Pawtucket has Plans to Make Two Environmental Justice Neighborhoods Green-Free
August 5, 2022
PAWTUCKET, R.I. — The only green space in District 5 could potentially be turned into a dumping ground for contaminated material, paved over, and made into a 5-acre parking lot.
City Council member Clovis Gregor, who represents the environmental justice neighborhoods of Oak Hill and Woodlawn that make up the district, isn’t thrilled with the idea that “this largely and historically underserved minority community” could lose its only protected public outdoor recreational area. He’s even less enthused with the plan the city has presented to replace the restricted-use site.
William H. Morley Memorial Field, at 94 Moshassuck St., is a public recreation facility that was created in the 1970s. The city acquired the property consisting of two parcels through a National Park Service grant (3 acres) and as a gift from the late William H. Morley, an executive with the Anaconda Wire & Cable Co. who, in 1944, was found guilty with three other company officials of conspiring to defraud the United States.
The 5.3-acre site is restricted to recreational use only.
City officials, however, are planning to sell Morley Field to JK Equities LLC for a reported $500,000. The company has asked the zoning be changed from public open to industrial. Once capped and paved over, Morley Field would be used for parking and as a staging area, according to JK Equities.
The New York-based real estate company wants to redevelop the old Microfibres Inc. factory next to Morley Field into a last-mile distribution center and use the neighboring open space as the final resting place for nearly 1,400 tons of contaminated dirt that needs to be removed from the site of the former textile operation.
The company’s proposal to demolish the former Microfibres buildings and develop a 165,000-square-foot distribution facility with a few dozen loading docks is supported by the mayor, the City Council, the Zoning Board of Appeals, and the City Planning Commission. JK Equities has listed the property, and representatives have told local officials the proposed distribution center has drawn significant national interest.
To rescind Morley Field’s recreation-use-only designation, however, the city would need to follow a rigorous process managed by federal and state agencies to create a replacement recreation area that is of equal or greater size and equal or greater value than Morley Field. It has been estimated that such a relocation effort would cost JK Equities about $1.5 million. The city’s search was required to begin in District 5.
The city, though, has identified a replacement property that is outside of Gregor’s district. City officials are pursuing 9.5 acres of undeveloped land on Pawtucket’s south side between Riverside Cemetery and Max Read Field.
The property, which borders the Moshassuck River, would have to be assessed by the National Park Service and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management to determine if it is a proper replacement for Morley Field. Both agencies would then have to approve the conversion plan before ownership could be transferred.
The Pleasant Street site is nearly a mile away from Morley Field. The mayor’s office has said this open space property in District 4 would create additional green space and new recreation opportunities for the city.
The problem, according to Gregor, is that the densely populated neighborhoods he represents will be left without any green space.
“District 5 has no open recreational green space short of Morley Field,” he wrote in a 14-page document he sent to his fellow City Council members in early December. “As such, it is easy to see the critical importance and value of recreational green space in this most affected community. Hence, it becomes ever more crucial and absolutely imperative that the collective Council, together with the Administration, ensure that all viable District 5 replacement options are properly and fully explored and considered.”
Gregor recently told ecoRI News the city never made finding replacement space in Woodlawn or Oak Hill a priority. He said he even provided the city with a potential District 5 replacement: Angelica Textile Services, a linen company and dry cleaners, at 482 Pawtucket Ave. He noted neighborhood residents have long expressed an interest in developing the 1.7-acre site into something other than commercial or residential use.
The Valley Breeze reported early this year that city officials said there are structural and environmental concerns in regards to the Angelica site, which consists of two lots on either side of Pawtucket Avenue. The city has said the replacement-property goal is to target a single site that has limited, if any, environmental issues and doesn’t require building demolition.
ecoRI News met late last month with Gregor and Anastasia Azure, who owns a business in Hope Artiste Village at 1005 Main St., not far from Morley Field. Both support the redevelopment of the Microfibres/HP Fabrics Inc. property. Their concern is that to make the distribution center a reality, District 5 could be robbed of its last patch of green, even if it is rundown, underused, and slightly contaminated.
This spring, the city fenced off Morley Field as a precautionary measure after soil tests conducted on the property found lead and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons at some locations at concentrations above acceptable levels. Gregor said fencing off the property was an overreaction to the findings. He noted DEM didn’t even recommend the field be closed to the public.
Gregor called the plan to create more recreational room and open space between an athletic complex and a cemetery “redundant and absurd.” He noted Woodlawn and Oak Hill children — 18 and younger — represent the highest per capita percentage of children in the city and they could end up with no access to any in-district green space.
“They are deserving of the same opportunity to enjoy the many benefits of recreational space available to children in Pawtucket’s other districts,” he said.
For those who have told him District 5 is home to Payne Park, Gregor said the West Avenue facility is a basketball court and playground with a tiny bit of green. “It’s an exaggeration to call that green space,” he said.
He also took exception with the city having described Morley Field as an “underutilized recreational facility.” He said it’s underutilized because “it was deliberately neglected. It was supposed to be maintained to certain standards but has been left uncared for for the last 10 years.”
Gregor shared an email he received from a Samuel Slate Middle School teacher and president of a Pop Warner youth football team sharing his concern about the future of Morley Field.
“I’ve been a part of this community for quite some time and I’ve seen Morley Field be neglected in my time here,” the man wrote. “It’s been a disappointment because I see the Fairlawn community get upgrades to their fields and the other side of Pawtucket have this beautiful park, Slater Park. … Another space must be provided for the families of this community.”
Azure supports the idea of turning the old Angelica property into public open space, saying it’s a fair solution for a district that doesn’t have a lot of money.
“It’s a good place for some green space,” she said. “There are homes all around the property.”
Gregor agreed, saying it would be nice if a contaminated property in his district was remediated and turned into recreational space if Morley Field is to be asphalted over.
Before the city enclosed the complex in fencing, Morley Field, which features limited lighting and restrooms, received only spotty use by organized youth sports but it was used, mostly by adults, for walking, running, relaxing, and exercising dogs, according to Azure, who was one of the adults who took advantage of the space.
Litter now dots the outskirts of Morley Field and clings to the fencing erected to keep the public out.
“District 5 is made up of people of color living in multifamily homes,” Gregor said. “There is limited green space and now they want to take that away, leaving the neighborhoods’ kids with nothing.”
The 10.2-acre Microfibres property, at 1 Moshassuck St., has two vacant 2‐story buildings and three vacant single‐story buildings. The site has been unoccupied for nearly a decade.
The site was historically used as a manufacturing facility for flocked fabrics for upholstery, furniture and specialty products. Operations consisted primarily of flocking, dyeing, and producing fabrics. There several underground storage tanks that held fuel oil and solvents.
Total petroleum hydrocarbons (TPH), arsenic, and chrysene were detected at concentrations above safe standards, according to a site investigation report prepared last year for JK Equities.
TPH compounds, a term used to describe a large family of several hundred chemical compounds that originally come from crude oil, can affect the central nervous system, cause a nerve disorder called peripheral neuropathy that consists of numbness in the feet and legs, and can cause effects on the blood, immune system, lungs, skin, and eyes. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has determined that one TPH compound (benzene) is carcinogenic to humans and determined that other TPH compounds (benzo[a]pyrene and gasoline) are probably and possibly carcinogenic to humans.
Chrysene, a polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon and one of the natural constituents in coal tar, is a suspected human carcinogen.
The City Planning Commission has a public hearing scheduled for Aug. 16 at 6 p.m. at City Hall, 137 Roosevelt Ave., to review a proposed development project at Morley Field. To attend the hearing online, click here.
Editor’s note: This story was updated Aug. 9, 2022.