By Matt Sheley, Town of Middletown

MIDDLETOWN, R.I. (APRIL 21, 2022) – “Middletown Center” got its first public airing Thursday night.

As expected, traffic and a proposed 144-room hotel served as the major flashpoints for the proposed mixed use development at 600-740 West Main Road during a well attended Planning Board concept review session in Town Hall.

After close to three hours of testimony and discussion, the Planning Board voted the plans were “generally consistent” with the Town’s Comprehensive Community Plan, the first step in a long review process by the Town. The volunteer board planned on hold a special meeting to outline items they’d like the Town Council to consider during the next phase of the multi-step process

Dates for the Planning Board’s special meeting and council’s public workshop where residents and businesspeople will have another chance at providing feedback were not set Thursday night.

“We’re a long way from saying this is a green light to go,” Planning Board member Arthur S. Weber said. 

The meeting drew more than 60 people including residents, business people and Town officials, including Town Administrator Shawn J. Brown, Town Council President Paul M. Rodrigues, Vice President Thomas Welsh III and Councilman Dennis Turano.

Following testimony on behalf of the project, residents and other interested parties spoke about the plans. Many took issue with the hotel, saying it wasn’t what they had in mind for a new town center for Middletown. There were also concerns expressed about the impact on traffic, stormwater runoff, lack of amenities for children and a number of other issues. 

However, a fair number of people also said something positive needed to happen with the site and it was good to see the wheels finally moving forward. Representatives from the Greater Newport County Chamber of Commerce and Aquidneck Land Trust also threw their support behind the conceptual plan.

Development attorney Girard Galvin said after testimony wrapped up that he and his clients were listening intently to the suggestions from the crowd and would try to work as many as reasonably possible into their plan.

At the same time, he said suggestions to remove the hotel, residential and retail components from the project just were not workable and made “Middletown Center” financially unfeasible.

Generally during a concept review, the Planning Board is asked to comment on the consistency of the proposed development with the Town’s Comprehensive Community Plan. 

According to the comprehensive plan — last updated in 2014 — the “West Main/Coddington Development Center” was one of a handful of true development opportunities available to the Town. Others included Aquidneck Corporate Park, Enterprise Center, the Atlantic Beach District and Two-Mile Corner where East Main and West Main roads meet.

The document indicated a prior buildout analysis showed the “Middletown Center” space could accommodate approximately 80,000 square feet of retail space, 45,000 square feet of office space and 50,000 square feet of civic/municipal space. 

In the housing component of the comprehensive plan, it calls for Middletown to do more to promote “workforce housing,” create more affordable housing opportunities and working to reduce housing costs while promoting sustainable development, among other recommendations.

The comprehensive plan touted the “Middletown Center” space for development as a way to help upgrade the entire location into an “vibrant, attractive, mixed use area, capitalizing on its relatively dense development pattern, available land under public ownership, good transportation access and available utilities.”

One of the big selling points was the $1 million plus in new annual revenues to the Town  pledged from the developers from the project.

“Most towns do not have the opportunity to do what can be done with this property,” one of the project developers Christopher Bicho said. “Very few towns have this opportunity. Newport would never have this opportunity. Tiverton doesn’t have this opportunity. Portsmouth doesn’t have this opportunity. This is really the center of the island.”

The future of the 15 acres has been an open question in Town going back to March 2008. That’s when the Navy announced during a closed-door meeting in Newport City Hall that a number of their sites across Aquidneck Island were going to be “excessed” and released.

One of those sites was the now vacant former Navy Lodge property at the corner of Coddington Highway and West Main Road. At the time, the Town showed immediate interest in purchasing the three-acre parcel for $1.3 million, a deal that was finalized with the Navy in January 2018.

From Day 1, Town officials have talked about their interest in placing a high-end mixed residential-commercial project on the West Main Road property. The proposed development site also includes the West Main Recreational Complex, the Middletown Public Library and the former Kennedy School.

In addition to creating a new “town center” for Middletown, Town officials have said a suitable development there could generate needed tax revenue for the community. None of the property in the heart of Middletown’s commercial corridor has generated a nickel in taxes for the Town in decades, likely dating back to the World War II era — and potentially earlier.

After a national search for a suitable developer, the Town selected the team of Bicho, James Karam and Rocky Kempenaar to partner with to redo the site. Bicho owns The Landings neighborhood next door as well as other properties across the island and Karam and Kempenaar have a long track record of successfully building hotels in Town.

When the partnership was announced, Town leaders talked about the trio’s deep roots in the community as one of the major selling points. Another was the concept they promoted, which included affordable housing, mixed retail-commercial growth and other amenities. 

A short time later, the “Middletown Center” proposal was unveiled. On the former lodge property at the south end, a 144-room hotel would be built. Half the hotel would be for upper mid tier rooms under the Hilton or Marriott corporate flag. The reminder would feature upper mid tier extended stay rooms with kitchens and other amenities for those staying in the area for awhile.

Moving north, several mixed residential-commercial buildings would front West Main Road, with several apartment buildings behind. All told, there would be 150 new apartments, 95 of those two-bedroom units. A 6,000-square-foot community center and pool for residents of “Middletown Center” was also featured.

Then, a large common green space with outdoor stage and 10,000-square-foot Middletown Public Library would be installed at the northern end of the site. 

According to design plans, there would be four curb cuts total on West Main Road and Coddington Highway to serve the entire site. That’s the same number that’s present currently.

Interestingly, if the Middletown Center project gets the necessary approvals, it will be the first municipal project part of the March 2008 announcement from the Navy to move forward.

Opening Monday’s session, Planning Board Chairman Paul Croce explained the ground rules for the session. Town Planner Ronald Wolanski then provided some history and development attorney Girard Galvin opening the developers’ presentation.

Bicho was first up, speaking about the excitement surrounding the proposal, which was designed to mesh seamlessly into Middletown. One aspect Bicho said was particularly attractive was the construction of the workforce housing, which would provide young people a place to live at below market rates. 

Karam spoke next, saying he and the rest of the development team has heard the concerns about another hotel. However, based on the numbers and in depth studies has shown there’s still plenty of need both to serve the Newport tourism and Naval Station Newport populations. 

Expert witness Paige Bronk, Newport’s former City Planner, said based on what he saw, “Middletown Center” fit the demands of the Town’s comprehensive plan.  Not only is the site singled out for future development in the plan by name, but it also encourages mixed use and residential growth there.

Expert witness Jeffrey Dirk said there were issues to address with traffic, something that would be studied and analyzed as part of the “Middletown Center” process.

“Our goal is to make things better and certainly not make things worse,” Dirk said.

In response, some said “Middletown Center” needed a lot of work, based on their view.

Karen Biastre, a member of the Town’s Affordable Housing Committee, said she and her son went out last weekend and drove around the community, checking on the number of hotels in the area.

“From the Portsmouth-Middletown border near Prescott Farm to the Middletown-Newport border at One-Mile Corner is a distance of 3.7 miles,” Biastre said. “Within those 3.7 miles, there are 13 existing hotels and inns along the West Main Road corridor. That’s 13 in 3.7 miles. Do we really need a 14th?”

Former State Representative Linda Finn said the project didn’t come close to hitting the meaning of a “town center.”

“My biggest concern with the project is if the premise for the property use is to raise taxes 

(revenues), then this is a great plan,” Finn said. “But if the premise for the use of the property, which is town owned property, is to serve the citizens of the Town and to provide a town center, I don’t see why we’d need a hotel on that property.”

Since the project first was proposed, the Town has taken an active role in trying to make sure everyone is informed about the development. The Town created a section in its “Middletown Shares” website at https://mdl.town/MiddletownCenter as a clearinghouse for updates related to the project.

The “Middletown Center” has also been featured in the “Middletown Today” monthly newsletter and weekly postings at MiddletownRI.com as well as the Town’s social media channels. 

The project has also been the subject of a survey, the results which were forwarded this week to the Planning Board for review. A new banner advertising the plan was also placed this week at the proposed development site on one of the fences by the Pottsy softball field.

Town staff said during a concept review, there is no typical number of comments or questions made by the Planning Board.  

Ryan Belmore is the Owner and Publisher of What'sUpNewp.

He currently serves as Vice President of the Board Of Directors for Fort Adams Trust and on the Board of Directors for Potter League For Animals.

He is a member of Local Independent Online News Publishers, Society of Professional Journalists, and the North American Snowsports Journalists Association.