By: Matt Sheley, Town of Middletown
The Town of Middletown wants to hear from developers about their ideas for the West Main Road corridor.
At a meeting Monday night from Town Hall, the Town Council voted unanimously to task town staff to put out requests for information for the revitalization of 15-acre site between Coddington Highway and Valley Road.
The property includes the now vacant Navy Lodge parcel at the corner of Coddington and West Main Road. Moving north, the West Main Road Recreational Complex, the Middletown Public Library and former Kennedy School sites are also included. All are owned by the town in the heart of the community’s commercial corridor.
While making it clear they were just seeking information and committing to nothing, several council members spoke of the lasting potential for the area. Among the conceptual ideas mentioned were a town center, mixed-use growth, affordable housing and long-term revenue for Middletown.
“Can we get a couple of priorities together here and do something what’s right for the community?” President Paul M. Rodrigues asked. “…If there’s going to be mixed use here, I would want to see the RFI potentially come back and say ‘We can do affordable housing…’ I want to see a dollar amount that is actually affordable for young families, like $1,000, $900. It can’t be $2,000.”
“I see from our budgets that our expenses are going up. I see that we need new revenue opportunities,” Councilman Christopher M. Logan said. “What better opportunity to generate revenue in the Town of Middletown than in an area that can be developed and be very inviting for everybody.”
The fate of the corridor has been an open question going back more than a decade.
In March 2008, Navy officials notified area officials they planned to release several federal properties across Aquidneck Island they no longer had use for locally. One was the former Navy Lodge parcel, which had housed a hotel for base personnel and their families before those operations moved inside the fence line.
Following a lengthy federal review process, the town bought the 3-acre site for $1.3 million in January 2018. It’s within a stone’s throw of what developers call one of the Top 10 most sought-after commercial intersections in Rhode Island at Two-Mile Corner where East Main and West Main roads meet.
Since then, there has been substantial interest in the area, but nothing has taken hold – yet.
Previously, developers have said the town was losing at least $1 million annually by not developing the site and moving the existing uses like the library and softball field to other more suitable locations.
During the discussion Monday, Logan and others spoke of the ability of Middletown to remake not only that busy commercial stretch, but the entire community with one project. Logan said he could see several properties across West Main Road from the development site get facelifts as well.
And with the new revenues, jobs and affordable housing, they said Middletown becomes less expensive for families, the community grows and everyone benefits.
Councilwoman Barbara A. VonVillas said it was time the town acted, particularly given the natural dynamics of the community.
“There’s always a lot of attention given to the east side of town and I just think when there are 10,000 of the 16,000 residents that live on the west side, some attention ought to be given to the west side,” VonVillas said.
As for talk of waiting for the City of Newport’s North End Plan to move further along before putting out the RFI, local leaders said such thinking needed readjustment.
“As far as the (North End redevelopment) and Newport goes, I don’t want to say I don’t care, but I don’t want to sit and wait for them to see what they’re going to do and try to follow,” Vice President Thomas P. Welch III said. “It has been noted this plan has been talked about for a long time now and I say if we get something in front of us that we as a group, and the citizens, are behind, then we should move on it and Newport can follow us.”
“I don’t want to wait for Newport,” Rodrigues said. “I think we take the lead and we get out there. It’s a competitive market and it’s always going to be competitive.”
“I think it’s shortsighted for us not to continue to revisit this,” Logan said. “We need revenue opportunities. This seems like a perfect opportunity for that. Every time I drive past that ballfield…I feel like I throw our wallets out the window into that open field because it doesn’t generate anything.”