By Town of Middletown
People will have their first chance to comment on the proposed “Middletown Commons” development during an April 21 concept review at 6 pm in Town Hall.
“Middletown Commons” Proposal Before Planning Board on April 21
MIDDLETOWN, R.I. (MARCH 21, 2022) — Like most municipalities across the country, the Town of Middletown is constantly looking for ways to generate new revenues.
If the “Middletown Commons” Town Center project is approved, it’s expected to provide a new $1 million injection to the Town’s finances annually, money that could be used for everything from education to road improvements and other efforts to make the community an even better place to live, work and play.
On Thursday, April 21 at 6 pm, everyone will have a chance to see and hear more about the proposal for the first time during a special Planning Board meeting in the Council Chambers of Town Hall.
The meeting marks the official start of the Town’s review process for the redevelopment of 15 underused acres from 600 to 740 West Main Road. The land is now home to a vacant lot (the former Navy Lodge site), the West Main Road recreational complex, the Middletown Public Library and former Kennedy School. For more information, visit https://mdl.town/MiddletownCommons online.
“This is an interactive process, and we are presenting concepts that will be revised as we move through the public comment, Town Council and Planning Board process,” said Christopher Bicho, one of the developers of the proposed ‘Middletown Commons’ project.
“We are striving to create a pedestrian friendly neighborhood with a village environment highlighting the backdrop of the Town’s coastal character woven through out the common elements and building design. ‘Middletown Commons Town Center’ will be designed for ease of accessibility to our public spaces and be developed with the integration of sustainable modes of transportation inclusive of walking, bicycle and public buses surrounded by environmentally friendly lush landscapes that promote pedestrian interaction from the adjacent neighborhoods and accessible to all town citizens. The development emphasizes a mixed-use character of hospitality, retail, food and entertainment, and various types of townhomes, apartment, and affordable housing residences with an allocation of land for public and Town use.”
“Whenever a community looks at any major development, you have to look at a track record,” said James Karam, another developer part of the ‘Middletown Commons’ team along with Rocky Kempenaar. “Each of the individuals involved in this project have a long history and deep connections to the community. We’ve done a lot here and we think each of our projects are developments the Town can be proud of and ‘Middletown Commons’ is no different.”
Ask any large-scale Realtor with a statewide reach and they’ll mention that Two Mile Corner nearby where East Main and West Main roads meet is one of the Top 10 most sought after intersections in the state.
However, mere footsteps away rests the “Middletown Commons” properties in the heart of the Town’s commercial district which have not generated a nickel in tax dollars in decades.
Seeing all the potential in the world to remake the area, the Town Council requested information from potential developers last year. Out of that process, the Town selected the team of Bicho, Karam and Kempenaar to work with on the project.
The trio is well known for their quality work on Aquidneck Island and beyond. Bicho owns The Landings neighborhood immediately to the west of the “Middletown Commons” site, with Karam and Kempenaar pairing up to build several hotels down West Main Road.
According to the group’s detailed submission by Cordtsen Design Architects of Middletown made to the Town recently, “Middletown Commons” would fill many local needs while fitting into the community overall.
Of the 15 acres, more than a third would be dedicated to residential housing. If application is approved, 15 three-bedroom units, 95 two-bedroom units and 40 one-bedroom units would be built in several three story buildings.
Karam said some of the units would be classified as “affordable,” with others set aside for “workforce” housing targeted at teachers, police officers, firefighters and other young professionals looking to move into their first place. The remainder would be leased at market rate, he said.
The proposal shows about three acres of the development would be dedicated to mixed retail and restaurants. While the plans don’t specify tenants because it’s too early in the process, two drive thru units are being discussed.
Karam said as word has circulated about the potential project, there’s been significant interest from a range of potential tenants.
“People in industry are beginning to hear about it and have called and we’re not at that stage yet, talking to people until after the permitting process is hopefully successfully completed,” Karam said. “I know we’ve heard from banks about their interest, casual dining restaurants, those in the medical field, professionals like accountants and lawyers, not to mention retail.”
On the corner of Coddington and West Main, a new 144-room hotel is one of the cornerstones of the project.
The idea, Karam said, was to make about half the hotel with upper mid tier rooms under the Hilton or Marriott flag. The remainder would be upper mid tier extended stay rooms, complete with kitchens and other amenities for the traveler staying in the area for awhile.
“If you look at the Hampton Inn down the road, it doesn’t look like most Hampton Inns in other places,” Karam said. “It’s really going to have a style and feel that fits into the traditional design that Middletown wants to see.”
As for those who question the need for a new hotel in Town, Karam said the intensive study by the “Middletown Commons” group by the Pinnacle Group of Boston proves otherwise. To reduce the traffic impact, Karam said the hotel would run a continual peak-season shuttle to downtown Newport and other attractions so once people park their cars, they don’t need to drive again until leaving.
“They analyze markets all over the world and their numbers show the Middletown-Newport market is still underserved, particularly during the summer months and with the extended stay traveler,” Karam said. “We’re extremely confident in the market and we’re here to service a need. If you look at what’s happening with the Navy and how much that drives a part of what’s happening on the island, the base, NUWC, the War College, the need is there.”
Adding to “Middletown Commons” town center feel are a new 10,000-square-foot Middletown Public Library and three plus acre outdoor open space, complete with a performance stage.
The developers said one of the main aims of “Middletown Commons” is to focus on the walkability and accessibility of the property. This includes a dedicated bus stop, properly designed access and exit points and sidewalks throughout.
“With ‘Middletown Commons,’ other than the hotel component, we’re not looking to draw people from hundreds of miles away, more like 10 miles away in Newport, Middletown and Portsmouth,” Karam said. “We’re not going to have an huge store powering this development. It’s going to be more of a community neighborhood concept that serves the people who are already here. Given the population that’s within a mile of this location, 5,000, 10,000 people, it’s going to be something used by the people who are already here.”
Properly handling any traffic was a key component of the project too.
“If you look at West Main Road right now, you have another driveway every 100 feet,” Karam said. “This isn’t going to be like that at all and the retailers and others who will be here don’t want that. If the traffic doesn’t work, people won’t visit and that’s not what we want. We’re going to be doing a full-blown traffic study to make sure we get it right and the property is fully accessible.”
Down the line, the “Middletown Commons” team said they could see the project being a major driver for positive change across the community.
“I think what we’re presenting is a nice mix there that serves the community and the people who live there,” Karam said. “I love the idea of the library there, which really locks in the idea of this being a project for the entire community. There’s open space and this isn’t the same old West Main Road anymore. This could truly be a gateway not only into Middletown but Newport as well and I know we’re all really looking forward to getting the process going so we can share this with everyone.”
Town Administrator Shawn J. Brown agreed that public input was a critical part of the “Middletown Commons” process. He said as “Middletown Commons” moves through the Town’s review process, updates and information will be posted at https://mdl.town/MiddletownCommons online.
“We know there’s been quite a bit of interest in this project across the community and we wanted to make sure we had a completely transparent process with ‘Middletown Commons’ from Day 1,” Brown said. “The Planning Board meeting on the (April) 21st is the first step in a lengthy review process that will give everyone an opportunity to see and hear more about the partnership Mr. Bicho, Mr. Karam and Mr. Kempenaar are proposing as part of this critically important project.”