Newport’s North End Plan Lacks Community Agreement
October 28, 2020
NEWPORT, R.I. — A bike path lined with greenery traces its way along the old railway line into downtown. A bustling sidewalk with restaurants, outdoor seating, and shops lines what used to be a desolate roadway. A lush green space fills in the gaps in development and doubles as a catch basin for stormwater runoff and flooding.
The recently released draft of the Newport North End Urban Plan (NEUP) paints an idyllic image of what this historically neglected area could look like. But some questions remain about whether this image is what the residents of the area really want.
On a recent Thursday evening, the Newport City Planning Board hosted an online meeting to present the NEUP draft and to collect questions from board members and the public.
Before the Oct. 22 public comment period opened, Chris Herlich and Alan Mountjoy, two members of NBBJ, the Boston-based consulting agency that spearheaded community outreach and helped draw up the plan, went over the basics of the 220-page document.
They noted that North End plan will build a community vision for the area, which will then become part of the city’s comprehensive plan. They said the plan for the North End will also be a bold statement for 21st-century living that connects the neighborhood with downtown.
“In order to formulate a plan that really helps achieve that vision, we structured the plan around five planning themes,” said Chris Herlich, an NBBJ associate.
These themes are opportunity, connectivity, resiliency, equity, and quality.
“These were the themes that we introduced at the first workshop and received plenty of feedback on,” said Mountjoy, an NBBJ principal. “These are the themes that have continued to organize the recommendations.”
Among the goals of the area’s redevelopment is to enhance job opportunities of Newporters and to boost the city’s economic activity.
Mountjoy said this means making the North End an opportunity zone and a hub for innovation, with the desire to build upon the Navy presence and bring in companies and jobs in the blue economy and technology sectors.
“The innovation designation was intended to support new jobs in emerging high-technology industries that would build on research already underway at the Naval Station and across the state,” according to the draft plan. “The focus was on resilience, climate change, alternative energy, and defense as well as digital and financial services.”
In addition to “opportunity,” the North End plan outlines new bicycle trails that would connect the area to downtown. It also suggests safer traffic patterns for both pedestrians and cyclists.
“It’s important to know that we embraced the rail-trail concept and a bike lane on Kalbfus and Coddington, which is part of the RIDOT plan, and that forms the backbone of a very robust alternative transportation network,” Mountjoy said.
Part of the impetus for the NEUP is the Rhode Island Department of Transportation’s impending redesign of the Pell Bridge and the state’s planned upgrades to J.T. Connell and Coddington highways, which will include a newly designed modern roundabout to replace the current rotary.
Beyond transportation, Mountjoy and Herlich attempted to assuage fears of gentrification that were brought up in early community meetings.
“It was subject of much discussion in all of our groups and through our initial public outreach,” Mountjoy said. “We were able to get a fairly good understanding of those who responded to the survey’s general preferences as to what kinds of public benefits they would be most interested in.”
While the plan mentions ways that equitable development can occur — “These community benefits can be built on publicly-owned parcels, required by zoning, incentivized during site plan review, or negotiated in development agreements, among other mechanisms” — it doesn’t mention specifics and lacks a Community Benefit Agreement, which many community organizations and residents had desired.
An Oct. 2 letter presented at the meeting by the Newport Health Equity Zone’s Housing Working Group and Greening Urban Spaces Working Group voiced this concern.
“The North End Urban Plan has the potential to reshape existing neighborhoods for generations to come and therefore it is critical that North End residents have full and meaningful participation to ensure the visioning presented in the plan represents their interests, matches their desires, and achieves their goals,” according to the letter. “We recognize and appreciate the massive amount of work that has gone into this draft plan. However, one key element is absent from the final draft plan, despite its indispensable importance: any examination of or recommendation to consider a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) as a tool for equitable development.”
A typical CBA requires developers to sign a contract with the community to ensure the developer provides certain contributions to the area and that there is community support for the project.
In addition to calls for a CBA, some residents are concerned that with development will come gentrification. Rex LeBeau, a member of the public, voiced their concern over possible displacement of current residents with the probable increase in property value that development could bring.
“I heard in the presentation that you mentioned the cliff effect and also that residents in the North End might be at risk of displacement with the rising property values that this overall plan seems to indicate will probably happen … and I’m wondering, do you have any recommendations on mitigating displacement of residents in that area?” LeBeau asked.
In response, Mountjoy spoke about how there would be no risk of current public housing being re-zoned, and that new housing would be necessary if the city wants to bring new jobs and companies to the area.
“I think there is recognition that new housing should be provided as an ancillary use to the development that we’re talking about, as a way of providing additional housing supply to offset any additional job employment, and to keep people on the island,” he said. “The fact is that prices are rising in every coastal area around the U.S; it’s a desirable place to live, it’s happening already, and I think we decided that our argument here is that the affordable housing needs to be a citywide policy as opposed to a district-wide policy.”
City Planning Board member Jeff Brooks took this idea further, saying that the other municipalities on Aquidneck Island should be picking up some of the affordable housing slack.
“I think we meet our affordable housing mandate by like 16 percent, where the state requirement is 10 percent,” he said. “I think towns like Middletown and Portsmouth need to step up and meet their requirements for housing affordability, which will in turn help us and with this development.”
LeBeau found this mentality disturbing.
“I feel like Jeff’s comment means breaking up communities, so I’m kind of left with a bad taste on that,” they said. “And I would really hope to see that we won’t reduce or lose any of our community. … I hope preserving the community is also a priority.”