open letter newport ri

To the editor:

The announcement that there is a proposal to re-open Long Wharf to traffic is no surprise to those who have been participating in the community charrettes. In reality, this is less of a proposal to do something new as it is a proposal to return the area to the condition that existed for more than 300 years before the misguided and largely discredited efforts of the “urban clearance” of the 1960’s. At that time the conventional wisdom was to tear down old buildings and to widen roadways to maximize automobile traffic. It was these ideas that drove the construction of America’s Cup Boulevard through the heart of Newport’s Colonial era waterfront, separating it from the neighborhoods they had long been connected to. At the same time the idea of pedestrian malls, which has been pioneered in southern climates, were transplanted to New England, mostly to abject failure. This took Newport’s traditional retail corridor and turned it into a dark and desolate district, particularly in the winter when it is cold and snowy and the sun sets early. While we are still struggling with the repercussions of America’s Cup Boulevard, we may finally have the opportunity to correct the imposition of an anachronistic pedestrian mall onto Newport’s colonial street plan.

The proposal to restore the traditional condition of Long Wharf is only to open the traffic one-way direction to alleviate the congestion that builds at the foot of Washington Square and to let cars get to the Gateway parking lot more easily. The traffic will be slow and actually help promote pedestrian activity, particularly in the offseason and evenings when the mall is currently dark. Traffic bollards can be installed so that on weekends in summer months when pedestrian traffic is greatest, the roadway can be temporarily closed as occurred with the recent Broadway Street Fair. All of the community planning sessions of the last two decades, including the 2004 Newport Center Plan and the 2014 Washington Square Charrette, have called for the restoration of a more traditional street fronts and roadway conditions including the return of Long Wharf to a limited vehicular route as it existed for 330 years until it was closed to traffic just 50 years ago. Let us learn from the mistakes of the past and correct them for the benefit of Newporters and visitors alike. As is so often the case, the answers can be found by looking back into history.

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Most sincerely,

Ross Cann

Newport, Rhode Island

Full disclosure: I was an organizer of both the 2004 and 2014 Charrettes and am an architect and urban planner who works and lives in Newport.

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