Last September, the Newport City Council approved new zoning in the North End that lays the groundwork for an ambitious plan for the area’s future, called the North End Urban Plan. Some locals have worried, however, that the city’s plans to attract big builders — and accompanying zoning — don’t do enough to protect nearby families from the potential threats of gentrification and rising housing costs.

In January 2021, a group of North End residents independently recruited a national organization, Smart Growth America, to help create an equitable development plan for the North End. For more than a year, the organization’s consultants worked with North End neighbors to draft a set of zoning changes, which Newport’s City Council unanimously approved Wednesday.

“These concerns affect all of Newport,” said North End resident Aida Neary, who was a member of the local advisory group that worked with Smart Growth America. “In these zoning amendments for the North End, you have the opportunity to be bold and to show the way for the future when it comes to making cities and towns livable for year-round residents.”

While the North End Urban Plan already requires builders to devote at least 5% of new developments to open space, the amendments bolster protections for open green space by specifying what forms of open space developers are encouraged to build, including parks, plazas, and playgrounds. The changes include stronger language as well around community benefits that large-scale developers will be expected to provide nearby residents. At Wednesday’s Council Meeting, Newport officials added language that will require all community benefit agreements with future developers to receive City Council approval.

Newport’s City Council also agreed to incentivize the creation of more workforce housing by allowing developers to build an additional story on their buildings if at least 15% percent of the building’s units are affordable for families earning up to 60% of the area median income. On Aquidneck Island, that cutoff is currently around $70,000 for a family of four.

William Conley, an attorney for the North End local advisory group, said the incentive would help address some developers’ belief that it is cost-inefficient to build affordable housing.

“Why do developers want to engage in strategic development that forces workforce housing and mitigates displacement?” he asked. “Well, we think we’ve found a way.”

The zoning changes will require a second reading in May before taking effect. City Councilor Angela McCalla, who represents the area of Newport containing the North End, said the process has shown that city planning should not be “professionally or institutionally separate” from local communities.

“We — meaning our city administration, as well as the community — really all thought deeply about how we understand the history and the context of city planning,” she said, “and how we could encourage better planning and policies to achieve inclusivity for all, and not just for some.”


Antonia Ayres-Brown is the Newport Bureau Reporter for The Public’s Radio and a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at antonia@thepublicsradio.org