Talks about “Middletown Center” are moving to the next step.

During a special meeting Wednesday night in Town Hall, the Town Council voted to clear the way for the developers, town staff and legal counsel to continue a dialogue about the future use of the 15 acres at 600-740 West Main Road.

Saying there was a lot to like about the proposed mixed-use project in the heart of Middletown, council members agreed it was time to talk more specifics about a 99-year ground lease for the property, zoning changes and other related issues.

At the same time, Town Solicitor Peter B. Regan was clear by advancing the negotiations, the council — and the developers — were not locked into anything other than talking and trying to get a draft deal done. 

If such a preliminary agreement was completed — and okayed by the council — Regan said “Middletown Center” needs to get regulatory approval from the town and state, a process expected to take months with chances for public input throughout.

“You are not committed to do anything other than negotiate…” Regan said. “No one is committed on either side.”

Wednesday’s meeting was the first time the council heard from developers Christopher Bicho, James Karam and Rocky Kempenaar directly.

In late April, the Planning Board found the project was “generally consistent” with the town’s comprehensive plan, one of the documents that oversees development in the community. The preliminary council review was the next phase in the multi-layer process.

In response to a question from the council, Karam said without both sides working together as partners, nothing would get done.

“We’re partners and it’s like any partnership,” Karam said. “If you’re too greedy, the partnership is going to break up and if I’m too greedy, it’s not going to go forward. We have to work together and make it work for both sides…We’ve spent thousands of dollars getting to this point and it’s going to be hundreds of thousands of dollars to the finished part.”

The response from the audience to the project was a mixed bag. While some applauded the town and developers for its efforts to transform the property, although others questioned the need for more construction in Middletown.

“There is only 24,000 square feet for the library, but the community consensus (in prior studies) was they wanted the library, they wanted a theater, they talked about a community cultural center and none of those have been incorporated except for the library,” resident Linda Finn said. 

Karen Biastre said based on her view, Middletown was already oversaturated with hotels and commercial space. 

“My concerns lie in the over-saturation of an already oversaturated area…” Biastre said. “From the Red Roof Inn in Middletown to One-Mile Corner with Newport, there are already 13 hotels along that West Main Road corridor.”

Former council President Robert J. Sylvia said for too long, the town has wasted a prime opportunity to put a high-end, desirable development exactly where it’s zoned for such growth, not keeping the area in open space.

“Middletown has more open space per square mile that we’ve purchased than any other  city or town in the state of Rhode Island,” Sylvia said. “We’ve been extremely proactive over the years. Look a quarter of a mile down the road — Kempenaar Valley — open space…Land development is necessary. It’s necessary for the survival for communities.”

From his view, former council President Andy Andrade said the “Middletown Center” project was a complete win for the community. 

For those who were concerned the town was losing an important recreational space, that might have been true years ago, but Andrade said not anymore. Drive by the fields day or night and Andrade said it’s unusual to see anyone playing on the fields — or using the property at all.

In terms of the library, Andrade said from his understanding, the building was in serious need of help and the town would be far better off starting new with a state-of-the-art two-story building. That was especially true when 50 percent reimbursements were available from the state to fund such construction.

Located in the heart of Middletown’s business district, Andrade said anything the town could do to grow the town’s tax base and assist the Navy was critical.

“The Navy is our fourth community on…Aquidneck Island and anything we can do to help them is smart,” Andrade said. “This is an example of something that will help our partners in the Navy and military personnel in general.”

The fate of the 15 acres has been open since March 2008. That’s when the Navy announced during a meeting in Newport City Hall that a number of their underused properties across Aquidneck Island were going to be “excessed” — or made available for redevelopment.

One 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, closing the deal for $1.3 million in January 2018.

Town officials have talked since Day 1 about 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 the property should help create needed tax revenue for the community. 

None of the land 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 possibly earlier.

Following a national search for a developer, the town selected the Bicho-Karam-Kempenaar team 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 proven track record of 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, including affordable housing, mixed retail-commercial growth and other amenities.

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. There would be 150 new apartments, 75 of those two-bedroom units. Bicho said at least 10 percent of the units would be classified as affordable housing, with an aim of having even more than 15. 

A 6,000-square-foot community center was also featured. 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 three curb cuts total on West Main Road and Coddington Highway, one less than now serve the entire site. 

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.

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