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New Villages proposed for Smithfield

The developer of Newport's Brick Marketplace, who owns 100 acres off Route 116 here, is among a number of business-oriented leaders about to unveil their vision for the creation of two new villages in town.

As seen in the Valley Breeze, Gerry Goldstein, Valley Breeze & Observer Correspondent

September 18th 2008, Smithfield, Rhode Island - The developer of Newport's Brick Marketplace, who owns 100 acres off Route 116 here, is among a number of business-oriented leaders about to unveil their vision for the creation of two new villages in town.

Among other key supporters and creators of the plan, which will be described at three Town Hall meetings beginning at 1 p.m. tomorrow, Sept. 19, are the town's Economic Development Commission and the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce.

Working with a consulting firm whose representative is former town planner Frederick Presley, the groups are proposing creation of mixed-use villages that they say will revive the land use patterns of 18th- and 19th-century Smithfield where people lived, worked and shopped in their own neighborhoods.

The idea, which Presley says will require creative thinking and a re-working of existing zoning laws, has the promise of substantial money behind it.

At a meeting last week of the Chamber in which Presley outlined the concept, Boston's Schochet Associates, which developed Brick Marketplace, pledged to invest in a village project.

Richard Henken, Schochet's president, said zoning for his land already permits him to build 600,000 square feet of office space on the north side of Route 116 near West Reservoir Road.

But, he said, he prefers to hold off - even if that means a wait of half a dozen years or more - to become part of the village concept, which would be designed to absorb much of the community's future growth.

Speaking to supporters of the idea last Thursday at the Quality Inn, planner Presley outlined a vision for two mixed-use villages, one that would include the Schochet property and another, also off Route 116, but closer to Bryant University, and including some of the land that Bryant owns.

At a meeting last week with town officials on a different topic, Bryant President Ronald K. Machtley alluded to the village idea, suggesting that the university might consider a performing arts center for the one near Bryant.

Presley represents New Commons, which describes itself as "a think, link and do tank" in Providence focusing on ways to plan future paths for communities and businesses.

The consulting firm says it does not deal in nostalgia, but in guiding workable development.

Presley told the group last week that zoning laws since the 1960s have become so restrictive and closed to change that they have contributed to urban sprawl, with Smithfield's code no exception.

In fact, he said, the town's existing villages of Greenville, Esmond, Georgiaville, Spragueville and Stillwater couldn't be built today, because zoning laws wouldn't permit the mixed uses that developed there when all merchandising and service businesses were smaller and locally owned.

Presley said the group hopes to get ideas for the new villages, and for possible enhancement of the existing ones, at the grass roots level - hence the meetings scheduled in Town Hall on Farnum Pike for tomorrow, Sept. 23, and Sept. 26, from 1 to 4 p.m.

He said the planning process going forward should become a "partnership" of townspeople whose interests range from the economic to the ecological in an attempt to find common ground early in the process, and that while municipal officials should be involved, their roles should be limited to keep the process free from politics and safe from slowdowns as administrators come and go.

According to the Chamber's Paul Ouellette, the villages concept began as a discussion of how to market Smithfield, but then expanded into a broader vision for innovative methods of land use.

The Schochet firm's Henken said he could have developed his property years ago, but prefers to await a more comprehensive village proposal rather than build something now that might later turn out to be incompatible with future ideas for the area.

Henken said that within the caveat that whatever he builds must be "subject to making a fair return for the risk we take," he is willing to accede to "anything the town would like to see."

In addition to Brick Marketplace, Schochet has acquired or developed a number of housing and commercial projects in Massachusetts, Maine, and California.

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Schochet owns and/or manages over 5,500 apartments and 125,000 square feet of commercial space throughout New England. Headquartered in Braintree, MA, with regional offices in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Maine.


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