Land Use

R.I.’s Big Empties Leave Economic, Environmental Void

National retailers are welcomed with great fanfare, but those who trumpeted their arrival go into hiding when these “super” stores are abandoned and their fields of concrete left to inundate local waters with polluted stormwater runoff

This Lowe’s store opened in January 2009 on Davisville Road in North Kingstown. It was out of business two years later, costing some 100 people their jobs and leaving behind an enormous impervious footprint that exacerbates pollution problems. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News photos)

NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — The 117,000-square-foot behemoth opened in early 2009 with plenty of hullabaloo. The developer touted the home-improvement superstore as “the latest example of the success we are seeing at the Gateway.”

Built on 72.5 acres, Quonset Gateway, both its developer and owner have proclaimed, serves as “the front door to R.I.’s largest business park, known as Quonset Business Park.”

Two years after all the Lowe’s buzz, the much-hyped Gateway anchor store closed, leaving behind an empty monstrosity and a forest of pavement. It’s been sitting vacant for nearly three times as long as it was open.

The Quonset Gateway Lowe’s, on Davisville Road, opened in mid-January 2009 and was out of business by late 2011. About 100 people lost their jobs.

Adjectives, superlatives and bravado punctuated the developer’s press release announcing the store’s opening: “celebrates another giant stride toward attracting top-notch retailers;” “dynamic regional hub of activity;” “catalyst for further growth;” “convenience and charm of the retail area;” “reflects New England style architecture;” “customers have numerous options for restoring, maintaining and decorating their homes.”

The press release also noted that the Quonset Gateway is being funded by New Boston’s Urban Strategy America Fund, an investment fund that “executes on the promise of a triple bottom line, generating solid returns to investors, spurring economic development, and promoting environmental sustainability.”

“The Quonset Gateway is a model example for the USA Fund in terms of embracing our triple bottom line philosophy, and we are thrilled that the project is moving forward as rapidly as it is,” John Dragat, chief investment officer of the Urban Strategy America Fund, is quoted. “This development actively promotes environmental, lifestyle and economic sustainability at a time when job creation and community benefits are more important than ever.”

Quonset Gateway features a department store, a supermarket, a nail salon, a beauty-supply store, a pet store, a sandwich shop and a tiny patch of green space. A bank sits amid an ocean of parking spots, and a fast-food joint is across the street. Basically, this strip mall, which opened in 2008, is the type of development that spread across the nation during the 20th century.

When the Gateway Lowe’s closed — one of about 20 in 2011 that were shuttered nationwide — bad management was essentially blamed. “The stores that are closing have not made significant progress necessary to achieve profitability,” a Lowe’s Companies Inc. spokesman said at the time.

Despite the closing of Lowe’s, the Quonset Development Corporation remained optimistic at the time about the future of the location specifically and the business park in general.

A corporation spokesman noted then that another Quonset business had recently nabbed a $430 million contract with the Navy. He said the Lowe’s closing was a sign of the times.

In the span of two short years, the Davisville Road Lowe’s went from an example of success to a casualty of changing times. It created a few hundred short-lived jobs, but the shortsighted project did nothing for Rhode Island’s environment, lifestyle and economic sustainability, except diminish it.

“Sometimes you take three steps forward and one step back,” the spokesman told the North Kingstown Patch in October 2011. “With this economy, you expect that ebb and flow.”

Lowe’s and the Quonset Development Corporation will now look for a company to take over the leased property, according to the 2011 Patch story. “It’s a desirable building in a desirable location,” the spokesman told the website.

It’s been vacant for almost five years.

The vast parking lot of another vacant Lowe’s, this one in Woonsocket, is kept clean with a leaf blower.

Earlier this year, ecoRI News contacted both the Quonset Development Corporation (QDC) and Lowe’s corporate headquarters to discuss the future of the boarded-up Gateway building and its impervious-surface-covered site.

A spokeswoman for Lowe’s sent ecoRI News an e-mail on June 8. “Thanks for calling about the former Lowe’s store in North Kingstown. Lowe’s doesn’t own this property; it was leased during the time we operated a store. You would need to speak with the property owner to learn about any future plans.”

A June 16 e-mail from the Quonset Development Corporation’s hired public-relations firm read: “There’s nothing new to add to the discussion about the store right now. Both the QDC and developer of the site, New Boston, are actively pursuing new uses for the building and are hopeful a new tenant will be identified in the months ahead. Meanwhile, the developer and Lowe’s continue to make their lease payments on the parcel at roughly $280,000/year. At the same time, Lowe’s pays more than $125,000/year in property and PILOT to the Town of North Kingstown.”

A follow-up e-mail from ecoRI News asking to speak with someone further about the project’s impact on the local environment and economy was ignored.

The developer of the project, New Boston Fund Inc., answered an ecoRI News request for an interview by asking for more information about the story. After providing that information, ecoRI News never heard back from the Boston-based firm.

North Kingstown’s director of planning and development noted in a June 6 e-mail to ecoRI News that “the building is out of our jurisdiction and within Quonset’s.”

“We definitely hear a lot of complaints from residents regarding the vacant building and lots of ideas from residents as possible future uses,” she wrote.

Follow-up e-mails from ecoRI News seeking an interview to discuss the empty building and residents’ concerns were ignored.

In hopes of continuing the conversation with Lowe’s, ecoRI News sent subsequent e-mails to the spokeswoman, writing, in part, “Part of the story is about buildings, in this case, one built for a Lowe’s store, being left behind when stores go out of business. There is plenty of fanfare when these projects are announced and built, but what about the shells and vacant sites left behind as community blights? I would like to speak with someone at Lowe’s about this often-overlooked part of development.”

A June 14 e-mail from Lowe’s corporate answered that request in the same manner it answered our initial e-mail. “Lowe’s doesn’t own the property in North Kingstown; it was leased during the time we operated a store. You would need to speak with the property owner to learn about any future plans and maintenance of the property.”

However, the abandonment of big-box stores — not an isolated incident here, but a nationwide epidemic — isn’t a simple problem about ownership. These retail leviathans are built specifically to suit a renter’s needs. The vacant building on Davisville Road looks like a Lowe’s for a reason.

Just because Lowe’s, or any other big national chain, rents the property doesn’t excuse it from the role it plays on the impact these type of development mistakes leave behind. No one associated with the development, property or operation of this “anchor store” was made available to speak about the “triple bottom line” or how the “development actively promotes environmental, lifestyle and economic sustainability at a time when job creation and community benefits are more important than ever.”

This Walmart on Diamond Hill Road in Woonsocket has been sitting vacant for nearly five years.

Pattern of behavior
Grow Smart Rhode Island shared its concerns about the North Kingstown project two years before the Gateway Lowe’s even opened. In September 2007 Grow Smart submitted testimony to the Rhode Island State Planning Council regarding the revised site plan for the Quonset Gateway Center project.

“Grow Smart continues to have serious concerns about this broad expanse of single-story retail. First, it is a low-density form of development that does not use land efficiently. And, as Grow Smart stated in its original testimony, ‘this relatively low intensity use constitutes a basic inconsistency with the fundamental premise of Land Use 2025 which is that we should seek to accommodate the majority of our future growth by making efficient use of the infrastructured land within the urban services boundary.’”

The state-commissioned Land Use 2025 report was released in 2006 and was touted as “Rhode Island’s plan for conservation and development in the 21st century.” The plan is typically ignored when it comes to big projects proposed by big corporations. It’s really noting more than a feel-good story.

The recently released 2015 Rhode Island Wildlife Action Plan noted that “development pressures on land throughout the state are increasing.”

“The primary threat to Rhode Island’s fish, wildlife, and their habitats is conversion of land for housing, urban growth, and commercial, industrial, transportation, or recreational uses,” according to the plan.

Another concern expressed by Grow Smart regarding the development of the Gateway Lowe’s was that this single-story retail space and surrounding parking would result in a “great deal of impermeable surface.” The organization noted that QDC’s development guidelines required that not more than 80 percent of a parcel be covered by impervious surface. Grow Smart questioned whether the two-parcel site upon which Lowe’s was developed and now sits meet that percentage.

Grow Smart also noted that large national chains, with their ability to cut prices, often drive smaller local businesses out of operation and pull revenue out of the local economy.

Nearly a decade after expressing its concern about the project, Grow Smart offers this take, “By continuing with an auto-oriented development style, reliant on big box floor plates, Gateway Center is now stuck with an empty box and empty parking lot that will be difficult to redevelop. If Lowe’s found the location to be ‘underperforming’ chances are its competitors … will find it similarly underperforming.”

The same can be said for another big-box store that sits vacant 37 miles to the north. An empty Walmart on Diamond Hill Road in Woonsocket is another apt reminder of how corporate chains take over the local retail economy and then relocate for a better tax deal and/or more space, leaving the landscape scarred.

The nation’s nearly 400 million square feet of vacant shopping centers and its collection of abandoned big-box stores have left behind half-empty downtowns and less-than-bustling main streets. Walmart alone has about 400 abandoned stores nationwide — some 30 million square feet of vacant retail space surrounded by thousands of acres of asphalt.

Walmart closed its 120,000-square-foot Woonsocket store in mid-September 2011, so it could open a 24-hour, 200,000-square-foot Supercenter store about 5 miles away in North Smithfield.

Across the street from this vacant Woonsocket Walmart is another empty Lowe’s. The big box has been vacant since 2013. Lowe’s also left Diamond Hill Road to relocate to the Dowling Village retail center in North Smithfield. On the August weekday ecoRI News visited this deserted location, a small crew was using a leaf blower to collect the leaves that had fallen from the trees that border a sea of black pavement.

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  1. Its partly our fault in trying to save a few pennies we encourage these out of state giants like Lowes and Walmart to exploit us and ruin the landscape instead of supporting locally owned businesses that usually at least have some concern about our communities.

  2. I totally agree with the thrust of this article (which is only reinforced by the recent citizens bank rollover!) since we are stuck with these dead strip malls (look at rt 6 in east providence and seekonk) why can’t we build housing on them? there would be no NIMBY neighbors to object, the sites usually are at least located on bus lines (and parking is already there for sure!), and utilities and other infrastructure are in place!

  3. Seems to me that if these businesses are building their store on leased property, they should be responsible for removing their store when the business fails. Tear down the building, remove the pavement, and restore the land to green space until another use is found for the land.

  4. Paul A. Roselli – president, Burrillville Land Trust

    This is an open letter to the citizens of Woonsocket and especially Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt:
    Walnut Hill Plaza, according to Frank Carini from ecoRI, and I quote "An empty Walmart on Diamond Hill Road in Woonsocket is another apt reminder of how corporate chains take over the local retail economy and then relocate for a better tax deal and/or more space, leaving the landscape scarred."

    While this article does not link the big box store ghost town to the controversial power plant in Rhode Island, the space, better known on Diamond Hill Road as Walnut Hill Plaza is significant because its an abandoned property next to an abandoned property and you don’t have to rip out the trees.

    Woonsocket citizens, you should look at this site closely.

    As the ecoRI editor writes "Across the street from this vacant Woonsocket Walmart is another empty Lowe’s. The big box has been vacant since 2013. Lowe’s also left Diamond Hill Road to relocate to the Dowling Village retail center in North Smithfield."

    The folks who are proposing a power plant for northwestern Rhode Island are also looking at this site.
    This one site in Woonsocket may be an opt out answer for the Invenergy folks who are getting battered and whipped by environmental groups along with local, state and soon to get into the mix, federal agencies over the 1 gigawatt electric production facility in the Rhode Island woods.

    Doomed to failure in the Northwestern corner of Rhode Island principally because of the Resilient Rhode Island Act and a lack of a usable water supply that won’t deplete the regional aquifer, the Woonsocket site may be a second round draft pick for the fractured fracked gas and oil fired power plant.

    What is so appealing for the place in Woonsocket? Well, its closer to a water source that won’t lower volume and draw from wells as far away as 5000 feet from the Invenergy water. The site is not too far from power lines in nearby Massachusetts. There are a few underground gas pipelines near the Walnut Hill Plaza. And this is a site that will eventually have to be declared a brown field site if they ever dig up the asphalt.

    So, Invenergy comes in buys the property, rips up the asphalt, demolishes the Lowes, Walmart and a few other retail spaces. Gets a generous tax deal from the Mayor and City Council of Woonsocket and goes to work.
    Of course all the environmental groups, local, state and soon to get into the mix federal agencies will still oppose the power plant. Citizens in Woonsocket will rise up in arms over the use of their water, especially in the 5 year drought that we are in. They will wonder about the tax treaty cobbled together by the Mayor and the Council and look at the $76 per year they are saving in taxes and maybe $24 they save each year in electric costs. The citizens of Woonsocket and neighboring cities will still be shocked at the amount of CO2 and methane leaks that occur at the power plant on the Hill. And when the gas and oil prices spike – as they did a few days ago – and see their savings turn into higher prices for electricity, higher prices for gas, they will wonder why they did agreed to this thing in the first place.
    So, the location of this facility doesn’t matter no matter where or if this power plant is built, its still a bad idea. But in all honesty, Woonsocket is a better choice.

    As a land trust president, the land trust mission is to protect the rural character of the Town of Burrillville. I have to object to placing a fracked gas/oil fired power plant in the middle of the woods surrounded by conserved property paid for by every citizen in the state of Rhode island. I have to object to putting an industrial sized mega facility in the middle of property that was rejected by folks from DEM nearly 30 years ago for another power plant. I have to defend the animals, trees, bugs, flies and other species that have no voice. And when they do have a voice, that voice gets lost in words and phrases like "we all must sacrifice a little for the greater good" or "this is progress" or "lower energy bills await" or "this is job growth" or ______________you fill in the blank.

    Then Woonsocket is perhaps a better choice.

    But Mayor and citizens, the most damaging choice and the worst for all who live in this region is to let Invenergy build their power plant.

    Location doesn’t matter for their power plant.

    The power plant is theirs by the way. Its not ours. Electricity will rarely flow back to Rhode Island. We will accept all the pollution, inherit all the CO2 emissions, take all the risk, make all the sacrifices, violate our own laws and regulations, halt our economy by slowing down the inevitable of moving to some other form of energy production, reduce job growth in a sector that is booming with job growth and we will, if all goes according to the Invenergy plan use our $100 annual savings as co-pay for a trip to the doctor wondering why we have this nasty cough.

    Woonsocket residents, this open letter is for you.
    Its time you talked to your Mayor.

  5. Great article. Makes one think about how we view progress and how we should be treating the environment. I like JDS’s comment on requiring the Big Box stores to tear down the store and return it to the environment it was before the building was erected. A further thought on that idea is to require them to EITHER tear it down and restore it or to at the very least find within a year another tenant to acquire and locate in the building fully. With the many big box stores in the country and world it should not be a major problem. Though they may well claim hardships with the current economy at the time they evacuate the store it may make them take a much harder look at whether or not the really want to locate there in the first place. That reevaluation may save well save many municipalities from the same fate as Rhode Island.

  6. And the same thing will probably happen to the proposed soccer stadium site if they manage to build that stadium in Pawtucket–all the research shows that stadiums are destructive to the community in many ways. This one is to house a team owned by someone in California–why not build it in his own back yard?

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