Mill fire won't douse redevelopment dreams

Mill fire won't douse redevelopment dreams

LINCOLN - Town Planner Albert Ranaldi concedes that two years ago he'd hit a brick wall in plans for redeveloping the 30-acre Lonsdale bleachery site, but still he thought that someday the project would move forward.

Last Thursday evening, he was watching a TV news station when the flames of the site's anchor structure filled his screen.

"I was in shock," said Ranaldi, this week. "I kind of considered it my pet project.

"I always thought that somewhere, something would come along the line and something would happen there," he told The Breeze.

He said this week that he still does.

In many ways, he said, "the fire changes nothing. I still feel it's an excellent site for redevelopment."

The unique cluster of brick buildings on Carrington Street that makes up the massive Lonsdale mill complex, he says, "still represents a chunk of history and how things developed here, with or without it."

While Ranaldi watched his TV on Thursday, state Rep. Jay O'Grady was standing on the Blackstone Bikeway seeing flames leap against the darkening night.

"When I stood on the bike path Thursday night at 6-ish, watching the northern portion of the building become engulfed, I was certain that I was witnessing the loss of one of Lincoln's iconic landmarks," he said later.

Now, he's reconsidering. "Amazingly, I may have been overly pessimistic," he told The Breeze.

O'Grady said he hadn't yet toured the facility but says he hears "many historically contributing elements remain fully intact."

Noting that "selective demolition" was needed for any development, he said, "I am optimistic that the site continues to be well positioned for a future rehab. And, if by some stroke of luck the fire consumed only those portions of the complex that would have been in line for selective demolition, well, I'd say we can count ourselves very lucky."

Eight or so years ago, Ranaldi and O'Grady were dreaming big about the old bleachery grounds where before the Civil War the Lonsdale Company created its bleaching complex along the riverfront.

Early 21st-century grant money was still flowing like the river and other projects, such as the old mills in Ashton and Slatersville, were demonstrating the transformation possibilities for the Blackstone Valley's idled factories.

Despite a series of meetings and citizen workshops over the next few years, forces conspired to douse the project around 2009.

But this week Ranaldi went so far as to suggest the fire might be enough to spur renewed activity that might rescue one-time development hopes.

He concedes the biggest obstacle hasn't changed: Making property owners responsible for the outcome of environmental testing required by the Department of Environmental Management.

Owners balked when approached in 2009, just about the time the economy was collapsing, leaving the problem unresolved but moot.

Ranaldi says most recently he was trying to keep the project alive by recommending it to the RhodeMap RI planning process, a comprehensive statewide planning strategy launched to identify the state's best places for economic, historic and residential development.

The organizers, who are holding workshops with citizens around the state, are identifying and mapping resources from water to recreation to public transportation and workforce.

At the Oct. 2 workshop in Smithfield, Ranaldi says, he talked about the bleacheries in both Lonsdale and Saylesville as places where higher density housing and commercial development makes sense for Lincoln.

Carrington Street is an awkward side street off Front Street, not far from the Lonsdale Avenue intersection. It's also reached via Lonsdale Avenue by turning behind the Lincoln Car Wash.

A dozen buildings, most containing small manufacturers, line both sides of the rough, steep road.

The names of the original mill buildings tell the story of this 30-acre site: Bleach House No. 4, the Dye House No. 8, Boiler House No. 11, the engine and dynamo buildings, the transformer house, the singe house, the cloth house, wheel house, blacksmith and more.

Today's enterprises, many within those original walls, are varied. A fabric store, Goyette's candy mold-making enterprise, an acupuncturist, a heating and ventilation parts maker, a barrel recycler, a beer cap producer, an auto mechanic, a stained-glass artist, a sporting goods shop, a furniture refinisher, and even a church all call this complex home.

Lincoln taxes these properties on a total of $2.28 million assessed real estate value.

The burned-out building is listed to Primary Properties, a subsidiary of the major real estate developer in Rhode Island, the Procaccianti Group of Cranston.

Ranaldi says it was vacant except for some storage and "broom-swept clean."

The largest land owner of the complex is Jerome London LLC with 13 acres and four properties that all front on the bleachery pond.

The only retail center is in the Ryco fabric store, backing up to the river, where owner Pat Ryan waited until Wednesday for electrical and gas service that came only after new poles were installed and underground pipes were inspected.

Despite her store's proximity to the fire, damage was remarkably minimal - exterior walls suffered, second-floor window frames were damaged by heat, and the entranceway was soaked. She was able to reopen without phone service at mid-week.

Still, she was worried about losing some customers at this start of the Christmas crafting season.

It was during Rep. O'Grady's time on the council that the town created the Lincoln Redevelopment Agency that, had the economy not crashed, might have transformed the complex by now.

Redevelopment agencies are given wide discretion in making zoning and planning decisions outside of the town's normal regulations.

O'Grady was Town Council president when the town's redevelopment plan won the Blackstone Valley National Heritage Corridor's historic rehabilitation planning competition. Said O'Grady to The Breeze this week, "The Town Council worked hard to move toward implementation of this plan: establishing a redevelopment authority, laying the groundwork to establish a Tax Increment Financing district to address multiple infrastructure and utility issues, and soliciting interest from development partners to transform the property back into the economic engine it had once been for our community."

Complications of the TIF program, the discontinuation of the state's historic tax credit program and a general economic downturn put those plans on hold, O'Grady said.

At the General Assembly, he said, "The preservation of the Lonsdale Bleachery served as a motivating factor for me and underlay my advocacy for the reestablishment of the Rhode Island Historic Tax Credit program."

He says now the loss of the central structure "is no less motivating. Although we partially reestablished the HTC program last year, it was immediately oversubscribed and we are essentially back to where we had been."

Suggests O'Grady, "We live in a time of diminishing resources and competing priorities for sure, but here's hoping we can find a way this spring to prioritize some resources toward the permanent restart of our HTC program before we see too many more Lonsdale Bleacheries burn."