West Side Master Plan Given 15-Year Review

In May, the same group gathered again in a Middletown summit at Bank Newport’s Conference Center to look at what has been done well, what must change and what new ideas should be added.

The summit suggested a number of island-wide priorities for development. It also charted what it called “an initial path forward for engaging all island residents and building the case for the vast potential for West Side development.”

“Essentially, AIPC is re-valuating the plan 15 years after it was adopted to see what has been successful, what still needs to be worked on, and what new ideas should be incorporated,” said Newport City Planner Peter Friedrichs. “It covers the West Side of Aquidneck Island from Long Wharf to Melville, where there is the primary transportation spine and lots of economic activity.”

Portions of the original plan have been completed, while portions may no longer be pertinent, due to developments since 2005 according to John Shea, executive director of AIPC.

“A number of components that were not adequately addressed in the original plan, such as broadband access and climate resiliency, have become key components of planning considerations today,” he said.

Historian Jim Garman gave a history of the area. Ashley Medeiros of Connect Greater Newport outlined the economic significance of the West Side, both to the island and the state. Bob Andrews, a member of the AIPC board and Portsmouth’s West Side Development Committee, gave a virtual tour of key areas in all three municipalities, highlighting areas with value and development interest.

“I think it is critical to address continued transportation and economic expansion issues,” Friedrichs said.

Municipal planner Gary Crosby of Portsmouth, state Sen. Lou DiPalma and Middletown Councilor Rick Lombardi also attended the summit.

There was also discussion of potential opportunities, pending vital land use decisions by the Naval Station, cities and towns, state and federal officials, agencies and other stakeholders.

Seven key areas were highlighted, including highway access and connectivity; affordable workforce housing; transportation; commercial and industrial growth potential; resilience and sea level rise; broadband, water, sewer and other infrastructure; and utilizing existing models for development, such as the Newport Innovation District, where appropriate.

Critical areas of vast potential are the tank farms and the 50 acres that the Navy is cleaning up; the Melville Marina District; the “backyard” area of 32 acres between New England Boat Works and Hinckley Shipyard headquarters in Portsmouth; Weaver Cove, which is 44 acres on both sides of Burma Road; Greene Lane in Middletown, with the town actively pursuing acquisition of the site to build a pier; the War College piers; the Naval Hospital; the Pell Bridge realignment; the Newport Grand Casino; and the Navy Lodge property, among 10 other sites.

“The perspectives and positions of key stakeholders, the towns of Middletown and Portsmouth and city of Newport, Department of Defense and the state of Rhode Island, on use, ownership and transfer of ownership of areas in the West Side have evolved since 2005,” Shea said.

DiPalma and Lombardi noted progress in Middletown, including a plan for the Navy Lodge property with adjoining town land and preserving the rail corridor access through the naval base, connecting to Melville and downtown Newport with a parking lot at the Pell Bridge.

DiPalma noted that National Grid, which had threatened to place a moratorium on hookups for new developments, has “backed off” that threat as a result of the January gas outage crisis.

In order to go forward, planners said the importance of the West Side must be showcased to the state so the state legislature, and appropriate state agencies and even federal agencies, may be tapped and utilized.

In order to provide the island’s state representatives with the support needed to lobby for state financial engagement, it was suggested that a consultant be considered for economic development and cost-benefit analysis. AIPC would take the lead in identifying funds, selecting contractors and managing projects.

Andrews pointed out that in 1941, five days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the federal government took much of the West Side by eminent domain. Nearly 70 years later, much of that land is going to be released for reuse.

“The West Side offers an opportunity to expand the regional share of jobs and income and improve on the mix of jobs to emphasize higher paying sectors,” Medeiros said.