Gentrification Concerns Surround North End Redevelopment
RIDOT project will realign Claiborne Pell Bridge ramp and provide Newport with opportunity to remake this neighborhood. But it’s not a simple makeover.
March 25, 2020
NEWPORT, R.I. — A woman pushes a baby carriage along Admiral Kalbfus Road in mid-February. She walks under the Claiborne Pell Bridge ramp and is barely visible save for her white sweater. On the other side of the road, a man waits for a chance to cross as cars pile up to make the turn onto the ramp.
Less than a quarter-mile away, the husk of Newport Grand watches as drivers jockey to get in the right lane to make it through the upcoming roundabout, heading to a big-box store or on to The Point neighborhood, and as pedestrians try to make their way from the North End to downtown.
“When you come here and enter Newport, you think that the left part doesn’t belong to Newport,” said Lola Herrera, deputy director of the Working Cities Newport initiative. “But it’s still Newport. It’s just very separated from the rest of the city.”
The broad expanse of Admiral Kalbfus Road, which is 30 feet wide, was originally built as a Navy access road linking Aquidneck Island to Coasters Island and the Naval base. It threads underneath the Pell Bridge ramp, which takes you to downtown or back over the bridge and off the island. West of the ramp is J.T. Connell/Coddington Highway, a road flanked by strip malls and shopping plazas that leads you to a dead end at a Newport dog park.
Admiral Kalbfus Road has several Rhode Island Public Transit Authority bus stops along both sides, but there are no pedestrian accommodations across any of the intersecting roadways.
The woman pushing the baby carriage emerges from under the ramp, into the sunlight, and toward a rotary swirling with cars. But this tangled mass of highways to nowhere and roads without crosswalks is set for a big change.
This year marks the beginning stages of a four-year Rhode Island Department of Transportation project that will realign the ramp, opening up 20 to 30 acres for development and creating the possibility for pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly routes and greater connectivity between the North End, The Point, and downtown Newport.
“People I’ve spoken to feel that there are not many safe routes from the northern part of Newport to downtown,” said John Harlow, a research specialist at Emerson College. “This project is an opportunity to address that.”
Harlow, who specializes in addressing urban and sustainability problems through stakeholder engagement, innovation, and participatory design, works with NBBJ, the architect firm hired to do the project’s community outreach.
The RIDOT proposal, in conjunction with the city of Newport, involves four main elements: ramp realignment and reconnection of J.T. Connell Highway to Farewell Street and downtown; increased pedestrian and bicycle connectivity; Admiral Kalbfus Road safety improvements; and transit platforms for potential future transit options.
“Many people in The Point neighborhood are very into the shared-use plan with the bike and hike trail,” said Tom Hockaday, The Point Association president and a neighborhood resident. “We think that’s important for the city, for connecting to other neighborhoods, but it’s also important just for people to have open space and places to get outside and do things. We’re very much in favor of that.”
While the idea of being connected to downtown and having multimodal transportation is generally accepted as positive by residents, what comes after the bridge realignment — and the land it opens up for potential development — remains a source of concern.
“The North End was identified for a long time as an area for an opportunity for development,” said Patricia Reynolds, the city’s director of planning and economic development. “And when the proposal came forward from the developer for the casino site, the City Council thought it would be a good time to review how we wanted development in the North End to come about.”
Reynolds is referencing the Carpionato Group’s proposed use of the Newport Grand site, which the Johnston-based development company bought in 2018 for $10.15 million. The company’s proposal features a scene reminiscent of its work at Cranston’s Garden City Center, complete with hotels, a large shopping area, apartments, and plenty of BMWs and Land Rovers driving around.
Many are skeptical about the proposal, with comments on a post about the Carpionato project on What’s Up Newp’s Facebook page ranging from jabs about putting hotels near a Waste Management facility to fears of gentrification.
“Those hotels are going to have an awesome view of the garbage transfer station. Hope they aren’t planning any outdoor attractions. Between the smell from the transfer station & the sewage treatment plant in the other direction they are in for some fun no matter which way the wind blows. Lol,” wrote user Vader Chris.
“A recreational facility would be better! Kids/teens/ families need more things to do. Winter can lead to drinking at bars — we need healthier lifestyle alternatives for all!” wrote user Karla Jean.
Jani Brooks wrote, “I live on Malbone Road near the estate. Traffic is ridiculous now, speeders, tour buses, semis. I cannot imagine what this will bring to our neighborhood. It’s time to get out of this town. Those of us living here don’t count. It’s all about tourists.”
For Hockaday, who has lived in The Point neighborhood for the past 11 years, any development needs to be thoughtful and take what residents desire into account.
“We want to see things done right,” he said. “Everyone understands that the North End needs a development plan, and it’s not that we’re opposed to development on the casino property. We just want to make sure that valuable piece of land is developed thoughtfully and properly. We want to make sure it’s developed with an eye on how the whole development can benefit the city. If there needs to be a hotel, justify that; if there needs to be shopping, we’re hoping that it can be small businesses that can foster an economy more so than big-box stores. We also hope that any development plays into the aesthetics of Newport and also resiliency.”
While the City Council has slapped a moratorium on the Carpionato Group’s project — it’s set to expire April 8 — the private development company’s proposal brought the city’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan, which was released in 2017, to the forefront.
The plan examines the entire city, and addresses a range of topics from land use to economic development to housing, but a large portion focuses on the redevelopment of the North End.
“While the ‘North End Commercial’ neighborhood has the largest geographic area of commercial land, it currently lies underutilized,” according to the city’s land-use plan. “The commercial uses in this neighborhood are currently big box chains and a casino, both surrounded by large parking lots. These developments are contradictory to Newport’s dense, pedestrian-friendly urban core.”
The plan also identified part of the area where the bridge realignment project will happen as an “innovation zone,” which would include bringing alternative economies, such as blue technology, to a city that traditionally relies on tourism as its main industry.
“To do this, the area had to be rezoned,” Reynolds said. “And part of what happens with a zoning code is you can guide development in a certain way, so we wanted to know how the neighborhood and city in general envisioned this actually looking.”
In an effort to hear from North End residents about what their vision for their neighborhoods should include, the city hired NBBJ, a global architecture, planning, and design firm with an office in Boston, to conduct interviews and hold meetings.
One such meeting was held at The Met East Bay School on Girard Avenue on a Tuesday night in late February. Chairs filled up quickly, and before organizers knew it, the place was packed. Residents, City Council members, nonprofit leaders, and more huddled around the taco bar and the blown-up maps of the area.
“I don’t like the proposal for the casino area,” a woman who lives in The Point said. A group of other women around her nod in agreement.
Meanwhile, Bart Lloyd, who also lives in The Point, sees the area as a blank slate for innovative green thinking.
“I think if Newport wants a bold idea for the North End it should think about making it a carbon-free zone,” he said. “Now, while we have a blank slate, is the time to do it.”
Ideas and suggestions for what people want bubbled up: parks and farmers markets; an open-access marina along the Navy side of the water; ways to mitigate flooding and sea-level rise. There’s also the continued fears of gentrification.
“This kind of development has been on the horizon for a while,” said Jean Reisman, a member of the Newport Health Equity Zone (HEZ). “But it’s just now that a lot of the residents are having to actually encounter the reality of it happening.”
Latisha Michel also works with the Newport HEZ, as a community health worker in maternal and child health, but began her time there as a resident consultant. She has lived in the North End since she was a child and has concerns about this sudden interest in developing her neighborhood.
“I grew up in Tonomy Hill and now I have my own place in Newport Heights where I’ve been living with my children and husband for fifteen years,” she said. “I think these changes have been going on behind the scenes for a while, but now we’re starting to try and show the residents what is going on in their community and how they can be impacted by it.”
Michel said people are worried about being displaced by a rising cost of living.
“People are concerned about who this development will benefit, what it looks like, and what it means for the community,” she said. “I was born and raised here and it’s my home. I can’t imagine moving anywhere else. I’m thriving here. I work in my community; I live in my community; child care is in my community, so there’s really no reason for me to move anywhere else except for if living here becomes so unaffordable that I’m forced to move out.”
Editor’s note: The project’s environmental assessment is available at www.pellbridge-ea.com.