PAWTUCKET – Even the ongoing impacts of a pandemic couldn’t hide the progress that was made in Pawtucket in 2021, where a new train station and new soccer stadium development, both taking over previously blighted properties, saw rapid progress.
To further add to the optimism, the year is closing with an announcement of a potential new combined high school at the vacant McCoy Stadium property, movement on the redevelopment of the Apex property, and a promise of several developments around the train station and downtown, including the new Cornerstone Complex in the former Narragansett Bay Insurance Company space.
There was a heavy emphasis on vaccinations this year in Pawtucket, with numerous public information efforts, but the city remains in the bottom tier statewide with its 64 percent of eligible people receiving two shots.
The city continued to fare better than some might expect on COVID-related deaths. The city had nearly double the number of hospitalizations than the much less populous North Providence next door as of this week, at 841 compared to North Providence’s 443, but North Providence has seen only nine fewer people die from the virus, at 137 compared to Pawtucket’s 146. Pawtucket’s rate of death per 100,000 people is 203, compared to North Providence’s 422.
Despite the challenges of the year, there were inspiring stories aplenty, including first-time entrepreneurs starting their own businesses, Joey DeBarros doing his giveaways, Shea High School students building tiny homes for veterans, the Little Sisters of the Poor running their turkey drive and other charitable efforts, and Karly Laliberte representing the city at Miss USA, among many others.
The city sought to support owners throughout the year by allowing relaxed rules for outdoor dining and offering financial help to small businesses.
In late March, Pawtucket reopened its playgrounds and athletic facilities, and some of the city’s main events, such as the Pawtucket Arts Festival and July fireworks spectacular, returned in 2021.
The city saw some turnover in key positions, including longtime Planning and Redevelopment Director Sue Mara and Commerce Director Jeanne Boyle leaving, but both have now been replaced.
The Tidewater stadium project, which got rolling in January, saw preliminary work happen throughout the year. Residents should start seeing the physical stadium going up on the waterfront in the first weeks of 2022.
There were plenty of big-ticket stories to come out of 2021, but elected leaders know that it’s the little stuff, such as picking up the trash or eliminating graffiti, that residents care most about. Leaders this year set forth new rules penalizing people for improper bulky waste disposal and contaminated recycling, tackled graffiti, cracked down on illegal fireworks displays, eliminated fees at the library, repaved many more miles of local roadway, and addressed rodent concerns, among others.
Local landmarks again made headlines on a number of occasions this year, including approvals for the former Woodlawn Catholic School and St. Edward Church to be turned into market-rate apartments, changes to enhance the tourist experience at the Slater Mill, the start of reconstruction on City Hall’s tower, and the city citing the owners of the Read-Ott House after they let it deteriorate. There was also a new landmark, a statue of William Blackstone at the corner of Exchange Street and Roosevelt Avenue, that gained mixed but more negative reviews. Controversy swirled around the installation, with some saying Blackstone’s ties to colonial America and its forcing out of indigenous peoples was enough to disqualify him as a person to honor in this way. Some residents simply thought the statue itself looked tacky.
• Development projects move forward
The train station and stadium projects gained the largest share of attention this year, but there were plenty of other projects that will set the groundwork for a more vibrant future in the city, including several residential projects around the stadium.
Morley Field was sold, with a distribution center and some 500 jobs expected to take up that space and the former Microfibres next door, and the former Narragansett Bay Insurance Company building at 25 Maple St. in downtown is being converted into the Cornerstone Complex, a hub of Black-owned businesses owned in part by Leslie Moore, who has also continued to transform The Grant building across the street into the Still on Main business center.
The Breeze reported in June on the plans from the Peyser Group for the future Dexter Street Commons, a $43 million mixed-use project that will further invigorate the downtown. Expect that project and Carpionato’s redevelopment of the Narragansett Park Plaza across the city to take shape in 2022.
Also expect the impacts of the stadium and train station projects to remain in the spotlight. Moving a community garden and a homeless encampment were some of the first impacts of the stadium, but there will be greater impacts to keep an eye on, including parking concerns and possibly pricing people out of the neighborhood.
Speaking of parking, the state this year acquired more than enough land around the train station to accommodate needed parking when the station opens next year. The stadium is expected to be ready for the start of the 2023 soccer stadium.
• Crime, downtown misbehavior dominate headlines
There were all sorts of excuses given, from people just wanting to let loose after 2020’s restrictions to businesses just looking to recoup lost dollars, but the impact of local establishments ignoring city rules on closing times and crowd control was not debatable.
Officials struggled in the early part of the year to get a handle on the violence and noise happening after hours, but in the second half gained control, instituting a number of changes including stayed suspensions to hold establishments more accountable and amending the liquor fund to allow it to be used for the city to respond to issues at clubs.
Increased shootings also led to alarm in 2021, with police ramping up their efforts with roving police details to prevent incidents.
Killings devastated the community and caused debate about the best ways to respond to such tragedies, with Councilor Melissa DaRosa calling on Mayor Donald Grebien to hold more press conferences to decry the violence and let families know that it won’t be tolerated, and Grebien saying he prefers to connect with victims’ families personally while working with police to find the most effective ways to address violence.
New cameras from Flock Safety caused a stir among those who believe that the license plate readers are too intrusive, but police credited the technology with helping to catch a number of criminals.
There were again numerous high-profile stories originating from Pawtucket, including a highway standoff with the city-based group the Rise of the Moors, the unprovoked shooting by School Resource Officer Daniel Dolan, and the lawsuit by Joao Monteiro in his overturned arrest in the murder of Christine Cole in 1988.
• Homelessness worsens
More people were on local streets in 2021, many forced to find new living spaces after a large encampment on the city’s riverfront was removed to make way for a new soccer stadium, and residents living there were told to leave in March.
As first detailed in a January Breeze story, advocates continually called for a more coordinated approach to address the problem, with State Sen. Cynthia Mendes launching a late-year sleep-out protest at the Statehouse calling for greater action on the problem.
Gov. Dan McKee’s December announcement that the state would open emergency shelters at the former Memorial Hospital and other sites, along with other measures, were enough for Mendes to end her protest, but advocates still say there’s a long way to go in figuring out how to best address this issue.
Adrienne Marchetti, of the Pawtucket Soup Kitchen, detailed many of the changing dynamics in helping the homeless throughout the year, including more homeless residents not wanting to travel to the facility and volunteers and staff having to deliver food to them.
The Breeze also reported how an initiative to build tiny homes in the city was abandoned due to a number of obstacles.
• Real estate hot; affordable housing a priority
Pawtucket’s already hot real estate market will likely only intensify with the opening of the train station next year, but affordability remains, to put it mildly, a huge challenge.
Mayor Donald Grebien this month released a report on affordable housing laying out the city’s goals in reaching the state’s 10 percent threshold for affordable units, and the city recently purchased two properties to help in that pursuit.
The Rhode Island Association of Realtors reported earlier in August that the number of out-of-state residents buying homes in the state, particularly those from surrounding states, jumped 69 percent in the spring.
But with that hot market also comes increased prices and more difficulty actually landing a home.
Rising property values found through a revaluation meant more taxes paid by many residents.
• Census numbers unexpectedly high
After plenty of expert analysis predicting a decline in population in Rhode Island, Pawtucket and the state dramatically exceeded expectations, with the city growth of 6.3 percent, or 4,456 people, from 2010 to 2020. The total 2020 population in Pawtucket was 75,604, up from 71,148 a decade ago.
Northern Rhode Island was the clear leader in population growth, with the only communities seeing the same or larger increases than Pawtucket being Central Falls, at 16.6 percent, Cumberland, at 8.7 percent, Providence, at 7.2 percent, Lincoln, at 6.7 percent, North Providence, at 6.3 percent, West Greenwich, at 6.4 percent, and East Greenwich, at 8.9 percent.
Mayor Donald Grebien said that while the city has seen an influx of new people to account for some of the growth, much of the higher number was due to better counting of residents who were already here. Pawtucket worked with neighboring Central Falls to make sure people weren’t afraid of the census process, he said after the numbers were released in August.
General Assembly districts in Pawtucket and Central Falls were among the fastest-growing, and with that growth will come more power for these cities in representation at the state level.
• New high school, COVID response, are top school stories
School upgrades, including a new Winters Elementary School and potential new unified high school, dominated local educational headlines, as did the continued impact of the COVID pandemic.
After standing by their decision to stay in distance learning in January, officials finally decided in the spring to accede to parents’ upset pleas to return to in-person learning starting in March, and the district has had fairly smooth sailing on that front since. The task going forward will be to continue recovering from the less than ideal learning that transpired during the height of the pandemic.
Other major storylines from the year included the schools’ unprecedented move to fill the city’s significant budget deficit, passing grades moving to a 65 at the high school, and the discovery late in the year that many of the ADA upgrades that some school and city officials had assumed were taking place never happened, meaning a significant cost for 2022.
• City needs two special elections
The death of Ama Amponsah weeks after she took office in City Council District 5 shocked and saddened the city as it lost one of its community pillars. It also led to the need for a special election, which was won by Clovis Gregor over Ana Soares.
But it wasn’t the only special election that was needed, as District 6 Councilor Tim Rudd moved away and left his seat after denying that he was planning to move out of the city.
Marlena Martins Stachowiak, who’d previously lost to Rudd, ended up defeating his ally, Patricia DeDora-St. Germain, to win that seat, and Martins Stachowiak officially joined the council for her first meeting last week. Dynamics of a new council, including new members elected last year, will become clearer heading into 2022.
• Apex acquired
Lawsuits and counter lawsuits dominated much of the year, including the highly unusual move of suiting city officials in their personal capacities, but a mediation process over the long-delayed sale of the Apex property to the city came over the summer, signaling the beginning of the end for stagnation at the old department store property at 100 Main St.
Pawtucket officials plan to issue a request for proposals similar to the one previously issued for the Tidewater site that landed the soccer stadium project, and are hoping for a mixed-use development that highlights the beauty of the waterfront across from the stadium. Future plans call for tying this property in with a pedestrian bridge across the river to the stadium site and associated development.
All five Apex properties were included in the settlement and the total settlement amount for the acquisition by the city is $17.7 million.