Planning Board holds public hearing on Grove Project

Fri, 09/25/2020 - 3:30pm

During the most recent Planning Board meeting, members heard testimony in support of The Grove project, which will be located behind the Gables Inn on Dodge Street. The public hearing was set as the board considers a special use permit for the construction of a new building for Block Island Beach House employee housing and the relocation of a single family dwelling to another lot.

54 Dodge Street Block Island OpCo, LLC

Plat 6, Lot 123

Attorney Joe Priestley, representing the hotel owners, said that Lark Hotels CEO Rob Blood, Newport Collaborative Architects architect Glenn Gardiner, DiPrete Engineering Senior Project Manager Molly Titus, and Matunuck Design Group Landscape architect Mark Butler would be speaking on behalf of the project.

Priestley, in his opening remarks, said “the lack of seasonal housing” on the island for seasonal workers would be eased by the construction of this project.

Priestley read from a letter he had submitted to the Planning Board dated Sept. 3 to explain the need for the employee housing:

“A great challenge to operating a business on Block Island is the lack of affordable housing for the seasonal workforce. As such, many businesses including inns, restaurants, and shops provide housing as part of their employment package in order to recruit seasonal workers. Seasonal workers not provided with housing often live in sub-standard conditions including overcrowding in order to afford housing during the peak summer season.

“Arguably, the provision of adequate and affordable rental housing for the seasonal workforce is one of the biggest challenges Block Island must address,” read Priestley.

A memo from Town Planner Alison Ring, dated Aug. 6, provided some detail on the project:

“This project involves the construction of a 10-room Inn for employee housing, an accessory building to include common areas and an accessory apartment, and the relocation of a single family dwelling from adjacent Lot 131. This project involves site disturbance to two lots, Lot 123 and Lot 131. Lot 131 is the location of the Gables Inn and potential future redevelopment. This application involves Lot 131 for the development of access to Lot 123 and relocation of Cutting Cottage. Cutting Cottage, located on adjacent Lot 131, is being proposed to be relocated to Lot 123.”

First witness: Rob Blood

Rob Blood, the president of Lark Hotels, was the first witness.

“As you know, we have a 30 room hotel at The Surf, with a restaurant. We also have 16 rooms at the Gables, which will open next summer. We are a hotel and restaurant. We employed about 40 people this summer and will likely employ the same, if not more, next summer,” said Blood.

Blood added, “You are familiar with the Gables and the land behind the Gables. We want to build a staff housing building that will be high quality… and allow us to attract good quality to work with us. We feel like it is a good location, in close proximity, yet private enough that it is not on Dodge Street.”

Blood also mentioned that the employees at The Surf would be moved to the housing behind the Gables.

“The housing at the [Gables] inn will only be for our employees,” said Blood.

Board member Christine Grele asked “when the employees move out of the Surf Side, what will happen to the property?”

“We will renovate it,” said Blood.

Second witness: Glenn Gardiner

The project’s architect, Glenn Gardiner noted that he has worked previously on Block Island, saying his “first project was at The National Hotel.” Gardiner was hired for this project about two and a half years ago. Plans had been submitted to the Historic District Commission last year, said Gardiner, and were approved.

“The site is perfectly located for the needs on Block Island: close proximity to the Block Island Beach House, laundry facilities,” said Gardiner.

“Will it be convenient enough for employees to walk to work?” asked Priestley.

“Yes. This is one of the strongest points,” said Gardiner.

“The designs fit in with HDC guidelines and recommendations… architecturally, this development is visually attractive and harmonious with the island… This development helps address critical [housing] needs,” added Gardiner.

Third witness: Molly Titus

Titus has been an engineer for DiPrete Engineering for nine years and said plans for the project had been revised in cooperation with Town Engineer Jim Geremia.

“We are actively working through some items with Jim Geremia,” said Titus.

Priestley asked Titus to describe the lot for the proposed project.

Titus said the proposed site is Plat 6, Lot 123, accessing a curb cut through Plat 6, Lot 131 (The Gables Inn). The new roadway will be constructed to match the existing grades in the Gables layout.

Titus added storm water management will include a high quality infiltration system for water management, noting the plan is a “low impact design.”

Fourth witness: Mark Butler

Butler was the last to speak in support of the application, and described the vegetation and landscape plans for the project. 

“We have brought in some trees that will compete with some of the heights of the buildings. The HDC was happy with the plant palette. We have done a good job of screening from the [St. Andrew] Church and Chapel Street. We also worked to screen and provide some protection around the window wells,” said Butler. He also announced that a lighting plan will be in place, stating it’s “very subtle. We have wall-mounted lights on the building for vehicles to recognize where the building is.”

Comments from the board

Some board members had concerns: Chair Margie Comings expressed her worries about noise levels. Grele said her concern was with possible overcrowding and the quality of the construction.

“I’m wondering how this property is distinguished, how it is different?” asked Grele.

“Clearly, the quality of this housing will be the best on this island… We will have public space and common space to employees. It feels like a youth hostel — small rooms with a large number of people but with extra common space to relax and commune,” said Blood.

“No business owner is fully altruistic, but we believe what we are doing is a good thing: continue to renovate historic buildings on Dodge Street. We need to move our staff housing off of Dodge Street and to The Grove behind the Gables. We will have a brand new beautiful house for the staff to live in. We will contemplate the renovation on the Surf Side and we will have the appropriate staff to run our businesses that will continue to let us invest in the properties. We are abiding by the town. We are hoping to move along and go before the Zoning Board, and have this be built for next season for our staff. We want you to know, we are trying to do everything the right way,” added Blood.

Gardiner added “we really came up with a solution that satisfies a lot of criteria and challenges.”

Comings agreed with the importance of having employee housing on the island, but stated there was still a concern with the number of people in the proposed building plans for health and safety reasons.

“If we are still in Covid-19 next summer, we cannot have that many people in those rooms — keep that in mind. The number of people in there is our biggest concern,” said Comings.

Comings made a motion to adjourn the public hearing. Member Tony Pappas seconded the motion, with the board approving unanimously.

The Planning Board is expected to make a decision at its meeting on Wednesday, October 14.