State of the City: Officials discuss upcoming projects

By Sean Flynn  Newport Daily News staff writer | Posted Mar 30, 2019 at 6:19 PM > Updated Mar 30, 2019 at 6:19 PM (Link to story)

Left to Right - City Manager Joe Nicholson, Mayor Jamie Bova, and Council Vice President Susan Taylor - March 28, 2019 - Photo Credit - Chip Leakas
Left to Right – City Manager Joe Nicholson, Mayor Jamie Bova, and Council Vice President Susan Taylor – March 28, 2019 – Photo Credit – Chip Leakas

At an event held at City Hall, topics covered included the Pell Bridge ramps redesign, the former Newport Grand property and the Naval Hospital land.

NEWPORT — Major projects pending in the city’s near future — from the redesign of the Pell Bridge ramps to free up land for an Innovation District, to the redevelopment of Newport Grand, to the creation of a new use at the Naval Hospital property and a new waterfront park there — were the focus of the State of the City discussion this past week.

Mayor Jamie Bova and City Council Vice Chairwoman Susan Taylor, assisted by City Manager Joseph J. Nicholson Jr., led the presentations at the event sponsored by the Alliance for a Livable Newport, a neighborhood advocacy group, at City Hall Thursday night.

The state Department of Transportation has completed an environmental assessment that details the purposes of the Pell Bridge ramp project, the alternatives analyzed and the project’s impacts.

Taylor said she was in contact with Jody Richards, the state Department of Transportation’s project manager, as recently as Thursday afternoon. Richards told Taylor that the Federal Highway Administration is reviewing the assessment and seven alternative design plans.

“RIDOT has a favorite plan, but they are keeping it close to the vest,” Taylor said.

Of the total budget for the project, 80 percent will be funded by the federal government and 20 percent by the state, so the federal agency has a lot of say in the matter. Once the Federal Highway Administration approves the assessment and a plan, there will be another public process and review of the targeted plan before RIDOT engineers begin the final design, Taylor said.

“They are planning to go out for bids in the fall of 2020,” she said.

“When it’s done, we will have space to continue building a new economy and make it so that it is good for our residents in the neighborhood,” Bova said.

Taylor pointed out the city is within an arc formed by marine science research centers at the University of Rhode Island and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

Rising seas and other effects of climate change will be at the forefront of research at these and other institutions, and marine-related technologies and necessary changes in infrastructure will be developed by commercial firms as a result of this research. City officials want Newport to be able to tap into this.

“We have incredible resources in this region,” Taylor said.

Nicholson has been calling it the “blue economy,” she said, and the city will be exploring possibilities that could be developed in the freed-up acreage near the bridge.

Bova said Innovate Newport, the new technology center in the reconstructed Sheffield School, “will be a beacon for the North End Innovation District.” The center, after some delays, is scheduled for a public opening in May, she said.

Before the Pell Bridge project begins, though, the state is planning to do some reconstruction and repaving of Connell Highway, the city officials said.

“I think anyone who has driven down the highway in the past few months knows it is in serious need of work,” Nicholson said.

RIDOT will go out for bids on that work this fall and begin construction in 2020, the officials said.

Plans for the Newport Grand property will be coming soon, Kelly MacArthur Coates, president and chief operating officer of the Carpionato Group of Johnston, told The Daily News in a telephone call on Saturday.

During the State of the City discussion, Nicholson noted the “For Lease” sign out front of the property and the apparent test pits.

“I would think the residents of Newport should be concerned if we did not have a ‘For Lease’ sign out front,” Coates said. “We are, of course, looking for tenants unless Amazon were moving there and that is not happening.”

He said both test pits and test borings have been made on the 23-acre property.

“We want to know the geological makeup of the site, the capacity of the soil for bearing loads and everything else,” Coates said. “We are doing traffic studies, engineering studies, drainage studies, marketing studies and whatever other investigative work is required. Any project requires a lot of advance work.”

He was asked if the former Newport Grand building would be coming down.

“I think that is the right thing for the site,” Coates said. “But this project will require multiple permits and approvals, so we will be working with the city.”

Asked about the plans for site, Coates said, “Look at our portfolio, what we have done in the past.”

The company has specialized in retail complexes, hotels, offices and mixed-use developments. “That’s a good description of it,” Coates said.

Adjacent to the Newport Grand property is the city’s waste transfer station and public works yard and offices, along Halsey Street. That is a challenge for development, Coates said.

The city has talked about using future bond money to relocate the public services yard, which will be difficult. “Nobody wants it next to them,” Coates said.

The city’s planned purchase of the abandoned Navy Hospital on Third Street continues to be on hold but remains a city priority, said Nicholson.

“Here’s the deal,” Nicholson said early on when the topic came up. “Lead testing will begin in late March, weather permitting, BRAC told me. It has not begun yet.”

BRAC stands for Base Realignment and Closure and is the congressionally authorized process for disposing of surplus military properties.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency informed the Navy in late 2017 that it could not sell the hospital property to the city until it cleaned up the lead contamination on the site, Nicholson said. That could be a two- to three-year process, he was told.

That caught city officials by surprise because the city believed the Navy’s final environmental impact statement was completed and hired an appraisal firm earlier in 2017 to set a value on the hospital property.

Since the Navy declared the hospital site surplus property in February 2010, the city has eyed the parcel for economic development purposes, but it looks like the wait will continue for awhile.

Nicholson said he walked the Navy Hospital land last week and he talked about the beauty of the waterfront section as a future park.

“It will be magnificent when we get our hands on the property,” he said.

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