The great Newport dorm dispute

Ochre Court, at Salve Regina University.

Ochre Court, at Salve Regina University.

By Robert Whitcomb

This was written for

Town-gown battles are common. However, the current one in Newport, between Salve Regina University and some neighbors over the school’s plans to build two large undergraduate dormitories, is exotic because its campus is in a spectacular seaside area of mansions, beautiful landscaping and powerful, articulate and opinionated people. The proposed project would be on university-owned property bounded by Victoria, Shepard, Lawrence and Ruggles avenues – in the city’s famous Gilded Age mansion section.

The two dorms, one with 214 beds and the other with 196, would go in the National Historic Landmark District, Salve’s portion of which features 21 historic buildings, including Gilded Age mansions. The school lost 45 dorm beds last year when it sold Conley Hall, one of the reasons it cites for wanting to build the two new dorms. Junior and senior class students must now live off campus. The new dorms would house the juniors.

To move ahead to construction, the university needs, among other things, two special-use permits to build in such a district.

Salve is pushing to get the City Council to approve amendments to the city’s zoning ordinance very soon to allow this big project. Then the project could go on to the Planning Board this summer, and the Zoning Board and the city’s Historic  District Commission in the fall. The project’s foes would probably have their best chance of killing it in the last body.

Bill Hall, the school’s CFO/vice president for administration, told me that Salve wants to build the dorms because, he says, “the on-campus presence of all three classes will create a more cohesive, vibrant campus community where {more} students interact with each other as they study, work, play and serve together…..Having all three classes (freshpersons, sophomores and juniors) will also include more out-of-class interaction between students, faculty and staff as well as greater mentoring of younger students by older students.’’

Where should Salve's students be housed?

Salve also asserts, in its sales pitch to the city, that the dorms would, in Mr. Hall’s words, “help minimize the costs of providing public services for this population {of students}’’ – particularly regarding police and fire -- because on-campus Salve security and other personnel would take care of much of that. And he said that reducing the number of commuting students would ease parking problems on local streets; the juniors would park their cars in the new lots to serve the two dorms.

He denied that the dorm rooms would be used as summer rentals, including Airbnb’s, in that high-rent season – and said that they’d only be provided for conference attendees in the summer.  Still, Salve must be looking forward to gaining substantial new revenue from the new buildings in a time when many small colleges and universities have been struggling, forcing an increasing number to close every year.

But some (perhaps most) neighbors see red in this project, which they complain would irreparably damage the famous National Historic Landmark District. The fiercest foes are probably Judy and Laurence Cutler, who own the National Museum of American Illustration, which would abut one of the proposed dorms.  Judy Cutler is one of the leading scholars and collectors of classic American illustrations and Laurence is an internationally known architect.

The Cutlers say the project would create a “hot-house environment’’ in the famous neighborhood because of the size of the dorms and the many additional on-campus cars -- and thus parking spaces – associated with the new-dorm residents.  Indeed, foes say that the dorms would overwhelm the historic district.

As for Salve’s proposal to build them in something like the Shingle Style associated with Newport, she told me: “Simply adding wooden shingles and eaves doesn’t make a modern building fit into the existing historic neighborhood….The proposed designs appear incredibly artificial and look no different than standard low-cost housing projects and tenements’’. The neighborhood, “with open space, gardens and Gilded Age architecture, should not be sacrificed for profit-driven low-cost housing development.’’

Founders of the National American Illustration Museum oppose the Salve plan

Preserve Rhode Island also opposes the dorms. “The proposed buildings are much larger than adjacent historic buildings and so are out of scale with the surrounding historic area,” says a document signed by Valerie Talmadge, the organization’s executive director.

“The design and detailing of the new buildings is uniform and institutional, and therefore not characteristic of the district,” she wrote.

But Janet Robinson supports the “project as a resident within the historic district and as a taxpayer.” But then, she’s chairwoman of the Salve board of trustees! She’s also a former president and chief executive of The New York Times Co.

“The architectural design of the two residential buildings is outstanding and is very much in keeping with the current architecture represented in the area,” Robinson has asserted.

 “The size, scale and mass of the buildings are all very appropriate’’ and “The landscaping that is proposed to complement these buildings will make an important contribution to the arboretum nature of the entire neighborhood.’’ The Cutlers, whose Newport property includes an arboretum designed by the famed Frederick Law Olmsted, take strenuous exception to that last assertion.

It seems obvious to me that many neighbors would be happy if Salve didn’t add any new buildings to its generally beautiful and highly eccentric campus anchored by nicely retrofitted old mansions. But as Mary Emerson, of Wetmore Avenue, told the Newport Historic District Commission: “If the dorms must be built, and Salve is determined to use that style {what she calls “mock-shingle’’}, then they must make the dorms smaller…Several smaller dorms, in lieu of the proposed prison-like structures….would be much fairer neighbors to nearby buildings.’’

However, Mr. Hall, while saying that the university is open to compromise, such as on building design and materials and laying down “porous’’ parking surfaces for the students’ cars in order to reduce water-runoff problems, the cost of putting up, say, four smaller dorms instead of two big ones would be prohibitive – four elevators instead of two and so on.

I’d guess that the Historic District Commission will turn down the dorms’ current size and that in the end something a bit smaller will go up. Meanwhile, look for a long, hot summer on the issue, despite the cooing ocean breezes.

Robert Whitcomb is editor of New England Diary.