Overlay district could bring business boom to Smithfield

Overlay district could bring business boom to Smithfield

Provided by DiPrete Engineers, this map indicates the area of Routes 7 and 116 that would be developed to form a business corridor, should the town approve a zoning change to allow expansion beyond office buildings. Landowners are behind creating a proposal for the area, which would aim for a mix of corporate buildings and retail shops.

SMITHFIELD - As they consider a zoning change that could turn the site of the old salt barn into a business corridor teeming with corporate and retail business opportunities, town officials heard a formal presentation from engineers last week proposing what could become of Routes 7 and 116.

Think South County Commons on Route 1 in South Kingstown, or Mashpee Commons in Mashpee, Mass. - open air places where the shops, eateries, office buildings, movie theaters and residences all conform to the aesthetic of a quaint Main Street. They are places where folks can park once and spend the rest of the day on foot.

It could be a possibility for the 1,900-acre area by the intersection of Routes 7 and 116, the Mayforth Group told officials and members of the public during a Town Council meeting last week that was attended by both the Planning and Zoning boards.

But, they acknowledged, the project faces several roadblocks.

For starters, the land in question, both at the southeast of the intersection of Douglas Pike and George Washington Highway and across the street by the plaza with Faial Restaurant & Lounge, has more than a dozen owners who would need to ultimately agree to such a development, though they are the ones who started the project.

As previously reported in The Valley Breeze & Observer, the proposal comes years after a controversial 3-2 vote in 2010 restricted zoning on the land to offices and prompted Jackson Despres, of the 70-acre Smithfield Peat Co., to file a lawsuit against the town, contending the re-zoning decreased his land's value and made it unmarketable for future development. The lawsuit is still pending.

Officials would have to allow an overlay district for mixed use in order to see the project move forward.

While questions were asked, there was little discussion of the project by officials at the meeting, who were hearing the pitch for the first time. The Mayforth Group made an informal presentation to the town's Economic Development Commission a couple months ago, Town Planner Michael Phillips said, and the group has been in talks with Town Manager Dennis Finlay.

Town Council President Alberto LaGreca said officials plan to discuss it further.

"There are enough positives here to at least take the next step and look at it," LaGreca said.

Keith Stokes, the Mayforth Group's president of economic development and planning, said the overlay district is a "flexible zoning plan" that would add value to the existing area, as well as meet the needs of residents and employees in the area. The goal is to accelerate, attract and develop growth, he said, in an area that can be branded with its own identity and design standards.

Initial plans, meant primarily to show what could be developed in the space, show corporate office buildings overlooking Route 295, as well as occupying space in the middle of the plot.

Along Routes 7 and 116 would be retail businesses meant to serve the working population in those buildings so they could grab a bite to eat or run errands "on campus" without having to drive. These plans would essentially be mirrored on the opposite side of Route 7, where retail spaces would accompany the existing plaza with Faial, and office buildings would be built further back, closer to Stillwater Pond.

To build up the corridor without significantly adding to traffic, and without having to cut the curb every few feet, the engineers proposed adding frontage roads to allow travel within the plazas.

There is enough room in the existing right-of-way to accommodate adding roads, said J. Michael Abbott, partner at Northeast Collaborative Architects.

Roadwork also includes the extension of Thurber Boulevard, which currently ends at Route 7, north past the New Life Worship Center at 915 Douglas Pike, meeting up with West Reservoir Road on Route 116, north of Crickets Restaurant and J's Deli.

After exploring rotaries, Abbott said it was decided the existing intersection would work best, especially since cars could avoid it altogether if they use the frontage roads.

"The goal is not to create major shopping centers and extrapolate on problems you already have," Stokes said.

As for the businesses themselves, Abbott outlined a variety of footprints that could work in the space:

* 5,000 square feet for bank branches and smaller restaurants, like Outback Steakhouse.

* 10,000 to 15,000 square feet for a CVS or fine dining restaurant.

* 20,000 to 25,000 square feet for medical centers and bookstores, like Barnes & Noble.

* 40,000 square feet for a smaller grocery store, like Whole Foods, or a larger retail shop, like DSW.

Abbott noted that though there building sizes can range upwards of 100,000 square feet for standalone structures, the proposal includes buildings measuring a maximum of 40,000 square feet.

"We're not proposing any big box developments," he said, adding that the intent is not to tailor to destination retail, like that found on Route 44, but rather to serve Bryant University students and faculty, and employees of Fidelity Investments and the proposed corporate offices.

Residences, Abbott said, could potentially be built atop the businesses.

Gregory Guglielmo, DiPrete Engineering land planner who was the principal planner for South County Commons, spoke to the benefits of creating an overlay district, which he said include increased sales, higher land values and a stable tax base for the municipality.

A 24-hour environment in which people are living and working also contributes to a decrease in crime, Guglielmo said.

"It's creating a sense of place, somewhere you really want to be," he said, "not a strip mall."

Guglielmo also noted that the land is within the urban services boundary, identified by the state in Land Use 2025: Rhode Island State Land Use Policies and Plan as being an area that needs to be developed in an intelligent way.

The Smithfield Economic Growth Plan, prepared by Northeast Collaborative Architects, shows how a business corridor could be developed on Routes 7 and 116 by building corporate offices, shown in tan, and retail spaces, shown in orange. The map also indicates a possible extension of Thurber Boulevard, and frontage roads surrounding the complex to alleviate traffic problems.