he said. “You can’t ask us to build something where we lose our shirt.”
The building has spent a few months on the market since it was purchased by Cove Homes in 2019 but is not currently for sale. Zarrella said only one person had expressed interest but he had decided it was not financially viable.
Zarrella also presented the costs of renovating the structure into four units, three units and two units. While three or four units could increase the profit margin, he said there was no guarantee the town would ultimately approve the variances he would need to get the additional units. On two units, Zarrella posited, he would lose more than $300,000. Building a new house after demolition would break even, he said. If he was able to use a design from another house he’d already built, Zarrella said, “We would make a small profit. Not what we’re used to making, but a small profit.”
He added, “Our business is always judged by profit and loss. I would lose my shirt on a four-unit; I would lose my pants on a three-unit; I would lose my shoes on a 2-unit. And that’s it. I’m done. I would lose everything.”
The HDC was able to do a site visit Feb. 5 and the overall impression was that the structure was fairly sound all things considered. Zarrella’s engineer, Craig Carrigan, acknowledged the building was fixable but said, “It’s a financial issue. It’s not, can you fix it? Yes, you can, but does it make financial sense?”
In recent years, the HDC has allowed demolition some downtown structures, including 104 Duke Street – which the owner decided against (see above) – and 32 Exchange Street, which was determined to be in poor shape and, while historic, not an important historical structure in the town. The house at 11 Castle Street was also deemed beyond repair and torn down to make room for houses later constructed by Zarrella’s East Greenwich Cove Builders*.
The HDC also gave an opinion on the 1700s farmhouse at 62 South Pierce (it did not have jurisdiction to make the determination outright), saying the house should not be torn down, noting that it was one of the oldest houses in this part of Rhode Island.
The meeting became contentious when Zarrella suggested the town could be culpable if someone were to get hurt at the property. He’d had a fence around the structure for three months but then took it down so neighbors could park there.
“If something does happen … then I think the town would have a little shared responsibility,” he said.
“We did not buy this property, we did not put you in this position,” said HDC Chair Kristen Carron. “Is it more important to allow the neighbors to park on the property or is it more important to secure the property so nobody gets hurt?”
She added, “You as an experienced builder … the fact that you’re telling us that we’re going to bear responsibility for this is really unsettling.”
At that point, Solicitor Andy Teitz suggested the safety of the building was up to the town’s building official and not part of the night’s discussion.
Members voted shortly after to accept the application with a plan to take up the merits of the application on March 10.
The day after the meeting, Thursday, Feb. 11, Zarrella complained to the town and told EG News he wanted Carron to step down from the HDC, noting she had had a drink of wine just before the meeting started. Carron said she had finished a glass of wine she had had with her dinner (it happened to be her birthday).
Find the applications and other documentation about both projects HERE. EG News recorded most of the meeting (we missed the first 30 minutes) and you can find that recording on our Facebook page HERE (it begins while the panel is discussing 104 Duke Street; the discussion of 11 Lion Street begins around 48 minutes in).
Correction: We incorrectly identified the developer of housing at 11 Castle Street. The correct name is East Greenwich Cove Buildings, not Cove Homes. We apologize for the error.