June 23, 2014 – Providence, RI – There’s no better way to promote the many benefits of smart growth than to profile successful local examples. That’s why each year Grow Smart honors and celebrates individuals, projects and plans that are playing to Rhode Island’s many strengths, generating sustainable economic benefits and improving communities and neighborhoods in the process.
The 2014 Smart Growth Awards recognize inspiring grassroots leadership, four successful and transformative smart growth projects and two visionary plans that are off the shelves and achieving results. The public was invited to nominate award candidates and a selection committee made up of Grow Smart Board members and staff made the final selections.
Outstanding Smart Growth Leaders:
Since 2011, Bike Newport has encouraged biking for transportation, health, and recreation- and has led a collaborative effort by city government, businesses and community-based organizations to improve bicycle safety and enhance the overall experience for bicyclists. The result is a much more bicycle friendly urban community, with municipal stakeholders committed to supporting bicycling and increased bicycling by visitors. Thanks to these improvements, in October, 2013, the League of American Bicyclists recognized Newport as a Bicycle Friendly Community – making it the first municipality in Rhode Island to achieve that honor. In announcing the award, the League commented, “We were very impressed with how far Newport has come in such a short period of time. This is a great example of how a strong local advocacy group can make a real difference.”
Outstanding Smart Growth Projects:
The Meeting Room, Queen Anne Square, Newport
The human scale of Newport’s architecture, its density, cultural and historical context and its mixed uses make it a very walkable city. Parks are an important element of walkability, but only if they are safe, well maintained and engaging. In 1978, the Newport Restoration Foundation created the park known as Queen Anne Square in front of downtown Newport’s Trinity Church. By all accounts it was an attractive open space enjoyed by residents and visitors to Newport. However, the maintenance of the park proved too expensive, and thirty years after it was created, the park was neglected and run down. In 2009, the Newport Restoration Foundation proposed to revitalize the park as a gift to the City. Nationally renowned artist Maya Linn was chosen to design the space and collaborated with landscape architect Edwina von Gal and the nationally acclaimed local stone carvers of the John Stevens Shop. The resulting design, known as “The Meeting Room,” added trees, created spaces for people to sit and for children to play, and provided sight lines that increased the sense of security. To ensure the park’s long term care, the Newport Restoration Foundation raised funds for a maintenance endowment that will be managed by the Queen Anne Maintenance Trust, a new public/private entity that includes representatives from the Foundation, the City, and the community. The Meeting Room has become a popular public space for meeting, reading, pausing, exploring, resting, and playing.
The Arcade, Providence
As America’s oldest indoor shopping mall, the Arcade has particular historical and economic value for downtown Providence. Developer Evan Granoff undertook a bold adaptive reuse project that combined careful preservation of the National Historic Landmark’s early 19th century architectural details with a 21st century residential concept. The Arcade now features retail shops and restaurants on the first floor and 48 micro-lofts on the upper floors. The project, designed by Northeast Collaborative Architects, demonstrates that a historically significant building can be repurposed to accommodate the demands for live, work, and play opportunities in urban areas.
Woonsocket Middle School Complex
The newly developed Woonsocket Middle School complex is a remarkable example of far-sighted city planning. Faced with the need to build two new middle school facilities, City leaders evaluated many potential sites. Concerns about the long-term financial and environmental costs of student transportation led to consideration of centralized downtown parcels, but no uncontaminated downtown site large enough for the school campus existed. In the end, the City decided on a 20-acre former textile and metal finishing mill complex along the Blackstone River, which was heavily contaminated as a result of past industrial use. While the project would require up-front environmental remediation costs of $9 million, City leaders had the vision to see that the remediation costs were a one-time expenditure while continuing student transportation costs for non-centralized school sites would in time exceed the clean-up costs. They also realized that redeveloping the site would reinvigorate the surrounding neighborhood.
Following a complicated clean-up of the site and of contaminated groundwater that had threatened the Blackstone River, plus installation of a clean soil cap and vapor intrusion protection beneath the buildings, the city created a safe, state-of-the-art educational complex that features two freestanding 880-pupil middle schools, athletic facilities, and additional site improvements. The complex, located just a short walking distance from downtown, residential and commercial centers and adjacent to the new and impressive Rivers Edge recreational complex, has reinvented a large, blighted swath of the central portion of Woonsocket.
Westfield Commons and Lofts, Providence
The former Rau Fastener complex, embedded within a primarily residential area of Providence’s West End, consisted of several 19th century mill buildings and additions, parking lots and outlying parcels. Neglected for decades, the facility finally closed in the early 1990s, leaving the neighborhood with a blighted brownfield property that attracted prostitution and drug dealing. West Elmwood Housing Development Corporation’s complicated two-phase redevelopment project converted the property from blight to neighborhood asset. Phase One, known as Westfield Lofts, entailed the adaptive reuse of the two historic mill buildings into sixty-nine mixed-income loft apartments. Assisted by state and federal Historic Tax Credits, included extensive restoration of the buildings and significant environmental remediation. Phase Two, completed in 2011, involved renovation of the circa 1887 Charles W. Perkins building, the oldest portion of the Rau Fastener Complex. The mixed-use project, known as Westfield Commons, created 16 market rate and affordable living units and 5,000 square fee of commercial office space.
Outstanding Smart Growth Policies and Plans:
East Providence Special Waterfront Development District Plan
Adopted in 2003, the East Providence Special Waterfront Development District Plan is propelling the City’s waterfront in a new direction. The East Providence Waterfront District, located along the Seekonk and Providence Rivers, consists of approximately three hundred acres of vacant and/or underutilized land, including a significant amount of brownfields. The Plan creates seven waterfront sub-districts, each allowing a different mix of uses, and defines a system of infrastructure improvements and public spaces that forms a framework for high-quality private development. It allows for the potential building of over 2 million square feet of office/commercial space and 2,500 new residential units. The Waterfront District provides the best opportunity to expand the local tax base and offers the greatest potential in the City for attracting new business and jobs.
To administer the plan, the RI General Assembly passed legislation enabling East Providence to establish a Special Development District Commission. Over the past 10 years, this all-volunteer body of professionals with experience in architecture, land use planning, urban design, law and business has helped to shepherd development proposals and infrastructure projects through a predictable and rapid review procedure. The dedicated Commission members have used the Plan to guide the gradual transformation of land once used for petroleum and chemical storage and distribution facilities into attractive uses that generate activity and create revenue and employment opportunities for City residents and the region.
Town of South Kingstown – Healthy Places by Design Action Plan
In 2011, the RI Department of Health selected the Town of South Kingstown as one of three model communities for its Healthy Places by Design grant program. In partnership with the South County YMCA, the Town undertook an extensive community engagement effort to involve local residents and stakeholders in identifying land use, transportation and urban design policy barriers to physical activity and healthy eating and developing solutions. A Healthy Places by Design Action Plan, including policy changes suggested by residents, was developed during a week-long community summit and approved by the Town Council in March, 2012.
While the formal HPBD grant period ended in June, 2012, the program has had a lasting impact on the South Kingstown community. Policies contained in the Action Plan were incorporated into the Town’s Comprehensive Plan Update, adopted in February 2014. “Grass roots” working groups have maintained the project’s positive momentum and involved new residents, business owners and interested parties. In collaboration with the Town and the YMCA, these groups have spearheaded a range of initiatives, including a community-business effort to improve the walkability and bikability of the auto-oriented, strip commercial development along the Dale Carlia Corner/Old Tower Hill Road, a first-of-its-kind Memorandum of Agreement between the Town and University of Rhode Island to collaborate and share Town/URI resources to promote community health, installation of additional bike racks throughout the town and introduction of Bike to School Wednesdays and an annual Bike Day. Increased citizen support has helped to upgrade plans for proposed bike path connections from “potential” to “pending.” While many plans languish on shelves, the Healthy Places by Design Action Plan continues to enhance community health throughout South Kingstown.