The Newport City Council this week gave initial approval to new zoning in the North End. These changes lay the groundwork for an ambitious plan for redevelopment that the City Council approved earlier this year, called the North End Urban Plan.

Newport officials say the zoning changes in the North End’s commercial area will help attract higher-paying industries and jobs, and diversify the city’s economy away from tourism and hospitality. The new zoning also includes requirements like mandating at least 5% of new developments be devoted to open space.

But some locals say the city needs to do more to ensure North End families see the benefits, and not the costs of redevelopment. That’s why on Wednesday, a group asked the City Council to consider additional protections — including specifying what forms of open space are acceptable for the 5% rule, like parks, playgrounds, or plazas.

“Not every open space is the same,” said Alex Chuman, the stewardship director for the Aquidneck Land Trust. “And the way the language reads now, it is seemingly possible a developer could just throw down some grass, and it’s not really a great open space for the community.”

Julie Maraziti co-chairs the Local Advisory Group, a taskforce of North End residents collaborating with Smart Growth America — a national organization that the Newport Health Equity Zone independently hired last January. Over the course of the 18-month project, North End residents are working with Smart Growth America consultants to create an equitable development plan for their neighborhood.

Ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, Maraziti said the group’s suggestions are not meant to overwrite the city’s plans, but to “get more specific, strengthening the language. So that it's not up for interpretation by future people that are making decisions.”

The Local Advisory Group proposed a series of amendments focusing on three central issues: green and open space, affordable housing, and community benefits. One of the group’s requests is to change the city’s definition of “workforce housing” to be accessible to a lower range of incomes.

Under the city’s definition, workforce housing constructed in the North End would be anything that is affordable to families making between 80% and 120% of the area median income (AMI). The AMI is currently about $100,000 per year for a family of four, which accounts for incomes across Newport, Middletown, and Portsmouth.

Patricia Reynolds, Newport’s director of planning and economic development, said that means a four-person family would need to fall between roughly $78,000 and $121,000 in income to qualify for workforce housing constructed in the North End.

Some neighborhood advocates said that’s concerning, given the significant economic disparities that exist between the North End and the rest of Newport. According to Councilor Angela McCalla, who represents an area including the North End, the median household income in the North End’s main census tract is around $39,000.

The proposed zoning includes measures to prevent displacement, like preserving existing housing and promoting job training. But some residents remain worried that an influx of high earners combined with rising property values could price North End families out of their homes.

“I have seen the effects of gentrification,” resident Phyllis Mulligan said at Wednesday’s public hearing. “My concern is this is going to happen to us in the North End. And I’m very afraid of not having people that I know anymore.”

At Wednesday’s meeting, Newport’s City Council voted to approve the new zoning without the Local Advisory’s Group’s suggested changes. But the Council referred the proposed amendments to the city’s Planning Board for review and said they could potentially be added at a later date.

“It makes sense to pass the North End zoning ordinance tonight so that we can continue this conversation going forward,” said McCalla. “And to put the stakes in the ground to ensure that our residents, as well as our business owners, are protected here.”

The City of Newport has been working for years on its vision for the North End’s future, as the Rhode Island Department of Transportation simultaneously works to realign the Pell Bridge ramps that have partitioned Newport for a half-century. In late 2019, the city hired the consulting firm NBBJ to draft the North End Urban Plan while soliciting public feedback. The COVID-19 pandemic derailed some of the city’s plans for public engagement, however, and caused the remainder of the drafting and approval process to move online.

In February 2021, the Newport City Council approved the North End Urban Plan. And in July, Newport’s Planning Board voted unanimously in support of the corresponding zoning to help implement the plan.

“The proposed Zoning is a substantial economic development achievement for the City,” wrote Planning Board Chair Kim Salerno in a letter to the City Council. “The proposed Zoning utilizes best practices in harmony with Newport’s historic development patterns, while protecting neighbors from the unintended effects of development, all in support of promoting the best form of growth.”

The Newport City Council on Wednesday rejected some of the Planning Board’s specific suggestions, however, while approving most of the proposed zoning.

Among the scrapped ideas was a proposed requirement that at least 20% of new parking in the North End be equipped with electric vehicle chargers. A majority on the City Council voted to lower the requirement to 5%.

“At any point in the future we certainly can add to that,” said Newport Mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano, noting that she was concerned about “the number of people that have electric cars at this point.”

The City Council also rejected a proposed amendment from the Planning Board that would have strengthened the language around “community benefits agreements,” which will require potential developers to provide benefits to the surrounding community to help offset the adverse impacts of redevelopment.

The Newport City Council must take a second vote on the zoning changes later in September before they take effect.


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